Colombia has arrested an army general for his role a decade ago in the extrajudicial killing of civilians presented as guerrillas killed in combat, the highest-ranking military officer to ever be detained for such crimes.
Gen. Henry Torres, who currently holds an administrative position in the armed forces, turned himself in Monday as soon as the arrest order on charges of homicide against him was issued.
The chief prosecutor's office also announced it would seek the detention of retired Gen. Mario Montoya, a close ally of former President Alvaro Uribe who headed the army when the so-called "false positives'' scandal broke in 2008. The revelation that security forces killed thousands of civilians to inflate body counts on which bonuses and vacations were based tarnished the U.S.-backed military but so far has led to only a handful of charges against high-ranking officers.
Torres' arrest comes as a leading human rights group warned that a deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to end the country's decades-long conflict would allow top officers to escape jail time, or avoid prosecution altogether.
Human Rights Watch said in a report Monday that many of those accused of implementing or carrying out the extermination policy will likely have their cases heard in a special peace tribunals set up to implement a peace accord being negotiated in Cuba. Under the proposed terms of the accord already agreed to by both sides, rebels and state agents who confess their crimes will be spared jail time and sentenced to a maximum eight years of labor in projects to rebuild communities torn apart by the conflict.
Given the agreement's ambiguities, there's a high risk of impunity and some perpetrators currently detained could even be released, Human Rights Watch said.
"The agreement is a checkmate against justice,'' Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
President Juan Manuel Santos, in a January interview with The Associated Press, was skittish about whether army officers accused of civilian killings should be judged by the peace tribunals, saying it's up to individual judges to decide.
"If it had nothing to do with the conflict, then it's not subject to transitional justice. If it has in any way to do with the conflict, then it will be in transitional justice. And that's for the new courts that we are creating to determine,'' he said.
Between 2002 and 2008, army brigades across Colombia systematically executed more than 4,000 civilians to make it appear they were killing more rebel fighters in combat. To date, more than 800 members of the security forces have been convicted and hundreds more are under investigation.
Torres was the head of a military unit in eastern Casanare state that in 2007 killed a father and son and later presented the two as guerrillas killed in combat.
The arrest of Montoya, who was ordered to appear before a judge May 31, would be an even bigger blow to the army's reputation. A former ambassador to the Dominican Republic under Uribe, Montoya rose through the army's ranks despite longstanding accusations by human rights groups for allegedly turning a blind eye to abuses by paramilitary groups in a 2002 military takeover of a slum in the western city of Medellin.