President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, center, accompanied by Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, left, and Chief Army Commander Freddy Padilla, in Bogota on Wednesday. (Miguel Angel Solano/Reuters)
SOACHA, Colombia: Julian Oviedo, a 19-year-old construction worker in this gritty patchwork of slums, told his mother on March 2 that he was going to talk to a man about a job offer. A day later, Oviedo was shot and killed by army troops about 560 kilometers to the north. He was classified as a subversive and registered as a combat kill.
Colombia’s government, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America, has been buffeted by the disappearance of Oviedo and dozens of other young, impoverished men and women whose cases have come to light. Some were vagrants, some were street vendors or manual laborers. But their fates were often the same: They were catalogued as insurgents or criminal gang members and killed by the armed forces.
Prosecutors and human rights researchers are investigating hundreds of such deaths and disappearances, contending that the Colombian security forces are murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons on or near their bodies or dressing the corpses in guerrilla fatigues.
With soldiers under intense pressure in recent years to register combat kills to earn promotions and benefits like time off and extra pay, reports of civilian killings are climbing, prosecutors and researchers said, pointing to a grisly facet of this country’s long internal war against leftist insurgencies.