A Colombian army chief relieved of duties following a scathing report on the summary killing of almost 3,000 peasants has spent the last 18 months working at his nation’s embassy in the United States, to the ire of human rights groups.
Army Commander Gen. Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar has been serving as Colombia’s defense attaché in Washington since soon after he and other top brass in the military command were removed from their posts after a damning report from Human Rights Watch in June 2015. The Colombian government at the time called it a reorganization of the armed forces.
The State Department was aware of his transfer to the embassy in November 2015, but made no mention that he was working in the U.S. capital when it referenced the killing allegations in an annual human rights certification letter sent to Congress last September.
Rights groups and their supporters in Congress said they were surprised to learn in mid-March that Lasprilla had been in Washington for months, though there appears to have been little effort to hide his whereabouts – his name, email and phone number are listed on the embassy’s website. Almost a year earlier, in April 2016, he joined his country’s ambassador at a ceremony at Washington’s St. Matthews Cathedral honoring the victims of the conflict.
“We were not aware that Gen. Lasprilla was posted here, but the real question is whether commanders like him, not just the low-ranking soldiers, will be punished for what by any objective measure were war crimes,” said a congressional aide who works on Latin American issues. The aide demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The State Department said it had been assured by Colombia that Lasprilla faced no criminal allegations at home.
That’s hardly surprising, said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division; Colombia has prosecuted few high-ranking military officials for rights abuses in the decades-long civil war there.
But Vivanco said he was surprised that the Obama State Department hadn’t made more of an issue of Lasprilla’s posting to Washington. About a fifth of the military aid the United States sends to Colombia is conditioned on adherence to human rights standards. Colombia is slated to receive more than $390 million in total planned U.S. military and foreign aid in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
“The Colombian government seems to have taken a step further with Gen. Lasprilla Villamizar by assuming that authorities in the U.S. would not be troubled to have an official who commanded a brigade involved in dozens of killings chilling in Washington instead of facing investigations in Colombia,” Vivanco said.
The United States serving as a sanctuary for former Latin American military officials forced from their jobs at home because of human rights questions is hardly unprecedented.
Lasprilla’s case involves many of the same ambiguities as one in 2015 where the Pentagon admitted, after a McClatchy investigation, that an accused Chilean military torturer whose U.S. visa had been revoked still was allowed to teach at the National Defense University. The U.S. in recent years also has moved to revoke the residency permits of several former Salvadoran military figures over violations of human rights during that country’s civil war.
Lasprilla no doubt found the embassy to be familiar turf. Colombia’s ambassador to the United States is former Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, who assumed his current post May 20, 2015, six months before Lasprilla’s arrival. Pinzon had served as vice minister of defense under Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, who was defense minister from 2006 to 2009, when the killings reached a peak. He’s considered a favorite to succeed Santos as president next year.
In a statement to McClatchy following a lengthy interview, Lasprilla said he’d done nothing wrong and wasn’t hiding, and he blasted the rights group.
“I want to remind you the NGO Human Rights Watch is not the Colombian justice system,” Lasprilla said, noting that U.S. officials were aware he was in Washington. “I have been a public figure and I don’t have to hide.”
“Over the course of my career, never have I given any order to go against the population or the judicial system,” said Lasprilla. “I have a tranquil conscience that over my entire life I have been transparent.”
The Human Rights Watch report, titled “On Their Watch,” detailed how from 2002 to 2008, nearly 3,000 Colombian peasants were killed by the armed forces, which described them as guerrillas killed in action – a phenomenon that came to be known as false-positive killings.
It was a widespread practice, and rights groups have alleged it was part of a strategy to boost internal body counts in order to appear that the armed forces, backed by the United States, were more successful in combating guerrilla groups than they actually were.
Human Rights Watch concluded that in almost all of the false-positive killings, brigade and/or tactical unit commanders had issued official documents that authorized the operations in which the peasants were killed. It suggests knowledge up and down the ranks.
Battalion and brigade leaders of these units were often later promoted, and in the case of Lasprilla reached the top rungs of a military that has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. government to combat drug trafficking and terrorism.
Lasprilla was not directly accused of ordering extrajudicial killings, but the rights group and others in Colombia have identified at least 55 false-positive killings during the time he commanded the 9th Army Brigade in Colombia’s southwestern department of Huila.
More than 800 low-level soldiers have been convicted in the false-positive killings. But few in the top ranks have faced charges, and last November the Colombian military promoted five officials, including two generals, against whom rights groups argue exists credible evidence of involvement.
Embassy officials confirmed that Lasprilla is nearing the end of a two-year tour in Washington and will soon return home.
Lasprilla’s case, and his defense of Colombia’s judiciary, underscores a murky area that marks U.S. relations with a key Latin American ally.
Almost 20 percent of the military funding Colombia received in the 2016 fiscal year from the United States was tied to certification that it is fulfilling promises to curb human rights abuses and prosecute the accused.
In the most recent certification letter, sent by the State Department to Congress last Sept. 19 and obtained by McClatchy, the agency cited the Human Rights Watch report and its references to Gens. Lasprilla and Juan Pablo Rodriguez, who succeeded Lasprilla as commander of Colombia’s armed forces. But it did not mention that Lasprilla was working at the Colombian Embassy.
“Gen. Lasprilla was replaced in July 2015 as commander of the army. However, the Attorney General’s Office confirmed at the time that neither general was the target of an investigation,” the State Department certification said.
When Lasprilla returns to Colombia, he’s unlikely to ever face prosecution. Santos’ government is weighing a new definition of “command responsibility” that would make it even harder to prosecute leaders for the crimes committed by underlings.
It all angers Maria, not her real name, who shared with McClatchy details about the murder of her son, a father of four killed in January 2007 in the province of Huila. He left the house after an argument with his wife early one evening and never returned.
The body was discovered with seven bullet wounds, and the local handyman was alternately described as a delinquent or a member of the guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym FARC. It has waged war with the Colombian government for five decades.
What was the proof that Maria’s son was a guerrilla? It was a knit mask he was said to have worn, favored by rebels. But Maria said there was no bullet hole in it, even though he was shot in the head.
“The high command of the military and the police forces, they will never go to prison,” said Maria, whose name has been changed and her town withheld to protect her from reprisals. “Here in Colombia, only those killed by guerrillas are considered victims.”
That Colombia’s generals such as Lasprilla have escaped prosecution is a concern for human rights groups.
“There were too many cases for him not to have knowledge of a crime that was happening repeatedly,” said Alberto Yepes, a human rights investigator with Coordinacion Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, a network of 275 social and nonprofit organizations in Colombia.
The false-positive killings occurred over a six-year period, so rights groups think that they were not only tolerated but encouraged. Oftentimes the weapons found on alleged guerrillas didn’t work or were not the sort used in combat.
“It’s impossible that a policy was not behind this,” said Yepes. “The top leaders still have not told the truth to the country. They have not been held to account for these crimes.”
In its latest annual human rights report, the State Department said in March that Colombia had failed to achieve justice for victims of extrajudicial killings but was trying.
“Nonetheless, the system struggled to close out cases quickly and efficiently,” the annual report said.
Franco Ordonez and Vera Bergengruen contributed to this report.