BOGOTA - Human rights groups are insisting that the resignation of Colombia's army chief must not stand in the way of an in-depth investigation of the numerous human rights abuses in which he is implicated.
In a statement released Wednesday, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said General Mario Montoya is implicated in "a number of cases of human rights violations. These allegations must be independently and effectively investigated by the civilian courts, and General Montoya's resignation must not be used as an excuse to bury them."
Montoya stepped down Tuesday, after 39 years of service, just ahead of Barack Obama's victory in the U.S. elections.
Obama's Democratic Party, and the president-elect himself, have called much more emphatically than the governing Republican Party for Colombia -- the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt -- to clean up its human rights record.
In fact, Democrats in the U.S. Congress have so far blocked approval of the free trade agreement signed with this South American country, demanding that the large number of murders of trade unionists and others in this civil war-torn country be clarified and that the killings be brought to an end.
"The question of approval of the bilateral trade deal is much thornier than it was just a few hours ago," lamented Luis Carlos Villegas, president of the National Association of Industrialists, when Obama's victory was announced.
Early this year, IPS found out that the U.S. State Department was pressing for Montoya to retire. The general is considered the main promoter of the "body count" policy, in which the numbers of guerrillas killed in combat are taken as "results" and as an indication of military success.
Since the scandal over extrajudicial executions of civilians presented as guerrilla casualties broke out in late September, the government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe has treated the question as if it were a recent phenomenon.
The scandal was triggered by the discovery of the bodies of 11 young men who had gone missing from Soacha, a slum neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bogotá, and turned up hundreds of kilometres from their home. The corpses had been presented by the military as combat deaths.
But the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2007, released in March 2008, had already dedicated an extensive section of the chapter on Colombia to the question of military killings of civilians.
The report says, for example, that "According to the Prosecutor General's Office, there were 170 active investigations of extrajudicial killings that occurred from January 2001 to Aug. 31, 2007."
It also points out that a high-level committee on extrajudicial killings was set up in July 2007, under a Defence Ministry directive.
The committee allowed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Colombia "to visit all seven army divisions to review cases with the commanders of the units," the report says, adding that "Through its efforts 600 human rights cases were transferred during the year from the military to the civilian justice system."
The UNHCHR has been documenting cases of extrajudicial executions since 2004, while local human rights groups have been reporting the practice since the 1970s.
Investigations of military killings of civilians have now extended to 12 of Colombia's 32 departments (provinces), with more than 1,000 cases in the hands of the attorney general's office and over 760 members of the military and police under investigation.
The work of the high-level committee on extrajudicial killings "also led to orders instructing military commanders to emphasise demobilisation over captures and capture over kills," adds the State Department report, referring to the left-wing insurgent groups active in the country since 1964.
But these measures do not appear to have had an effect.
According to the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group (CCEEU), an umbrella that links some 200 human rights organisations, one person a day was killed in extrajudicial executions by the security forces between January 2007 and June 2008.
The discovery of the bodies of the young men from Soacha led to the Oct. 29 dismissal of three generals, 17 other army officers and seven noncommissioned officers. The government cited negligence and failure to exercise adequate command and control of their troops.
Without including or even consulting then army commander General Montoya, the Defence Ministry set up a special commission on Sept. 29 to investigate the deaths, led by General Carlos Arturo Suárez.
Montoya launched his own internal inquiry commission, which he claimed he established as soon as the discovery of the 11 Soacha bodies was reported in the press on Sept. 23.
On Oct. 24, three days before the Defence Ministry's commission presented its confidential report, Montoya decided to fire three colonels who were posted in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander, where the bodies of nine of the 11 missing young men were found.
The general reported that his commission had found "serious signs in two or three cases in which the procedures followed by the army are not clear."
He also announced that the following week (the last week in October), the council headed by the Defence Ministry and made up of all of the country's generals and admirals would be convened to approve the colonels' dismissal, following normal procedure.
Montoya said he would provide the attorney general's office with the testimony collected by his commission, in order for it to determine "whether or not a crime was committed."
For his part, Uribe called for the maximum possible punishment for the three colonels, who he said had "let him down."
When the commission headed up by General Suárez presented its report to the president, Montoya was not invited.
On Oct. 29, Uribe announced the dismissal of the 27 officers and noncommissioned officers. The list included the three colonels who Montoya had decided to sack.
A key aspect of the whole affair involves the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in The Hague, which was set up to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in cases where countries directly connected with such crimes are not able or willing to carry out prosecutions themselves.
During her visit to Colombia last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay -- a South African jurist who sat on the ICC until August -- said she believed the dismissal of the officers was prompted by a warning she had issued, which caused alarm in Bogotá.
Pillay reported Saturday that in her meetings with Defence Ministry officials she "noted that in accordance with international standards, a superior may be criminally responsible for crimes committed by subordinates, under his or her effective authority and control, and as a result of his or her failure to exercise control properly over such subordinates.
"So this is the basis on which this government has acted," she said, adding that "I am encouraging that the process of investigation be followed consistently through the ranks," until those who are directly responsible are found.
"An offence becomes a crime against humanity if it is widespread and systematic against the civilian population. We are observing and keeping a record of the number of extrajudicial killings, and it does appear systematic and widespread in my view," Pillay said.
Although the ICC will not be able to take action with regard to war crimes in Colombia until Nov. 1, 2009, it can do so now in the case of crimes against humanity and genocide in which the state has failed to act.