Former Army officers admit to “false positives” in Colombian conflict

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General Paulino Coronado testifies at JEP on charges of "false positives" committed between 2006 and 2008.

In an unprecedented declaration by a former senior ranking member of Colombia’s Armed Forces, retired Brigadier General Paulino Coronado admitted to the country’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), that while he led the 30th Brigade in the Catatumbo region – between 2006 and 2008 – civilians were executed and presented as “false positives” to boost the death count of guerrillas killed in combat.

“I have a deep regret that lacerates my soul because I know that we hurt the families of victims, and leave them with a great void,” he said. Coronado, however, claimed to magistrates that he did not order, nor plan, the killings, but was aware of “false positives” committed by “men under my command.”

Coronado went on to affirm: “I will be remembered in history as the first General condemned for something that never should have happened.” The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) was established in 2017 as part of the peace accord signed between President Juan Manuel Santos and now demobilized FARC guerrilla.

The testimonies on Tuesday by General (ret) Coronado, four colonels, and five other officers are part of the court’s Case 03 on “false positives” committed during the two terms of President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and his Democratic Security agenda.

“Those we killed were farmers, innocent people,” said corporal Nestor Gutiérrez of the 15th mobile brigade, unit responsible for the forced disappearance and killings of 120 youngsters near Ocaña in the department of Norte de Santander. Army officers such as Gutiérrez, and Sergeant Sandro Mauricio Pérez, could receive reduced prison terms for their full disclosure.

“My lack of fear in God, my lack of love and respect for human life, human dignity, converted me into an assassin, a monster for society,” remarked Pérez. According to JEP, at least 6,402 civilians were kidnapped and murdered by the Armed Forces and presented as war-time casualties.

For the mother of one of 11 youngsters who were taken from Soacha, in the south of Bogotá, then killed and buried in a mass grave in Norte Santander, the act of contrition by the Army officers was not enough. “We want names!” said Constanza Gómez.

Former President Juan Manuel Santos was Uribe’s Minister of Defense from 2006 and 2009 and timeframe in which victims, including those of Ocaña, were rounded up by soldiers and transported to remote locations to be executed.

“I pressured my subordinates to obtain results in terms of casualties in combat at any cost,” stated Colonel Santiago Herrera, and damning evidence that the confirmed number of “false positives” could be higher as JEP continues with war crimes investigations and testimonies. The only civilian charged in Case 03 is Alexander Carretero, who identified and recruited youngsters as potential “false positives” for military operations against FARC.