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In Colombia, suspicious deaths

The case of 11 young men allegedly killed by the army to boost body counts has again hit the headlines.

Carmenza Gomez Romero mourns her son, Victor Fernando, who was allegedly murdered by the Colombian armed forces. Victor is shown in the photo hanging above his mother. (Nadja Drost/GlobalPost)

SOACHA, Colombia — When Carmenza Gomez Romero returned from work to her home in a Bogota suburb on Aug. 23, her 23-year-old son told her his day washing cars didn’t go well. “Mami,” he said, “I only made 12,000 pesos ($4) to buy us gas.” That night, Victor Fernando Gomez told his brother he was traveling to the coast for a work opportunity.

Just two days later, photos of Victor’s dead body surfaced on the Internet. That day, Carmenza and her family traveled 500 miles north to the town of Ocana to pick up Victor’s body at a morgue.

She had no idea at the time that her son’s death would help break open one of the biggest scandals in Colombian military history — and that despite the attention that would come, justice would prove elusive. Now, Carmenza is fighting to keep Victor’s story alive in the hopes that those guilty of his murder will be held responsible.

Victor was one of 11 young men who went missing last year from their homes in Soacha, a poor suburb to Bogota’s south, and were discovered dead in Ocana. The military said all 11 died in combat.

But revelations began emerging late last year that the young men were tempted with job promises, killed by the military and framed as guerrilla or criminal gang members to increase body counts in Colombia's war against guerrilla groups.

The macabre practice — resulting in what is referred to here as a falso positivo, or “false positive” — has long been decried by human rights groups and denied by the government. But in late October, the mounting scandal of the “Soacha False Positives” triggered the resignation of the general of Colombia's army and the dismissal of 27 officers and soldiers in what has been described as the military’s largest ever one-day purge.

But Carmenza, along with other mothers of Soacha, are still awaiting answers.

At a Senate debate three weeks ago, opposition senators lambasted the lack of arrests made in connection to the Soacha cases (the first two had been made just the week before, and several have followed since) and the systematic nature of the false positives. The attorney general’s office is now investigating more than 1,000 cases of suspected false positives by armed forces and police across the country.

Carmenza sees a particularly perverse twist to her son's fate: Victor, along with two of his brothers, had dedicated two years to military service. It was a point of pride for their mother, but now Carmenza says, “I regret that they spent their time doing that, considering it was the military that killed my son.”