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"False-positives" scandal in Colombia widens

BOGOTA, Colombia — The widening “false positives” scandal stands as gruesome evidence of the price that’s been paid for success in Colombia’s guerrilla war.

Yes, the FARC rebels have been hammered by the Colombian army. Over the past decade, their numbers have been reduced from 17,000 fighters to about 8,000. And yes, spectacular military operations, like the killing last month of alias Mono Jojoy, the FARC’s top military strategist, have produced national euphoria and a sense that rebels are on their last legs.

But rather than taking a victory lap, the Colombian military remains embroiled in a human rights quagmire that will make ultimate victory more elusive.

A total of 3,822 army officers and foot soldiers have now been accused in a conspiracy to murder civilians and disguise them as guerrillas killed in action. The homicides first came to light in 2008 and since then, more and more cadavers have been dug up.

The body count has now reached an astounding 2,445. The dead include 126 minors.

But what motivated the troops to target these innocent and often impoverished noncombatants, the very people whose hearts and minds the government must win in order to defeat the FARC? A report released this week by the Colombia Inspector General’s office, the entity charged with investigating government abuses, provides some clues.

The report refers to one of the original cases in which the bodies of two young men from the Bogota slum of Soacha were discovered in northern Colombia in an unmarked grave dressed in rebel uniforms. An army colonel and some of his troops conspired to kill them and cover up the crime because their brigade had been relatively inactive, the report says. But like many military units across Colombia, it says, this brigade came under intense pressure from top officers to demonstrate success on the battlefield.

And of course, these top military officers were being pushed to show results by then-President Alvaro Uribe, who had vowed to destroy the FARC.

Part of the problem was the army's rewards system. Many soldiers are thought to have participated in the killings because the military rewarded troops for gunning down guerrillas with bonuses, promotions and vacation days.

But the soldiers were somewhat ham-handed when carrying out their alleged crimes. According to the report, investigators realized something was amiss in the case of the Soacha victims by the fact that 250 bullets had been fired at the two men.

Most of the legal cases are still pending. But thus far 280 soldiers, including three colonels, have been convicted. Of this group, 95 have been sentenced to prison terms of 15 to 20 years.