Colombia Orders Army to Step Up Combat Killings
By Nicholas Casey
The head of Colombia’s army, frustrated by the nation’s faltering efforts to secure peace,
has ordered his troops to double the number of criminals and militants they kill, capture or force to surrender in battle —
and possibly accept higher civilian casualties in the process,
according to written orders and interviews with senior officers.
At the start of the year, Colombian generals and colonels were assembled and told to sign a written pledge to step up attacks.
Daily internal presentations now show the number of days that brigades have gone without combat,
and commanders are berated when they don’t carry out assaults frequently enough, the officers said.
One order causing particular worry instructs soldiers not to “demand perfection” in carrying out deadly attacks,
even if significant questions remain about the targets they are striking.
Some officers say that order has instructed them to lower their standards for protecting innocent civilians from getting killed,
and that it has already led to suspicious or unnecessary deaths.
The military tried a similar strategy to defeat Colombia’s rebel and paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s,
before a landmark peace deal was signed to end decades of conflict.
But the tactics caused a national outrage when it emerged that soldiers,
aiming to meet their quotas, engaged in widespread killings and disappearances of civilians.
Now, another incarnation of the policy is being pushed by the new government
against the country’s remaining criminal, guerrilla and paramilitary groups,
according to orders reviewed by The New York Times and three senior officers who spoke about them.
The new orders have sent a chill down the ranks of the army.
Colombia’s military remains under investigation for the series of illegal killings in the mid-2000s, known as “false positives.”
Soldiers repeatedly killed peasants and claimed they were guerrilla fighters,
sometimes even dressing them in fatigues and planting weapons near their bodies.
The tactics stemmed from superiors demanding increased body counts, prosecutors say.
Two of the officers said in lengthy interviews that Colombian soldiers were under intense pressure yet again —
and that a pattern of suspicious killings and cover-ups had begun to emerge this year.
In a meeting recounted by one of the officers,
a general ordered commanders to “do anything” to boost their results,
even if it meant “allying ourselves” with armed criminal groups to get information on targets, a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Beyond that, officers said, soldiers who increase their combat kills are being offered incentives, like extra vacation,
in a pattern they fear is strikingly similar to the unlawful killings of the mid-2000s.