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Colombia's new president faces awkward questions over civilian murders

New Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos faces a difficult month before his inaugeration in August as the UN Human Rights Council is expected to hear allegations about his and his predecessor's role in civilian deaths.

Juan Manuel Santos

Santos was defense minister at the height of the civilian killings

Victory for Santos in Colombia's election runoff against rival Antanas Mockus, a former defense minister, may mean a new leader takes the reins but his presidency will mean an old scandal will continue to dog and haunt the country.

As Santos prepares to take over from out-going President Álvaro Uribe on August 7, his and his predecessor's names are expected to feature in hearings at the UN Human Rights Council this month on allegations relating to their roles in the illegal killings of civilians.

While serving in the Uribe administration as defense minister between 2006 and 2009, Santos was in charge of the military at a time when the Colombian army's alleged policy of murdering civilians in so-called "false positive" killings was at its height. It is alleged that army units killed civilians to artificially increase the number of combat fatalities in battles against rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Santos was responsible for coordinating Uribe's mission to eradicate Colombia of FARC and restore security to one of the most violent countries in the world. The military operation forced FARC out of the cities into remote jungle areas, radically reduced the number of killings and kidnappings in urban areas and rescued Colombia from becoming a failed state. The success of Uribe's mission cemented his popularity and created his reputation among many as the man who saved Colombia.

Missing civilians linked to expanding war on FARC

Colombian troops

Colombian troops are accused of killing civilians as FARC rebels

However, human rights campaigners and international investigators were first alerted to a dark by-product of Uribe's campaign by accusations from families of missing men who claimed that the massive gains the Colombian military were making against FARC were being boosted by the "false positive" killings of innocent civilians.

The allegations and subsequent investigations led to the removal of the chief of the Colombian military and 27 of his officers but Santos was spared. The Colombian government has since taken further steps to prevent such killings but, according to UN statistics, up to 98.5 percent remain unpunished.

Santos continues to claim the killings were the acts of individual soldiers and units and were not sanctioned by the defense ministry. UN investigators remain unconvinced.

"There have been too many killings of a similar nature to characterize them as isolated incidents carried out by individual rogue soldiers or units, or 'bad apples'," Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings wrote in a report presented to the UN Human Rights Council on June 3. "Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder."

Poor people executed as rebels to boost casualty figures

Soldiers observe the bodies of 19 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC

Not all FARC deaths were rebel victims

One of the cases being investigated focuses on Soacha, a poor suburb of the capital Bogotá, and the town of Ocaña some 600 kilometers (372 miles) away. In 2008, it is alleged that dozens of young men were lured from Soacha by paramilitaries and criminals promising employment in Ocaña. Once there, they were allegedly sold to Colombian army units which executed them as FARC guerrillas. Their bodies were then supposedly clothed in military fatigues and draped with weapons and equipment. The dead were then claimed to be rebel casualties in Uribe's fight against FARC.

For the families, this made no sense. How could the men of Soacha, most unable to read or write, others with mental disabilities, transform themselves into uniformed, armed guerrillas ready to take on the battle-hardened Colombian military, just days after leaving home?

"The doctor and the judge said that my son was killed in combat at 2.45am on March 5," one mother told Deutsche Welle. "His corpse was clothed in camouflage and boots - completely different clothes from what he was wearing when he left."

"The investigations must examine everything, because this cannot continue like this," another anonymous mother from Soacha told Deutsche Welle. "We will not rest. This must not go unpunished, although I know that Colombia is the land of impunity."

This is just one of the approximately 1,300 cases being examined by investigators from the public prosecutor's office which suspect military personnel of murdering civilians and claiming they were guerrillas killed in combat in order to win bonuses of up to €1,500 ($1,890) per victim. Human rights campaigners suggest that over 2,000 young men were killed and buried in common graves as part of this policy.

It is alleged that the kill bonus for units reporting higher enemy body counts, introduced by Uribe's administration in 2005 as part of its intensifying offensive against FARC, contributed to the practise of abducting civilians and executing them as rebels. The large increase of civilian disappearances in Colombia can be traced back to this time.

Former leader claims the ends justified the means

In the past, Uribe has defended his government's use of all necessary force to combat FARC, saying that the country is safer than ever now due to his crackdown. His opponents reject his argument that the ends justify the means.

Alvaro Uribe

Uribe said that the force used to rout FARC was justified

"The reasoning of the government is completely worn out in my opinion and Santos must find alternatives," Camilo Gonzalez Pozo, director of the Colombian Institute for the Study of Development and Peace, told Deutsche Welle. "The war against FARC was the basis for all Uribe's government decisions. If there was unemployment, FARC was to blame for it. If there were 'false positives' then FARC was to blame for it. If there were paramilitaries, then FARC was to blame for it. All these arguments have worn themselves out."

With Santos unlikely to swerve from Uribe's course of hunting and destroying FARC rebels in the jungles of Colombia once he becomes president, the memories of what happened in the early years of the operation are unlikely to dissipate. The anticipated investigations and hearings during this month's UN Human Rights Council session will also keep the topic in the public domain.

Author: Nick Amies / Gottfried Stein

Editor: Rob Mudge

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