Moral Licensing and Impunity: Reflections on Colombian Security Sector Narratives

By Alejandra Ortiz Ayala

“Peace in Colombia is peace in our America,” in Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo by urban_lenny/Flickr.)

On March 18, 2019, I was doing fieldwork for my Ph.D. research at Colombia’s Escuela Superior de Guerra (Superior School of War), a military academy for training high-ranking officers. That day, The New York Times published an article in which some officers reported instructions to increase efforts to “secure peace” by stepping up attacks and doubling the number of criminals and militants killed, even if this implied weakening their procedures for preventing the killing of civilians. Concerned members of the Armed Forces feared that these initiatives would revive the logic that led to one of the Colombian Army’s most prominent scandals, the falsos positivos (false positives).

As part of a strategy to fight left-wing guerrillas and reestablish state control of violence across its territory, top-down government evaluations adopted body counts as key measures of good performance among military units. State forces, mainly the army, systematically killed civilians and then claimed they were guerilla fighters. These “combat” killings earned soldiers medals, promotions, congratulations from their superiors, and vacation time, among other compensations.

In reply to the Times article, the former Commander of the Army, Major General Nicacio Martínez, tweeted from his personal account quoting Elbert Hubbard, an American writer: “an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness”.

Major General Nicacio Martínez's Tweetm metioned above. (Capture by the author of this blog post. Retrieved on 5/18/19.)

Major General Nicacio Martínez’s tweet. (Captured by Alejandra Ortiz Ayala, retrieved on 5/18/19.)

The soldiers and civilians that surrounded me at the School of War reacted to this article with defensiveness. For most of these soldiers, civilian ignorance of the military world is the reason for those scandals; they see the reporting as an effort to affect the legitimacy of the military as an institution. I asked about the sources that contributed the information, telling the soldiers that the article was based on interviews with insiders concerned about the High Commander’s new approach. Without hesitation, they accused them of being traitors and disociadores (disruptors.) Few acknowledged the possible connection to the falsos positivos, and many declared that those were behaviors of the past, and that soldiers had already learned the lesson.  

On February 18, 2021, a press release from the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP, Special Jurisdiction for Peace; the judicial institution of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition created by the Peace Agreement signed between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in November 2016) reported 6,402 victims between 2002 and 2008. During this time, members of the military lured primarily poor young men with false job offers and other promises, and then murdered them. The JEP began functioning in March 2018, and among the matters that they prioritized for investigation, Case 03 addressed extrajudicial executions. After the publication, the new High Commander of the Colombian Army, General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro Altamirano, tweeted from his account, accompanied with a picture of snakes:

We are soldiers of the Colombian Army, and we will not allow ourselves to be defeated by poisonous and perverse snakes that want to attack us, point at us, or weaken us. Officers, sub-officers and soldiers do not give up, we do not lose heart, always strong with our heads held high. God is with us. (Tweet translated by the author of this post.)

Tweet by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro Altamirano mentioned above. (Capture by the author of this blog post. Retrieved on 02/20/2021)

Tweet by General Eduardo Enrique Zapateiro Altamirano. (Captured by Alejandra Ortiz Ayala, retrieved on 2/20/2021.)

Among societies that aim to transition away from long-lasting conflict to re-establishing peaceful and positive relations, defensiveness and a lack of willingness to acknowledge the wrongdoings of the past perpetrated by the self or one’s group are often amplified. Studies in socio-psychology and intergroup conflict show that individuals attempt to defend the self or the in-group from responsibility using psychological mechanisms such as dehumanization. In post-conflict contexts, in-group favoritism is even more pronounced, and is particularly prominent among those who experienced combat situations. It is not surprising, therefore, that soldiers tend to develop deeply held, rigid, and polarized views about the conflict, and often distort and selectively process information into congruence with their perceptions. State forces involved in irregular warfare often wear the law as an armor of impunity that allows them to draw a moral boundary, where acts of violence perpetuated by the in-group are more justifiable and less cruel than those committed by the out-group. Then the enemy occupies the space outside the law, and the unpardonable violence only happens outside the state institutions. That moral license encourages narratives that help soldiers deal with cognitive dissonance when they feel accused or persecuted for doing things that contradict their positive self-image. Thus, the feeling of genuine justification is common among soldiers, as is the perception that they are either within or above the law.

But this is not only about soldiers’ responsibilities; civil authorities are complicit in enabling that feeling of immunity among security forces when they minimize state responsibility. For instance, the former Minister of Defense, Guillermo Botero, may have covered up the knowledge of children being present in a camp of FARC dissidents in Caquetá, Colombia that was bombed in a 2019 military operation. After an investigation, it was confirmed that military intelligence was aware that dissident groups in that region recruited minors, and that seven people who died in the operation were between 12 and 17 years old. In similar circumstances, another group of minors died in the bombing of a dissident camp in February 2021. The current Minister of Defense, Diego Molano, called the minors “war machines,” and argued that the operation was legal. In addition to the fact that an illegal group committed a war crime by recruiting children, the state did not protect the children by preventing their recruitment in the first place. Further, considering the indiscriminate effects of using bombs, state forces have a duty to protect children by considering other military options. The Observatorio de la Democracia (Democracy Observatory) in Colombia reported that fewer than 4 out of 10 Colombians believe that the armed forces respect human rights, which suggests a problem of legitimacy for this institution. 

Graph indicating percentage of Colombians who believe that the Armed Forces respect human rights, 2012-2020. (Image courtesy of Observatorio de la Democracia.)Graph shows 55.1% in 2021, 30.6% in 2013, 35.4% in 2014, , 35.6% in 2016, 37.1% in 2018, and 37.1% in 2020, with a 95% confidence interval.
Percentage of Colombians who believe that the Armed Forces respect human rights, 2012-2020. (Image courtesy of Observatorio de la Democracia.)

Studies argue that policies aimed at breaking state impunity for past human rights violations make new violence less likely, and are more effective at fostering peaceful democracies. There is a long journey ahead, but the evidence tells us that a state incapable of recognizing its contribution to internal conflict is condemning all of us to unbreakable cycles of violence.

Note: By the time I finished writing this piece, the Colombian judicial system decided to end the investigation against former general Nicacio Martínez who stepped down from the Colombian Army on December 27, 2019 after a national magazine reported the use of illegal use of intelligence equipment to spy on politicians, magistrates, activist, human right defenders and journalists. He denies being involved in any of these scandals and argues that his resignation was for family reasons.

Alejandra Ortiz-Ayala is a Research Affiliate in Political Economy and Transnational Governance (PETGOV) at the University of Amsterdam, and a Ph.D. candidate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand.

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