On Elections, Prisoner Releases, and False Positives in Colombia

Caricature of Uribe suggesting that "false positives" instead be interpreted as a method of birth control.

By Ken Kelley

As Colombians prepare to vote in presidential elections on May 30, opinion polls show former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of President Alvaro Uribe’s National Unity Party (Partido de la U) with a commanding lead to replace his former boss, who was barred from seeking a third term earlier this year. A poll released by the National Consulting Center on April 8 shows Santos with 37 percent of the vote, Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus with 22 percent—surprising given the party’s formation just last year—and Conservative Party candidate Noemí Sanín with 20 percent.

To boost his campaign, Santos has pointed to government victories over the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during his tenure as Defense Minister, such as the killing of No. 2 commander Raúl Reyes during a cross-border raid into Ecuador in 2008 and the rescue from FARC captivity of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and others the same year. As for the infamous “false positives” scandal in which Colombian soldiers—on possibly thousands of different occasions—murdered innocent civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas, Santos has admitted that the Prosecutor General is currently investigating nearly 1300 such cases. He maintains, however, that “there are people who want to inflate the numbers, make the problem bigger, without taking into account how it is hurting the institutions”, something the military might have taken into account before engaging in the murder of innocents.

The FARC has meanwhile recently released two captured soldiers—one of them held for more than 12 years—as well as the remains of a policeman who died in captivity, turning them over to a humanitarian delegation led by Liberal Senator Piedad Córdoba. Following the handovers, FARC Commander Alfonso Cano said in a statement:

With this unilateral gesture FARC considers the path open for the immediate exchange of prisoners of war.”

The guerrilla outfit, which released the last of its civilian captives last year, continues to hold 22 members of the Colombian security forces. Senator Córdoba, an Afro-Colombian lawyer who was herself once kidnapped by paramilitaries, insisted that an exchange of these captives for FARC fighters held in Colombian prison was in the interest of national peace, while Green Party presidential candidate Mockus—the former mayor of Bogotásupported a prisoner exchange excluding individuals that had committed crimes against humanity.

Santos, who vows to continue Uribe’s policy of “democratic security” upon election, has opposed a prisoner exchange, calling instead for “the unilateral freeing of those kidnapped [by the FARC].” Uribe himself meanwhile has dismissed talk of any deals as long as the FARC continues it’s “criminal” activity, and has blamed the organization for the March car bombing in the Pacific port of Buenaventura that killed 9 people, as well as the premature detonation of a package bomb in the southern department of Nariño, which left only the legs intact on the 12-year-old boy who had apparently been tasked with carrying it to a police station. Of course, the possibility that these incidents are simply another version of false positives cannot be ruled out.

Uribe’s democratic security policy has been touted by supporters as having reduced murder and kidnapping rates and improved security on the nation’s roads. But while murders and kidnappings of certain sectors of the population may have diminished substantially, the practice of relying on informants to identify enemies of the state has resulted in politically-motivated killings of individuals not guilty of any criminal activity. Jeff Vogt, Global Economic Policy Specialist for the AFL-CIO, additionally cites 48 murders of union members in 2009 alone, and the UN High Commission on Human Rights found that the number of indigenous people killed by armed groups doubled from 2008 to 2009.

The number of displaced Colombians meanwhile continues to be staggeringly high, with between 3 and 4 million internally displaced Colombians and more than half a million in neighboring countries. Many have been driven off their rural lands by paramilitary organizations, whose ties to certain pro-Uribe legislators produced the “parapolítica” scandal; despite tarnishing the administration, the scandal did not prevent a strong showing in the March Congressional elections by the new Party of National Integration (PIN), whose candidates were mostly relatives of ex-lawmakers in jail and under investigation for paramilitaries ties.

During a visit to Colombia last month, I observed in various corners of the country a poster exemplifying the Orwellian nature of the democratic security policy Santos has vowed to uphold. The poster depicted two young police officers, a male and female, under the slogan “Security until Death.” Below the pair was a line reading “But we also depend on you”, with a phone number to call to report any suspicious persons or activity. If elected, Santos will presumably provide the next installment of the answer to the question of what sort of security is provided by a policy that relies on paid informers, and that encourages soldiers to murder civilians and disguise them as FARC guerrillas in order to accumulate pay bonuses and holidays.

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