Instead, his mother would later learn, he was taken hundreds of miles from their home in Soacha, just outside Bogotá, to rural Norte de Santander department. He was handed over to members of the Colombian army, and on Aug. 25, shot and killed — one of thousands of people slain by government forces and then falsely labeled as guerrilla fighters to boost the number of enemy casualties in the country’s half-century-long civil war, according to a Colombian court.
It’s a question they have long put to one man in particular: Gen. Mario Montoya, the U.S.-trained commander who led the army at the peak of the killings, celebrated for helping defeat the largest rebel group in the war.
On Wednesday, the 13th anniversary of Tamayo’s death, Montoya appeared in court to be formally charged with murder for allegedly overseeing and incentivizing the killings of 104 civilians, including five children, according to the country’s attorney general. The retired general, who commanded the army between 2006 and 2008, is the highest-ranking military officer to face accountability in the scandal that continues to haunt the country nearly five years after a peace deal ended decades of armed conflict.
“It’s a real blow to the Colombian army’s image,” Isacson said. “People who are upheld as heroes and as people who are turning the country around 12 or 15 years ago, now facing charges of human rights abuse.”
At the arraignment hearing Wednesday, lawyers for both Montoya and the victims of the killings debated whether Attorney General Francisco Barbosa should be granted jurisdiction over the case. Judge Fabio David Bernal Suárez postponed the decision until Thursday, leaving Montoya’s criminal charges in limbo.
“Seeing him there, arriving like any other criminal … that was important,” said Jacqueline Castillo, a member of the “Mothers of Soacha,” a group of family members of victims of the extrajudicial killings.
At least 6,402 Colombians were killed as false enemy combatants between 2002 and 2008, according to a postwar court created in 2016 as part of the peace deal with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
In July, the tribunal charged 11 top military leaders, including a general, in the deaths of at least 120 people in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander. The kidnappings and killings of innocent people, many of them unemployed, homeless or disabled, were carried out in response to pressure to meet body counts as measures of success, the court said. Military leaders incentivized soldiers to kill by offering medals, awards and even vacation time.
The charges pursued by Barbosa are separate from a peace court investigation into Montoya’s actions, which has not yet yielded charges.
Andrés Garzón, a lawyer representing Montoya, said the retired general denies all charges. Garzón argued that the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction over the case and that the peace tribunal does.
“Everyone must answer for their actions, and at no time did Mario Montoya’s actions give rise to those heinous events,” the lawyer said. “We respect the pain of the families in these 6,400 events and we ask that these circumstances be clarified.”
Montoya was “a darling of the Americans,” Isacson said, particularly as head of Colombia’s Joint Task Force South, the chief recipient of U.S. aid in the early days of the anti-drug-trafficking and anti-insurgency initiative Plan Colombia.
Perhaps most famously, Montoya was one of the chief orchestrators of Operation Jaque, in which the Colombian army liberated 15 FARC-held hostages, including the Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. A photograph of the general raising a fist beside Betancourt after her rescue was widely circulated in Colombia as the country celebrated the victory.
“He was almost Pattonesque in terms of how he projected himself,” Brownfield said. “I would not be surprised if, given his leadership style, General Montoya had made it clear to his sub-commanders that he expected to see results. And results, from his perspective, was taking the fight to the FARC … and producing evidence of victory.”
If he were charged in the peace court, he would have two options. He could accept responsibility for the crimes and face five to eight years of restrictive measures, such as house arrest. Or he could go to trial and, if convicted, face five to 20 years in prison.
Castillo said she hopes to see Montoya “recognize and accept that these are real facts.” But she and others want to see authorities take the case further up the chain — to determine any role played by former president Álvaro Uribe.
In a statement provided by a spokeswoman Wednesday, Uribe described Montoya as “a good person” and said “it would never cross the president’s soul to think that the general had ordered deaths.” “Uribe demanded results,” the former president said in testimony before Colombia’s Truth Commission last week. “That is their grand accusation against me. ... So I’ll explain: Some incapable people believed that producing results meant producing crimes.”
German Romero, another lawyer representing families in the Montoya case, said he doubts either court will pursue a case against the former president, who is exempt from charges in the peace tribunal. Montoya, the lawyer said, “is the grand prize.”
But Garcerá said she hopes the former army commander will take responsibility and “say who else was working with him.”
“I fear I’m going to die without finding justice, without knowing the truth,” said Garcerá, now 73. “Who killed my son?”