A massacre explored: suppressed by the military

BOGOTA, Colombia — The cover-up started the day seven members of a peace community were murdered in northern Colombia.

The massacre was so grisly it drew international condemnation and brought about a temporary freeze on military aid from the United States. Four of the decapitated and butchered bodies strewn across the jungle floor on Feb. 21, 2005, were children. (Read about how the massacre unfolded.)

The Colombian army blamed rebels from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). But now, 15 military officers — including four colonels and other lesser-ranking officers — are charged with the killings for carrying out an operation with paramilitary death squads that led to the massacre.

The trial’s progress thus far is considered remarkable in a country where investigations into military crimes often result in impunity. If convicted, the officers — who face charges of homicide, criminal conspiracy and barbaric acts — could face 40 years in prison.

But little has come easily in the bid to hold the military accountable. A day after the trial began in December, it was postponed due to misplaced boxes of testimonies. When it re-started last month, it was suspended yet again because Colombia’s prison department failed to transport several military officers and witnesses to the trial. It is set to resume again today.

The trial could also help illuminate the roles of the generals who sit at the top of the military’s decision-making hierarchy. Evidence based on interviews with military officials and court documents obtained by GlobalPost show that Colombia’s former army commander and a trusted U.S. military partner, Gen. Mario Montoya, helped plan the operation that led to the massacre. So far, little action has been taken against Montoya or other high-ranking generals.

All of the officers on trial, except for one, deny any responsibility in the killings. The most contentious questions have no answers: Who decided to work with the paramilitary forces? Who hired their members as guides? Who covered up the military’s participation?

The guides

When the military decided it needed guides for the operation, it did not turn to unarmed civilians or demobilized combatants, which would have been legal. Instead, according to court documents, the military used members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the umbrella group of paramilitary forces that had murdered, displaced and threatened thousands of alleged guerrilla sympathizers. The guides led the army soldiers to the victims and helped carry out the killings.

Determining which army officers knew about the use of AUC guides is key to the outcome of the trial. According to officers on trial, the order to use guides came from the top — from Montoya himself.

Montoya was known for his relentless pursuit of insurgents. He rose to become top commander of Colombia’s armed forces within a year of the 2005 massacre. A trusted U.S. military partner, he oversaw an armed forces that received well over a billion dollars of American military aid during his tenure. His career peaked during the daring July 2008 military rescue of American and Colombian hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt.

But Montoya soon fell from grace, resigning amid the “false-positives” scandal over the killings of civilians, which soldiers framed as combat kills. Following his resignation, Montoya was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

As commander of the First Division in February 2005, Montoya traveled to the 17th brigade’s headquarters to address a disastrous FARC ambush that killed 19 soldiers and to plan a response, four colonels said in interviews and testimonies. Montoya acknowledges attending the meeting but said he was not there to plan an operation, which he said fell outside of his role as commander.

Battalion Cmdr. Col. Nestor Duque told prosecutors that Montoya practically mandated in that meeting that the operation employ guides. Col. Orlando Espinosa, whose battalion is accused of carrying out the operation, said in an interview that Montoya told brigade officials: "If there aren’t guides, don’t do the operation."

Five years after the meeting, Montoya could not recall whether he discussed guides when he visited the brigade, he said in a phone interview with GlobalPost from the Dominican Republic. He denied any role in the events that unfolded.

Colombian military practice suggests that “using guides” was widely understood to mean using paramilitary fighters, even though the practice was illegal. The tradition dates as far back as 1981, when the founders of the AUC began helping guide military operations.

A retired captain who served in the military until 2002 said, “There were never civilian guides. If someone was a guide, they were either a paramilitary or a former guerrilla.” The captain, who did not want to be named for security reasons, said the use of guides in the 17th brigade was the same as other brigades where he worked: “Ninety percent were paramilitaries."

Several jailed paramilitary leaders have confessed that their men served as guides for many military operations. Extradited AUC leader Freddy Rendon Herrera said the 17th brigade used paramilitary guides during an operation in 1997. The brigade has frequently been accused of collaborating with paramilitaries.

After paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano was extradited to the U.S., he told prosecutors during a 2009 videotaped hearing that he and his men worked with the 17th brigade and Montoya himself. Montoya said he had never met Murillo Bejarano.

The cover-up

Court documents and interviews suggest years of efforts by military officers to cover up their institution’s role in the San Jose de Apartado massacre, which attracted international attention from governments and human rights groups. “The military tried to divert the investigation,” said an official in the attorney general's office who is familiar with the case and could not be named for security reasons.

As this week's trial investigates 10 military officers, their testimonies may help reveal the steps taken by their superiors to conceal what happened under their command.

The cover-up involved obfuscation and scapegoats. Following the killings, the military never reported any deaths. The government rebuffed allegations of military involvement in the massacre. Then, to squash any doubts, former guerrillas were paraded by the military to Colombia’s Congress and the vice president’s office saying the FARC had committed the killings.

But in 2009, one of the guerrillas retracted the story he had repeated for years. Former FARC member Apolinar Guerra said Duque had blackmailed him and other ex-guerrillas to attribute the massacre to the FARC. In an interview at the fish business Duque now runs out of Bogota, the retired colonel said the allegations are absurd. He has been charged but is not detained.

Former paramilitary leader Ever Veloza also emerged as a witness against Duque. Veloza, who has since been extradited to the U.S., told Colombian prosecutors his AUC block lent guides to Duque. He said Duque had asked for money to pay ex-guerrillas to testify that the FARC was responsible and for permission to kill a paramilitary guide because he had started to talk about the massacre. Duque vigorously denies these charges.

Testimonies and interviews with army officers suggest the code of silence cloaking the military’s role in the massacre was imparted from the brigade’s top echelons.

In February 2007, Gen. Hector Fandino, who had commanded the 17th brigade during the massacre, called a meeting at the brigade’s headquarters in Carepa, according to two attendees who did not want to be named for security reasons. Several of the brigade’s officials, military defense lawyers and more than 60 soldiers who were prime suspects attended the meeting.

“We were asked what we were planning on declaring,” said one military official. “Fandino told everyone not to say there were guides,” another attendee told GlobalPost. Fandino, who is now retired, said he attended the meeting because he happened to be in the area and believed in providing a defense for his former troops. He denied ever discussing guides.

Capt. Guillermo Gordillo — the only military official to admit responsibility in the massacre after receiving a plea bargain — told prosecutors Fandino instructed him never to say guides were used and informed him ex-guerrillas were going to say the FARC were behind the killings. Fandino would not comment on Gordillo’s claim, explaining that speaking about it could interfere with his legal defense.

The generals

So far, there has been little to no movement from the attorney general’s office in investigating the roles that generals played in the operation and its aftermath.

“The former commander of the army [Gen. Montoya], who was a U.S. favorite, ordered guides in the context of historic army-paramilitary collaboration, and he’s not even being investigated,” said John Lindsay-Poland of the U.S.-based human rights organization Fellowship of Reconciliation.

“We have to be careful not to call on every single general,” acting Attorney General Guillermo Mendoza said in an interview.

The only military general implicated in the investigation is Fandino, but signs of progress in the investigation are sparse. According to Mendoza, his office has now obtained Fandino’s contact information and C.V. and will evaluate evidence gathered before investigating further. Asked whether his office intends to investigate generals, Mendoza said: “We always have the intention. What happens is that we have to confirm the facts.”

Those facts are difficult to corroborate — accounts from army officers line up enough to offer a broad view of how the military operation and subsequent massacre unfolded. But the specific details are often just a hair apart, meaning that pinning blame is a difficult task for prosecutors.

Espinosa, sitting in fatigues detained in army barracks in Medellin with hopes of resuming his military service, perhaps best articulates the greatest threat to getting answers in this case: “There is nothing worse than a lie that is close to the truth.”

Read the first part of the series on how the massacre unfolded.