How to fabricate a dead guerrilla

Colombia's army and government are accused of covering up the killing of hundreds of innocents The victims were passed off as slain terrorists so soldiers could collect secret state rewards

María Sanabria holds up a picture of her son, Jaime Estiven Valencia, who was killed aged 16 in 2008.
María Sanabria holds up a picture of her son, Jaime Estiven Valencia, who was killed aged 16 in 2008.Pablo Tosco

The Colombian soldiers who murdered Leonardo Porras in January 2008 made a botch of the operation, leaving abundant evidence behind. Thanks to the persistence of Luz Marina Bernal, the victim’s mother, the case has uncovered a macabre practice within the South American country’s armed forces, the so-called falsos positivos (false positives). Under the scheme, soldiers would kidnap young men, murder them, and then dress them in guerrilla uniforms and claim kill fees, paid in secret by the former government of Álvaro Uribe. The Public Prosecutor’s office has so far registered 4,716 such cases.

Marina Bernal says that in 2008, when her son’s body was uncovered, a lawyer told her that he had been killed in a shoot-out with the army and that he was the leader of a guerrilla group. She pointed out that 26-year-old Porras had the mental age of an eight-year-old, and that he suffered from a birth defect that had left the entire right side of his body paralyzed. His body had been found 700 kilometers away, four days after he had disappeared from the family home in Soacha, a vast sprawling slum on the outskirts of the Colombian capital of Bogotá.

His body was given to her in a sealed coffin, which when opened 18 months later during the investigation into his death, was found to contain only the upper half of Porras’ body, along with his skull, which had been emptied and stuffed with a shirt.

After Porras’ mother – together with the Mothers of Soacha, a group of other women whose sons had also been murdered by soldiers – began a campaign to raise awareness about the scandal, an investigation was launched. But Navanethem Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, accuses the authorities of dragging their feet, and says that many of the senior officers and soldiers accused of involvement are still in service, and some have even been promoted: in short, “systematic impunity.”

Porras was tricked by a man called Alexánder Carretero Díaz, a neighbor of the family, who told the young man that he was to spend a few weeks working on a farm. Carretero was paid around €75 to hand Porras over to a group of soldiers.

Carretero had provided soldiers with other vulnerable young men: “We chose the dumbest ones we could find, kids wandering the streets who would do just about anything to earn a few coins,” he told a judge four years after the killing. He confessed to having handed over more than 30 young men to the military.

Porras was killed on January 12, 2008, in the hills of the department of Norte de Santander, supposedly in a clash between the military and guerrillas. His bullet-riddled body was thrown into a mass grave along with several others, and there he remained for the next 252 days.

Leonardo, the son of Marina, was mentally disabled and had his right hand, in which it was said he was holding a gun, paralyzed.
Leonardo, the son of Marina, was mentally disabled and had his right hand, in which it was said he was holding a gun, paralyzed.Pablo Tosco (Oxfam Intermón)

During that time, Bernal kept looking for her son. In August of that year, she heard that a mass grave in Norte de Santander had been discovered, and that it contained the bodies of young men from Soacha who had gone missing at the same time as Porras. After identifying her son from a photograph of the exhumed bodies, Bernal was told by the authorities that she would have to pay €5,000 for the return of her son’s body. She managed to raise the money, and traveled to the burial site, where she was told that her son was a guerrilla leader who had died in combat.

Shortly after the body of her son and others were discovered, former President Álvaro Uribe told the media that Porras and the others were “criminals”: “They didn’t go there for the coffee harvest,” he said, defending the military’s actions.

But with the help of Luis Fernando Escobar, a lawyer and community representative in Soacha, Bernal and others formally reported what they said were irregularities surrounding their deaths. By September of 2008, the truth was being reported in the media. It was proved that the young men had been killed within a couple of days of them disappearing from their homes, and not a month later, as Uribe had insisted, and that soldiers had botched the job of disguising them as guerrillas: some of the bodies had mismatched boots, others had been dressed after they were shot in clothes with no bullet holes; and other bodies had been buried in locations where there had clearly been no fighting. The case of Porras, who suffered from serious mental disabilities, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Uribe now had no choice but to appear on television again, this time accompanied by senior members of the military and then-defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, who is now the president of the country. “In some cases, the army has been negligent and has not followed procedures, and this has allowed some people to commit crimes.” He then announced that 27 members of the military were to be sacked.

But there was no investigation into the killings, more and more of which were being reported. And when General Mario Montoya, the head of the army, stood down over the scandal, he was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

In June 2009, Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, traveled to Colombia. His conclusions were damning: “The term false positives provides technical cover for what in reality is premeditated murder in cold blood of innocent civilians for money.” He said that the killings were not the work of a few bad apples, as Uribe had insisted, and that they were instead part of a “systematic strategy carried out by a significant number of elements within the army.”

Meanwhile, more and more disappearances were being reported by international and domestic human rights groups, and it was becoming increasingly clear that extrajudicial killings were routinely carried out by the security forces, and that the state was doing all it could to cover things up.

Sneakers hanging from wires in Medellín.
Sneakers hanging from wires in Medellín.Pablo Tosco (Oxfam Intermón)

Uribe continued to insist that the majority of the accusations were false, blaming what he called, “a growing group of lawyers paid by international organizations filled with hate and led by ideology.” He also defended the military to the hilt: “We are saddened to see our men in jail… We have to defend our men against these false accusations.”

Meanwhile, the families of the victims received no help from any public bodies in trying to bring legal action. They also faced threats and intimidation. On March 7, 2009, Maria Sanabria, a member of the Mothers of Soacha group, was stopped by two men who told her: “We’re not playing around here. You keep quiet or you’ll end up like your son, with your face covered with flies.”

Her son was aged just 16 when he was kidnapped, taken to Norte de Santander, and murdered. She too was told that her son was a guerrilla. Six years on, there has been no judicial investigation. The Public Prosecutor’s office refuses to discuss the case with her.

€1,400 per corpse

Far from being the work of a few bad apples, the killings were the result of a scheme set up by the Colombian Defense Ministry. Journalist Félix de Bedout uncovered a secret directive dating back to November 2009 that authorized rewards for “the capture or death in combat” of members of illegal armed organizations. Bounties of up to €1.8 million would be paid for senior figures, while foot soldiers were worth €1,400. Money would also be paid for confiscated equipment and weapons.

In January 2008, when soldiers were kidnapping and murdering young men from Soacha, a former member of a unit known as Brigada 15 told journalists about the falsos positivos scheme. Sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez had already reported a number of killings to his superiors the previous December. He was relieved of his post three days later. So he decided to talk to weekly news magazine Semana about one particular case involving soldiers from his unit who had murdered a farmer, bought a pistol, placed it in the victim’s hand, and then reported the killing, receiving five days’ leave as a reward. The military denied the story.

The directive offering blood money to soldiers set in motion a killing spree: by 2007, 245 alleged guerrillas had been murdered by the military, three times the number of deaths in 2005. The army was a law unto itself.

After winning the presidential elections, in 2002 Uribe set up what he called a policy of “democratic security,” which essentially consisted of an all-out military assault to finish off three groups: the country’s left-wing guerrilla groups, who had been largely defeated, but still had around 9,000 fighters; right-wing paramilitaries, who had demobilized, but still remained active; and the drug cartels, which are still largely active and are very much a part of Colombian life.

Uribe boosted the army’s budget and broadened its scope of activities. Under the banner of the “fight against terrorism,” it began arresting thousands of people. In the first two years of Uribe’s mandate, 7,000 people were illegally detained, according to human rights groups that reported to the United Nations. Soldiers would turn up at a village and arrest dozens of people arbitrarily, accusing the whole community of working with the guerrilla, while providing no proof.

In the early hours of August 18, 2003, the police arrested 128 people in the Montes de María, a remote, mountainous area in the north of the country. Orlando Pacheco of the Public Prosecutor’s office immediately saw that there was no evidence and that police reports were filled with errors. He ordered the release of the detainees. Pacheco was sacked and placed under house arrest for two-and-a-half years. After three years he was finally exonerated, but nobody was ever brought to book for the illegal arrests.

Luz Marina Bernal is one of the 19 'Mothers of Soacha.'
Luz Marina Bernal is one of the 19 'Mothers of Soacha.'Pablo Tosco (Oxfam Intermón)

In 2003, in Arauca, a region in the west of the country, bordering Venezuela, and where the guerrillas had a strong presence, Uribe told the Defense Ministry to step up arrests, and to start detaining people by the hundreds, “to speed up the jailing of the terrorists.” Thousands of people were detained without any evidence, spending long periods in jail. “Uribe’s democratic security policy has been a systematic, widespread, and permanent breach of the right to freedom,” concluded the CCEEUU team of international observers from Colombia, the United States, and the EU.

Many others also found themselves the subject of the security forces’ attention. Semana published dozens of stories in 2009 about spying and harassment of journalists, judges, politicians, lawyers and human rights activists by the DAS, a secret service unit that reported directly to Uribe. The unit had already been accused in 2006 of providing right-wing paramilitary groups with information about labor leaders and human rights workers, who were subsequently murdered. The head of the DAS, Jorge Noguera, had stood down over the scandal, and Uribe had named him consul in Miami. In 2011, Noguera was sentenced to 25 years for a range of charges including conspiracy to murder. Uribe sent the following message via Twitter: “If Noguera has committed any crimes, it pains me, and I offer my apologies to the people.” Many of the charges originally brought against Noguera had expired under Colombia’s statute of limitations legislation by the time his trial had begun, again revealing the reluctance of the Colombian justice system to bring wrongdoers to justice, say human rights groups.

When Uribe stood down in 2010, the President’s Office issued the following statistics, purportedly to show the success of his security policies: 19,405 combatants were “lost in action,” while 63,747 were captured, and 44,954 were demobilized.

FEDES, one of Colombia’s leading NGOs, says these are astonishingly high figures, estimating that in 2002 there were around 32,000 members of armed illegal organizations in the country, including guerrillas and paramilitaries. To reach the government’s total of 128,000, says the organization, would have meant replacing those 32,000 four times over; either that, or “the supposed democratic security policy was not directed exclusively at members of armed groups, but instead was aimed at a wide spectrum of the civilian population, with many victims of the falso positivo crimes.”

In short, the need to be seen to be making progress in combating the guerrillas, along with the blood money policy, escalated the number of extra-judicial killings during the Uribe years. The CCEEUU international observers documented 3,796 such killings between 1994 and 2009, of which more than three quarters took place in the latter half of that period.

Challenging impunity

The Porras Bernal family lacked the money to bury their son in Soacha, so a friend gave them a space in La Inmaculada cemetery in the north of the city, more than two hours away by bus from Soacha.

Luz Marina Bernal makes the journey once a week, and leaves flowers at her son’s grave. She says that she tells him about the work of the Mothers of Soacha, and that she and they are fighting for justice.

Once a month, she also meets with the Mothers of Soacha in a public park. They hold up photographs of their missing children, as well as placards that detail the more than 4,700 murders carried out under the mandates of Uribe and his successor Santos.

Over the years, the women have been threatened and harassed, but have continued their campaign. As a result, they have kept the issue alive in the media, as well as winning the support of Amnesty International, which organized a trip to Europe in 2010, allowing the women to tell their story. In March 2013, the regional parliament of Catalonia awarded them its annual peace prize.

Luz Marina Bernal says that she and others continue to receive death threats, despite the international attention the murders have received, and the protection that supposedly offers. “If something happens to us, it will be clear that the state is involved,” she says.

Since 2007, Colombia has been on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) list of countries suspected of covering up or failing to investigate human rights crimes committed by the FARC left-wing guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries, and the state’s security forces. It is also looking into the falsos positivos case. In a report from 2012, the ICC says there is a “reasonable basis” for believing that these crimes were ordered by organs of the state, and had been known about for several years by senior members of the armed forces, and either “tolerated” or “covered up” by senior members of government.

The campaign waged by Luz Marina Bernal and the Mothers of Soacha resulted in a major breakthrough on July 31, 2013. The Supreme Court of Cundinamarca, the department where Soacha is located, increased the prison sentences handed down to the killers of Leonardo Porras Bernal from 35 years or 51 years to 53 or 54 years for all those involved. More importantly, aside from simply finding the soldiers guilty of forced disappearance, forging public documents, and murder, as the first trial had done, the regional Supreme Court added that what had taken place was part of a systematic criminal plan carried out by the military against the civilian population, and should therefore be considered a crime against humanity, thus meaning all the falsos positivos cases should be investigated.

A turning point

The sentence marks a turning point in uncovering what went on during the Uribe years: there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity, and they can be judged in any country. The 4,716 extra-judicial killings reported to the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s office, many of them long forgotten, could now be reopened.

But not for the moment. The ruling has been appealed against. International observers say that only a few investigations into the alleged crimes have begun, and that they are going slowly. The murder of Leonardo Porras has been uncovered, but many more remain hidden. Like that of Jaime Estiven Valencia, the 16-year-old son of María Sanabria.

“My son was killed on February 8, 2008, six years ago now, and there has still been no investigation carried out,” she says. “My son was killed and nobody cares. This impunity makes me sick. The sadness is killing me. But I will stay alive to make sure that our children did not die in vain; because if we bring these cases to light, we will save other lives.”

Luz Marina Bernal says that the quest to uncover the truth about what happened during those dark years is what keeps her alive: “It isn’t enough to know who pulled the trigger. So far only the soldiers have been found guilty, but we want to know who gave the orders, and who paid the killers with the state’s money.”

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