Killing civilians in Colombia for hard, US-provided cash

Beware any rogue nation that is warmly embraced by Washington in its “war on drugs”:

Many men have been disappearing – only for families to find out the army had shot them

When Luz Marina Bernal’s 26-year old son went missing in February 2008, she immediately raised the alarm. Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal had a mental age of nine, could not read or write, and never strayed too far from his home in Soacha, a gritty satellite town of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia.

“He would never go off on his own. He would only go out with someone from the family. We searched hospitals, refuges, jails and filed a missing person report with the police, but there was no news until that August,” remembers Ms Bernal.

The news, when it came, stunned her. Fair Leonardo was dead, and had been buried in a common grave hundreds of kilometres away in the far north of the country. The army said they had killed him during combat with a group of guerrillas just four days after he went missing.

For Ms Bernal, it made no sense. How had her mentally disabled son transformed himself into a uniformed, armed guerrilla ready to take on South America’s most battle-hardened military, just four days after suddenly disappearing from home?

She discovered her case was not an isolated one. Men, mainly poor youths, were disappearing from Soacha, only for families to later find out they had been shot dead by the army, which claimed they were narco-terrorists – the term Colombian authorities use for the country’s Marxist guerrillas.

All their families insist the dead men had no previous involvement with any of Colombia’s illegal armed groups. Their outcry at the details of their children’s deaths sparked a broader investigation into what are now referred to as “false positive” deaths, in which investigators suspect military personnel murdered civilians and claimed they were guerrillas killed in combat in order to win bonuses of up to €1,500.

The “false positive” scandal threatens to stain the legacy of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s outgoing president and the man considered by many to have saved the country from the anarchy that threatened to turn it into a failed state at the start of the decade.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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