Connecting the Dots: Colombian Army officers and civilian killings
A Colombian Army officer charged with multiple civilian killings, known as “false positives,” this month publicly charged the commander of the U.S.-assisted unit – General Javier Fernández Leal - with collaborating in the killings. Fernández Leal has been promoted to chief of joint intelligence for the Colombian military.
The accusing officer, ex-captain Antonio Rozo Valbuena, served in a unit created in 2006 to combat kidnapping (known as GAULA for its Spanish initials) in 41 counties in the northern department of Córdoba, but its members ended up kidnapping and killing civilians themselves.
In March 2006, then-president Álvaro Uribe was resting at his ranch when Major Oscar Acuña, commander of the anti-kidnapping unit, reportedly ordered the killing of five civilians, according to Rozo, in order to “stand out” for his performance. In “Phoenix Tactical Mission,” a paid civilian recruited two of the youths under the pretext of working on a nearby farm, but on the way there they were detained by soldiers and shot at close range.
Acuña received training at the School of the Americas, not once but twice, in 1992 and 1995, including a course in leadership and counter-drug operations. He was sentenced in June 2009 to 28 years in prison for the killings, but a second court in Córdoba overturned the conviction in 2010.
Rozo is under investigation for seven other similar crimes. In one of them, he and five other soldiers are accused of killing two civilians on March 12, 2007. According to family members of 19-year-old Fabio Enrique Taboada, the youth was working as a bricklayer’s assistant when he was contacted to work on a farm in the area. He was then reported as a member of organized crime killed in combat, but Colombian prosecutors determined that there was no combat.
“When a soldier gets hit with charges and says, ‘I did it, I killed him, my colonel knew nothing,’ it’s a lie,” said Rozo Valbuena. “To do a false positive requires a logistical train, a very broad intellectual capacity to be able to set it up and plot the procedure well,” he said.
“They’re sentencing the most idiotic ones. Don’t look here, look higher,” Rozo said.
The 11th Brigade in Córdoba, of which the GAULA unit was part, was commanded by then-Colonel Fernández Leal from June 2005 to December 2006. Three months before ascending to command the 11th Brigade, Fernández Leal was studying at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, where he wrote about the costs of the war in Colombia.
The United States assisted the 11th Brigade during this period and beyond – in 2005, 2006 and 2007, according to a State Department list of assisted units (pdf, 1.6MB)
Fernández Leal subsequently sat on a military panel that in 2009 stymied investigations into false positives, according to statements by the former Army Inspector General to U.S. Embassy officials, revealed in a cable published by Wikileaks.
Earlier this year, Fernández Leal was revealed to have ordered the transfer to the military prison on Tolemaida Army Base of a notorious army captain convicted of attempting to kill a Colombian congressman. The captain attempted to escape from Tolemaida, which was the center of controversy earlier this year because convicts apparently came and left freely, and the luxurious conditions for soldiers convicted of civilian killings and other human rights crimes.
Rozo also pointed the finger at Colonel Juan Carlos Piza, director of the Tolemaida military prison. Piza was commander of the “Juan de Corral” battalion, of the Fourth Brigade in Antioquia, in 2004 and 2005 – precisely when at least a dozen civilians were reportedly killed by soldiers in the battalion.