Orlando Rivas, former head of the DAS in Casanare (2004-2007), the regional intelligence service of Colombia until 2010, engaged in a controversy with former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) regarding the “false positives” and the involvement of the country’s intelligence and certain military personnel in the kidnapping and murder of civilians during the former president’s term.
Rivas, who was sentenced in this case by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in 2022, reiterated during the ongoing transitional justice session in Yopal, the capital of Casanare, that the department he led in the region “changed its functions during Álvaro Uribe’s government.” This change was to support the Army in judicial police work with the aim of legalizing operations.
These serious accusations had already been made by Orlando Rivas when he faced his trial in the special court at the end of 2022. Now, in the session related to the 303 people killed in the Casanare region, and which directly accuses a group of military personnel who have already admitted their responsibility, Rivas reaffirmed his statements, now also supported by the implicated military leaders.
Stigmatization of the civilian population in conflict areas
Rivas returned to the JEP tribunal and reaffirmed his statements from almost a year ago when he admitted his guilt from his high-ranking position. On this occasion, the former official criticized the guidelines in the fight against insurgencies, which was called “Democratic Security” during Uribe’s presidency. Essentially, it was a policy that involved the civilian population in the fight against illegal armed groups.
“The stigmatization of the civilian population in areas with a high presence of subversive groups originated as part of the Democratic Security policies and was aimed at affecting apparent members of illegal armed groups. This stigmatization policy was applied nationwide by the DAS,” Rivas stated at the JEP.
Orlando Rivas acknowledged that all of this was a mistake and tried to explain the situation because “unfortunately, that Democratic Security policy became ingrained in our thinking, and we thought it was the solution. Unfortunately, now is the time to repent and apologize to the entire population,” concluded the former head of regional intelligence at the time.
Military personnel confess their responsibility
Likewise, Rivas implicated Colonel Sarmiento Valbuena and General Torres Escalante in the events. According to his account, the implementation of arrest orders allowed them to gather information about individuals who, even though they were later released, remained on record. This allowed the two high-ranking military officers to “profile” people who, for any reason, were falsely accused of belonging to an illegal armed group.
Orlando Rivas’ statements went further, as he stated during the hearing that, as the head of the regional DAS office, he was part of a criminal organization that was created within Brigade 16, and its goal was to achieve operational results, supposed combat casualties, at all costs.
General Henry Torres Escalante pleads guilty
On the other hand, General Henry Torres Escalante, accused by Orlando Rivas, fully accepted his responsibility for the criminal acts attributed to him. He becomes the highest-ranking military officer in Colombia to acknowledge his involvement in the “false positives” crimes.
The former general even provided names of other military personnel involved in the case currently being heard in the JEP tribunal. “The FARC and ELN squads were greatly weakened, partially defeated, but neither the Division Commander, Major General Guillermo Quiñones, who increased the targets for deaths, captures, and demobilizations for that year, nor I as the Brigade Commander, took that situation into account; on the contrary (…) I limited myself to ordering the fulfillment of that order by increasing the targets for my subordinate units,” Torres Escalante admitted.
Finally, the former general directly attributed the illegal actions carried out by the team he led in Casanare to pressure from the then-Army Commander. “My acknowledgment and responsibility, as I have stated, are based on the constant pressure I exerted on my subordinates, prioritizing combat deaths (…) the constant pressure came from the Army Commander, Mario Montoya,” Henry Torres concluded in his statement.
It is worth noting that Mario Montoya, who is currently facing charges, was removed from his position in 2008 when the scandal forced President Uribe to clean up the Armed Forces. However, the former president has always defended the military officer, describing him as a “hero of the homeland.”
Former President Uribe’s Reaction
Former President Álvaro Uribe did not take long to respond to the statements made by Orlando Rivas and Torres Escalante. The former president and ultimate head of the military as head of state claimed that he was never insensitive or “passive in the face of complaints of human rights violations in the Armed Forces.”
“That’s why our initial circulars on transparency. Our actions began at the start of the government with the demand that the Armed Forces not move the bodies of those reported as killed and always wait for the Prosecutor’s Office to arrive to carry out the recoveries. I have listed more than 70 actions to protect human rights,” added the former Colombian president.
Accusations Against the JEP
Similarly, Uribe stated that General Torres Escalante may have accepted charges that were not true in the tribunal and accused him of “stimulating crimes not committed.”
“The design of the JEP encourages, in the name of freedom, the recognition of even crimes not committed. This design also makes it easy to present as innocent those who were committing crimes, even if their families did not know it. There are very clear cases of members of criminal groups who are portrayed as innocent victims,” concluded the former president.
Likewise, Álvaro Uribe defended his immediate measures against those who were accused, at the time, of participating in abuses against the population, implicating the Attorney General’s Office above the military courts.