In public testimony to Colombia’s truth commission on Friday, former President Juan Manuel Santos asked for forgiveness for extrajudicial killings of thousands of people committed by the country’s armed forces partly during his time as defense minister.
Santos, who in 2016 signed the peace deal which created the commission, testified about the so-called “false positives” scandal, when soldiers murdered civilians and registered them as guerrilla fighters killed in combat to receive benefits.
The country’s transitional justice court says at least 6,402 people were killed and falsely presented as rebels between 2002 and 2008, during the term of ex-President Alvaro Uribe. Some victims groups allege the figure could be higher.
Santos served as defense minister under Uribe for nearly three years between 2006 and 2009 and was in the post when the killings were uncovered.
“The chapter of the false positives is one of the most painful moments I’ve had in my public life and is an indelible stain on the honor of the army,” said Santos, adding he regretted mothers lost children to the practice during his time as minister.
Pressure to produce high kill counts, backed by Uribe, was to blame, he said, and the army should ask forgiveness.
“This should never have happened,” Santos said. “I recognize that and ask forgiveness from all the mothers and their families, victims of this horror, from the depths of my soul.”
Santos said when he first heard rumors of the killings, he did not believe them.
Once it became clear the rumors were true, Santos said he issued orders privileging demobilizations and captures over kills, changed protocols for handling combat deaths and modified criteria for awarding medals.
The results of an internal investigation left him stunned, Santos said.
“I had perhaps never felt with such force a combination of anger and intense pain, with such deep sadness.”
Dozens of military officials – who broke will all accepted doctrine – were removed from their posts, he said, and changes to protocol led to a precipitous descent in murders committed by the army.
Victims groups the False Positive Mothers of Colombia had earlier urged Santos to ask forgiveness.
“For the memory of our children tell the truth,” the group tweeted.
Dozens of army officials have been detained and convicted of involvement in the killings.
The 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas won Santos the Nobel Peace Prize and saw some 13,000 FARC members demobilize.
Santos is the third former president to give a contribution to the commission, whose mandate ends this year.
It is unclear whether Uribe – who vehemently opposed the peace deal – will eventually testify.