Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Friday asked for forgiveness for the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people committed by the country’s armed forces partly during his time as defence minister.
Santos, who in 2016 signed the peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which created the commission, testified to Colombia’s truth commission about the so-called “false positives” scandal, when soldiers murdered civilians and registered them as fighters killed in combat to receive rewards.
The country’s transitional justice court has said at least 6,402 people were killed and falsely presented as rebels between 2002 and 2008, during the term of ex-President Alvaro Uribe. Some victims groups allege the figure could be higher.
Santos served as defence minister under Uribe for nearly three years between 2006 and 2009 and was in the post when the killings were uncovered.
“The chapter of the false positives is one of the most painful moments I’ve had in my public life and is an indelible stain on the honour of the army,” said Santos, adding he regretted that mothers lost children to the practice during his time as minister.
Pressure to produce high kill counts, backed by Uribe, was to blame, he said, and the army should ask forgiveness.
“This should never have happened,” Santos said. “I recognise that and ask forgiveness from all the mothers and their families, victims of this horror, from the depths of my soul.”
Santos said when he first heard rumours of the killings, he did not believe them.
Once it became clear the rumours were true, Santos said he issued orders privileging demobilisations and captures over kills, changed protocols for handling combat deaths and modified criteria for awarding medals.
The results of an internal investigation left him stunned, Santos said.
“I had perhaps never felt with such force a combination of anger and intense pain, with such deep sadness.”
Dozens of military officials were removed from their posts, he said, and changes to protocol led to a precipitous descent in murders committed by the army.
The victims group False Positive Mothers of Colombia had earlier urged Santos to ask forgiveness.
“Today, we hope little from you. [Santos] tell the truth. Ask forgiveness from every mother whose children were taken away by Uribe, [Former Colombian National Army General Mario Montoya] and yourself. Today you can change history. For the memory of our children tell the truth,” the group tweeted.
Hoy esperamos un poquito de usted. @JuanManSantos diga la verdad. Pida perdón a cada madre a la que Uribe, Montoya y usted le quitaron sus hijos. Hoy realmente puede cambiar la historia. Por la memoria de nuestros hijos diga la verdad. https://t.co/dhyZH6ZNc8
— Madres Falsos Positivos de Colombia (@MAFAPOCOLOMBIA) June 11, 2021
Dozens of army officials have been detained and convicted of involvement in the killings.
The 2016 peace deal with the FARC fighters won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize and saw some 13,000 FARC members demobilise.
FARC leaders also admitted in April to policies of kidnappings they called “unjustifiable”. Roughly 21,396 people were kidnapped or taken hostage by the FARC between 1990 and 2015, according to figures from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a court that oversees the peace process between FARC and the Colombian state.
The JEP charged former FARC commanders with war crimes in January.
The conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebel forces, including FARC, lasted 50 years and left 260,000 dead and millions displaced.
Santos is the third former president to give a contribution to the commission, whose mandate ends this year.
It is unclear whether Uribe – who vehemently opposed the peace deal – will eventually testify.
Right-wing President Ivan Duque who took office in 2018, has also been opposed to the deal. Some FARC fighters have continued fighting the government, leading to clashes and deaths, and imperilling the peace deal.
Ex-FARC commander and leader of the Comunes, the name the group adopted after it became a political party, sent an open letter to the US Congress in March, asking for assistance to save the peace plan.