This post examines the recent false positives scandal in Colombia, which involved the arbitrary execution of thousands of poor, marginalised civilians, by Army personnel. It is argued that peacebuilding efforts will be unsuccessful without addressing impunity, deficiencies in the security sector, and socio-economic inequalities which led to these crimes.
The announcement on 24 August 2016 of the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) signals the end of the longest-running armed conflict in the world (at 52 years). However, there are many challenges facing Colombia as it transitions to peace. Chief among these is the significant divide between the rich and the poor, which leaves the poor vulnerable to further victimisation and creates the conditions which justify or deny crimes against them. The peace agreement will not really address these socio-economic inequalities. Unless it does, the peace process will not bring peace and security to those who remain the most vulnerable to insecurity and violence. Consequently, any peace will be fragmentary and unsustainable, and the poor will remain vulnerable to exploitation, violence and other crimes. One of the most serious and notorious examples of such crimes are the so-called false positives.
False positives (falsos positivos) refer to the arbitrary execution of civilians by the military, sometimes in collaboration with paramilitaries and civilians, staged and then reported as the lawful killing of guerrilla fighters in combat. These civilians were first kidnapped, often lured with the false promise of a job in a remote, far away location, and then soon after killed. They were taken far away to avoid detection; it being difficult to link the disappearance of a poor civilian from one area with a fallen guerrilla fighter hundreds of miles away.
These crimes were primarily committed between 2002 and 2008 and involved the execution of over 3,000 civilians during these years. In 2007, the year the most false positives have been recorded, statistics provided by the Army and the Office of the Attorney General show that 40% of combat kills were civilians.
The reason why these crimes occurred, and particularly why numbers escalated during 2002-2008, is due to pressure to increase combat kills from commanders and incentives (such as promotions, additional leave days and small monetary rewards) for doing so. The purpose was to boost the number of guerrillas and paramilitaries reportedly killed and, thus, the appearance, of success on the battlefield. There is a positive correlation between the number of false positives and incentives and performance-measuring standards used by the Army, which rewarded combat kills. The use of statistical methods to measure success, especially in the security sector, is generally inadequate and can carry risks. Measuring the success of the State against insurgent forces in terms of the number of combat deaths, especially when applying pressure and providing incentives, carries significant risks – as the false positives scandal demonstrates.
Evidence suggests that civilians were targeted rather than guerrilla fighters or paramilitaries, because they were easier to kill than those trained and experienced in armed combat, there were fewer insurgents or paramilitaries in certain areas to engage with, and because the Army sometimes had alliances with these groups in drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime. Victims tended to be among the very poor and most marginalised sections of the population. This is because they were particularly easy targets and had little if any power to prevent or seek justice for such crimes.
Under international law, these crimes can be considered to be widespread and systematic. There is also ample evidence to show that senior officers within the Army were involved and the Government knew, or should have known, about such crimes. The scandal constitutes one of the most shocking global examples in recent years of crimes of the powerful; crimes committed by state actors against the most dispossessed and marginalised members of society.
Compared with the number of crimes, the number of investigations and sanctions against those found responsible is minimal. Indeed, false positives created further incentives to corrupt an already weak judiciary. High levels of impunity are compounded by the reluctance to investigate patterns and command responsibility, instead treating cases as isolated incidents and focussing on lower and middle ranking personnel. The course of justice has furthermore been obstructed by witnesses, victims, members of the judiciary and human rights organisations receiving threats and being attacked or killed.
Concern has been expressed that accountability could be further hindered if crimes are dealt with by the Tribunal for Peace, to be established as part of transitional justice mechanisms created by the Agreement on the Victims of the Conflict. If this happens it could mean that those responsible for these crimes may not be prosecuted (given the focus on command responsibility), receive reduced sentences (non-custodial for those who admit to their crimes) or be released if already convicted and incarcerated. The agreement also potentially enables those with command responsibility to evade prosecution if it cannot be proven that the commanding officer has knowledge and effective control of criminal actions taken by those under his or her command. This is a less stringent interpretation of command responsibility than is contained within international criminal law. Given these crimes were not necessarily committed while participating “directly or indirectly” in the armed conflict, they may continue to be dealt with within Colombia’s established criminal justice system. If not, the potential for the transitional justice mechanisms to contribute to peacebuilding will be severely undermined, given the transfer of cases to the Tribunal for Peace is likely to contribute to impunity rather than promote accountability and confidence in state institutions, the rule of law and the broader peace process.
However, it is not simply a matter of addressing impunity and ensuring that the perpetrators take responsibility. There is clearly a need to address the institutional deficiencies in the armed forces and the judiciary. Comprehensive security and justice sector reform is required to ensure such crimes and such impunity don’t reoccur (or continue) and to build public confidence and trust in security and justice sector institutions. Vetting, training and enforced accountability mechanisms are needed, as well as an acceptance of institutional responsibility for wrong-doing where it occurred. Widespread corruption and impunity, as well as high levels of violence and links between state armed forces and illegal armed groups, also need to be addressed.
There is a broader context within which the arbitrary execution of poor and marginalised people has occurred. That broader context is a long-standing denigration of these people as disposable (desechables) or undesirable, and violence against them in the form of social cleansing operations in an effort to impose justice, security and order and protect ‘the good people’ (or gente decente as is common parlance in Colombia). The false positives scandal highlights the need to address socio-economic inequalities and structural violence, which have left poor and marginalised populations vulnerable to such atrocities, without recourse to security or justice. There is also a need to address psycho-social attitudes towards the poor which dehumanise and thereby deny or justify crimes and other harms against them. Without addressing such inequalities and attitudes, and the insecurity and injustices that result, the peace process will be meaningless and unsustainable.
To create a sustainable peace there is, furthermore, a need for a more inclusive and egalitarian society and, to achieve that more inclusive peacebuilding. Paz territorial (territorial peace or ‘peace from the ground up’) should respond to the specific needs of different regions and different communities. Especial efforts need to be made to ensure the most marginalised and dispossessed are meaningfully engaged in the peacebuilding process, as well as those who have particularly suffered as a result of the conflict, which include the poor, the rural, Afro-Colombian, indigenous people, women and children. This is not least to ensure their security, justice and socio-economic needs are addressed. For, unless those who are the most marginalised and disadvantaged benefit from improved security, justice and socio-economic opportunities in post-conflict Colombia, peace will be shallow and short-lived.
Dr. Eleanor Gordon is a Lecturer in Conflict and Security Studies at the University of Leicester, a Centre for Security Governance Senior Fellow, a Saferworld Trustee, and a consultant for various NGOs, universities, government agencies and the UN on issues related to building security and justice after conflict.
I would like to thank the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Government of Colombia for inviting me to for a Newton Caldas Fund scoping workshop on post-conflict development in Colombia in March 2016, during and after which time I had the opportunity to speak with many people about the challenges faced and opportunities presented as Colombia transitions towards peace. I would like to thank all those who kindly gave their time to speak with me in Colombia as well as those I spoke with on the subject of building security and justice after conflict in Colombia before and after my visit. I would also like to thank the Editors of the journal State Crime and of its forthcoming special edition which will address the theme “Post-Conflict Reconstruction, the Crimes of the Powerful and Transitional Justice” who invited me to submit an article on which this post is based (to be published April 2017).
Feature Photo Credit: Eleanor Gordon