A former Colombian military colonel describes duty for civilian deaths in ‘false positives’ scandal

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The previous colonel clutched his notes as he waited for his title to be referred to as. Santiago Herrera Fajardo had struggled to sleep the night time earlier than, waking up at 3 am to apply the speech that will outline the remainder of his life.

To succeed in the microphone, he needed to stroll previous rows of moms and daughters who had waited practically 15 years to listen to him clarify how and why his troopers killed harmless males in one of many worst atrocities in Colombia’s historical past.

A military veteran of practically 30 years, now stripped of his uniform, he requested the Holy Spirit to assist these households see his sincerity. Would they imagine him?

“At present, with all of the disgrace and shrinkage {that a} soldier can really feel, however with probably the most respect for the ache of the victims, I acknowledge that whereas I used to be on this place, a de facto legal construction operated within the brigade,” Herrera advised Colombia’s peace tribunal through the April 26 listening to. “I pressured my subordinates to get outcomes, in fight casualties, at any value.”

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Herrera, 57, admitted to urging his troopers to kill as many individuals as they may to fulfill physique depend calls for set by commanders on the peak of Colombia’s bloody 50-year battle. He promoted competitions between models, supplied holidays as rewards and threatened to offer troopers unfavorable evaluations in the event that they fell quick.

Herrera is likely one of the highest-ranking navy leaders to simply accept duty in Colombia’s “false positives” scandal. Between 2002 and 2008, US-backed forces killed an estimated 6,402 folks and falsely labeled them as guerrilla fighters to sign they have been successful the warfare, in accordance with the nation’s Particular Jurisdiction for Peace. The jurisdiction was fashioned by the nation’s 2016 peace take care of its largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the FARC.

Most of the victims have been poor, unemployed or disabled males who have been lured by the promise of a job. Their our bodies have been usually altered, dressed up as enemy combatants and posed with weapons.

Practically 15 years later, Herrera’s testimony is a part of a daring experiment in restorative justice that might change into a mannequin for different international locations. In trade for admitting their duty and cooperating with the jurisdiction, perpetrators can obtain lighter sentences, reminiscent of home arrest.

However Herrera is certainly one of solely 10 navy leaders who’ve admitted their involvement. Greater than 3,000 members of Colombia’s safety forces have false positives instances pending earlier than the jurisdiction. And even those that need to cooperate face important boundaries to talking overtly about their roles — and the roles performed by their superiors — in accordance with former navy leaders and worldwide observers.

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Former troopers and ex-FARC combatants alike have confronted loss of life threats to not converse. However critics say the previous troopers have acquired much less authorized help than the previous FARC fighters.

Peace negotiators organized unbiased counsel for the ex-FARC combatants. Some former troopers have that their government-provided attorneys have conflicts of curiosity. They accuse their attorneys of urgent them to change their testimonies or omit data to guard higher-ranking defendants. The attorneys have denied the allegations.

“What is obvious is that they’ve for too lengthy been left alone, deserted by their very own establishments,” mentioned Dag Nagoda, minister councilor on the Norwegian Embassy, ​​which has been monitoring the implementation of the peace accords. “They have been labeled rotten apples within the public debate, and there was little accompaniment.”

The priority for these defendants is a sensible one, Nagoda mentioned: “If they do not converse up, the peace course of will not work.”

Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, mentioned it is clear that Colombian establishments and worldwide companions “wanted to do a greater job with the navy.”

To members of the family of the victims, the listening to helped lastly clear the names of their family members. However many felt the admissions did not go far sufficient.

Blanca Monroy, whose son was killed in 2008, mentioned she hoped Herrera and others who testified could possibly be an instance for many who are “drowning in their very own poison” to come back ahead.

The primary name Herrera acquired after his testimony was from a former comrade who’s scheduled to look earlier than the jurisdiction quickly. He praised Herrera’s “honesty and readability.”

But it surely did not take lengthy for Herrera to obtain different messages, calling him a traitor for talking out. Some criticized him for publicly naming ex-general Mario Montoya, the previous military chief who Herrera mentioned pressured him to spice up physique counts.

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Herrera had been jailed for seven years earlier than starting the transitional justice course of. He did not have a lot left to lose. However he nonetheless feared for his life, and for the security of his spouse and daughters, ages 17 and 13.

The partitions of Herrera’s house workplace rejoice his decades-long navy profession. There’s the composite from his navy faculty. There’s the photograph of him and his three brothers, all in uniform, on the day in 1983 when he was promoted to second lieutenant.

That profession got here to an finish over what occurred in 2007, when he took cost of a brigade in Catatumbo. He says Montoya advised him he wanted to spice up fight kills. “I will be again,” Herrera says Montoya advised him, “and if you have not modified the outcomes, prepare as a result of I will relieve you.”

Montoya has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. His lawyer, Andrés Garzón, mentioned Montoya adopted military requirements that measured working ends in seven classes, not simply physique counts. Garzón accused Herrera and different ex-military leaders of mendacity of their testimonies to scale back punishment.

Herrera quickly began noticing uncommon deaths, however he did not do something about it. “Within the degradation of the battle, you not care about that,” he mentioned. “You care about statistics.”

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When the killings got here to mild, Herrera and different leaders denied the extent of their roles. However the navy quickly got here below intense strain to carry leaders accountable. Colombian courts have described the killings as against the law towards humanity, “a scientific and widespread apply” towards civilians that continuously got here with “acts of torture.”

After being held in pretrial detention for seven years, after listening to the tales of victims and assembly with former FARC members, Herrera began to acknowledge his duty.

“The conceitedness of the ability and the rank goes away,” he mentioned. “Then you definitely change into way more human and start to grasp.”

Earlier than the hearings, Herrera and different navy leaders met with the households of victims. María Fernanda Franco Gómez was 7 years outdated when her father was taken and killed by troopers. Now 22, she yelled on the former officers.

“How might you let this occur? Do not you’ve kids?” she shouted. “You are worse than monsters.”

Herrera promised he would attempt to get her extra details about her father’s loss of life. She did not imagine him, she mentioned in an interview.

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However on the listening to, Herrera advised Franco he had discovered extra particulars. He gave her his quantity and mentioned he would attempt to study extra.

The look on her face relaxed. Herrera requested if he might give a hug. Franco politely declined. They shook palms as an alternative.

“All of us deserve a second probability,” he mentioned.

“Sure, all of us do,” she agreed, “however it’s a must to earn it.”

Diana Duran contributed to this report.

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