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20 army officers fired over Colombia deaths

October 30, 2008|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a Times staff writer.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The Colombian Defense Ministry fired 20 army officers Wednesday, including three generals, in connection with the deaths of a dozen youths who allegedly were killed and falsely identified as guerrillas slain in combat.

The firings revolve around the disappearance over the last year of youths from Bogota's Soacha suburb, a sprawling working-class neighborhood rife with crime and unemployment.

Their bodies were later found more than 200 miles northeast of Bogota, the capital, in the state of North Santander and tagged as guerrillas killed in combat. The youths were apparently promised work by shadowy recruiters and then disappeared without a trace, after saying little to their families other than they were taking well-paying jobs.

The case highlights a human rights problem facing the Colombian military called "false positives": the extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians by uniformed troops who then tally them as war dead to gain promotions or time off.

The firings come as President Alvaro Uribe's government is under increasing criticism at home and abroad for not doing enough to stem human rights abuses, including displacements of poor and indigenous people from farmland and killings of union activists.

U.S. critics of Plan Colombia, the American initiative that has funneled more than $5 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia since 2000 to fight drugs and terrorism, have said continuing support should be predicated on the nation improving its human rights record.

In his third presidential debate with Republican nominee John McCain this month, Democratic nominee Barack Obama said that because of such abuses, he opposed a free-trade agreement with Colombia that had been proposed by President Bush.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress has cited labor killings in blocking passage of the trade pact, which McCain and most other GOP congressional members support.

The firings resulted from a three-week investigation by the Defense Ministry and were announced at a Uribe news conference Wednesday. Some of the 20 officers fired are suspected of direct involvement in the killings, while others may have committed "administrative" crimes of omission, officials said.

One of the fired generals, 30th Brigade Cmdr. Paulino Coronado, denied to the Associated Press that he ever ordered his men to kill innocents.

"I didn't order, I didn't know of or allow -- not even by omission -- any illegal activity," he said.

In his news conference, Uribe defended the armed services' overall performance before saying that "in some instances, the army has shown negligence and lack of care with the procedures they should observe" and that some people were involved in crimes.

Uribe asserts that some abuses, particularly labor killings, have declined in recent months. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos has acknowledged that human rights is the military's "Achilles' heel," tarring an otherwise improved combat record against leftist rebels and drug traffickers.

Santos has introduced a series of reforms, training methods and legal procedures to change the military's focus to rebel captures and surrenders instead of body counts as a measure of battlefield success. Civil investigators now have jurisdiction in probing most combat deaths.

But human rights groups say that the killings persist and that Soacha slayings are not unique. An investigation by El Tiempo newspaper in September said 18 youths in the state of Risaralda had disappeared and were later found dead, and in most cases identified by the military as guerrilla casualties.

In all the cases, family members insisted the victims had nothing to do with armed groups, El Tiempo reported.

A study published by the Bogota-based Colombian Commission of Jurists and the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace advocacy group, in August said 329 extrajudicial killings were committed by the Colombian army and police in 2007, a 48% increase from the previous year.

Over the first six months of 2008, about 100 extrajudicial cases were reported, the groups said Wednesday, a sharp decline from the same period in 2007.

"Violations of the right to life in Colombia are extremely grave, generalized and in most cases are done with impunity," said a statement issued by a coalition of Colombian human rights groups

Elvira de Castro, mother of 28-year-old Joaquin de Castro, an auto mechanic's helper in Soacha, said her son vanished in January. In September, his body was found in northern Colombia and identified as a rebel killed in combat.

"He didn't even know how to fire a pistol or rifle," De Castro said. "I just want this all to be clarified because they are saying horrible things about my son that weren't true. He was a good boy who supported me and his four sisters and brothers."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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