The U.S. government reviewed the visa rights of Colombia’s armed forces commander in early November, just weeks before his sudden replacement, McClatchy has learned.
Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez Barragan was replaced suddenly on Nov. 30, retiring with honors. What wasn’t mentioned is that his name had surfaced in numerous court proceedings, both inside and outside Colombia, involving extrajudicial killings.
Both the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have the ability to block or deny visas to foreign dignitaries, and it is likely that the court cases involving Rodriguez Barragan triggered a review. It is unclear whether that review was still ongoing at the time of his resignation. Neither agency had immediate comment, and visa matters are generally confidential. Santos’ office had no comment.
It’s unclear what the Colombian government knew about the visa review, but Olga Acosta, spokeswoman for the Colombian Embassy in Washington said Rodriguez Barragan's retirement was unrelated to that matter.
"It has nothing to do with it," she told McClatchy, noting that Rodriguez Barragan, who had served more than three years as armed forces commander, in December was to reach the maximum time limit to serve as a general and under the law had to present his resignation to President Juan Manuel Santos.
McClatchy reported in April that Colombia’s former army commander, Gen. Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar, had quietly become Colombia’s defense attaché in Washington after being relieved of duties in what the government called a reorganization.
The timing of Lasprilla’s removal corresponded with the aftermath of a Human Rights Watch report chronicling the so-called “false-positive” killings of almost 3,000 peasants from 2002 to 2008. Lasprilla left Washington soon after McClatchy’s report in what was called a scheduled return.
Rights groups have alleged the killings were part of a strategy to boost internal body counts so it appeared that the armed forces, backed by the United States, were more successful in combating guerrilla groups than they actually were.
The dead were called leftist guerrillas but were not. Critics maintain that the Colombian military effectively had a quota system that allowed soldiers to move up the ranks based partly on the numbers of rebels they killed.
Back in Colombia, Rodriguez Barragan’s name surfaced on documents now in court proceedings showing that he signed off on payments to informants who helped them target suspected guerrillas — or people who were said to be. At the time he led the 4th Brigade, covering a period that began in 2006 and ran into 2008.
One such case involved the death of Omer Alcides Villada on March 25, 2008. Neighbors in rural Monte Bello Antioquia described him as quiet farmer who lived with his grandmother. Police said he had no criminal record.
Archived Colombian army documents in the hands of prosecutors in Medellin say Alcides was in a unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its acronym FARC, that attacked government soldiers. Alcides was on the radar screen, the documents said, because the military paid an informant named Jesus Armando Villany, one month after Alcides officially was declared killed in combat.
The documents show that the commander who signed off on the payment was Rodriguez Barragan, then a brigadier general. When interviewed by Colombian prosecutors, Villany said he had never been an informant and was living elsewhere in Colombia at the time.
The International Criminal Court in the Netherlands is also looking into at least five cases involving “false-positive” killings, according to a Dec. 4 report on 2017 activities by its Office of the Prosecutor. That court is designed as a complement to home-country judiciaries and hears cases of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The international court’s report noted that the Colombian army’s 7th Division, to which the 4th Brigade commanded by Rodriguez Barragan belonged, allegedly committed 677 “false-positive” killings between 2002 and 2008.
“‘False positive’ extrajudicial killings in Colombia are among the worst episodes of mass atrocities committed in the western hemisphere in recent decades,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement to McClatchy.
The rights group has been angered by President Santos and his decisions to allow into the chain of command senior officers who face court probes into the “false-positive” killings. Santos himself was defense minister from 2006 to 2009, a period when the killings reached their peak.
However, the Nov. 30 replacement of Rodriguez Barragan with Gen. Alberto Jose Mejia was welcomed by rights advocates. That’s because Mejia, as head of the army, organized two events that recognized Sgt. Carlos Eduardo Mora. He’s a soldier that disobeyed orders to partake in the “false positive” schemes and later became a key witness in cases brought against commanders.
“The appointment of General Mejia is a positive step, but I’m greatly concerned about the fact that no military commanders have been punished for their roles in false positives, which are widely recognized as being among the most egregious crimes of the armed conflict,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement to McClatchy.
Added Vivanco of Human Rights Watch, Rodriguez Barragan’s retirement “opens the door for ending an era of corporative support to officers under investigation for atrocities and ensuring that armed forces send a strong message that they’ve closed the dark chapter of ‘false positives.’”
Colombia’s bloody civil conflict stretched more than 50 years, with more than 220,000 dead. Four years of negotiations yielded a piece deal that began being implemented last year and won President Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. Colombian lawmakers approved the peace deal even though voters in a referendum narrowly opposed it.
The Andean nation, a chief global supplier of cocaine and heroin, has received more than $10 billion in aid from the United States since 2000 to fight drugs trafficking and drug-related violence — a rare example of a policy supported by successive Republican and Democratic administrations.