Bogota, Colombia – Nearly two decades after the Colombian army killed her 19-year-old son, Beatriz Mendez heard the words she had long waited for.
On Tuesday, Defence Minister Ivan Velasquez issued a public apology for the extrajudicial killings of 19 civilians, including Mendez’s son and nephew, clearing their names of any wrongdoing and acknowledging the state’s responsibility for their deaths.
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“We come to ask for forgiveness,” said Velasquez. “We know that today it is difficult to obtain forgiveness because the state has tried to hide the truth.”
The term describes a practice in the military of murdering civilians and passing them off as rebels in Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict, in order to boost the number of combat “kills” that soldiers could claim credit for.
Those statistics, in turn, allowed the military to claim the tide was turning in its war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest rebel group at the time.
Mendez’s son, Weimar Castro Mendez, and her nephew, Edwar Rincon Mendez, were last seen on June 21, 2004. They disappeared from the impoverished neighbourhood where they lived in southern Bogota, while out on a walk with a friend.
Two days later, the Mendez family learned from a radio broadcast that the army had identified the two young men as rebel fighters killed in combat.
Mendez, who had been in a nearby rural town at the time of the disappearances, arrived in Bogota to find her son and nephew in a coffin. Their bodies, dressed in blood-stained rebel fatigues, were riddled with dozens of bullets. The corneas of her son’s eyes had been removed.
“It was terrible, like something out of a horror movie,” said Mendez.
Their gruesome deaths marked only the beginning of Mendez’s trials. After she reported the crime and sent letters pleading for justice to then-President Alvaro Uribe and his defence ministry, anonymous callers flooded her phone with death threats, forcing her into hiding for five years.
Experts estimate the 19 killings acknowledged this week are only the tip of the iceberg, a tiny fraction of the deaths the government is responsible for.
Between 2002 and 2008 alone, at least 6,402 civilians were killed extrajudicially, according to the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), a tribunal created out of the 2016 peace deal between the FARC and the government.
Many of the victims were poor farmers from the countryside or young men from cities who were lured to remote areas with job offers.
The JEP has placed more than 3,500 military members under investigation for crimes related to the killings, but human rights advocates believe the deaths represent a broader, institutional failing.
“The state has a duty to guarantee human rights. If these rights are violated, even if there is no direct responsibility, there is a responsibility for having failed to prevent the events and for failing to protect the rights of citizens,” said Maria Camila Moreno, director of the International Court of Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a nonprofit dedicated to pursuing accountability for mass human rights abuses.
That belief, however, has stirred controversy in Colombia, where right-wing politicians have pushed back on the notion that the crimes were systematic and ordered by army superiors.
Colombian courts have ordered previous administrations to issue formal apologies as part of reparations owed to victims. But former President Ivan Duque refused to comply, said Pilar Castillo, director of Asociación Minga, a group that offers legal representation to victims of extrajudicial killings.
Duque’s inaction reflects a wider culture of denial, Castillo added.
“In effect, the Duque administration did not have the political will to comply with the rulings because it would have meant acknowledging that the extrajudicial killings were a criminal practice within the military forces,” she said.
She pointed out that the Duque government was not alone in dodging responsibility: The administrations of President Uribe and his successor Juan Manuel Santos likewise denied extrajudicial killings were a systemic problem in the military.
Instead, the administrations argued that the cases were isolated, a narrative that has been refuted by the JEP but continues to circulate in right-wing sectors, according to Moreno, the ICTJ director.
In JEP hearings, however, military officials have testified that state policies and pressure from superiors motivated the crimes. Extrajudicial killings increased in 2005 when the Defence Ministry announced a directive that rewarded military members with vacations, promotions and bonuses for combat kills.
Officials have also told the JEP that former Colombian military General Mario Montoya ordered soldiers to prioritise kills over captures.
The JEP has so far indicted three generals, including Montoya, who is charged with the extrajudicial killings of 130 civilians during his time as Fourth Brigade commander, from 2002 to 2003.
In September, retired General Henry Torres Escalante publicly confessed to ordering extrajudicial killings and hampering investigations into the crimes.
At the public event on Tuesday, relatives of the 19 victims gave emotional testimonies on stage in front of top military brass. Some refused to accept the state’s apology, and others cursed at the country’s armed forces.
A few called on former presidents Uribe and Santos — who served as his predecessor’s defence minister — to publicly apologise as well.
Santos, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for ushering in a peace deal with the FARC during his presidency, apologised to victims in 2021, but his statement was issued in a closed-door hearing. He told local media he had not been invited to Tuesday’s public event.
On Wednesday, Uribe denied that his administration was responsible for the crimes, without mentioning the possibility of a public apology.
Castillo, the director of Asociación Minga, said that Tuesday’s formal apology had been a priority for victims’ families because top government officials, including Uribe and Santos, had either denied the killings or justified the military’s actions when the scandal first broke in 2008.
Some of the victims, for example, have been accused of being criminals, in order to downplay their deaths, according to families and rights advocates.
Mendez, who has spent almost two decades fighting to prove her son’s innocence, said her child had never been involved in criminal activities. At the time of his death, he had recently graduated from high school and aspired to find a job to help take care of his family.
She considers Tuesday’s apology from Defence Minister Velasquez to be a result of her fight — and that of thousands of others.
“We’ve demonstrated that everything that we’ve done for our sons wasn’t in vain,” she said.
Source: Al Jazeera