BOGOTA – Colombia’s President Ivan Duque praised his military top brass at a ceremony on Friday, saying those senior officials had been chosen as part of a thorough selection process.
Duque made his remarks at a promotion ceremony for senior military brass, including army commander Gen. Nicacio Martinez Espinel, who has come under fire for an order demanding a big increase in the number of criminals and militants killed, captured or forced to surrender.
“Our generals are virtuous people whose actions are always open to scrutiny by our citizens and institutions,” Duque said at the ceremony at the Jose Maria Cordova Military School in Bogota.
The Colombian head of state said that as part of the painstaking process of selecting his top military officials he had not only looked at these individuals’ performance within their respective institutions but also spoken with members of the armed forces and reserve forces to identify those people who were the “most highly trained and of the highest character.”
“I can say today that these military leaders who have been with us for several months” are worthy of being the military top brass of Colombia’s bicentennial year, Duque said in reference to the commemoration of 200 years since the Andean nation effectively achieved its independence from Spain.
Besides Martinez, the other senior officials promoted at the ceremony were Luis Fernando Navarro, commander of the armed forces; Ramses Rueda, commander of the air force; and Evelio Ramirez, commander of the navy.
Colombia’s 108-seat Senate voted to make Martinez a four-star general by a vote of 64-1 after a heated debate in which opposition parties expressed strong opposition to the military official.
The opposition lawmakers then walked out of the session after a measure calling for a separate vote on Martinez’s promotion was rejected.
Controversy over Martinez erupted on May 18, when a New York Times article said the army commander had ordered his troops to “double the number of criminals and militants they kill, capture or force to surrender in battle – and possibly accept higher civilian casualties in the process.”
In the article, journalist Nicholas Casey wrote that Martinez issued the order due to his frustration at “the nation’s faltering efforts to secure peace” two and half years after former President Juan Manuel Santos’s administration signed a peace deal with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Casey, who reviewed written army orders and conducted interviews with senior officers, wrote that Colombia’s army was pushing “another incarnation” of a policy that had led to a widespread practice in the middle of the last decade known as “false positives,” in which unarmed civilians were killed by army soldiers and then presented as guerrillas killed in combat.
The article quoted Martinez as saying that he had issued the written order instructing top commanders to “double the results” due to the threat Colombia continues to face from guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal organizations.
Although the article said “one order causing particular worry instructs soldiers not to ‘demand perfection’ in carrying out deadly attacks,” Martinez told the Times that “respect for human rights is the most important thing.”
Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office has investigated nearly 5,000 false positives cases allegedly committed by roughly 1,500 troops between 1988 and 2014.
Nearly half of those cases are being handled by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was established as part of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC and tasked with investigating and adjudicating crimes committed during Colombia’s decades-old armed conflict.