WikiLeaks: Cable Revives Horror of Colombia’s “False Positives” Carnage

Gen. Mario Montoya(Pictured: Major General Mario Montoya.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-fifth in the series.

When Major General Mario Montoya Uribe was appointed commander of the Colombian army in March of 2006, the US embassy in Bogota was largely unaware of his background and bona fides. The American ambassador to Colombia at the time, William Wood, reported in a cable WikiLeaked on Friday, that relatively little was known about Montoya aside from his many decorations as a career military man, his close personal relationship with then-president Alvaro Uribe, and persistent but as yet unsubstantiated rumors that the commander was corrupt and tied to conservative paramilitary forces throughout the country.

Little was Wood aware that Montoya’s corruption and paramilitary ties would prove to be the least of his offenses. By the time he was relieved of his command eighteen months later, Montoya was widely perceived to be a driving force behind the breathtakingly horrific deal­ings of mil­i­tary per­son­nel in the fight against drug- and guerilla-related inter­nal disturbances.

As I reported in 2009 when UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution Philip Alston arrived in Bogota to investigate the so-called “false positives” case, over one thou­sand mem­bers of the Colom­bian armed forces were ultimately impli­cated in the mur­ders of count­less inno­cent civil­ians. The details are appalling. In many cases, vic­tims were recruited from poor neigh­bor­hoods and vil­lages through­out the coun­try, promised work oppor­tu­ni­ties else­where, then drugged and sold to mil­i­tary agents who arranged for their exe­cu­tions. The bod­ies were then dressed up in army fatigues, planted with weapons pur­chased on the black market, and claimed as suc­cess­fully elim­i­nated guer­rilla com­bat­ants by mil­i­tary personnel.

The evi­dence of false pos­i­tive extra­ju­di­cial killings sug­gests their sys­temic nature, a con­clu­sion cor­rob­o­rated by the Coun­cil on Hemi­spheric Affairs, which noted that

What is appar­ently new about the recent cases is that they have been moti­vated pri­mar­ily by inter­nal mil­i­tary incen­tive struc­tures, rather than polit­i­cal motives…They were killed so that army units and their com­man­ders could demon­strate “results” to their supe­ri­ors, and thereby win both finan­cial rewards and pro­mo­tions. In this war, progress has long been mea­sured by the num­ber of “enemy com­bat­ants” immo­bi­lized, prefer­ably killed, and career prospects often depend on demon­strat­ing such “results”…Investigations have revealed an exten­sive web of recruiter net­works pen­e­trat­ing poor neigh­bor­hoods across the coun­try, oper­at­ing in a shad­owy under­world in col­lu­sion with army con­tract agents. …For dis­patch­ing these appar­ent “positives”…the assas­sins could count on receiv­ing ben­e­fits such as paid hol­i­days, spe­cial courses abroad, pro­mo­tions and pay raises.

While the leaked cable suggests that the embassy was unaware of Montoya’s connection to these abuses, the phe­nom­e­non of false pos­i­tives was hardly unknown to Amer­i­can intel­li­gence offi­cers and Colom­bian offi­cials, which had been tracking these developments for at least fif­teen years—this accord­ing to recently released documents obtained by the National Secu­rity Archive. And though the inci­dence of extra­ju­di­cial killings increased dur­ing Uribe’s term in office, few accuse Uribe him­self of any first­hand knowl­edge con­cern­ing these cases.

Which makes the second cable from Bogota that came to light the same day so interesting. In November 2008, right after Montoya resigned his post amidst a story of accusations and investigations, recently arrived Ambassador William Brownfield banged out a report noting that

Montoya stepped down less than a week after President Uribe’s dismissal of 27 military officers–including two division and three brigade commanders–for their roles in the disappearance and subsequent murders of young men from Soacha and Antioquia. Montoya had been the subject of multiple human rights complaints during his tenure, including alleged abuses committed in Medellin’s poorer neighborhoods during Operation Orion, collusion with paramilitaries, and demanding “body count” as a measure of operational success.

Colombian press reported statements by Senator Patrick Leahy calling Montoya’s departure a “long overdue and positive step.” Leahy said Montoya “shares responsibility for widespread and systematic abuses by the Colombian military.” Montoya’s recent military successes include the rescue of hostages in Operation Jaque. Some believed he would be a likely successor to Armed Forces Commander General Freddy Padilla de Leon.

According to the cable, instead of sending a message that Montoya’s human rights abuses would not be tolerated by his administration, Uribe appointed the commander’s protégé—himself no darling of the human rights community—to the post.

Later on November 4, President Uribe announced at a press conference with General Freddy Padilla and Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos that Major General Oscar Enrique Gonzalez Pena, current commander of the Caribbean Joint Command, would replace Montoya as Commanding General of the Colombian Army. Uribe said Gonzalez’ appointment leaves the Army in “good hands,” highlighting his significant operational successes. Gonzalez Pena followed Montoya as commander of the 4th Brigade from December 2003 to July 2005, and then became commander of the 7th Division in 2005.

The cable notes that

Gonzalez was responsible for the operation that led to the death of “Martin Caballero,” the former head of the FARC’s 37th Front, in September of last year. Human rights groups publicly criticized Gonzalez’ appointment for his close association with Montoya, and voiced concerns regarding 45 alleged extrajudicial killings committed by the 4th Brigade during his command.

Chillingly, it reports that “Montoya selected Gonzalez as ‘best commander in the country’ during his tenure as 4th Brigade commander because his unit reported the most combat kills—857.”

The cable closes with the juicy detail that then-defense minister and current president Juan Manuel Santos told embassy officials

that Montoya—who has a close relationship with Uribe—persuaded the President to appoint Gonzalez as his replacement. Santos pushed back, but Uribe decided to proceed with the appointment.

So the question remains: given the 2007 CIA report linking Montoya to the false positives scandal, and revelations of the commander’s ongoing closeness with and influence over Uribe, how long will the former Colombian president be able to continue denying any connection with the legacy of human rights abuses that pockmark his presidency?