In the midst of an offensive against the guerrillas, the morgue in the village of Ocaña was filled with corpses, to the point that they ended up in a mass grave, says Colonel Gabriel de Jesus Rincon.
Presented as rebels and delinquents, they were in fact civilians shot dead by the military. “I didn’t kill, but I helped make it happen,” said the 53-year-old officer.
The revelation of these extrajudicial executions has sparked a huge scandal in a Colombia plagued by six decades of internal war that has killed more than eight million people (dead, missing and displaced).
After 22 years of service in the army, Rincon was retired, sentenced for enforced disappearance and homicide. From 2006 and 2008, this steel-eyed man commanded the 15th Mobile Brigade, in the Norte de Santander department, in eastern Colombia.
The offensive against the guerrillas was then so intense that the morgue in the village of Ocaña overflowed. Fearing a health crisis, the mayor and the parish priest, in September 2008, had 25 bodies transferred to a mass grave. Several were then identified as those of civilians who had been missing for weeks.
– False dead in combat –
Rincon claims to have known during the exhumation who were his victims: young people from Soacha, a poor suburb of Bogota, 740 kilometers away.
“I gave the means (…) to make them pass for the dead in combat,” he specifies.
He confides facts for which he appears before the Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP), resulting from the 2016 agreement with the ex-guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), now disarmed.
“I did not report and I allowed the units deployed there, in the combat zone, to resort to such practices,” he admits.
The soldiers kept account of the guerrillas and narco-paramilitaries killed during the clashes, amplified under President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010). Good results were rewarded with medals, permissions and promotions.
Rincon, detained for ten years, was sentenced in 2017 to 46 years in prison for the murder of five young people, aged 20 to 25, presented as “fallen in action”.
Two civilians, acting as recruiters, took the victims by bus to Ocaña, holding out to them “quick money”. Then soldiers from the Espada unit executed them. “I never had to explain to them (…) I only said to them: you are going to go into operation, we are going to deliver people to you and you know what you have to do.”
– Thousands of “false positives” –
Victor Gomez was 23 years old when he made this trip without return with two others.
“They got them drunk, then took them to (…) a false military roadblock where the recruiters delivered them (…) The next day, they were dead,” said Carmenza Gomez, mother of Victor.
All three were presented as members of a gang. “Victor had a bullet in the forehead, a knockout,” said the 62-year-old woman, who has been under protection for threats due to her desire to “seek the truth”.
Thousands of combat deaths – “positive” in military jargon – were in reality civilians killed in cold blood. The Public Prosecutor’s Office received 2,248 cases of these “false positives”, 59% of which were killed between 2006 and 2008, during the time of President Uribe, now a senator and who denies any responsibility.
– “Contributing to the war” –
Judicial investigations have been opened against 29 generals.
Rincon had once been arrested by the army chief, General Mario Montoya, who has since retired and who is also appearing before the JEP.
Asked how he planned to “contribute to the war,” Montoya had suggested to him, “Why don’t you get out of the morgue guys, put them in a uniform and declare them as results.”
Although he never received a direct order to kill, Rincon revealed the existence of a “Top 10” of military units, the success of which was measured in the number of dead.
The lawyer of general Montoya assures that his client “encouraged absolutely nothing”.
“There are 2,140 soldiers cited in investigations into extra-judicial executions, or 0.9% of those operating in the army during the period (…) this shows that at no time was there had directives for such atrocious facts, “said Andres Garzon.
Rincon has been on bail since 2018 to appear before the JEP, which investigates the most serious crimes committed by Farc guerrillas and the military.
After asking for forgiveness for his crimes, he must speak the truth and compensate his victims, in this case families, to benefit from an alternative penalty.
Having escaped an attack last November, he was put under protection, like 19 others of the 219 soldiers appearing before the JEP. Her lawyer, Tania Parra, has also been threatened.
“Telling the truth after more than 50 years of conflict (…) obviously involves a risk”, underlines Giovanni Alvarez, director of the investigation and accusation unit of the JEP.
Suspended due to Covid-19, detected in Colombia on March 6, hearings resumed on May 4.