‘A massacre’: Deadly Colombia military operation sparks outrage

Bogota, Colombia – At 6am on the morning of March 28, many of the Indigenous residents of Puerto Leguizamo hadn’t slept. They were still celebrating, continuing a raucous community party that had lasted all weekend. Others were just waking up, greeting the all-nighters and preparing a simple breakfast. A group of children played soccer in a clearing.

Just a few hundred metres away, Colombian soldiers waited, heavily armed and hidden amid thick vegetation. Exactly what happened next would become a point of contention between all involved parties, leave 11 people dead and generate a wave of public outrage.

According to multiple survivors who spoke with Al Jazeera, the victims included 16-year-old Brayan Santiago Pama and local Indigenous leader Pablo Panduro Coquinche.

The same day, President Ivan Duque trumpeted a successful operation “in which members of our public forces achieved the neutralisation of 11 members of a FARC dissident group, and the capture of four more criminals in Puerto Leguizamo”.

But witnesses say at least some of those killed weren’t rebels at all, but rather civilians who the army claimed were guerrillas in order to cover up a mass murder.

In a statement, the Organization of Indigenous Colombian Amazonian Peoples (OPIAC) alleged that the operation involved homicides “carried out in the style of false positives … against the Indigenous population and its authorities”.

Puerto Leguizamo, Colombia [Al Jazeera]

In Colombia, the term “false positives” conjures up painful memories of the height of Colombia’s 50-year civil war, in which more than 6,400 civilians were extrajudicially killed by the Colombian military. A special court last year confirmed that the killings, which occurred between 2002 and 2008, were presented by the military as combat deaths.

The revelations sparked national outrage, comprising one of many focal points of massive protests that erupted in April 2021, resulting in a brutal police crackdown.

Calls for investigation

The events in Puerto Leguizamo last week have fuelled public anger and set in motion investigations by human rights groups and local media, who have reported that four of the victims were civilians.

Four others who were arrested during the operation on suspicion of being dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were released on Wednesday by Colombian authorities, after prosecutors cited a lack of evidence to lay charges. United Nations human rights investigators in Colombia have called for a probe into the military operation.

Juan Pappier, a senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the reports of civilian deaths were credible. “We have evidence that four of the people killed appear to have been civilians,” he told Al Jazeera. “But there are open questions on how they were killed and what triggered the military operation.”

Colombian Defence Minister Diego Molano has denied such claims, posting on social media that the operation was legitimate and including photos of weapons he said were seized from the “innocent civilians”.

But further accusations have continued to surface. Gina Vasquez, a local Indigenous leader who helped the community to investigate what happened, told Al Jazeera: “There were more than 70 people present in the community when the firefight began. There were children present; there were defenceless women.”

Coquinche had been trying to flee the scene, and Pama died trying to protect him, Vasquez said.

Residents of the area, in which a number of armed groups operate, didn’t immediately understand who was attacking them.

Multiple witnesses and community investigators who spoke with Al Jazeera described being attacked by armed men whose faces were covered by black masks, and then by Colombian soldiers who fired on residents as they fled.

‘Enraged and shocked’

Oscar Daza, a human rights coordinator with OPIAC, described the operation as “a massacre executed by the Colombian military”. The community is “enraged and shocked by this illegitimate and illegal operation”, he told Al Jazeera.

The events in Puerto Leguizamo form part of a larger pattern in Colombia, where military forces often fail to distinguish between civilian populations and local armed groups, Daza added. “They say anyone they kill is a terrorist, that we are all guerrillas and criminals. Statements like these are extremely dangerous.”

Rodolfo Pama, the father of the 16-year-old victim, said his loss was indescribable.

“The Colombian government knows they did something evil,” he told Al Jazeera. “They killed a minor. You can’t imagine how it feels. I didn’t lose him to an accident or an illness; I lost him to a military operation carried out by this government.” He echoed calls for a full investigation.

Colombia soldiers
Members of the Colombian military march in Cucuta, Colombia [File: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

Contacted by Al Jazeera for comment, the defence ministry’s media office provided a recent news release, which defended the operation as legal and noted that “public forces will cooperate with all investigations”. The office declined to elaborate on Molano’s previous statements about the operation.

“It is irresponsible for the minister of defence to say that everyone killed in this military operation was a criminal,” Pappier said, while cautioning that it was too early for his organisation to state conclusively what happened.

Daza was less cautious in his condemnation: “This is what happens when the national government stigmatises Indigenous communities [in conflict zones],” he said. “They can’t just arrive, say we are all criminals, and start shooting. If they do this, what is the difference between them and paramilitary groups?”

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