A former Colombian army colonel has claimed responsibility for a civilian death

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BOGOTA, Colombia – The former colonel grabbed his notes as he waited for his name to be called. Santiago Herrera Fajardo struggled to sleep the night before, waking up at 3 a.m. to practice the speech that would define him for the rest of his life.

To get to the microphone, he had to walk through rows of mothers and daughters who had been waiting for nearly 15 years to hear an explanation of how and why his soldiers had killed innocent people in one of the most heinous atrocities in Colombian history.

An Army veteran, about 30 years old, now stripped of his uniform, told the Holy Spirit to help these families see his sincerity. Will they believe him?

“Today, with all the shame and embarrassment that a soldier can feel, but with the utmost respect for the pain of the victims, I admit that while I was in this position, a de facto criminal structure was operating in the brigade,” Herrera said. Colombia Peace Tribunal during the April 26 hearing. “I pressured my subordinates, at any cost, to get casualties in the war.”

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Herrera, 57, has admitted to calling on his troops to kill as many people as possible to meet the body count demands set by commanders at the top of Colombia’s bloody 50-year conflict. He promoted competition among the units, offered leave as a reward, and threatened negative reviews if the troops were low.

Herrera is one of the highest-ranking military leaders to take charge of Colombia’s “false positive” scandal. Between 2002 and 2008, US-backed forces killed an estimated 6,402 people and falsely labeled them as guerrilla fighters to indicate they had won the war, according to the country’s Special Justice for Peace. The authority was formed through the country’s 2016 peace deal with Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces – FARC – the country’s largest rebel group.

Many of the victims were poor, unemployed or disabled men who were tempted by the promise of jobs. Their bodies often changed, with enemy fighters dressed and posing with guns.

Nearly 15 years later, Herrera’s testimony is part of a bold test of restorative justice that could serve as a model for other countries. In exchange for acknowledging their responsibility and cooperating with the jurisdiction, offenders may receive light punishment, such as house arrest.

Herrera, however, is one of only 10 military leaders to admit their involvement. More than 3,000 members of the Colombian security forces are still on trial for their alleged involvement in the plot. And even those who want to cooperate face significant obstacles in talking openly about their role – and the role of their superiors – according to former military leaders and international observers.

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Ex-servicemen and ex-FARC fighters have received death threats for not speaking out in the same way. But critics say ex-soldiers have received less legal support than ex-FARC fighters.

Peace negotiators arranged independent consultations for former FARC fighters. Some ex-soldiers have complained that their government-provided lawyers have conflicts of interest. They have accused their lawyers of pressuring them to change their testimony or to omit information in order to protect high-ranking defendants. Lawyers have denied the allegations.

Dag Nagoda, Minister Counselor at the Norwegian Embassy, ​​which monitors the implementation of the peace agreement, said: “It is clear that they have been abandoned by their own organization for a long time. “They’ve been labeled as rotten apples in public debate, and there’s been little collaboration.”

Concern is a practical issue for these defendants, Nagoda said: “If they do not talk, the peace process will not work.”

Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN verification mission in Colombia, said it was clear that Colombian institutions and international partners needed to “work better with the military.”

To the family members of the victims, the hearing has finally helped to clear the names of their loved ones. But many felt admission was not high enough.

Blanca Monroe, whose son was killed in 2008, said she hoped Herrera and others who testified could set an example for those who would come forward “drowning in their own poison.”

Herrera received the first call after his testimony From a former comrade who is to appear before the jurisdiction soon. He praised Herrera’s “honesty and transparency.”

But Herrera didn’t take long to get another message, calling him a traitor to talk to. Some publicly criticized her for naming former army chief Mario Montoya, who Herrera said pressured her to increase her body size.

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Herrera was jailed for seven years before the start of the interim trial. There was not much left to lose. But he still fears for his life and for the safety of his wife and daughters, aged 17 and 13.

The walls of Herrera’s home office celebrate his decades-long military career. He has a composite from a military school. When he was promoted to second lieutenant in 1983, there were pictures of him and his three brothers, all in uniform, on that day.

His career came to an end in 2007 when he took charge of a brigade in Katatumbo. He says Montoya told him he needed to escalate the war killings. “I’ll be back,” Herrera told Montoya, “and if you haven’t changed the result, be prepared because I’ll relieve you.”

Mantoya has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer, Andres Garzon, said Montoya followed military standards that measured operating results in seven categories, not just body numbers. Garzon accuses Herrera and other former military leaders of lying to reduce their testimony Punishment.

Herrera soon began to notice the unusual death, but he did nothing about it. “As the conflict worsens, you don’t pay attention to it anymore,” he said. “You care about statistics.”

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When the killings became public, Herrera and other leaders denied the extent of their role. But the military soon came under intense pressure to hold its leaders accountable. Colombian courts have described the killings as crimes against humanity, a “systematic and widespread practice” against civilians that often leads to “acts of torture.”

After being stuck for seven years before the trial, hearing stories of the victim and meeting with former FARC members, Herrera began to acknowledge his responsibility.

He said the arrogance of power and position is gone. “Then you will become much more human and begin to understand.”

Prior to the hearing, Herrera and other military leaders met with the families of those killed. Maria Fernanda Franco Gomez was 7 years old when her father was captured and killed by soldiers. Now 22, he yelled at the former officers.

“How could this happen to you? You don’t have children?” He shouted. “You’re worse than a monster.”

Herrera promised that she would try to find out more about her father’s death. She didn’t believe him, he said in an interview.

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But at the hearing, Herrera told Franco that he had found more details. He gave her his number and said he would try to find out more.

The look on his face was relaxed. Herrera asked if she could hug him. Franco politely declined. Instead, they shook hands.

“We all deserve a second chance,” he said.

“Yes, we all do,” he agrees, “but you have to achieve it.”

Diana Duran contributed to this report.

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