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24 June 2010

Santos wins landslide victory in Colombian election

But will the former defence minister take responsibility for the murder of 2,000-plus civilians?

By Ines Ward

Juan Manuel Santos made a clean sweep of the second round of the Colombian elections, winning the highest vote ever received by a president. He seduced the electorate on Sunday with a message of national unity.

But Santos’s victory is controversial. During his term as minister of defence, it emerged that the army had murdered more than 2,000 civilians over several years, passing them off as rebels.

Under President Àlvaro Uribe’s “democratic security” policy, soldiers are rewarded according to the number of rebels they kill, a practice called “positivos“.

The scandal known as “falsos positivos” erupted late in 2008 when 19 young men were reported missing in the municipality of Soacha, only to reappear as rebels killed in action a day later, on the other side of the country.

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“Those young people were contacted by guys that were related to the army and they were delivered to them,” says Maria Victoria Llorentes, executive director of the think tank Ideas para la Paz, which monitors the Colombian armed conflict.

But the army is also under tremendous pressure to defeat the rebels. Uribe and now Santos have made this the cornerstone of their mandate.

“Uribe has been pushing the military forces a lot for results. Previous presidents were not pressing as hard; he is really obsessed with these figures,” says Llorentes

Juan Manuel Santos reacted quickly when the scandal emerged. He fired leading members of the military staff and forced the commander of the armed forces, General Mario Montoya, to “resign”. Santos also created a new human rights doctrine for the armed forces in late 2008.

But doubts remain over how much he knew.

“Santos only took action once the killings went public,” says Hollman Morris, a journalist and strong critic of Uribe’s presidency. “Why only in 2008? What happened to the internal control mechanisms of the armed forces? You could think they hushed it up.”

Close your eyes

On the contrary, Roy Barreras, a senator and member of Santos’s political party, defends him. “The minister of defence of this government was the one who denounced the falsos positivos, which had been happening for a long time. He warned about the phenomenon and stopped it.”

The murders outraged Colombia’s educated classes, who denounced them in the media, but they left the rest of the country indifferent.

“It was like, yes, it’s horrible and everything, but that is it. Life goes on,” says Maria Victoria Llorentes. “The feeling against the Farc [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is so strong. In fact, that is why Santos is winning. The rest of the people couldn’t care less.”

“The feeling of greater security and safety that Uribe and Santos were able to transmit weighs more than the scandal,” says Angelika Rettberg, a political analyst at Los Andes University.

“There is also something classist about it: these kids are mainly poor kids, so it makes it easier for people to close their eyes.”

Yet many people feel not enough was done.

“In Israel, for the murder of nine activists on the flotillas, they are asking for the prime minister to resign. And here in Colombia where thousands died, we elect Santos as president,” says William Salamanca, 43, a taxi driver.

It is the question of political responsibility that remains most troubling. No one knows who should take the blame for the falsos positivos.

But a recent verdict condemning General Plazas Vega for murders committed by the army during the siege of the Palace of Justice in Bogotà in 1985 is setting a new precedent.

Will President Juan Manuel Santos be held accountable in the future for the falsos positivos?