“We killed innocent people”: retired Colombian army officials confess to murdering civilians

Ten retired soldiers and one civilian admit to kidnapping and murdering 120 innocent peasants, framing them as left-wing guerrilla fighters killed in combat

April 29, 2022 by Tanya Wadhwa
In a recent hearing of the JEP, ten retired soldiers admitted to murdering 120 innocent peasants and presenting them to the authorities as left-wing guerrilla fighters killed in combat between 2007 and 2008. Victims families still demand to know who gave the order? Photo: Kienyke

Ten retired members of the Colombian Military Forces confessed to kidnapping and murdering over one hundred civilians, them framing them to authorities as left-wing guerrilla fighters killed in combat during counterinsurgency operations in the 2000s. The admissions were made during public hearings organized by the Recognition of Truth Body of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in the Norte de Santander department on April 26 and 27, in case 03 that investigates the “false positives” in the Catatumbo region of the department. The hearings were attended by family members of around 50 victims.

On April 26 and 27, a former military general, four colonels, five other army officers and a civilian gave their testimonies before the judges and publicly admitted their participation in the forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions of 120 young peasants from the town of Ocaña and neighboring areas between 2007 and 2008.

“We killed innocent people”

One of the statements that generated the most commotion was that of Corporal Néstor Guillermo Gutiérrez. The retired army official admitted not only that his unit murdered innocent peasants, but that these kinds of murders became a criminal phenomenon throughout that region of the country. “I acknowledge and accept my responsibility as a co-perpetrator of these war crimes and crimes against humanity…I am not going to justify what I did because I committed crimes,” said Gutiérrez. “We killed innocent people, peasants. I want to emphasize that those we killed were peasants,” added Gutiérrez. “There was pressure,” He added. “They demanded that we give results, we had to look for results no matter what, and we had contact with paramilitary groups in the region, especially in Aguachica, to get weapons.” Responding to a mother’s demand, who asked explanations for her son’s murder, Gutiérrez apologized to her and mothers of other victims. “I cowardly murdered them. I stole the dreams of your sons. I tore their mothers’ hearts due to the pressure of false results, to keep a government happy. It’s not fair.”

Retired Captain Rivera Jácome also recognized his responsibility in the crimes and apologized to the only surviving victim Villamir Rodríguez, who was about to be assassinated by the military, but was later accused of being a terrorist. “I want to make it clear to the world and Colombians that you were not a combatant. I am here to clean up your name,” said Jácome.

Alexander Carretero, the sole civilian, admitted that he was “the person who brought your loved ones from various parts of Colombia to hand them over to the army so they could assassinate them.” He added that “I cannot return your children, but I can help you with the truth. It would have been better if they had killed me, at least I wouldn’t have committed these crimes.”

General Paulino Coronado, Colonel Santiago Herrera, Colonel Rubén Darío Castro, Lieutenant Colonel Álvaro Diego Tamayo, Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel de Jesús Rincón Amado, Major Juan Carlos Chaparro Chaparro, Second Sergeant Rafael Antonio Urbano, and Second Sergeant Mauricio Pérez Contreras also admitted committing and covering up these crimes with fake documents and paid witnesses. All ten accused soldiers were part of the Mobile Brigade 15 (BRIM15) and the Infantry Battalion No. 15 General Francisco de Paula Santander (BISAN), which were tasked with fighting illegal armed groups in Norte de Santander.

Who gave the order?

For their part, relatives of the victims urged former soldiers to reveal the names of those who ordered them to commit these hideous crimes. Carmenza Gómez, a mother who lost her first child in August 2008 and her second in January 2009, spoke at the hearing, requesting the army officials to “put your hand on your heart and honestly tell us the truth and don’t jump into the water alone. Who gave the order? We know that there are great people behind you. We want names. All we need are the names of those people.

Likewise, Idalí Garcerá, another mother whose son disappeared in August 2008, stressed that “it is very important for us to know this truth…Yesterday, I heard them say that they were pressured by the government to give results, so I need to know who was asking for those results.”

Anderson Rodríguez, who lost his brother, also demanded that the soldiers tell the truth “so that there be no repetition, because you are the ones who know who the owners are, the creators of this gruesome act, a business that they continue to do even today.”

Family members of various other victims also shared their testimonies, and begged the retired officials to be honest, lessen their pain, deliver justice and make amends.

A path to resolution

The president of the JEP, Eduardo Cifuentes, said that the testimonies constituted one of the most important approximations to the truth of what happened in the armed conflict. He also said that the acknowledgment of truth and responsibility made progress in satisfying the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation, and helped to restore the damage caused to survivors and family members.

The JEP is a transitional justice system created in November 2016 under the peace agreements signed between the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos and the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group in Havana, Cuba. The JEP established a court to investigate, judge and sentence all those considered responsible for the crimes committed during a five-decade war between the guerilla forces and the Colombian security forces. It occasionally mandates alternative punishments in exchange for full disclosure of incidents that took place during the internal armed conflict.

Last year, the JEP found that the Colombian military carried out more than 6,400 of these extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2008, when President Álvaro Uribe was in power. Human rights groups and the families of victims have said the real number could be much higher.

Under its Democratic Security program, the Uribe administration rewarded military officials for these extrajudicial killings, also known as “false positives” in Colombia, with promotions, vacations and other benefits.

The public hearing marked a historic moment not only for the peace process, but for the families of the victims of the false positives, who had the opportunity to hear the truth about their loved ones and to get some closure.

The JEP now has a period of three months to issue a resolution. The tribunal has the authority to offer alternatives to prison sentences to people who confess their crimes and make reparations.