“It is not the first operation where pregnant women and minor combatants fall.” The words of the head of the Colombian Army, General Eduardo Zapateiro, about the operation that ended in a massacre in Putumayo delivered to a local media promise to further heat up the political environment in the country. After the journalist’s question from RCN Television who points out the lack of precision in the military incursion that left civilians dead and, reminding him that these are not legitimate targets, Zapateiro looks at the camera, pronounces the phrase and insists that they were combatants.
The legitimacy of the military operation, which left 11 dead in the El Alto Remanso community, and the mistrust of the military forces during the Government of Iván Duque have once again been at the center of controversy. A pregnant woman, a 16-year-old minor and an indigenous governor are among the deceased. Different political sectors are demanding these days the resignation of Defense Minister Diego Molano, who will have to appear before the Congress of the Republic to give explanations for the operation.
The congressmen requested a debate on the motion of censure on Molano due to the numerous doubts generated by an operation that Duque presented to public opinion as a success against the FARC dissidents. There is evidence of manipulation of the corpses by the Army, whose photos this newspaper has had access to; it has been confirmed that at least four of the dead were civilians; It is known that the operation was carried out in a community bazaar and there are reports of theft of money from the population by the military. The debate will be held in two weeks.
This new political storm comes to Iván Duque while he is in New York to speak at the United Nations Security Council about his actions to implement the peace agreement with the guerrillas signed in 2016. A process that he opposed in his campaign to the presidency and whose policy has been criticized for the incessant murder of ex-combatants and the deterioration of security in the country. However, and despite the Putumayo scandal, which has been going on for two weeks, the president once again made a strong defense of the operation.
“It is important to be clear that this operation had planning, it had intelligence information, it had precise information about the presence of leaders, members of terrorist cells and drug traffickers in that part of the territory. So we proceeded with clear information. There was an exchange of shots, there are wounded members of the public force and all the protocols have been followed,” said Duque. The operation sought to capture Carlos Emilio Loaiza, alias Brunoof the Border Commands, a group of FARC dissidents, but did not meet the objective.
The military incursion took place on the morning of March 28 in the village of El Alto Remanso, in the municipality of Puerto Leguízamo, an inhospitable area, barely separated from Ecuador by a river. That same day, Duque celebrated the event and said that they had “neutralized 11 members of the FARC dissidents and captured four criminals.” However, several social organizations have confirmed that civilians were among the dead and the Prosecutor’s Office denied the Government in relation to the information on those captured. The investigating body indicated that it never received acts that supported any capture procedure. These four people, who had been injured, were treated in clinics in Putumayo, received medical discharge and are free. Neither Duque nor Molano have rectified that information.
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In his message, the president does not admit that any of the dead were civilians, as the community insists. Among the dead is the indigenous governor of the Kichwa people, Pablo Panduro; Divier Hernández and Ana María Sarrias, two months pregnant, president of the Community Action Board and his wife; and Brayan Santiago Pama, a minor under 16 years of age. “This was an operation marked in human rights, in International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and a planned operation and was accompanied by a dominant intelligence”, added the Army commander.
After information from various media this weekend that showed the inconsistencies of the operation, the Army has leaked information to media related to the Government insisting that they were members of the armed group. EL PAÍS interviewed a dozen sources in Putumayo who affirm that at least four of the civilians were known by the community and that there were at least two armed people in the bazaar. They also denounced that the soldiers showed up dressed in black, identified themselves as guerrillas, and held them for several hours in the town’s field, preventing them from accessing the bodies of their relatives. Two armed groups are present in the area: the Border Commandos and the Carolina Ramírez First Front, two opposing wings of FARC dissidents that emerged after the peace agreement.
The scandal is already going through the campaign for the presidential elections, whose first round is on May 29. All the candidates spoke about the operation and one of them, the conservative Enrique Gómez, with no real chance in the race, attacked the work of a group of journalists who denounced the massacre. Gustavo Petro, first in the polls, said that this fact sullied the “honor of the public force.” “The Minister of Defense called me a liar for criticizing his war crime against the population of Putumayo,” he assured. The center’s option, Sergio Fajardo, demanded clarification: “An Army cannot kill civilians, steal and manipulate bodies. A government cannot present a disproportionate and vile action as a successful operation. A country is not viable if we do not correct and restore confidence in the institutions”.
Meanwhile, Ingrid Betancourt recalled the false positives, the extrajudicial executions at the hands of soldiers that have left at least 6,402 civilians murdered who were once presented as casualties in combat. “There can be no impunity. The Government has to do what is necessary to clarify. The state has to protect us to restore trust and allow reconciliation,” she requested. The right-wing candidate, Federico Gutiérrez, also called for “urgent investigation” of the case, although he stressed that the armed forces “have and will continue to have rigorous respect for human rights as their north”, something that is precisely at the center of the debate to Molano.
It is not the first time that the minister has been called to give explanations in Congress. Nor for the Government of Iván Duque. His three defense ministers have been questioned about the legitimacy of operations in which minors have died. The first of them was Guillermo Botero, who resigned on the eve of a motion of censure when it became known that he had not reported the death of eight minors during a bombing in Guaviare. Later, Molano himself had to appear before the Senate to answer for the death of a minor in an operation against FARC dissidents. At that time he said that the discussion was not about legitimacy but about “how the FARC dissidents continue to recruit these young people and turn them into war machines.”
Like the president and the leadership of the Army, Molano now repeats the mantra that the operation was legitimate. Congress, for its part, will demand that he explain how in an incursion planned for five months with intelligence, civilians fall and fail to capture the target.
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