BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A U.S.-trained general who headed Colombia’s army when it killed civilians to increase body counts in its war against rebels has been charged with war crimes for allegedly overseeing the killings or disappearance of 130 innocent people, judicial authorities announced Wednesday.
Montoya, the highest-ranking military officer to be accused in what’s known as the false positives scandal, has denied ordering extrajudicial killings. His lawyer declined to comment Wednesday.
Montoya demanded results from his soldiers — especially combat killings — “at all costs,” the tribunal said in court documents.
The indictment released Wednesday is a new step in the years-long effort to hold Colombia’s armed forces accountable in one of the darkest moments in the country’s modern history. An estimated 6,402 Colombians — men, women and children, many of them unemployed and poor, some of them disabled — were killed from 2002 to 2008 by soldiers who claimed they were war casualties, according to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. After their deaths, their bodies were often dressed in enemy gear and posed with guns.
Courts and tribunals here have ruled that the extrajudicial killings were a crime against humanity. The peace tribunal, formed in 2017 as part of the country’s peace deal to end 50 years of war with the FARC, has charged 62 military officials, including three generals, and civilians over their alleged roles in the killings. Fifty-five of them have accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced punishments.
Montoya led the Fourth Brigade from January 2002 to December 2003. During that time, he allegedly fostered a culture of competition among units to promote more killing. That led soldiers to kill innocent people and stage combat that never happened, the peace tribunal said.
Montoya rewarded soldiers who complied with his orders, the tribunal said, and threatened to kick those who didn’t out of the army.
The indictment also names eight of Montoya’s subordinates as defendants. Many of them told the peace tribunal of feeling intimidated by the general and pressured to kill civilians and present them as war casualties.
Montoya led the army at a critical time in the conflict, when the United States was pouring money into the Colombian armed forces to help the nation fight narcotrafficking and organized crime. Between 1999 and 2005, Colombia received $3.78 billion from Washington through Plan Colombia, a war-on-drugs effort initiated under President Bill Clinton and expanded under President George W. Bush.
After Congress approved funding for the initiative, the Colombian army began to use the casualty numbers as an indicator of success, the peace tribunal says.
By the time Montoya joined the Fourth Brigade, Plan Colombia had already led to a drastic shift within the armed forces. Antioquia, the region he oversaw, was under constant attack by the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Kidnappings and killings occurred on a daily basis.
Then-President Álvaro Uribe, elected on a promise to impose an iron fist against guerrilla groups, named Montoya as army chief in 2006. Montoya worked closely with the United States and was credited with helping turn the tide of the conflict against the FARC.
Perhaps most famously, he was one of the chief orchestrators of Operation Jaque, the 2008 mission in which the Colombian army liberated 15 hostages, including presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who had been held by the FARC. A photograph of the general raising a fist beside Betancourt after her rescue was widely circulated in Colombia as the country celebrated the victory.
Months later, the false positives scandal came to light, the United Nations sent a special rapporteur to the country and Uribe removed Montoya and other military officials from their roles. Uribe named Montoya ambassador to the Dominican Republic, where Montoya remained until 2011.
Prosecutors in 2021 requested murder charges against Montoya. But a criminal court ruled that the general would need to be charged in the Special Peace Jurisdiction.
Montoya now has two options: If he cooperates with the court and accepts responsibility for his alleged crimes, he could be subject to five to eight years of restrictive measures, such as house arrest. Otherwise he can go to trial and, if convicted, potentially be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Victims of those killed in the false positives case have waited years to see Montoya held accountable. But Wednesday’s indictment left some unsatisfied.
“This indictment is only about one region, one battalion, a minimum period. It’s a limited investigation that raises serious questions,” says German Romero, a lawyer representing victims in the false positives case.
Romero criticized the peace court for not asking authorities to investigate other prominent leaders, especially Uribe, who was president throughout the period of the false positives scandal.
Uribe has said repeatedly that he did not play a role in ordering the extrajudicial killings of civilians while in office. He has denied every accusation against his administration in connection to the case.
In May, the family members of the 130 people killed in Antioquia, allegedly under Montoya’s leadership, spoke directly to the former general. One of them was Gloria López, the mother of 13-year-old Erika Castañeda, who was killed in 2002.
“You invited the media and gave a news conference testifying that they were from” the FARC, López told Montoya. “Scoundrel. They were lies. They were children.”
“My daughter was a student, she wanted to be a dentist to give us a better future,” she said. “You condemned me to live without her.”