General Mario Montoya was admired by soldiers as a battlefield-tested commander and next Head of the Armed Forces. Standing along a dirt track in the Putumayo, the four-star General fields questions from journalists while overseeing the operations of an elite force. As the sun scorches a territory under FARC control, Montoya looks as wind-beaten as the surroundings and flashes a smile broader than the Amazon’s horizon. With each passing step toward an invisible front line, our gracious host puts the press corp at ease and confident that this country is advancing toward victory.
Two decades after the media outing to a department terrorized by guerrilla antics of strapping gas cylinders filled with shrapnel to the backs of donkeys and detonating them in front of police stations and army barracks, the retired General now sits before magistrates of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).
Montoya is the most senior officer to be summoned by the tribunal for allegedly ordering the execution of innocent civilians and passing-on the body count as guerrilla killed in action. The “false positives,” were, in their majority, the sons and daughters of the rural poor. Others who were rounded-up, dressed in rogue fatigues and executed were the mentally disabled, addicts and thieves. But there were those who resided in Colombia’s large cities, from students to young professionals.
This is the case of the Mothers of Soacha (Madres de Soacha), who in October 2008, never saw their children again. The corpses of 11 young men who disappeared from this neighboring city to Bogotá appeared in a grave in Norte de Santander – hundreds of kilometers from the capital – and identified as dead guerrilla by their rubber boots and olive green uniforms. That same year, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston referred to the Soacha killings as “the tip of the iceberg […] carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.”
The “tip of the iceberg” is significantly higher than estimated claims JEP, putting the number of “false positives” between 2002 and 2008 at 6,402. A previous estimate by the Attorney General’s Office – Fiscalía – accounted for 2,248; the majority of victims executed between 2006 and 2008 under the presidency of Álvaro Uribe. Colombia’s Minister of Defense at the time was Juan Manuel Santos. Santos was then elected President in 2010, served for two terms, and received in 2016 the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the internal conflict with FARC.
JEP’s revised figures on extra-judicial killings were released the same day ex-FARC commanders admitted responsibility for War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity. The admission by Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” that the practice of kidnapping is a “punishable fact and conduct in light of International Humanitarian Law,” exonerates five political leaders of ex-FARC from serving 20-year prison sentences. The same terms could apply to Montoya and 2,100 members of the military under investigation for either carrying out execution orders or hiding the real numbers from their superiors.
As JEP rules on crimes committed by FARC and Colombian military during the final decades of the internal conflict, and that led to the signing of the Final Accord, the true scale of the horror emerges. And with each testimony and confession there are no victors, just victims.