WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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21 Nov 2016 | Commentary

Colombian Senate to Consider Promotions of Military Officers Facing Human Rights Accusations

Tomorrow, Colombia’s Senate is scheduled to vote on—and probably to approve—the promotions of 39 military and police officers to the rank of brigadier-general (or its naval equivalent) or above. WOLA is concerned that some of these promotion candidates raise serious questions because of credible allegations of involvement in, or obstruction of efforts to seek accountability for, grave human rights abuses.

WOLA warned in a January 13, 2016 letter [PDF] to Colombia’s defense minister, upon their nomination to attend the armed forces’ High Military Studies Course, that seven promotion candidates’ nominations sent “a very unfortunate message.” We note that four of those nominated for the course do not appear among the promotions that the Senate will consider on Tuesday. However, to the three that remain, our colleagues at Human Rights Watch add two more who did not appear on our original list.

The officers of concern are:

Army Col. Marcos Evangelista Pinto Lizarazo, who headed the Magdalena Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Army’s 9th Brigade in Huila in 2008. According to data from the Colombian Attorney-General’s Office and the Jesuit research organization CINEP compiled by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, members of that battalion under Col. Pinto’s command allegedly extrajudicially executed 26 civilians that year, many of them so-called “false-positive” killings.

Army Col. Edgar Alberto Rodríguez Sánchez, who preceded Col. Pinto as commander of the Magdalena Battalion in 2007. During that year, according to the Colombian Attorney-General’s Office and CINEP data compiled by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, members of that battalion under Col. Rodríguez’s command allegedly extrajudicially executed 16 civilians that year, many of them so-called “false positive” killings.

Army Col. Adolfo León Hernández Martínez who, according to a Colombian Supreme Court document available online.doc), commanded the Popa Battalion in Cesar in 2008. Several human rights reports have singled out the Popa Battalion for committing a disproportionate share of “false positive” killings between 2002 and 2008. In 2008, according to Attorney-General’s Office data compiled by Human Rights Watch, members of the battalion under Col. Hernández’s command killed seven civilians. One of those was Nixa Martínez, a 15-year-old girl who disappeared from the city of Valledupar while on the way to a May 2008 dental appointment, but whose body was presented by the Popa Battalion as that of an ELN fighter killed in rural combat.

Brig. Gen. Emiro José Barrios Jimenez, who Colombia’s Attorney-General’s Office is investigating for “false-positive” killings committed while he headed the Colombian Army’s 8th brigade. Human Rights Watch notes that “The Attorney General’s Office has opened investigations on at least 19 killings by the 8th brigade in 2008,” a year in which Gen. Barrios commanded the unit.

Brig. Gen. Jorge Enrique Navarrete Jadeth, who according to Human Rights Watch “was Barrios Jimenez’s second in command of the 8th brigade for at least part of 2008. He is under investigation for killings by the 8th brigade, as well as for his alleged cooperation with paramilitary groups.”

WOLA gives Colombia full credit for some notable improvements in its armed forces’ human rights record, especially in the eight years since the “false positive” scandal alerted the world to the severity of the problem. But full improvements in human rights performance run across three dimensions:

1. Overall numbers: the numbers of new allegations of military involvement in serious human rights abuse have dropped significantly. This is important progress. However, we must note that Colombian human rights groups measured 65 alleged extrajudicial executions involving security forces in 2015.

2. Accountability: Colombia’s criminal justice system has reached 817 guilty verdicts against 961 members of the armed forces for “false positive” killings. According to an April report from Colombia’s Attorney-General’s office [PDF], at that time the guilty included four colonels and seven lieutenant-colonels. A handful of generals are also imprisoned for past aiding and abetting of paramilitary groups. While this is more progress on accountability than many Latin American countries have made, there is a long way to go. On extrajudicial executions alone, as of July there were 2,242 open cases involving security-force personnel, with 4,190 victims.

3. Incentives: In order to guarantee that massive human rights violations do not recur in the future, Colombia needs not only to punish them, but to avoid promoting and rewarding officers who face serious allegations. While all are innocent until proven guilty, such promotions and rewards send a toxic message to the majority of military personnel who want their institutional culture to be free of tolerance for human rights abuse and corruption. The persistent questions about so many nominees for promotions make clear that Colombia has failed on the “incentives” dimension.