Colombian war crimes tribunal exposes how troops kidnapped and killed civilians Colombian army officers kidnapped and executed over 6,400 civilians from 2002 to 2008 and falsely reported them as Marxist guerrillas killed in combat to boost body counts, a special tribunal found.

Colombia's tribunal exposes how troops kidnapped and killed thousands of civilians

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Colombia's Truth Commission releases its final report today. Set up in 2016 after a peace deal with FARC rebels, the commission has spent years collecting testimonies from victims and perpetrators of over half a century of war and armed conflict. Appalling crimes were committed by various Colombian factions, including leftist guerrillas, far-right paramilitary militias, as well as U.S.-backed security forces. But a separate war crimes tribunal will continue its work examining some of the darkest chapters of Colombia's history. It involved the army and its role in the kidnapping and murder of over 6,000 innocent civilians. Colombian courts have never fully investigated those atrocities. But as NPR's John Otis reports, relatives of the victims are now seeking an alternative form of justice.


BLANCA MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At this public hearing, Blanca Monroy is confronting the former army officers who, back in 2008, ordered her son's execution. He was shot 13 times then buried in a mass grave.


MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "No one understands the pain of a mother who loses her son," she tells them. "It's an emptiness that will never, ever be filled." The army killings are now under investigation by Colombia's war crimes tribunal. It's a special court that was set up under a 2016 peace treaty that largely ended the fighting.


EDUARDO CIFUENTES: We have criminal actors, monsters of war, like those of Nuremberg.

OTIS: That's tribunal president Eduardo Cifuentes, who compares the army killings to barbarity committed by the Nazis tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. The tribunal has a 15-year mandate to prosecute the most heinous crimes committed by both Marxist guerillas and the government troops they fought against. Most of the 6,402 illegal killings by the army took place in the early 2000s, when military officers came under fierce pressure to crush the guerrillas. Failure could derail their careers. However, reporting bigger body counts could mean promotions, overseas postings and other benefits. So some officers hatched a lethal conspiracy.

CIFUENTES: This was really the absolute bad in terms of Colombia history.

OTIS: The absolute worst?

CIFUENTES: The absolute worst.

OTIS: With promises of jobs, soldiers lured poor, unemployed young men from Bogota and other cities to small towns near the war zone. Then, Cifuentes says, the troops gunned them down, planted arms on them and reported them as rebels killed in combat. The Nuremberg trials focused on punishing war criminals. However, the top priority of the Colombian tribunal is learning exactly how and why war crimes happened.


ALEJANDRO RAMELLI: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Our objective is reconciliation," said tribunal judge Alejandro Ramelli, speaking at a public hearing in the northern town of Ocana, where many of the killings took place. "But you can't forgive if you don't know what happened." That's why the tribunal is being lenient with defendants. They can avoid prison if they fully explain their crimes, including who gave the orders. They're also required to face relatives of their victims at hearings, like the one in Ocana, which took place in April.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: There were frequent outbursts from grieving family members who packed into the town's auditorium. A dozen defendants, now stripped of their army uniforms, sat stiffly on the stage.


SORAIDA MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: When it was her turn to speak, Soraida Munoz directly addressed the former army officers. She couldn't understand why they had targeted her 22-year-old son, who was himself a former soldier.


MUNOZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "He was no guerilla," she said. "He'd just gotten out of the army, but he was abducted and killed." The defendants include a former general who stands to become the highest-ranking officer ever convicted of war crimes. They all sounded deeply repentant.


ALVARO TAMAYO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One of them, former Lieutenant Colonel Alvaro Tamayo, admitted that he gave the direct order to execute several innocent civilians in Ocana. At the time, he said, such atrocities were standard procedure within some units of the army.


TAMAYO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Referring to his own role, he said, "I betrayed my family and the army. I am a disgrace." Sandro Perez, a former Army sergeant, was even more blunt.


SANDRO PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I turned into an assassin," he said. "A monster for society. A death machine." The testimony has been riveting, but some Colombians contend it could hurt army morale and insist that the tribunal should stick to investigating massacres and kidnappings carried out by the guerrillas. President Ivan Duque, a conservative who opposed Colombia's peace treaty, has tried but failed to strip the tribunal of some of its powers. Other critics accuse it of exaggerating army atrocities.


JOHN MARULANDA: Ocana is only one case. So you cannot just generalize and say, all the army's involved and - no, no, no, it's only one case.

OTIS: That's John Marulanda, an ex-army colonel who heads a national association of retired military officers.


MARULANDA: Why we should be submitted to a war crimes tribunal? Why?

OTIS: Marulanda thinks military judges or the country's ordinary justice system should handle the cases. However, 15 years after the army killings were first revealed, there have been only a handful of convictions. Accused soldiers who fully cooperate with the war crimes tribunal will not go to a traditional prison, though their freedom will be restricted. They'll also spend up to eight years performing community service in the neighborhoods of their victims. At first, that didn't sit well with Blanca Monroy, who spoke at the Ocana hearing and whose son was shot 13 times.

MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I was thirsty for justice, and I wanted them put in jail," she says, speaking from her modest home in Bogota.

MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But the war crimes tribunal allowed her to meet face to face with the men responsible for her son's death. She rebuked them. She cried with them. Gradually, she began to forgive them.

MONROY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I no longer feel fury or hatred," she says. "Just the opposite - now I feel at peace."

John Otis, NPR News, Bogota.


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