Hundreds of innocent civilians have been slain by soldiers and falsely identified as guerrillas killed in combat as part of a "more or less" systematic practice by significant elements of Colombia's military, a U.N. human rights investigator said Thursday.
After a 10-day visit interviewing more than 100 witnesses and survivors, special envoy Philip Alston told reporters he found nothing to indicate that such extra-judicial killings were state policy or that President Alvaro Uribe and his defense ministers knew of them.
However, the Australian investigator said it was "unsustainable" for officials in Uribe's government to argue that the killings were carried out "on a small scale by a few bad apples." The vast majority of the slayings occurred after Uribe's 2002 election.
Under Uribe, Colombia's government has put leftist rebels on the defensive and seriously curbed kidnapping and murder with the help of more than $4 billion in U.S. aid.
Deputy Defense Minister Sergio Jaramillo told reporters the government was taking Alston's preliminary report very seriously and was pleased he recognized "the seriousness of the measures we've taken" to halt the killings and punish those responsible.
Alston said he would issue a full report in four to five months.
Call for human rights prosecutors
Criticizing what he called too few successful prosecutions of extrajudicial killings, Alston said Colombia needs more human rights prosecutors and complained that military judges have tried to "thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases" to the ordinary justice system.
He characterized as "blatant and obscene" the most highly publicized case — at least 11 young men lured from the poor Bogota suburb of Soacha early last year with promises of work only to be found dead hundreds of miles away depicted as dead rebels.
Alston called that case the "tip of the iceberg" in a practice of "cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit" that involved "a significant number of military units" in nearly half of Colombia's states.
He said he had asked the Defense Ministry if soldiers were rewarded for boosting body counts with the killings and was awaiting a response.
Jaramillo told reporters that while the government has offered rewards for information leading to the capture of rebel leaders it never offered blood money for the slaying of rebels.
But he said there was some good news: a "significant reduction" — he was not more specific — in allegations of extrajudicial executions over the past six to nine months.
Uribe fired 20 officers — including three generals — for negligence last October after details of the Soacha killings emerged. The army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, resigned the next month.
Alston said such killings have disproportionately affected the rural poor, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, trade unionists, human rights activists and community leaders. Victims included "boys of 16-17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave," he said.
Bodies apparently staged
He cited cases of supposed dead guerrillas "wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or left-handers holding guns in their right hand."
At least two colonels are among more than 50 cashiered soldiers jailed in extra-judicial killings on charges including kidnapping, murder and forced disappearance, according to prosecutors.
The chief prosecutor's office is investigating the alleged slayings of 1,708 innocent people, including the Soacha victims, over the past six years.
Before Colombia, Alston's most recent country visit was to Kenya in February. Appointed a U.N. special investigator of such killings in 2004, he visited the United States, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic last year.