If no one speaks out, the violence is going to continue. Someone has to give voice to what is hidden. May the anger and grief produced by this absurd death serve to stop the killing.
-Pastor Reinel Martinez
Pastor Reinel Martinez serves with the Ebenezer Evangelical Community church in Cesar, Colombia. Pastor Martinez recently spoke out about the October 1, 2007 disappearance of his 23-year-old brother, Jose Ulises Martinez Medina. Jose was apparently another "false positive," the term used to describe military homicides of civilians killed, dressed in military fatigues and armed, and then reported as subversives downed in combat. Pastor Martinez says that accompaniment from Justapaz lawyers provides the strength he needs to break the silence a year after his brother's disappearance.
Jose left his professional military career as a counterinsurgency soldier behind in late 2006 because what he had to do was not coherent with his religious convictions, according to Pastor Reinel. Upon leaving the army, Jose served as a young adult leader at his church and worked in a recycling center. He was killed, allegedly by Colombia's armed forces, about a year later.
An army acquaintance who was still in active duty had convinced him to go to Bogotá and pick up his last military paycheck. A second active duty contact gave him a lift from his home in Cucuta to Bogotá, a 12-hour drive. He never returned. Official reports leaked to the family show evidence of the Armed Forces responsibility in the murder. Several days after Jose Ulises left for Bogotá, the military reported him as a guerrilla killed on in combat. Pastor Rienel recalls through tears the pictures of his brother's corpse dressed in guerrilla camouflage.
In the last year Colombian nongovernmental organizations have registered more than 535 extrajudicial executions and more than 800 since 2002. The pattern repeats itself across the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, asked the Colombian government to provide results in the investigations of military personnel related to the executions. In late October, human rights and church organizations publicized the trend in public events and a press conference in Bogotá. Pastor Reinel did multiple interviews with TV news and print media.
Moments after Pastor Reinel's interview aired on the midday news, he started receiving phone calls from friends congratulating him on his bravery for speaking out. Not everyone will be so pleased. "I know that I may be putting myself at greater risk. Speaking out about my brother's senseless death may lead me to my own, but someone must stand up and say stop!"
Extrajudicial murders in Colombia were front page news in the October 30 New York Times. That article and others in the mainstream press do not consider these false positives a military strategy, but rather report the civilian body count as a tactic for military personnel to win favor and rise in the ranks in this counterinsurgency war. This is true, but it glides over a deeply disturbing national trend that signals political responsibility at a higher level in the military chain of command. For example, according to his family Jose Ulises essentially retired as a conscientious objector, deeply troubled by what he had seen and what he was expected to do in the line of duty. The responsible parties went to a fair amount of trouble to orchestrate the disappearance. They were after more than a corpse. Jose represents those victims considered "dangerous" by the political and military establishment.
A second victim type characteristic in the false positives are the socially marginal and "disposable"--such as the homeless and young men with police records from poor neighborhoods. Extrajudicial executions provide a mechanism for both purging of these "problematic" members of society and winning favor with military superiors.
This rise in extrajudicial executions may not be the result of an official, albeit secret, government policy. That is not necessary. It is part of political culture understood and assumed by those operating within the government system. Colombian President Uribe's flagship program is "Democratic Security," a public policy of achieving peace through a military approach based on killing. The recently changed reward system which gives incentives for producing downed guerrillas is only a part, and the false positives are only an indicator of the result of this public policy.
The fact that Colombian President Uribe fired 27 army officials allegedly involved in 23 false positives from a slum of southern Bogotá is a positive step. But even identifying who is giving the orders will not curb the trend. The cases in the news are not aberrations, but rather the calculated result of a policy. The products will not change until the orientation and strategy fundamentally change.
One of the hot-button questions in Colombia right now is the effect of the U.S. presidential election outcome for Colombia. President-elect Obama's expressed concern on human rights in Colombia is important. Obama excites and inspires hope among many in Colombia's human rights and peace movement, but he too is likely to support a military strategy to bring peace. This is counter to the way of the kingdom of God. It is wrong. It may lead to the defeat of one of the parties, but it will not bring real and lasting peace. Human rights training is good as it ameliorates the damage (as does firing the 27 army officials), but it does not solve the problem. Pressing Colombia s military to adhere to international humanitarian law is a step forward, but it still misses the point.
When the political culture affirms peace through killing, death will be the result.
Janna Hunter-Bowman works for Mennonite Central Committee in Bogotá, Colombia, as the coordinator of the Documentation and Advocacy Program for Justapaz.