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Colombia: US aid may have sparked civilian killings

Colombian army accused of killing civilians and labeling them guerrillas.

Meta, Colombia
Soldiers patrol in Santo Domingo, Meta. (Nadja Drost/GlobalPost)

LA MACARENA, Colombia — When Colombian military units receive an increase in U.S. aid, they allegedly kill more civilians and frame the deaths as combat kills, according to a new report.

The report, released Thursday by two American human rights organizations, raises serious questions about the implications of U.S. military aid to Colombia. The United States has provided more than $7 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia since 2000 for fighting drugs and counterinsurgency — making it the largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel.

The army is accused of killing civilians and presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat to pump body counts. The Colombian military faces significant political pressure to produce concrete results in its war against the the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the country's left-wing guerrilla insurgency.

Many point to the macabre practice — euphemistically known as producing a “false positive” — as a result of an unofficial incentive-based system that rewards high numbers of combat kills with job perks and promotions. Colombia's attorney general's office is investigating more than 2,000 alleged cases of false-positives committed by the armed forces.

The report was based on a two-year study using records of 3,000 reported extrajudicial killings since 2002 and lists of 500 military units approved to receive U.S. assistance. It found that in regions that received the largest increases in U.S. aid, the number of reported extrajudicial killings surged 56 percent on average in the four years surrounding the aid boost. When U.S. assistance was withdrawn or reduced, the number of army killings of civilians dropped.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation and the U.S. Office on Colombia published the report. The U.S. Embassy declined to comment.

Most U.S. military aid has come in the form of equipment, training, intelligence and anti-narcotics efforts such as the fumigation of coca crops.

At the heart of U.S.-backed efforts is the region of Meta, a traditional guerrilla stronghold of vast savannah and river networks. Parts of Meta were demilitarized as part of the failed 1999-2002 peace talks between the government and the FARC. The guerrillas used a cease-fire to strengthen their presence in the region. As a result, it became a priority for President Alvaro Uribe’s government to recover the territory from the guerrillas and Meta received a massive injection of government troops.

While the Colombian government has been credited with restoring security to many parts of the country, many residents interviewed in various hamlets and towns in Meta said their security situation has worsened as a result of the military presence. They complain that the armed forces indiscriminately accuse all inhabitants of being, or collaborating with, guerrillas simply because they live in a formerly guerrilla-controlled area.

As a result, “the impact of the war for the civilian population has increased,” said Edinson Cuellar, a lawyer with the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers Collective, a group that monitors human rights violations in the region.

In a hamlet in Meta’s interior, military troops patrol through the intersection of a pot-holed dirt road lined by mostly abandoned homes. Many have fled over the last several years as a result of violence or because of worsening economic conditions.