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A massacre explored: suppressed by the military

Part 2: The Colombian military is accused of covering up its role in the murder of members of a peace community.

Protesters hold pictures of relatives allegedly executed by the Colombian army and initially framed as combat kills, Nov. 13, 2008. The trial of 10 army officers over the 2005 San Jose de Apartado massacre resumes today. The trial's progress in rare in a country where military crimes often go unpunished. (Mauricio Duenas/AFP/Getty Images)

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.