Mike Ceaser / Chronicle Foreign Service – 2009-02-21 23:05:37
SOACHA, Colombia (February 21, 2009) — When 16-year-old Jaime Esteven Valencia told his family last February that he had found work on a farm in eastern Colombia, his mother was pleased. The family of nine needed the money that he promised to send home each month.
But Maria Uvilerma Zanabria, 50, never received a dime or saw her son again. In September, she learned from government prosecutors that Jaime had been shot two times in each leg and once in the chest before being buried in a mass grave with 18 other young men.
Military officials said he had been killed by soldiers while fighting for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, a Marxist rebel group that has been battling to overthrow Colombia’s government for more than four decades.
Zanabria, who describes her son as a caring young man who liked soccer and children, insists he was never a guerrilla fighter. “We have a pack of cowards who are looking for defenseless people to kill,” she said. “The cowards are the army.”
Zanabria is part of a chorus of critics who blame the murders on a government policy that offers furloughs, promotions and cash bonuses to soldiers who kill rebels.
A 2005 military directive leaked to the local press showed that bonuses ranged from a few dollars for bringing in horses and mules to $1,500 for a rebel fighter and $2 million for a senior commander.
President Alvaro Uribe, whose popularity has risen with the military’s crippling blows against the rebels, has vowed to end the killing of civilians and, instead, reward soldiers who bring in live rebel prisoners. But his administration has been criticized by U.S. Democrats for its checkered human rights record, with President Obama among his most prominent critics.
Jaime was one of 19 impoverished youths living in this sprawling slum outside the capital, Bogota, who were lured by promises of well-paying farm work by people posing as job recruiters. The case of the Soacha 19, which follows previous alleged killings of civilians by the military to increase rebel body counts, has sparked a national scandal.
The military is “under a lot of pressure to show results” against FARC, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist for the Center for International Policy in Washington, “and the best way is with bodies.”
Human rights organizations say more than 1,000 civilians have been killed by soldiers and police in recent years to bolster rebel casualties in a phenomenon known here as “false positives.” But while most reported deaths involved peasants in isolated regions, the Soacha murders captured national attention because the victims were city youths.
In December, Colombia Vice President Francisco Santos apologized for the deaths of noncombatants in a statement to a United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. He called the murders “an inexcusable crime” that is “shameful for the Colombian state.” In the same statement, he vowed to punish those responsible for inflating guerrilla casualty figures. Since October, at least 37 soldiers – including three generals and four colonels – have been fired and Santos says the government is investigating more than 60 such cases.
The Soacha youths were killed only days after leaving their families and buried in clean guerrilla uniforms with unfired weapons near the border with Venezuela, human rights groups say.
Diomed Ivan Palacios, a 23-year-old Soacha resident and ex-army soldier, helped dig out the corpse of his 22-year-old brother, Jaime Andres, after the family learned of the burial site. Palacios said his brother and the other victims had all been shot at point blank range in execution style. He lamented that his younger sibling, who did construction work and scavenged recyclable trash, would never see his newborn son.
“What are we going to tell him when he’s bigger and asks about his father?” Palacios asked. “Are we going to tell him that the government – the army – killed him?”
The “false positives” scandal, and the murders of labor union members and alleged rebel sympathizers by right-wing militias linked to the military, could further weaken prospects for passage of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement now before Congress, which had been strongly supported by former President George W. Bush, some analysts agree.
“The Colombians have to put more imagination, more money and more human energy,” into improving human rights issues before Congress will move on the trade pact, said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
The United States, which has provided Colombia with $5 billion in mostly military aid since 2000 to eradicate drug crops and battle the guerrillas, suspended financing last November of several Colombian military units implicated in killings of noncombatants. At the same time, some human rights group say numerous US-funded military units are still involved in extrajudicial killings.
“The regions with the most killings by Colombian security forces in 2006-2007 were essentially the same areas where the military units received significant U.S. assistance,” said a 2008 report by the nonprofit U.S. Office on Colombia based in Washington.
Alberto Yepes, director of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordinator, a Bogota coalition of human rights groups, estimates that only 5 percent of cases involving civilian murders that bolster body counts are prosecuted.
U.S. analyst Isacson, however, expects the Uribe government to clamp down on cases of false positives. “It’s doing a lot of damage to their image. I have to imagine that it’s going to end,” he said.
E-mail Mike Ceaser at firstname.lastname@example.org
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