Colombian special forces. (Photo via)
I arrived in Soacha, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Bogota, on an overcast July afternoon. We had driven away from the city center and the building that dominates its skyline—a huge structure covered in LED lights that slowly change color; a gaudy beacon for Colombia's wealthy elite—and had pulled up on a residential side street.
I was there with the NGO Justice for Colombia to hear about the country's 'false positives' scandal, which first broke five years ago and shows no sign of relenting any time soon. The scandal has its roots in the Colombian 50-year civil war between the government and the left-wing peasant insurgent group FARC. In the early 2000s, then-president Alvaro Uribe, out of an apparent concern for the army’s reputation, started putting pressure on soldiers to increase their kill figures.
According to media reports, soldiers were promised cash payments and more vacation time if they produced the bodies of dead FARC guerrillas—an accusation the government denies. In an effort to increase their quotas, soldiers allegedly started luring young, impoverished men away from their homes with the offer of work. Once away from their families, the soldiers executed the men, dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, and presented them as combat kills. Many victims were dismembered and buried hundreds of miles away from their families.
The National Victims Movement protests against the state's "false positive" scandal. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Colombia)
When the scandal broke, the Colombian government insisted false positives were isolated incidents. By 2012, however, nearly 3,000 murders were recorded and, in 2007—the worst year for this type of killing—one in every five combat kills recorded was a false positive. In Soacha, 19 mothers lost their sons in the false positives scandal, and so far only one of them has seen the killers convicted, but his conviction was appealed and the main defendant, an army major, became a fugitive.
After parking up among the ownerless dogs and football-playing boys that seem ubiquitous in Bogota's suburbs, I was led up some steps to a little house set back from the street. Waiting for me were three women, smartly dressed, warm and hospitable. They shook my hand and sat me down. As I waited for the rest of my group to file in, I noticed school pictures on the wall of young boys in suits—the dead sons of the women I'd just met.
The house belongs to a woman named Luz Marina Bernal. She’s pint-sized, friendly but tough, warm but reserved. As she shared her story, she was joined by her surviving son, who loitered shyly behind her, and two women whose sons were also murdered so Colombian soldiers could fill their quotas. Luz Marina’s murdered son was called Fair Leonardo Bernal. He looks handsome in photos; well built with beautiful hazel eyes.
Luz Marina holding a photo of Fair Leonardo. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Colombia)
Fair Leonardo was 26 when he was murdered by the army, though his learning difficulties meant that he had the mental age of a five-year-old. Luz Marina describes him as a naïve boy, who always saw the best in everybody. She thinks it was his naivety that led the army to target him. “He would have trusted them,” she says.
At 1:30 PM on the afternoon of January 8, 2008, Fair Leonardo said goodbye to his mother, left the house, and was never seen alive again. His family alerted the authorities, but after the police offered spurious suggestions (“maybe he wanted to leave home”) for Fair Leonardo’s disappearance, it became apparent the family would have to start their own investigation. Luz Marina spent eight months searching for her son—even enlisting the help of homeless people in Soacha—but got nowhere.
In September, nine months after Luz Marina had last seen her son, she got a phone call from the forensics department of the local police station. She described to me how she was overcome with fear and pain after that phone call and the seemingly endless journey to the forensics department.
The woman she met there said to her, “Mrs. Marina, I need you to stay calm,” before showing her some photographs of her son. “Half his face was destroyed,” Luz Marina says. “They had shot him three times. I could see his jaw sticking out.” The woman at the forensics department told Luz Marina that her son had been found in the town of Ocaña in the Norte de Santander department of Colombia, hundreds of miles away from Soacha. Two weeks after her visit to the forensics department, Luz Marina traveled to Ocaña to bring her son home.
When she arrived to pick up her son’s body, Luz Marina met local authorities who told her that Fair Leonardo had died just four days after he had disappeared. The same authorities then asked Luz Marina if she was aware that her son was working for FARC. “My son couldn’t read or write,” says Luz. “I looked after him. If he died just four days after I last saw him, when was he working for FARC?”
Relatives of the false positive victims visit the site where their bodies were found. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Colombia)
The authorities explained that Fair Leonardo had been shot in combat with the army. They said he had been trying to solicit money from people in Ocaña for protection. "He has learning difficulties," Luz says, "he can’t understand the value of money." The authorities told Luz Marina that they had proof of Fair Leonardo’s involvement with FARC, because he had been found with a gun in his hand. However, the gun had been placed in his right hand, and Fair Leonardo was left-handed.
Later, Luz Marina met a man who told her that the army paid him $200,000 COP (about $100) for her son’s body. Luz Marina has spent every penny she has trying to seek justice for her son. Five years after his death, she has only been able to bring half of his body home. Luz and her family continue to receive death threats for refusing to stay silent about the fate of their loved one. There are 27 suspects involved in Fair Leonardo’s case, and like 18 of the 19 Soacha boys who were murdered as part of the scandal, there has yet to be a single conviction.
Around the time of my visit to Luz Marina Bernal and her family, the Colombian government was about to introduce a bill to reform the justice system. The new bill could make it even more unlikely that Fair Leonardo’s killers will be brought to justice. If it passes, the bill will expand the reach of Colombia’s military courts, which could mean that false positive cases are tried in the secretive military justice system. This will effectively protect members of the army if they commit crimes that violate international law.
Later in the week, I asked the Attorney General about the implications of the reforms for false positive cases. They gave me vague reassurances that cases like Fair Leonardo’s are to be exempt from the military courts. But Amnesty International says "The armed forces’ continued control over the initial stages of criminal investigation [means that] the reform will make it easier for them to define human rights violations as legitimate acts of conflict, thereby making them subject to military jurisdiction."
As our bus drove out of Soacha, everyone around me was silent. It’s hard to know what to say about a mother who has found out that her son was murdered for the price of a pair of shoes. Driving back into central Bogota, that LED building hovered into view again, its clinical gleam lighting up the houses below.
Follow Ellie on Twitter: @MissEllieMae
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