Are British taxpayers helping to fund civil war killings in Colombia?

At first glance, the graveyard in La Macarena, 170 miles south of Bogotá, looks like any other resting place for the dead in Latin America. Well-tended graves lie in neat rows, divided by tidy paths.

But slightly uphill there lies an annexe to the cemetery, and in this unofficial graveyard are hundreds of small white plaques. These are marked with neither names nor poetry but instead with mere numbers. 054-08. 07-09. 08-10. 011-10. 012-10. 013-10. The last part of the code denotes the year of the burial; new bodies are still arriving. They mark the graves of anonymous victims of Colombia’s civil war.

The dates run from 2002, when the army reclaimed this zone from the guerrilla fighters of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The annexe is next to the regional army base at La Macarena, where watchtowers monitor the scene from behind a chainlink fence. Radar dishes eavesdrop on every move – nothing happens without the army knowing about it.

The claims of killings by the army in La Macarena are inflammatory in Colombia. In 2008, the army was revealed to have been carrying out extrajudicial executions of civilians elsewhere in the midst of a violent conflict with the FARC guerrilla fighters.

The then president, Alvaro Uribe, had vowed to eliminate the insurgents, and incentives for an increased body count included promotion and holidays. Under this pressure, several army units killed rural civilians, and reported their deaths as guerrillas killed in combat.

Often they dressed the bodies in FARC uniforms and planted guns on their corpses. Sometimes the dead would be dressed in new boots four sizes too big; right-handers clutching guns in their left, shot in the chest or back while their uniforms had no bullet holes. Some were executed at point-blank range.

The ‘False Positives’ scandal, as it was known, broke when 11 young men from Soacha, a poor suburb of Bogotá, were enticed away from their homes by men offering them work, then found dead hundreds of miles away, near the border of Venezuela, dressed in FARC fatigues.

Eventually, about 2,000 cases emerged. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, said in a June 2009 report that the practice was ‘carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military’.

On July 25, the outgoing president, Alvaro Uribe, visited the military base at La Macarena to carry out his last public act as president. He accused those campaigning on behalf of the alleged local victims of being ‘mouthpieces’ for the guerrillas, and urged the army to continue its work crushing terrorism. The UN does not share this view. It analysed the site in September and issued a report demanding an investigation.

Vladimir Rubiano is hiding his tears as he describes life for Colombia’s rural poor caught up in this conflict. Rubiano describes how the army shot his young nephew in broad daylight in a neighbouring district, El Tapir, on March 14 2009.

The army tried to present him as a guerrilla killed in combat and sent him for burial in the annexe until villagers arrived to stop them. They found the army planting a bomb on the path, he says, in order to pretend their victim was planning an attack. ‘What hope is there? The guerrillas kill us, the paramilitaries kill us and the army kill us. All I want is justice.’

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