President Alvaro Uribe on Wednesday fired numerous army officers, including three generals, over the killing of civilians. His government said at least some of the murders were aimed to falsely boost combat body counts.
An internal military probe determined the officers, including two division commanders, were guilty at least of negligence that included permitting soldiers to conspire with criminals in what Uribe called "the murder of innocents."
It was the Colombian military's biggest shakeup in years over human-rights abuses and comes as civilian prosecutors investigate a rise in alleged army killings of noncombatants with the aim of exaggerating unit performance against leftist rebels.
Uribe made the announcement at a news conference with his top commanders, armed forces chief Gen. Freddy Padilla and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos.
They said the cases would be turned over to the chief prosecutor's office.
The number of officers sacked was not clear. The Associated Press put the total at 19, including three generals and four colonels; Reuters said 27 were purged, including three generals.
Officials offered no details of particular crimes, though Santos said "outside criminals who enjoyed impunity were used to obtain irregular results" that violated "military doctrine and honor."
Armando Borrero, a former Colombian national security adviser, said it appeared the abuses were not isolated cases but rather "something long in the planning."
Uribe ordered the probe after a public uproar over the deaths of 11 men who disappeared from the poor Bogota suburb of Soacha early this year and whose bodies were found in August and September in common graves in a northeastern combat zone.
"Innocent people in urban slums were apparently tricked, abducted, and killed" in "a gruesome trafficking in cadavers allowing officers to claim high body counts," said Colombia analyst Adam Isacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
'My conscience is clean'
One of the generals fired on Wednesday, 30th Brigade commander Paulino Coronado, told The Associated Press after nine of the Soacha men's bodies were found that they had been killed in combat with rebels of the leftist National Liberation Army.
He could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The other two fired generals were Jose Joaquin Cortes, Coronado's boss as commander of the 2nd Division, and Roberto Pico Hernandez, chief of the 7th Division, which is based in Medellin, Colombia's second city, the AP reported.
The two divisions cover some of Colombia's most turbulent regions.
The 2nd Division's territory includes the area near Venezuela's border where the Soacha men's bodies were found. Coca cultivation is rampant and guerrilla activity high there. The 7th oversees the Uraba banana-growing region on the Caribbean coast where activity by far-right paramilitaries and drug traffickers is pronounced.
Reached by the AP, Gen. Pico denied any wrongdoing.
"My conscience is clean," he said. "I think this is something unjust because I have worked, dedicated everything to my army, including even not taking good enough care of my family."
Wednesday's purge came a day after Amnesty International urged the United States and other nations to halt military aid to Colombia until security forces reduce killings of civilians and the country heeds U.N. recommendations for ending its long-running civil conflict.
Last month, the AP obtained a report from the chief prosecutor's office that said 803 members of Colombia's armed forces — including 99 officers — were under investigation in such killings.
The Colombian military's checkered human rights records includes frequent close collaboration over the years with illegal far-right paramilitaries, which the U.S. State Department branded terrorist groups in 2001 — and the May 2006 murder of 10 elite anti-drug police in an ambush by an army unit suspected of being in the service of drug lords.