Colombian military acknowledges extrajudicial executions in Dabeiba: ‘I became a murderer’

Former uniformed officers admitted to having ultimate responsibility for 49 ‘false positives,’ and hiding the bodies in a cemetery so that the victims’ families could not find them

Exmilitares durante la Audiencia de Reconocimiento de Verdad sobre el asesinato y desaparición forzada de 49 personas presentadas como "falsos positivos" en Colombia
A group of ex-military personnel at the Truth Recognition Hearing on the forced disappearance and murder of 49 people in Dabeiba, Antioquia.Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (EFE)
Camila Osorio

Some 20 years ago, dressed in camouflage uniforms, they committed crimes against the state. Today, they wear white pants and shirts to signify transparency, to confess how they kidnapped and murdered 49 civilians, and how they hid their bodies in a cemetery so that their relatives could not find them. On Tuesday, a group of eight members of the military publicly acknowledged that they were ultimately responsible for these murders. They did so in front of the families of the 49 victims, who have been seeking to shed light on the crimes for the past two decades.

The confessions occurred before the special tribunal of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which has been trying senior officers from the security forces and the now-defunct FARC guerrillas since a peace agreement was signed between the two sides in 2016. The tribunal has the power to grant noncustodial sentences to those who recognize their responsibility for war crimes. The hearing is part of the overarching case of “false positives.” This is the name given to the more than 6,000 murders of civilians committed by the military, who passed them off as guerrillas killed in action. Several generals have denied responsibility for the crimes, but various soldiers and colonels have admitted to their part. This is what happened in Dabeiba (Antioquia), a representative case because the bodies of citizens murdered by the military were hidden in the municipal cemetery. Hallowed ground became a mass grave.

“Anyone who dressed in black was a guerrilla,” said retired Major Yaír Leandro Rodríguez Giraldo when he spoke of Edison Alexander Lezcano Hurtado, one of those killed. The crime occurred on May 18, 2002, in the rural part of the municipality, which controls the overland route to the Gulf of Urabá, on the Caribbean Sea. At the time, the army was fighting against the guerrillas in the area. Rodriguez took a breath before relating how Lezcano Hurtado was killed: anyone who was in an area near where the fighting was taking place, any villager, could be a victim. “I didn’t think about the damage I might cause, we stigmatized everyone,” he confessed. He called the battalion commander, who told him to go ahead and kill the man who lived there.

“I became a murderer,” he said in front of the farmer’s wife and mother. “I am sorry to be responsible for the death of Edison Alexander Lezcano Hurtado, who can no longer sing vallenatos [Colombian folk songs] to his family in the morning,” he added. The victim’s wife burst into tears when she heard that last sentence, and a heavy silence fell on the audience for a few seconds. Upset, the retired major could not speak any more, and his intervention, known as a “contribution” in the JEP, ended with this apology.

In addition to the eight top officials, several soldiers who carried out such orders also spoke in the presence of the families on Tuesday. They gave more macabre details: they sought out vulnerable people in towns like Turbo, or street dwellers addicted to drugs, to lure them to Dabeiba, murder them, and hide their identities. How? Some were shot several times in the face so that they could not be recognized. Others had their ID cards burned so that judicial entities could not trace them. And they knew that if they considered confessing to these crimes in court, they could be killed.

“I should have reported it,” said a repentant retired colonel Efrain Enrique Prada Correa, who admitted to being responsible for hiding the identity of several of the victims. “But if I had, I wouldn’t be on this side today, I’d be on your side.” That is, not on the side of the perpetrators, but on the side of the victims. This happened to Second Lieutenant Jesús Javier Suárez Caro, a soldier killed after he refused to carry out false positive executions, according to Prada Correa. Others, such as Colonel Jorge Amor Páez, who has not admitted to the JEP that he was responsible for these crimes, told him: “If you want the same thing that happened to Lieutenant Suárez, to happen to you, or to your children....” “At that moment I understood,” Prada said.

The case of Dabeiba is also noteworthy because at least 12 people have received threats during the investigation that the JEP has been conducting for several years. “We say to those who have wanted to cover these international crimes with impunity and violence, their despicable methods will not intimidate the Colombian justice system,” Magistrate Alejandro Ramelli, who has been threatened by the Clan del Golfo paramilitary group, said at the hearing. Another who has received threats is retired soldier Levis Contreras, who has admitted to being responsible for more than 40 murders in and around Dabeiba. When Ramelli asked him if he knew who was behind these threats, Contreras replied that he did not know, “but they are people who do not want this macabre act, which happened here in this region, to come to light.”

The JEP has received the backing of Gustavo Petro’s government. Present at the hearing were the Ministers of Justice, Néstor Osuna, and Defense, Iván Velásquez, as well as the High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda. The latter acknowledged the courage of the victims present, not only for seeking the truth for two decades, but for continuing to do so today, when criminal groups are present in the area and may threaten their lives. “To those who illegally control this territory, we are inviting you to stop the violence,” said Rueda, spokesman for the Paz Total (Total Peace) policy. Faced with the fear that the security forces might try to hinder the investigation process, the Minister of Defense assured the public that “we will not create any restrictions” so that military officers can provide the whole truth. “We are rebuilding collective dignity,” he added.

Absent were the senior commanders implicated by their former colleagues, but who have not admitted any responsibility for the crimes. Among them are Colonels Jorge Alberto Amor and David Herley Guzmán Ramírez, whose cases will go to trial, without the option of noncustodial sentences offered by the JEP to those who admit to war crimes — the court seems to have no doubt that both were responsible for these murders.

But the most noticeable absentee is General Mario Montoya, who was the most senior authority in the area two decades ago and who has been named in multiple testimonies as one of those ultimately responsible at the national level, something he has always denied. At the end of the hearing in Dabeiba, retired sergeant Fidel Ochoa spoke and remembered Montoya. “The practice became systematic in the Seventh Division and then in the Army command with the arrival of General Mario Montoya,” he said of the false positive executions. Ochoa recalled that in radio programs with each platoon commander, General Montoya used to say: “I don’t need liters of blood, I need tank trucks of blood.”

The process of telling the truth by those who have admitted their guilt before the JEP has already made it possible to identify the remains of 11 of the victims in the Las Mercedes cemetery. But there are at least 38 more. “We are glimpsing the tip of the iceberg with the Dabeiba cemetery,” said Magistrate Ramelli. The idea of the JEP is to see all of the iceberg, transparent and whole.

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