In Colombia, suspicious deaths

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.”

There hadn’t been money for Victor’s course to rise through the military ranks and after leaving, he spent the last few years of his life bouncing among odd jobs.

"He would say to me, 'Madre Selva' " — Carmenza stops to explain the nickname from a soap opera character — " 'I’m going to work wisely and I'll buy you a house.' "

She recalls the conversation in her bedroom, where she sits beneath a blown-up photograph of Victor taped to the concrete wall, which is adorned with posters and a hanging shirt here and a jacket there.

Although rent is low in Soacha, it’s still hard to pay from Carmenza’s minimum-wage job cleaning offices. But Carmenza, 53, is used to struggle.

Violence forced her family to flee to the south-central city of Villavicencio when she was 14. There, she worked in restaurants, and at age 16, she became a mother. By the time she moved to Bogota as a 28-year-old single mother, she had five children. Three more would come. “I’ve been fighting until the present for my kids,” Carmenza says.

And for Carmenza, Victor's death was quickly followed by more tragedy.

Carmenza's other son, John Nilson Gomez, then 28, was frustrated by the sluggish pace of justice after his brother's death. He took it upon himself to find out what happened.

To this day, all Carmenza knows about the afternoon of Feb. 4 was that two men on a red motorcycle shot John; their pistol had a silencer. It was only later that Carmenza learned, through a friend of John, that his snooping had landed him threatening phone calls. Within six months, Carmenza buried a second son.

Carmenza now helps support the four children, aged 5 months to 10 years, her sons left behind.

The pain isn’t subsiding — nor are the phone threats Carmenza and her daughter have received. “I told them, please, no more, I don’t want more deaths in my family.” Regardless, Carmenza said, "I'm not afraid to tell the world that when things happen. Don't be afraid, denounce them."

That’s what Carmenza did two weeks ago at the Senate debate, in which the army's top commander and deputy minister of defense participated. Chatter hovered over the hearing, but when Carmenza spoke at the podium, the room went quiet.

“I want the heads of this operation to be held responsible!” she bellowed. “Because my son is worth a lot.”

(Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the timing of a Senate debate, which occurred three weeks ago rather than two, and to reflect the fact that more arrests have been made since the story was written.) 

For more dispatches on the dangers of life in Colombia:

Recruiting rebels

Life as a FARC hostage

Colombian ex-captives consider politics