Colombia’s Military Killed Three Times More Civilians During FARC War Than Previously Reported

A special court found that 6,402 civilians were murdered by the armed forces and falsely presented as rebels killed in combat - 4,000 more than previously thought.
February 23, 2021, 1:51pm
a colombian soldier
A Colombian soldier patrols during an operation in a rural area near Tumaco municipality, in the Colombian department of Narino near the border with Ecuador, on April 18, 2018.  Photo: JUAN RESTREPO, AFP via Getty Images

MEDELLÍN, Colombia - Over six thousand murdered Colombian civilians were fraudulently reported as rebel kills by the Colombian army during the use of a war-time policy to boost body count during the South American country’s civil armed conflict. 

Following a landmark peace deal between Colombia’s government and rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) five years ago, the country’s special peace tribunal found this month that the civilian body count in what has become known as the False Positives scandal is actually triple what has been reported in the past.

Advertisement

“The special peace court [known in Colombia by its Spanish language initials JEP] found that 6,402 civilians were murdered by the armed forces and falsely presented as rebels killed in combat,” said Santiago Vargas Niño, an international crime lawyer, on Twitter. 

“That’s 4,000 more than originally reported and 78 percent of those deaths occurred between 2002 - 2008 at the height of [former president] Alvaro Uribe’s democratic security policy.”

The extrajudicial killings are the ugly cost of a U.S.-backed offensive to hit back at the Marxist rebels during the early 2000s. Combining U.S. military aid and training, the Colombian military launched a campaign at the beginning of Uribe’s presidency aimed at beating back the FARC. In terms of territorial control, it worked. Colombia’s security forces took back giant swaths of territory once controlled by rebel groups. Homicides, too, fell gradually from the early 2000s to 2010, the final year of Uribe’s term.

But during the Uribe years, the military came up with an incentive structure that led soldiers to falsify their kill counts by murdering young civilians who they dressed to look like FARC rebels. The scandal stained Uribe's presidency and the U.S. support that accompanied it. False Positives left the former president with a Machiavellian reputation, and of being hell-bent on erasing the guerrillas, no matter what the means.

Advertisement

 Others have also paid a price. One, General Luis Fernando Borja Giraldo, was sentenced to 21 years in prison in 2011 for dressing up civilians and making them look like FARC rebels, according to Human Rights Watch.

 Uribe, one of the peace process’s most outspoken critics and vehemently denied the court’s finding. 

“You know my opposition to the JEP and their ideological bias… what I see is a huge discord in the numbers,” said Uribe in response to the special peace court’s findings. “Now it looks like the number of false positives increased by 4,000. But why is there such a disconnect in the numbers between the state and NGOs?” 

Where Colombia’s Attorney General’s office has documented 2,248 victims, the United Nations has registered between 3,000 and 5,000 victims.

Juan Manuel Santos, another former president who succeeded Uribe and was awarded a Nobel peace prize for brokering the peace agreement with the FARC, was Uribe’s defense minister during the False Positives scandal. However, it is Uribe who has come under fire for the military’s policy during those years while Santos, now Uribe’s political foe, appears to have rinsed his hands of any wrongdoing during the years in question.

“I always acted in favor of human rights during my government,” Uribe said. “[And] what I see nowadays is a systemic violation of rights of the security forces. This is inconceivable.”

Fighting between FARC, the army and paramilitary groups slow-burned for around five decades, ever since the FARC was born in 1964 out of a self-defense group consisting largely of dirt farmers and peasants. In the 1980s, the rebel movement got cut off from communist Cuba’s funding and therefore turned to drug-trafficking revenues to fund their cause.

FARC rebels allegedly killed Uribe’s father - a cattle rancher - during a botched kidnapping in the early 1980s. FARC leaders, many of whom now hold positions in congress, are faced with damning charges of kidnapping and torturing their enemies during Colombia’s armed conflict.

Earlier this month, the details of torture during kidnapping operations was published by the special peace court. If the former FARC leaders fail to accept their charges and perform community service, such as removing mines planted on farmland, they could face up to 20 years in prison.