Twenty-one former Colombian soldiers and one civilian have accepted responsibility for the forced disappearance and subsequent murder of at least 227 people, the country’s transitional justice tribunal has said.
It is the first time former members of the security forces, including a general, have admitted their role in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the South American nation’s ongoing internal conflict.
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The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal was created under a 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the now-demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels.
It is meant to try former combatants, doling out alternative punishments in exchange for full disclosure.
The men admitted to participating in so-called “false positive” killings when soldiers murdered civilians and recorded them as rebels killed in combat in order to earn promotions and other rewards.
They admitted to killing 120 people in the Catatumbo region of eastern Norte de Santander province and 127 others in Colombia’s Caribbean region, the JEP said in a statement on Friday.
“I express my regret for the great pain caused by abominable acts committed … which led to the death of innocent people presented as combatants, leaving their loved ones with profound grief,” former general Paulino Coronado Gamez told the tribunal.
The JEP says at least 6,402 people were victims of false positive killings between 2002 and 2008, during the administration of former President Alvaro Uribe, though rights groups say the total is much higher.
“The JEP concludes the crimes would not have happened if not for the Army’s institutional policy of counting bodies, without the incentives policy and the constant pressure which commanders exercised over subordinates to obtain combat killings,” the statement said.
Dozens of detained or convicted army officials have appeared before the JEP in a bid to get lighter sentences than they would receive under the regular justice system.
Two other accused men – both colonels – denied responsibility and their cases will now be handled by a special investigative unit. They could face prison terms of up to 20 years if found guilty.