SAN FRANCISCO, Colombia -- All Cruz Elena González saw when the soldiers came past her house was a corpse, wrapped in a tarp and strapped to a mule. A guerrilla killed in combat, soldiers muttered, as they trudged past her meek home in this town in northwestern Colombia.
She soon learned that the body belonged to her 16-year-old son, Robeiro Valencia, and that soldiers had classified him as a guerrilla killed in combat, a claim later discredited by the local government human rights ombudsman. "Imagine what I felt when my other son told me it was Robeiro," González said in recounting the August killing. "He was my boy."
Funded in part by the Bush administration, a six-year military offensive has helped the government here wrest back territory once controlled by guerrillas and kill hundreds of rebels in recent months, including two top commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
But under intense pressure from Colombian military commanders to register combat kills, the army has in recent years also increasingly been killing poor farmers and passing them off as rebels slain in combat, government officials and human rights groups say. The tactic has touched off a fierce debate in the Defense Ministry between tradition-bound generals who favor an aggressive campaign that centers on body counts and reformers who say the army needs to develop other yardsticks to measure battlefield success.
The killings, carried out by combat units under the orders of regional commanders, have always been a problem in the shadowy, 44-year-old conflict here -- one that pits the army against a peasant-based rebel movement.
But with the recent demobilization of thousands of paramilitary fighters, many of whom operated death squads to wipe out rebels, army killings of civilians have grown markedly since 2004, according to rights groups, U.N. investigators and the government's internal affairs agency. The spike has come during a military buildup that has seen the armed forces nearly double to 270,000 members in the last six years, becoming the second-largest military in Latin America.
There are varying accounts on the number of registered extrajudicial killings, as the civilian deaths are called. But a report by a coalition of 187 human rights groups said there are allegations that between mid-2002 and mid-2007, 955 civilians were killed and classified as guerrillas fallen in combat -- a 65 percent increase over the previous five years, when 577 civilians were reported killed by troops.
"We used to see this as isolated, as a military patrol that lost control," said Bayron Gongora of the Judicial Freedom Corp., a Medellin lawyers group representing the families of 110 people killed in murky circumstances. "But what we're now seeing is systematic."
The victims are the marginalized in Colombia's highly stratified society. Most, like Robeiro Valencia, are subsistence farmers. Others are poor Colombians kidnapped off the streets of bustling Medellin, the capital of this state, Antioquia, which has registered the most killings.
Amparo Bermudez Dávila said her son, Diego Castañeda, 27, disappeared from Medellin in January 2006. Two months later, authorities called to say he had been killed, another battlefield death. They showed her a photograph of his body, dressed in camouflage.
"I said, 'Guerrilla?' " she recalled. "My son was not a guerrilla. And they told me if I didn't think he was a guerrilla, then I should file a complaint."
Military prosecutors ordinarily initiate investigations when the army kills someone. In cases that appear criminal, civilian prosecutors take over, as they did in the slayings of Valencia and Castañeda in San Francisco. But human rights groups and government prosecutors say the initial probes have usually been perfunctory, and investigators have been under intense pressure from high-ranking military officers to rule in the army's favor.
Such challenges have made tabulating the exact number of dead civilians impossible, though officials at the attorney general's office and the inspector general's office revealed recent estimates in interviews.
The attorney general's office is investigating 525 killings of civilians, all but a handful of which occurred since 2002 and in which 706 soldiers and officers are implicated. The office has another 500 cases, involving hundreds more victims, yet to be opened. The inspector general's office, meanwhile, is investigating 650 cases from 2003 to mid-2007 that could involve as many as 1,000 victims, said Carlos Arturo Gomez, the vice inspector general.
"Last year, the number of complaints shot up," Gomez said. "Some have said the cause could be unscrupulous military members who want to show results from false operations. Others say it's the product of pressure from the high command, the push for results."
The trend has prompted concern among some members of the U.S. Congress. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, said he is holding up $23 million in military aid until he sees progress in the fight against impunity and state-sponsored violence.
"We've had six years, $5 billion in U.S. aid. More than half of it has gone to the Colombian military, and we find the army is killing more civilians, not less," Leahy said in an interview. "And by all accounts, all independent accounts, we find that civilians are just being taken out, executed and then dressed up in uniforms so they can claim body counts of guerrillas killed."
President ÃƒÂlvaro Uribe's government, which has had a string of recent successes against the FARC, has defended itself against the accusations and contends they are part of an international campaign designed to discredit the armed forces. Indeed, some officials say the FARC is prodding the families of rebels killed in combat to claim the dead were civilians.
Still, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos acknowledges civilian deaths and has initiated steps that include new rules of engagement, assigning inspectors to combat units to advise commanders on the use of force and improving human rights training for soldiers.
The military has also been streamlining its justice system and transferring more cases to the attorney general's office, which the United Nations says must have a greater role if extrajudicial executions are to be eradicated. The attorney general's office said more than 200 members of the military have been detained as prosecutors investigate their involvement in the killings of civilians, with 13 convicted last year.
"I have said this very clearly: The soldier who commits a crime becomes a criminal, and he will be treated as a criminal," Santos said.
Santos also has stressed, in speeches and directives, that the army's anti-guerrilla policy should be more focused on generating desertions than accumulating combat kills, the traditional method of measuring success. "I've told all my soldiers and policemen that I prefer a demobilized guerrilla, or a captured guerrilla, to a dead guerrilla," Santos said.
But the Defense Ministry's reformers have been met by influential generals who have defended officers accused of slayings and favor a more traditional strategy for defeating the rebels.
That approach means giving field commanders autonomy and instilling a philosophy that stresses swift engagement with the rebels.
"What's the result of offensives? Combat," Gen. Mario Montoya, head of Colombia's army, said in an interview. "And if there's combat, there are dead in combat."
Human rights groups see a disturbing trend, saying the tactics used by some army units are similar to those that death squads used to terrorize civilians. A top U.N. investigator said some army units went as far as to carry "kits," which included grenades and pistols that could be planted next to bodies.
"The method of killing people perceived as guerrilla collaborators is still seen as legitimate by too many members of the army," said Lisa Haugaard, director of Latin America Working Group, a Washington-based coalition of humanitarian groups.
After she interviewed a number of families of victims, she determined that in many of the cases soldiers "appeared to be going on missions, not accidentally detaining and killing people," she said.
The highest-ranking officer implicated in extrajudicial killings is Col. Hernan MejÃƒÂa.
A former army sergeant who was under MejÃƒÂa's command, Edwin Guzman, recounted in an interview how MejÃƒÂa's unit would kill peasant farmers, dress them in combat fatigues and call in local newspaper reporters to write about the supposed combat that had taken place.
Guzman, now a government witness against MejÃƒÂa, said soldiers participated because they knew the army gave incentives -- from extra pay to days off -- for amassing kills in combat. "This is because the army gives prizes for kills, not for control of territory," he said.
© 2008 The Washington Post