Colombia army's 'bounty' on rebels probed in deaths

GRANADA, Colombia — Fabio Rodríguez Benavides, 23, a cheerful young man known as Little Horse because of the size of his teeth, said goodbye to his mother at about 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 24, 2007, to meet his girlfriend and have some drinks.

Three days later, he turned up dead. Authorities say he was killed in a firefight with the Colombian armed forces, that he was well armed and wore the boots of a rebel fighter.

His family says that's preposterous; he was a member of the armed forces, on leave because of an injured leg, and he revered the military.

Rodríguez's death is one of 1,855 being investigated by the Colombian attorney general's office as possible examples of nonjudicial executions linked to the armed forces. Many victims were peasants, some were teens, or mentally impaired individuals, or drug addicts. One was a street mime.

According to judicial organizations and human rights activists, the motive was money -- specifically, a bounty placed on the heads of rebels.

Working from what is more or less a rate card set by the government, members of the military can claim cash rewards, promotions, even vacations for eliminating an enemy of the state. And, if the victim is not an actual rebel, he or she can be stuffed into a rebel uniform postmortem, according to judicial investigations.

Such executions, known as ''false positives,'' today constitute the most scandalous human-rights violation in recent years in Colombia, a country already burdened by a prolonged and bloody civil war involving members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

High-ranking government officials have acknowledged the existence of the program, and 18 members of the military have been cashiered as a result of it.

It has triggered an international alarm. Philipe Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, is in Bogotá this week, collecting testimony and evidence.

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