Gen Mario Montoya was the star soldier who oversaw the defeat of Latin America’s most powerful insurgency, a US-trained professional hailed for turning around a demoralized army and masterminding a string of brutal strikes against Colombia’s leftist guerrillas.
After taking command of the South American country’s army in 2006, he regularly appeared on television news, the face of a modern military who even spoke the language of human rights.
“Gen Montoya commanded the army at the height of the conflict, when the military was taking the fight to the guerrillas with unprecedented intensity,” said Adam Isacson, director for defence oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America. “He seemed like an emblem of a new, more professional, more effective army that worked closely with the United States.”
Now, however, Montoya is facing murder charges, alleged to have overseen the abduction and execution of up to 104 civilians – including five children – who were falsely described as rebels to boost statistics, in a scandal known in Colombia as the “false positives”.
“Montoya’s legacy is very different from what he, and Colombians, had expected it to be in mid-2008,” Isacson said. “He has since come to be seen as a general who measured success through body counts, and who created an internal climate that tolerated human rights abuses.”
The office of Colombia’s attorney general announced on Sunday that charges would be forthcoming, puncturing the now-retired general’s aura of invincibility – and giving victims hope that light will finally be shed on one of the darkest chapters of the country’s internal conflict.
The vast majority of the “false positive” killings took place between 2002 and 2008, when the government of then-president Álvaro Uribe was waging war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Farc), a leftist rebel group which ultimately made peace with the government in 2016.
A special peace tribunal, known as the JEP, found in February that at least 6,402 people were killed as the “false positives”.
Soldiers who carried out the executions were rewarded with perks including time off and promotions, while their superiors used the figures to justify substantial military aid from the United States.
Montoya, who Uribe once described as “a hero of the homeland”, commanded the army during the abuses and was in close contact with his commander in chief. He resigned in 2008, when news of the false positives scandal first broke.
One of the victims was Julián Oviedo Monroy, who disappeared in 2008, after being recruited near his home near Bogotá with bogus promises of work. His body was eventually found in a mass grave near Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela.
“As one of his victims, I say to Mario Montoya that I want you to face justice, to face the truth,” said Blanca Monroy, Julián’s mother. “I’m happy that Colombian justice is finally bringing some results, and I hope that he gets charged and pays many years in jail for what he’s done.”
While more than a thousand low and mid-ranking soldiers have been convicted and jailed for their roles in the executions, no general has yet faced serious legal jeopardy. Montoya – who is one of the most decorated Colombian military officials alive – would be the highest profile official by far.
Few prominent figures rushed to Montoya’s defence after the attorney general’s announcement, though a desultory hashtag on Twitter, #ISupportGeneralMontoya gained some traction. Neither Montoya nor Uribe has made any public comment on the looming charges.
But analysts say the charges are more symbolic than practical, given that in 2018 Montoya – who has previously denied wrongdoing – began cooperating with the JEP’s investigation of the extrajudicial killings, precluding him from facing justice in regular courts, at least for now.
If Montoya is sentenced by the JEP, he would serve between five and eight years – outside a prison – and community service, though could face the rest of his life behind bars if his case winds up in regular court.
“The announcement is important, but it’s mostly symbolic while Montoya and other generals are before the JEP,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But he will have to fully confess to his crimes to the JEP or he could be expelled from that process and he would have to face the ordinary courts.”
Whatever happens with Montoya, the looming charges have again cast a spotlight on former president Uribe’s role in the conflict. Activists led by mothers of victims such as Monroy have used the catchphrase “Who gave the order?” on murals in cities across Colombia.
“Montoya drew his power from having a direct line with Uribe,” Vivanco said. “He was so powerful that Montoya understood he could keep everyone in line that way.”
This article was amended on 4 August 2021 to correct the location where Julián Oviedo Monroy’s body was found.