The Common Good

Justice for Victims of Colombia's Military

On June 8, Pastor Reinel Martinez Medina testified before the Colombian Congress on the execution of his brother at the hands of Colombian Public Security Forces: "I dare to speak out about my brother's death because we want justice." He is not alone.

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Pastor Martinez was one of more than a dozen family members and survivors telling their horrendous stories of torture and executions of impoverished civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat by the army. Several of them are under threat because they reported the killings. The congressional hearing took place in the context of the visit to Colombia by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions.

The heart-wrenching testimonies from mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, and survivors of failed attempts brought tears to my eyes. An elderly farmer gripped the sweaty rag that must have accompanied him for years in his fields as he recounted the story of his son's disappearance and execution. His 8-year-old grandson listened. A daughter asked why an army major involved in her father's execution was promoted. Several victims acknowledged the very real possibility of reprisals for reporting the crimes: "If any of us are dead tomorrow morning, know that it is because we are speaking out. Do not believe them when they say it was a crime of passion or an armed robbery gone awry." This is the way deaths of witnesses have been framed.

A pained widow and mother of three young girls said tersely, "My daughters and I have been threatened with death because I am speaking out. If anything happens to any of us, the State is responsible." A soft-spoken young man with a scarred cheek told his story of escaping after members of the army tortured him and took him for dead. There has been no progress in his case. "We need answers," he stated. One mother ended her story of loss with, "I speak because this must cease. The pain that fills this auditorium ... " and trailed off as sobs wracked her body. "My God bless you."

In 2008 documentation teams registered four executions of members of Colombia's Protestant and evangelical church population. The army allegedly killed an indigenous pastor, two indigenous youth, and a farmer. Authorities have not reported any progress in the investigation of Pastor Medina's brother's 2007 case, first described in a November 2008 blog post. I wrote the following for the forthcoming edition of A Prophetic Call, the human rights and peace report co-released by Justapaz and the Peace Commission of the Colombian Evangelical Council:

Inter-related motives for extra-judicial killings (include): a method to inflate the body count in response to pressure from President Uribe to produce results in the war on terror, and military strategy to dispose of witnesses and perceived counter-insurgency targets that also wins favor with superiors in this counter-insurgency war.

Testimony from soldiers who have carried out the executions and a 2005 Directive from the Ministry of Defense name an explicit motive for soldiers: time off and "payment of rewards for the capture, killing in combat of leaders of illegal armed organizations."* According to former army soldiers and the Ministry of Defense Directive, the list of monetary value placed on specific results included rewards for members of the guerrilla that carried out or assisted with "terrorist actions" on a local level,** thus providing incentive to kill civilians and turn them in as low-level guerrilla soldiers.

Evidence notwithstanding, the administration made regular statements decrying accusations as legal maneuvers by the guerrilla to "paralyze action of the armed forces against the terrorists," as President Uribe stated in an early 2009 press conference. Throughout the week hundreds of civil society members as well as non-governmental organizations and government agencies will speak with the Repporteur's delegation. Besides coordinating the visits of a number of victims' family members to provide testimony and participating in a NGO meeting with the Repporteur, Justapaz and the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia are providing translation.

Janna Hunter-Bowman works for Mennonite Central Committee in Bogotá, Colombia, as the coordinator of the Documentation and Advocacy Program for Justapaz.

* Ministry of Defense. Directive 029 Copia No 12 de 16, 17 Nov. 2005. "Finalidad: Definir una política ministerial que desarrolle criterios claros y definidos para el pago de recompenses por la captura o abitmiento en combate de cabecillas de las organizaciones armadas al margen de la ley, material de Guerra, intendencia o comunicaciones e información sobre actividades relacionadas con el narcotráfico y pago de información que sirva de fundamento para la continuación de labores de inteligencia y el posterior planeamiento de operaciones." This document was provided by an anonymous source, and since it is classified as secret we cannot verify its authenticity. However, as noted, testimony of former soldiers corroborates the existence of a rewards system.
** Ministerio de Defensa Nacional. Copia No 12 de 16, 17 Nov. 2005. /"HASTA 10 SMLV (3.815.000.00) Cabecillas y miembros de guerrillas, escuadras o rasos responsables materiales de desarrollar y/o apoyar a nivel local acciones terroristas, secuestros, extorsiones, abigeato, actividades de inteligencia, emboscadas, hostigamientos, asalto a poblaciones, ataques a instalaciones militares."

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