Friday, October 31, 2008

Colombia’s “False Positives”

Guest blog from Beatriz, one of Benetech's human rights team members in Colombia.

We Colombians are a resilient breed, accustomed to waking up to all kinds of distressing news and still somehow managing to go about our daily business. But today’s mood in Colombia is more somber than usual. El Espectador, one of the two most important national daily newspapers, screams out in today’s editorial: "Shame!"

After years of denying it and of accusing the human rights organizations that have been saying it for years of being guerrilla sympathizers, President Uribe finally admitted it: some members of the State security forces, primarily from the Army but some from the Police, may have been involved in "assassinations" of civilians, he said. The ugly truth is out, and it is being picked up by international media that can hardly be accused of cozying up to the guerrilla, such as the New York Times.

And the truth is hard to take in: Under pressure from their commander in chief to show results, high military officers have been involved in the gruesome business of finding young men, mainly from marginal rural and urban areas, enticing them away from their families and communities, and then having them killed and displayed as fallen guerrilla combatants. The actual "recruiting" – often under the guise of job offers – is done by assistants to the military, individuals tied to paramilitary groups or drug-traffickers. It is they who do the actual killing of the "hired hands" and then dress them up and arm them as guerrilla members fallen in combat. The military units then earn the recognition of their superiors and pick up various kinds of rewards.

According to human rights NGOs, between January 2007 and July 30 2008, there have been 535 persons reported to have been summarily executed and then exhibited as fallen guerrilleros – what has come to be known as "false positives."

This happens under the watch of an administration that has claimed a drastic reduction in killings, kidnappings and other human rights violations. However, a study conducted by our team last year, Assessing Claims of Declining Lethal Violence, shows evidence that reporting of killings has dropped. It has yet to be demonstrated that actual killings have dropped. The civilian deaths of these children and young men presented as combat deaths highlight the kind of deaths that may have been missing from the counts of the government during the past 6 years. The actual figures could be much higher.

Three Army generals and seventeen other officers have been removed from service thus far. And, some analysts say, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

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