Seeking Justice for Extrajudicial Executions

Seeking Justice for Extrajudicial Executions

In 2008 it became public that the Colombian security forces had extrajudicially executed dozens of young men from Soacha, a poor neighborhood near the capital Bogotá. The killings, which were falsely presented by the military as “guerrillas killed in combat” (and sometimes as “paramilitaries killed in combat”) were carried out in collusion with paramilitary groups or criminal gangs. The young victims were lured to rural areas with promises of paid employment and were subsequently killed. In most of these cases, as a reward for having “killed a guerrilla member” soldiers received money, extra days of holiday and a congratulations letter from their superiors. The national and international dimension of the scandal was such that it led in October 2008 to the sacking of 27 army officers, including three generals, and in November of that year forced the resignation of the head of the army, General Mario Montoya, who had been linked to human rights violations. The Office of the Attorney General is now investigating more than 2,000 EJEs reportedly committed directly by members of the security forces over the last few decades.

At least some of the bodies of the young men killed bore signs of having been tortured before they were killed. However, it appears that the criminal investigators have not sought to investigate possible cases of torture.

Soldiers implicated in Soacha killings released

In 2009, and largely as a consequence of the public outcry which ensued after the Soacha killings, dozens of members of the security forces were arrested in connection with these killings. However, in January 2010, those campaigning for justice suffered a serious setback when some 31 of the soldiers arrested were released by the courts on the grounds that they had not been formally indicted within 90 days of their arrest, as stipulated by Colombian law. Other members of the security forces implicated in the killings may also be released on the same grounds.

Death threats against the Mothers

Since the discovery of the mass graves in which some of the young men from Soacha were buried and the outcry which ensued, many of their mothers and other relatives who have been campaigning for justice are being threatened and have been subjected to surveillance and harassment in an effort to stop their campaign.

The release of the soldiers implicated in the Soacha killings on technical grounds has increased the fears the Mothers of Soacha have for their safety. It is not clear that any of the soldiers released have been suspended from active duty and this has raised concern that they could be in a position to support moves to silence the campaign of the Mothers. This concern is heightened by continued threats received by the families around the time of the release of the soldiers.

Case: Luz Marina Bernal Porras

Luz Marina Bernal Porras's son, Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal, was a 26-year-old man who worked as a builder and who was forcibly disappeared on 8 January 2008. On 16 September of the same year his mother received a phone call which informed her that the body of her son had been found in a mass grave in the municipality of Ocaña, in the north-eastern department of Norte de Santander.

Army sources reported that Fair Leonardo had been killed in combat on 12 January 2008 in the course of "Operation Sovereignty." He was reported to be a member of an illegal armed group. He was presented to the media with a pistol in his right hand; he was left-handed.

Subsequent investigations by the Attorney General’s office determined that Fair Leonardo had been extra-judicially executed by the army. Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal was taken from his home with false promises of work in Ocaña. Fair Leonardo was then handed over to a soldier by the person who had taken him to Ocaña; the latter was paid $200,000 Colombian Pesos.

In May 2009, at least five soldiers were charged for their alleged role in the forced disappearance and extrajudicial execution of Fair Leonardo Porras Bernal. In January 2010 a judge ordered that the five soldiers be freed on the basis that the statute of limitations by which charges against the soldiers had to be brought had expired.

Fair Leonardo's Porras Bernal’s brother, John Smith Porras Bernal, began receiving threats after his mother and other mothers from Soacha whose sons were victims of extrajudicial executions began their campaign for justice. Following charges being brought against several soldiers for their part in the killing of Fair Leonardo Porras, relatives received several death threats, including a November 2009 letter threatening John Smith with death.

This is not the first threat that John Smith had received. On 20 October 2009 a threatening letter was sent to his house. This threat made reference to a death threat texted to his mobile telephone on 10 October 2009 which stated that he and other relatives of victims of extrajudicial executions from Soacha should keep quiet. Fearing for his safety and that of his relatives, John Smith decided to leave his home and family and move to another house in Soacha. On the same day he was approached by two men on a motorbike with no registration plates who asked him a question; later, when he got home, he found a written death threat: "We are not playing this is a warning, don't forget." The two men on the motorbike that had approached him earlier then passed in front of the house and he heard one of the men say, "It's going to be necessary to shoot all those sons-of-bitches."