Colombian mother tackles military over son’s murder
Moloney is the Latin America correspondent for Reuters AlertNet and TrustLaw.
Every morning Luz Marina would bathe her son, dress him and comb his hair.
She did this on 7th January 2008, the day her 26-year-old mentally and physically disabled son left their home in the poor neighbourhood of Soacha on the outskirts of Bogota.
“My son liked to help people. He’d carry people’s shopping and work at construction sites carrying cement blocks. He was a special son and a loving child,” Marina told TrustLaw. “But that day he never returned home. He just disappeared.”
For eight months, Marina combed the capital’s morgues, hospitals, prisons and slums looking for her missing son, Fair Leonardo Porras.
Her search ended when officials from the local morgue contacted her. They showed Marina a photograph of Porras, lying in an unmarked grave, some 560 kms (350 miles) from Bogota in Colombia’s North Santander province.
“His body was riddled with 13 bullets, two in his face. You could see the terror in his face,” she said.
Marina, her husband and their younger son and two daughters made the 20-hour bus journey to claim Porras’ body. She stood “frozen” as the body was exhumed from a grave it shared with three others. The grave was marked “NN” or “no name”.
That was just the beginning of the family’s nightmare.
They were informed that Porras had been classified in a military report as a member of the guerrilla group, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and registered as a combat kill.
“I knew then that something was very wrong. I know my son wasn’t a guerrilla. He couldn’t hold a gun because of his impaired hand, so how could he even fight?” Marina said, sitting behind a large framed photograph of her son, a handsome man with piercing blue eyes dressed in his best.
Porras was a victim of what are arguably the worst human rights violations to have taken place in Colombia in recent years.
The abuses involve scores of innocent men, some as young as 16, killed by security forces, who then passed them off as guerrillas killed in battle to inflate the body count in the government’s nearly 50-year war against FARC rebels.
The killings, known in Colombia as the “false positives” affair, first made local headlines just over four years ago.
Porras was one of 22 young men who were lured from their homes by the promise of work, and who all disappeared from Bogota’s Soacha neighbourhood in 2007 and early 2008. Similar disappearances took place across Colombia.
“Victims wearing clean jungle boots four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of the neck, further undermine the suggestion that these were guerrillas killed in combat,” United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston wrote in a report in June 2009.
“The sheer number of cases, their geographical spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military,” said Alston.
Some 3,500 people, mostly poor, unemployed or mentally disabled, fell victim to such extra-judicial executions from 2004 to 2008, rights groups say.
“One of the worst things about this is that the military and government labelled my son a guerrilla. They defamed and degraded my son’s character,” Marina said.
It was that accusation that motivated Marina to clear her son’s name. Through a group she heads, the Mothers of Soacha, she also campaigns for justice for 21 other families who accuse security forces of killing their sons.
A gentle and unassuming woman who left school at the age of 15 but later earned a degree in human rights law, Marina never imagined taking on such a formidable opponent as the Colombian military.
In the family’s small living room lie stacks of files containing letters, judicial evidence, photos and newspaper clippings, detailing Marina’s ongoing fight for justice.
The Mothers of Soacha have received death threats over the telephone and by email and menacing leaflets have been slipped under the doors of their homes.
“The military wanted to shut us up,” Marina said in her determined voice.
Against immense odds, nearly five years after her son’s disappearance, Marina got justice.
In June, after a weeks-long trial in a Bogota courtroom, six army officers and soldiers were found guilty of murder and the forced disappearance of Porras and were handed prison sentences of 35 to 52 years.
“They should have been locked up for ever,” Marina said. “There’s no death penalty in Colombia but they carried out a death penalty in cold blood against my son and others.”
The attorney general’s office is investigating over 1,500 similar cases of alleged extra-judicial killings.
BODY BAG CULTURE
Even in a country hardened by nearly five decades of war, the false positives scandal continues to provoke horror and disbelief among Colombians – not least because soldiers brought to trial have spoken of being rewarded for killing innocent civilians, including bonuses, promotions and days off.
“They killed my son and put him in a mass grave so I wouldn’t be able to find him, and then they were congratulated and given rewards,” Marina said.
Most of the killings occurred during the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) in which the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, was defence minister when the false positives scandal exploded.
Uribe’s all-out military offensive against the FARC meant the armed forces were under constant pressure to boost rebel body counts and show they were winning the war, and this helped fuel the practice of extra-judicial killings, rights groups say.
Dozens of soldiers and officers have been fired over the scandal since 2008.
The government offered Marina and other victims’ families nearly $10,000 in compensation. She didn’t accept the money.
“My son was treated like merchandise. It’s not about the money. It’s about dignity and truth. We victims deserve a public apology from the president,” said Marina.
Extra-judicial killings are still being reported, though the number has fallen dramatically since 2008, say the Mothers of Soacha and other local rights groups.
Verdicts have been reached in about 170 of the 3,500 or so cases. But victims’ families say the wheels of justice are grinding too slowly.
“We have to keep working so that every family whose son has been killed by a criminal enterprise run by the state knows what really happened and can bury their sons with dignity,” Marina said.
This article originally appeared on TrustLaw.