One of the most shocking crimes in Colombia's recent history—and that's saying something—is the “false positives” scandal. Over the last three decades, military units—many of which received American military aid—have been murdering civilians, usually young men from impoverished communities, and dressing them up as guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to present them as combat kills. Most false positives occurred during the two presidential terms of hardliner Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and peaked in 2007, when at least 40 percent of combat kills were in fact civilians.
In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages, Mary O’Grady openly questions these well-established facts. The FARC rebels, who have been negotiating a peace deal with the Colombian government since 2012, have often brought up the responsibility of the Colombian state and right-wing paramilitaries in crimes like the false positives. O'Grady believes that the rebels are trying to smear the military in order to create a false equivalency and thus avoid jail time for their own war crimes. She proposes “a heaping dose of skepticism” about the systematic nature of the military killings. Citing a now-infamous 2008 case in which 22 men from a poor neighborhood in the capital Bogotá were offered jobs, only to be extrajudicially executed by states forces, she writes that “it’s a lunar leap from these cases to allegations now reported in the press of more than 3,000 such murders,” which would suggest an “institutional breakdown of epic proportions.”
To cast doubt on this number, O’Grady points to Colombia’s broken justice system and an academic study by a Colombian lawyer and government research agency, which estimated some 3,000 cases of false testimony. There is no doubt that Colombia’s judicial branch is a congested mess. It is unable (or unwilling) to investigate threats against unionists, process land restitutions claims, or curtail corruption. That's why, in addition to demands for better pay and work conditions, thousands of judicial workers went on strike last fall. The false testimonies, whose relation to false positive prosecutions is unclear and unaddressed in O'Grady's article, point to the difficulties of prosecuting war crimes. As InSight Crime, a site which covers organized crime and Colombia extensively, wrote of the academic study, “cases that occur during war are difficult, if not impossible, to resolve. … The results, as is evident, can be chaotic.”
Nonetheless, no reputable human rights group, international organization, or governmental body questions the phenomenon of false positives and its systemic nature. And far from being a “lunar leap,” 3,000 false positives is almost certainly a conservative estimate. As of January 2014, the attorney general’s office in Colombia was investigating more than 4,200 cases of extrajudicial executions, with nearly 5,000 state agents being implicated. Some human rights groups think the number could be significantly higher. In 2010, the Fellowship for Reconciliation and the Colombia-Europe-U.S. Human Rights Observatory examined more than 5,700 executions and found that “in 2007, at least one execution was directly attributed to 99 of the Army’s 219 combat battalions and mobile brigades.” That's hardly a “share of bad actors,” as O'Grady put it.
In 2010, Philip Alston, then the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, reported receiving “detailed and credible reports of [false positives] from across the country, committed in numerous departments and by a large number of different military units.” There were “too many killings of a similar nature to characterize them as isolated incidents carried out by individual rogue soldiers or units, or ‘bad apples.’” While more than 700 members of the military have been convicted, most cases have not been resolved. As the U.N. said in 2013, “High ranking officials linked to these human rights crimes remain in active service and continue to be promoted.” This is why Human Rights Watch’s Americas director and a Colombia researcher argued in The New York Times last November for the need to keep the cases in civilian courts—which, though slow, are more likely to deliver justice than the military courts.
O’Grady also makes the dubious claim, “Rebel terrorism has claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and maimed tens of thousands of others.” A government-financed Colombian commission found that 220,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since 1958. Between 1981 and 2012—which includes the most violent period at the end of the 1990s—the most violent actor was the AUC, a paramilitary group responsible for nearly 40 percent of the killings and which often worked with the Colombian government. That report attributed 17 percent of the killings to the FARC and 10 percent to state forces.
Calling for justice to be served to the FARC guerrillas is fair enough. Most Colombians—81 percent—agree that members of the rebel group shouldn’t be allowed into politics without prison time. But inflating their already heinous crimes and ignoring those of the Colombian military does not aid the cause of the millions of victims searching for justice, reparations, and peace.