Bogota, Colombia – Families of young men extrajudicially killed by Colombia‘s army in what is known as the “false positives” scandal accused former army chief Mario Montoya this week of “making a mockery” of them and of withholding key information behind the widespread execution of civilians that resulted in at least 2,248 dead.
In a widely anticipated multi-day hearing that started on Wednesday, the retired general was expected to disclose new details about the “false positives” scandal. For decades, the Colombian army killed civilians, dressed them in rebel fatigues, and recorded their deaths as enemy combat kills to inflate body counts and support claims that they were winning the war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Montoya’s testimony has been seen as an important step towards truth and reconciliation as Colombia struggles to establish long-lasting peace after a 52-year-old armed conflict.
Rights groups believe Montoya is the key to uncovering how high up the command chain knowledge of these crimes went and whether former President Juan Manuel Santos and Senator Alvaro Uribe, the defence minister and president respectively at the height of the false positives scandal, were involved. Santos went on to be awarded the Nobel peace prize for his efforts in establishing the landmark 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC.
Colombia’s peace tribunal, a transitional court system created from the 2016 peace deal to investigate atrocities committed during the armed conflict, called on Montoya to share his account after 11 military members testified against him.
But on the first day of hearings, Montoya initially told judges he would invoke his right to remain silent. After a brief recess, the judges proceeded to ask questions related to an attorney general’s investigation and accusations made by other military members, but lawyers for the families say he denied any involvement or knowledge of the crimes and answered questions vaguely.
“The way Mario Montoya answered the questions was another way to remain silent,” said German Romero, a victims’ lawyer who was present during the hearing. “The peace tribunal says he answered each one of their questions, but those answers contribute absolutely nothing to the truth.”
During the second day, victims protested when Montoya reportedly told the court that the soldiers’ poor backgrounds were at the root of the crimes, arguing that the army needed more men from higher social classes to prevent these cases from continuing.
“They were very poor and ignorant soldiers that didn’t understand the difference between results and casualties and that’s why they committed these crimes,” Montoya is reported to have said.
Ana Paez, whose 32-year-old son was killed in 2008, said the only thing Montoya did was “to make a mockery of us”.
“It’s been really hurtful to hear all this without being able to say anything,” she told Al Jazeera.
Eight military men, including one colonel, were found guilty of her son’s murder and later granted conditional freedom when they transferred their cases to the peace tribunal.
“We need to know the truth, this doesn’t end here,” she said.
Montoya’s statements have again fuelled concerns among victims’ families that the retired general, the highest-ranking official to appear before the court, may attempt to get off with a lighter sentence and other benefits offered by the peace tribunal without complying with his obligation to contribute to the truth.
Victims’ rights groups called on the court to take action in response to Montoya’s “delay strategy and refusal to make real contributions to the truth”.
The Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP) said it would consider the victims’ request to either expel Montoya from the tribunal or to initiate a judicial procedure that could result in a 20-year prison sentence. If the court decides the former, Montoya’s case may face charges in the ordinary justice system that could carry a 40-year sentence.
Reports of extrajudicial killings peaked from 2006 to 2008, when Montoya led the army as chief commander. Military officials have testified that Montoya verbally pressured officials to increase combat kills. Military units that reported high body counts were also rewarded with holiday time and promotions. According to the Attorney General’s Office, at least 2,248 people were killed from 1988 to 2014, although rights groups say the number could be far higher.
Testifying before the peace tribunal, one retired colonel, Gabriel de Jesus Amado, said that Montoya demanded “litres and tanks of blood”, making it clear to officers that he required combat kills and not captures. He also accused Montoya of suggesting he take injured men from the operation table, dress them as rebels, and present them as combat kills in 2005.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 44 men were allegedly killed by 4th Brigade troops while now-retired Montoya commanded it from 2001 to 2003. The Attorney General’s Office also investigated Montoya for eight “false positive” cases and concluded in one report that the general failed to sufficiently implement control mechanisms during his leadership and ignored external and internal warnings that could have curbed extrajudicial killings.
If we knew the truth, then these crimes wouldn't happen again.
Montoya denied these claims during his testimony this week, adding that former military members had testified against him in retaliation for having fired them when news of the scandal broke in 2008.
The JEP will cross-examine these statements with reports they have received from rights groups and the Attorney General’s Office.
According to Romero, the peace tribunal must also focus on its independent investigations.
“If the JEP plans to work on the basis of trading confessions for benefits, then it’s going to be difficult to establish everything that happened,” Romero said. “I think the JEP forgets that it’s a criminal justice court and that it has to have a strong investigative component.”
As Montoya spoke during the first day of this week’s hearing, Jeider Ospino, a former soldier who says he was fired for refusing to kill an underage rebel fighter in 2008, gathered outside the tribunal with victims’ families.
Ospina said it was important now more than to ever to stop these crimes and to prevent more families from suffering.
“If we knew the truth, then these crimes wouldn’t happen again,” he said.