In Casanare, in the plains region of Colombia, at least 367 soldiers and state agents joined forces to kill civilians and present them as combat deaths. They murdered and disappeared 296 people. That is the overwhelming truth that is being heard in Yopal from the mouths of 24 soldiers and members of the defunct Administrative Department of Security (DAS) in that department. They acknowledged before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) that they had stigmatized, ordered, murdered and covered up all those crimes that are known as false positives.
Colombia has already seen other hearings for recognition of responsibility. In Norte de Santander and Dabeiba (Antioquia), senior military commanders have admitted these murders and offered forgiveness to the victims. But Casanare’s hearing was different. Added to the tears and intense pain of the victims was their anger at the lies that the military told for years and that emerged at the hearing. The victims asked to speak many times, they complained, they confronted:
―”You are lying, Mr. Marco García. You received money to change your version. Here we all know who he is covering up,” said Johana Torres, one of the victims, referring to retired General Henry William Torres Escalante, former commander of the 16 Brigade.
In front of the stand, entangled with the questions that Judge Catalina Díaz supported, the soldier confirmed that some time ago he received 45 million pesos from the retired general to change his version. He acknowledged that he had lied to the JEP before and said that now he did want to tell the truth. Behind, Torres Escalante lowered his gaze.
A day later, Torres Escalante’s statement exhausted the patience of the victims. The senior officer evaded the insistent questions from magistrates Catalina Díaz and Óscar Parra, who urged him to unequivocally accept his responsibility as the direct perpetrator for which he was accused, to confirm if he knew that his men committed those murders. . The tension was evident and exploded when a victim avoided the hearing protocol to shout at the soldier that enough was enough, to accept that he knew about the murders in the Brigade that he led. “We victims have been waiting for 17 years,” the woman shouted.
The retired general had read a statement in which he said that he assumed “with shame the designation of the title of maximum responsible for the murders of vulnerable, protected persons and war crimes, kidnapping, forced disappearance,” but he was not able to talk about the facts. concrete, which bothered the victims. He also stated that he received pressure from Army Commander Mario Montoya and General Guillermo Quiñones, his direct boss as commander of the IV Division. Recently, the JEP charged Mario Montoya with false positives before leading the Army, when he was commander of the Fourth Brigade of Medellín.
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The military’s statements were loaded with complaints against other officials: prosecutors who did not investigate, members of other forces; also from the reading of the names of the dozens of victims followed by the phrase: “he was not a criminal, nor was he part of an armed group”, trying to clear the names of those murdered.
“We are people who were instrumentalized to commit the objectives of the generals who are watching us through these cameras, the body of generals, who many times went to the detention centers to shut our mouths and tell us: ‘Don’t say that, the institution prevails.’ “said retired lieutenant Jhon Alexánder Suancha Florián in his recognition. In his statement, this officer also spoke of General Carlos Suárez Bustamante, whom he called “the father of the omission in false positives.” Suárez was an Army inspector.
The role of the DAS
The hearing in Yopal also revealed the role of the DAS in these crimes, an aspect that speaks of the use of state intelligence against the civilian population. The discrediting, stigmatization and registration of peasants to make them targets for murder was what Orlando Rivas, former director of the DAS in that region, confessed. “The smear campaigns and stigmatization campaigns were the primary input to proceed with crimes against humanity, that is why I apologize to the Casanareño people,” said Rivas during the hearing to recognize crimes, after the accusation made by the JEP.
The DAS, which was Colombia’s secret police and was dismantled for having illegally spied on judges, journalists and politicians, was key in the criminal apparatus that committed these murders in Casanare. It was also the Gaula, the umbrella of the units in charge of preventing kidnappings in the country in the different forces. They reported false extortion and illegally captured people to kill them.
The military ratified the existence of a “legalization kit”, meaning that they had weapons, uniforms and boots prepared to put on the victims and simulate that the peasants were part of armed groups; and that in some cases they tortured the peasants.
“The dead don’t talk,” they told one of the officers so that he would remain calm in the face of possible judicial investigations and continue committing murders. Many years passed, but the dead did speak in Casanare and revealed that criminal organization, despite attempts to hinder the investigations, as several of the soldiers confessed. Only the top officials attended the hearing, but investigations continue with nearly 200 soldiers who participated in these crimes.
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