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 dead by army troops some 350 miles 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 killings of Oviedo and dozens of other young, impoverished men and women whose cases have come to light in recent weeks. Some were vagrants, others street vendors and manual laborers. But their fates were often the same: being 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 Colombia's security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing them 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 say, pointing to a grisly facet of Colombia's long internal war against leftist insurgencies.
The deaths have called into question the depth of Colombia's recent strides against the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and have begun to haunt the nation's military hierarchy.
President Alvaro Uribe's government announced yesterday that it had fired more than two dozen officers and soldiers - including three generals - in connection with the deaths of Oviedo and 10 other young men from Soacha, whose bodies were recently discovered in unmarked graves in a distant combat zone. The purge came after an initial shake-up last Friday, when the army command relieved three colonels from their duties.
At a news conference yesterday, Uribe said an internal military investigation appeared to have uncovered "crimes that in some regions had the goal of killing innocents, to make it seem as if criminals were being confronted."
"The armed forces of Colombia have well-earned prestige," Uribe said. "When there are violations of human rights, that prestige is muddled."
The wave of recent killings has also heightened focus on the U.S. Embassy here, which is responsible for vetting Colombian military units for human rights abuses before they can receive aid. A study of civilian killings by Amnesty International and Fellowship of Reconciliation, human rights groups, found that 47 percent of the reported cases in 2007 involved Colombian units financed by the United States.
Even before the most recent disappearances and killings, prosecutors and human rights groups were examining a steady increase in the reports of civilian killings since 2002, when commanders intensified a counterinsurgency financed in no small part by more than $500 million a year in American security aid.