On a chilly October afternoon in 2008, Jacqueline Castillo found herself staring down into a mass grave in Colombia's northern region of Santander. Five bodies, naked and dirty, were squeezed together like sacks of potatoes. Forensic doctors, wearing white suits, masks and rubber gloves, were pulling them out, one by one. They placed them beside her, and asked her to examine their faces.
Castillo was looking for her brother, Jaime, who had disappeared a few months earlier in Bogotá, more than 600km away. His was the last body they pulled out. When he was placed on the ground next to her, Castillo fell to her knees, screaming. The doctors told her he was a criminal, a member of one of the many guerrilla armies that had been fighting the Colombian state since the mid-1960s, and that he had been killed in combat. But Castillo knew that was impossible. Her brother had been a homeless beggar, not a guerrilla insurgent.
Castillo did not know it then, but she was standing next to the site of a mass grave for what would become known as falsos positivos, or "false positives" – innocent people extrajudicially killed by members of the Colombian army, and then falsely labelled as enemy combatants. Nobody knows exactly how many young men became false positives. The most recent report released by Colombia's attorney general's office says that between 1988 and 2014, around 2,248 people were killed. Previous reports by human rights organisations have estimated that the number may be 5,000 or even higher. The victims tended to be poor young men; some had learning disabilities. They had been lured to faraway places, on the promise of a job, by "recruiters" – people paid by soldiers to find possible targets. Then they were murdered.
Initially, only a small number of soldiers took part in such killings, experts believe, and they were careful to cover up their crimes. But by the mid-to-late 2000s, soldiers who murdered civilians had become so numerous and blatant that it was inevitable that their atrocities would be discovered.
What lay behind the killings was a government policy that sought to defeat, at all costs, the Farc guerrilla movement against which it had been fighting for decades. Since the early 2000s, the ministry of defence and the army had put out directives that prioritised body counts above all other results. They offered a series of rewards, such as money, medals and additional holiday leave, to military units that achieved high body counts, according to Human Rights Watch. Soldiers who killed six "enemies" or more were eligible for bonuses of up to 30m pesos (then worth $15,000). The result was a system of perverse incentives that led soldiers to kill vulnerable civilians. What makes the false positives scandal so shocking is not just the scale of the crimes, but the sheer banality of the motive: thousands of civilians were murdered so that the soldiers who did the killing could get more holiday, or a large bonus.
When confirmation of the scandal hit the press in 2008, in the weeks after Jacqueline Castillo identified the body of her brother, it shook Colombia's image of itself as a nation overcoming the brutalities of its past to become a more prosperous, modern state. "The false positives tarnished the government's record on successfully fighting off the insurgencies," said Kyle Johnson, a researcher at the Conflict Responses foundation. "The country took a huge step backwards on human rights."
Today, more than a decade after the scale of the false positives killings was discovered, the scandal is still roiling Colombia. At the centre of the tumult is the most celebrated, and controversial, military officer in recent Colombian history, General Mario Montoya. For many years, Montoya was one of the nation's most cherished heroes. Under his leadership, the army dealt the military blows to the Farc guerrillas that eventually drove them to the negotiating table in 2016, ending five decades of armed conflict. But it was also on Montoya's watch, between 2006 and 2008, that the practice of killing innocent civilians peaked.
Montoya's high rank has made prosecuting him a symbol of justice for human rights activists and the families of the false positives, and 12 years after the scandal broke, he is finally being investigated by Colombia's war crimes tribunal. If he is found to have had a role in the extrajudicial killings, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. But within the army, many believe the general has become a scapegoat for the sins of government officials, some of higher rank than him, who also had a role to play in the scandal.
Montoya's trial – which, because of the coronavirus pandemic, has been postponed until next year – will have huge political implications. He embodies uribismo, the hawkish conservative movement led by the former president Álvaro Uribe, which sought to destroy the guerrillas outright. In recent years Uribe and his followers have mounted an aggressive opposition to the 2016 peace deal, which Uribistas believe is too lenient towards the guerrillas.
These political divisions will be further inflamed by the trial of Montoya. Uribe has hailed Montoya as a hero, and said he hopes the general won't suffer an injustice at the hands of the war crimes tribunal. If he goes free, Uribistas will see it as a moment of triumph – and vindication for the aggressive military policies Uribe pursued as president. But a conviction would mean that the state, under Uribe, was the perpetrator of crimes against humanity. It would delegitimise a government that many Colombians believe saved their country.
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Members of the armed forces in Colombia often say there are two types of soldier. The first is the soldado intelectual, or the intellectual soldier, who is concerned with politics and the law. He engages in battle because it is his duty, but feels most comfortable sitting at a desk. The second, known as the soldado tropero, is bored by deskwork and craves combat. At first glance, with his grey hair, bushy eyebrows and reading glasses, Mario Montoya looks like the intellectual type. But those close to him say he is by nature a warrior, in a country whose modern history was defined, until recently, by armed conflict.
Montoya was born in 1949, at the start of a decade-long civil war, known as la violencia, in which more than 200,000 people were killed. In the late 1950s, Colombia's dominant Liberal and Conservative parties ended the war by agreeing to share power in a coalition called the National Front. All other parties and ideologies were shunted aside, and soon a new conflict began to brew, this time between the National Front government and leftwing groups seeking to overthrow it. What later emerged as the most powerful of these groups was founded in 1964 as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.
The Farc's founding members were a group of farmers who hoped to establish an independent republic in south central Colombia. Inspired by Marx and Lenin, they wanted to liberate their country from the influence of American capitalism. By the 1980s, the Farc had become the largest guerrilla group in Latin America, as well as one of the largest drug-trafficking organisations in the world, using the proceeds to fund a sophisticated war against the government. By the 1990s, the Farc was operating a parallel state within Colombia, extending its influence across a third of the country's territory.
The Farc was popular in some parts of Colombia, particularly the south, where it had the support of many poor farmers. But as the Farc grew stronger, it also became more vicious. The group swelled its ranks by recruiting minors, and planted improvised explosive devices throughout rural Colombia to defend its coca crops. Farc members extorted business owners, massacred civilians who did not share their beliefs and kidnapped thousands of people, holding them for ransom for years.
By the 1980s, many Colombians feared that the Farc might win the war. The Colombian army, which Montoya had joined in 1971, was a scrappy, poorly equipped force. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, it seemed incapable of defeating, or even containing, the Farc. "They lacked the discipline, cohesion and morale to confront the guerrillas," said Juan Esteban Ugarriza, a researcher of conflict and peace at Universidad del Rosario, one of Colombia's top universities.
That began to change in 1999, when the then president Andrés Pastrana more than doubled Colombia's defence budget, from 2% of GDP to 4.5%. He also signed the Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar aid package from the US designed to target drug cartels and leftwing insurgencies. With the new influx of money, the armed forces acquired state-of-the-art weapons and military intelligence technologies, discharged many of its volunteers, and recruited, educated and trained 89,000 more of its own professional soldiers. Today the army stands at around 200,000. The police force, which also fought against the insurgents, was expanded and militarised.
For decades, the Colombian government had primarily tried to end the violence by negotiating with the guerrillas. In 2002, when Álvaro Uribe was elected, he became the first president in decades who believed that Colombia's conflict could only be solved with what he called "an iron fist." That belief became the basis for his signature policy, called "democratic security," which sought to make Colombia safer by aggressively extending the state's presence and by going after guerrilla and drug-trafficking groups. Uribe had at his disposal something that no president had before him: revamped armed forces that were finally capable of fighting off the Farc. Montoya, who had led the army's anti-narcotics battalion in the 1980s and served as chief of intelligence and counterintelligence in the late 90s, became the most important executor of Uribe's approach.
In October 2002, in one of the first major instances of this new strategy, Uribe ordered Montoya to liberate a shanty town within Colombia's second-largest city, Medellín, which had been taken over by the Farc and was being used as a hub for the group's drug-trafficking business. The resulting operation, called Orion, was the largest urban military operation in Colombia's history. Its symbolic and strategic importance was clear. One of the Farc's long-term goals had been to expand its power into Colombia's cities, where 80% of the country's population lived. Beating back such an incursion would be seen as an important victory for the government.
Orion was immediately hailed as a success. The armed forces arrested 355 guerrilla members, raided around 150 properties and liberated 17 hostages. But allegations of extrajudicial killings swiftly followed. In 2003, an NGO that specialises in human rights law, Corporación Jurídica Libertad, published a report that said 17 civilians were killed and at least 80 more were injured in the operation. Several people also disappeared, though the exact number is unknown. The government and the army have always denied that these things happened during Orion.
There were also worrying claims that the army had relied on illegal paramilitary groups to gather intelligence in the run-up to Orion. Paramilitarism has blighted Colombia since the 1960s, when the National Front government passed a law allowing civilians to take up arms to protect themselves against the newly formed guerrillas. These non-state militias were eventually absorbed by Colombia's drug cartels, and became just as murderous as the guerrillas themselves. If Montoya collaborated with them during Orion, it suggested the army was happy to operate beyond the law. Montoya has always denied allegations that he collaborated with the paramilitaries.
I asked an army official who worked under Montoya in Medellín about the use of paramilitary informants during Orion. "You won't find information in a nun's convent," he told me. "You'll only get it from the same criminals." Hatred towards the Farc trumped everything else, said a lawyer involved in Montoya's case. "In the war against the Farc, everything was valid," he told me. "We were a country with a paramilitarised soul."
The operation, which remains controversial to this day, set the terms of debate around Uribe's democratic security policy. "In terms of results, the policy was a success," said a military expert who worked for the president, because it gave the government the upper hand in the war. "In terms of human rights," he said, "there are many black holes."
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Wherever the army went, accusations of human-rights abuses followed. By the mid-2000s, NGOs were filing complaints about alleged atrocities by soldiers during operations that Montoya had commanded. A government watchdog agency launched an investigation, but found that Montoya did not order the killings or know they were happening.
In 2005, about a year before Montoya became head of the army, in an atrocity unrelated to the later false positives scandal, soldiers in his brigade allowed paramilitaries to massacre eight civilians in San José de Apartadó, a small rural region thought to be inhabited by Farc supporters. The victims were dismembered and their body parts thrown into a river. Three of the victims were children. The government initially blamed the Farc for this massacre. But in May 2019, Colombia's supreme court debunked that statement, and convicted six soldiers for their "participation" in these killings. Last year, an army general publicly apologised for the massacre. It is unclear whether Montoya played a role in this massacre: Montoya has always denied any involvement in or knowledge of what happened in San José de Apartadó. For now, the war crimes tribunal will not evaluate his role in that massacre.
In 2006, Uribe named Montoya commander of the army. That year, at least two NGOs started publishing reports that claimed the army had used the false positives practice for years. They accused the brigade that Montoya commanded during Orion of engaging in such killings during that operation and others in eastern Antioquia. The report and findings did not garner much attention outside of NGO circles or within the government. "We were dismissed as leftwing extremists," said Juan Diego Restrepo, who co-authored one of the reports. The government denied all allegations made in the reports.
The following year, a mass grave was found in Putumayo in southern Colombia. Investigators revealed that the grave held more than 100 victims of paramilitary violence. All were killed during the time when Montoya was the commander in the region. The general has never publicly discussed the discovery of the mass grave.
None of these reports damaged Montoya's career. His success on the battlefield meant he enjoyed widespread support from Colombians, and from Uribe, with whom he became close friends. During Montoya's tenure as commander, there were at least 100 military engagements a day throughout the country, more than at any other point in Colombia's recent history. The general became an almost mythical figure, famous for his charisma and stamina. One of his former aides told me that, during Montoya's two years as head of the army, he never took a single day off, and it was common to see him in his office late into the night, often until dawn. He demanded extraordinary results from the men under his command. Every week, he would rank the military's units based on the number of insurgents arrested, voluntarily demobilised and killed.
Kills of insurgents were what mattered most. In July 2006, three months after Montoya was made commander of the army, the various divisions of the army were ranked for their performance. The division that ranked top had reported 379 kills, 285 enemies captured and 32 who voluntarily surrendered. The division ranked lowest had reported more than double the number of captured and surrendered guerrillas, but only 67 kills. Those who served under Montoya's command say that he would not hesitate to ask for the retirement of colonels who did not deliver high enough numbers. During visits to battalions and brigades, he would grill other generals and colonels, demanding better results.
Montoya's fame peaked in July 2008, when he helped orchestrate one of the most dramatic military gambits in recent history. The operation, known as Jaque ("Check," as in chess), was conceived six months earlier, when a soldier in the army's intelligence unit accidentally discovered the radio frequencies through which the Farc's then commander communicated with one of his subordinates, a guerrilla nicknamed Gafas ("eyeglasses"). Gafas was responsible for guarding the Farc's most high-profile hostages, a group of 15 that included three US army contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who had once been a presidential candidate. Some of them had been held hostage for more than nine years. Uribe was under intense international pressure to secure these hostages' release, so they had become an invaluable bargaining chip for the Farc in its disarmament negotiations with the government.
After ascertaining the exact location of the hostages, in the middle of the Colombian Amazon, Montoya then sent 15 of his best men to acting classes in Bogotá to prepare for the rescue operation. Over the course of a few days, instructors taught them how to play foreign aid workers on a supposed humanitarian mission. The Farc trusted several humanitarian organisations because of their strict neutrality. For example, it had previously allowed the Red Cross to transport the bodies of hostages who had died in captivity. Some of the soldiers learned how to speak Spanish with fake Australian, Italian and Iranian accents. Two of them posed as journalists – a reporter and a cameraman – from Telesur, the Venezuelan government-sponsored news channel that often had exclusive access to the Farc, thanks to Venezuela's leftwing president, Hugo Chávez, who openly supported the guerrillas.
Next, army officers posing as Farc radio operators relayed an order to Gafas to transfer the hostages to a location where a humanitarian mission would pick them up and supposedly take them to Alfonso Cano, the Farc's supreme commander. Two days before the fake mission, Montoya took his group of soldiers-turned-actors to Tolemaida, the armed forces' most important base. There, like a theatre director running through a final dress rehearsal, Montoya had the team play their parts over and over again, making sure they had worked through every plausible scenario.
On 2 July 2008, Montoya's troop of soldier-actors boarded two helicopters, which had been painted white to look like they belonged to a neutral humanitarian organisation, and headed into the jungle to meet Gafas and his men. The team was scared. Was the Farc playing along, pretending it knew nothing about the fake radio operators, just to set them a trap? What if their acting failed? "Everyone, even Montoya's boss" – the head of the armed forces – "had doubts about the operation," a colonel who was part of the Jaque team told me last year. "But Montoya always knew it was going to be a success."
In fact, Gafas was so charmed by the soldier-actors that he insisted they stay for lunch. Some of the hostages weren't so gullible. The American hostages, hearing the "Australian" humanitarian worker's hispanic accent, knew something was wrong. When the time came to board the "mission" helicopter, they initially refused, until a Jaque soldier managed to squeeze in a few words without raising suspicion. "Trust me," he said. "We're going home." The hostages boarded the helicopter, along with Gafas and another Farc fighter.
Minutes after take-off, the Jaque team jumped on the Farc members. The confused hostages watched as the guerrillas were tied up. "We're from the Colombian army," a member of the Jaque team yelled. "You have been liberated." Not a single bullet had been fired.
The operation was not only a turning point in the decades-long conflict with the guerrillas, but also a turning point in how many Colombians saw their own nation. I was 22 years old when news broke of the success of Operation Jaque, and it was the first time I had ever sensed patriotism among my fellow Colombians. People drove around the streets of Bogotá honking their horns and waving Colombian flags. To many, the country was shedding its image as a violent, backward state, overrun by cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries. The government was finally prevailing over the insurgency. Montoya had given Colombians something they could be proud of.
A photograph of Montoya, his fist held in the air, a smile of triumph on his face as he led the rescued hostages off an airplane in Bogotá, was printed in every newspaper in the country. International media aired footage of Montoya explaining the operation, with Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, the current and future presidents, standing next to him. To this day, Colombian media and many public officials celebrate Jaque every July. The lower chamber of congress is discussing a law that would commemorate Jaque every year, and even build a monument in its honour.
But Jaque's glory – and Montoya's – did not last long. Two months later, in August 2008, the false positives scandal broke.
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The scandal had been brewing for months. In July 2008, just months before Jacqueline Castillo identified the body of her brother in the mass grave in Santander, a Colombian soldier contacted the UN with a terrible story. He alleged that a unit he had belonged to until recently had killed civilians since 2005, if not before. He himself had participated in the killing of at least one civilian. The soldier had deserted the army and become a whistleblower after discovering that this unit had killed his own father and labelled him as a guerrilla fighter. The UN had immediately alerted the Colombian presidency. Santos, then the defence minister, and Freddy Padilla de León, the commander of the armed forces, met with the soldier and commissioned an internal investigation to determine if the allegations were true. When the investigation delivered its findings a few weeks later, it found no evidence of what the whistleblower was saying.
Then, on 25 September 2008, a senior official in the Bogotá city government called a press conference. The official, Clara Lopez, said that she had found the names of 11 young men who had been reported missing from a Bogotá suburb in a database of guerrillas killed in combat. Lopez thought it was odd that they had all been reported dead just 48 hours after they were last seen. It seemed impossible that these men were recruited by the guerrillas, trained and sent to combat in such a short period of time. Journalists raised the question of whether the disappeared had been killed by the army. It was around this time the killings began to be described as "false positives."
Lopez's findings appeared to corroborate the whistleblower's story. Later that week, the bodies of all 11 men were exhumed from mass graves very near to the site where Castillo found her brother's body. Santos and Padilla commissioned a more thorough investigation, led by the inspector general of the armed forces. In October, the investigators published a report confirming that Castillo's brother, the 11 young men from Bogotá, and possibly hundreds of others, had been murdered by the army. The murders were not perpetrated by just a few rogue soldiers: cases of false positives had been uncovered in every army division. The report does not mention Montoya. It just investigated whether the extrajudicial killings had occurred.
Among the armed forces, and in the ministry of defence, the scandal was received with shame. "This was their Kafka moment," said Armando Borrero, a military expert who once instructed Montoya in a course for colonels being promoted to generals. "They woke up one day to discover they were a monster."
Twenty-seven army officers, most of them high-ranking, who had belonged to or commanded units incriminated in the report, were dismissed immediately. In early November 2008, just five months after the success of Operation Jaque, Montoya himself resigned. He did not mention the false positives in his resignation letter, but it was clear that, after a scandal of this scale, he could not keep his job. By the time the peace deal was signed, at least 21 low- and mid-ranking military officials had been convicted for the extrajudicial killings.
On the international stage, the scandal tarnished the reputation of Colombia's ministry of defence, and jeopardised the billions of dollars in military aid that the US, its main ally, gave to Colombia every year. But within Colombia, most people seemed to turn a blind eye. The major newspapers and magazines of the country ran stories about the false positives, but there were no mass protests or widespread demands that any government official resign. Support for the army remained strong. In May 2009, one poll found that 79% of Colombians had a favourable opinion of the army. "We had unwavering faith towards Uribe, and the hatred of the Farc was so strong," said Juan Diego Restrepo, who had co-authored one of the reports on false positives. "And as long as that hate exists, a big part of Colombia will think that whatever was done against the Farc was legitimate, and that other thing [the false positives] was collateral damage."
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The conflict with Farc ended in 2016, when it signed a peace deal with the government. In exchange for giving up its weapons, the government agreed to let the Farc form its own political party, and reserved 10 congressional seats for which only the Farc could run. The terms of the peace deal polarised the country. Older, more conservative voters, who rallied round former president Uribe, thought the deal was too generous to the Farc. Younger, more liberal voters tended to argue that the only way to end violence in Colombia was through a negotiated deal, even if that meant granting major concessions.
One particularly controversial element of the peace deal was the creation of a war crimes tribunal that would investigate crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the conflict. The Farc, Colombia's armed forces, paramilitaries and even third-party members who were involved in perpetrating the crimes will be tried. In total, 2,744 military officials, who could have had a role in the false positives or other war crimes and crimes against humanity, will be tried by the tribunal. It will be the biggest military trial in Colombia's history. Montoya is the highest-ranking army official to be tried for the false positives scandal.
His case has become a flashpoint in the broader political conflict over the peace deal and Uribe's legacy. If Montoya is acquitted, the right will take it as a vindication of Uribe. The left is hoping that Montoya is found guilty, for the opposite reason.
According to Juan Esteban Ugarriza, the researcher in conflict and peace, the false positives prosecutions have stoked resentment within the armed forces. Military figures argue that during its battle with the Farc, the army was constrained – at least in theory – by strict international law, while fighting non-state actors who cared little about such statutes. Many within the military claim to fear the prospect of a judicial war against them, orchestrated by the country's left and the Farc.
Some who oppose the prosecution of army officials have tried to take matters into their own hands. On the evening of 11 January 2019, Alfamir Castillo (no relation of Jacqueline Castillo), the most vocal activist for justice in the case, was sitting in the back of a car, near the Colombian city of Cali, when two men on a motorbike pulled up alongside her and fired several rounds into her vehicle. Castillo only survived because her car was bulletproof – in 2018, the Colombian government's national protection unit had assigned the car to her, along with two bodyguards, after a series of death threats she had received. The authorities have not found the people behind the threats or the attack, but Castillo has a pretty good idea of who would want to kill her. "Those who don't want me testifying against Mario Montoya," she says.
Alfamir Castillo's son, Darbey Mosquera, was a false positive. He was one of a small group executed by soldiers in early 2008. Another man in the group survived the attack: when a soldier tried to shoot him in the back, the gun jammed, and he was able to escape and hide in the darkness. He lived to tell Castillo how her son was murdered.
For years Castillo has sought justice for her son, and the other false positives. To her, they are victims of a crime committed by the Colombian state against poor and marginalised people. Her leadership and perseverance has won support from human rights lawyers and activists. They have created a movement that has sought to pressure the government to prosecute senior military officials for the killings, not just rank-and-file footsoldiers. At the top of that list is Montoya.
When Montoya does eventually go on trial, Alfamir Castillo will be a key witness against him. That, says Germán Romero, her lawyer, is why his supporters may have tried to silence her.
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Montoya declined to speak to me for this article. But I spoke to people close to him. A personal friend of his, who lamented his "loss of strength," told me that, as he awaits his trial, he has grown tired and melancholic. In a preliminary hearing of his role in the false positives killings at the war crimes tribunal in June 2019, Montoya pleaded not guilty. He says that he did not order the killings of any civilians, and that the false positives were killed by lazy soldiers who wanted to cheat the army's rewards systems. But prosecutors and victims' lawyers do not claim that Montoya ordered the extrajudicial killings. They argue that Montoya is responsible for the deaths because they were the result of the way he ran the army – placing disproportionate pressure on unit commanders to produce results. In a policy document signed by Montoya in 2006, it was made clear that "kills are not the most important thing, they are the only thing." Montoya denies his leadership style could have led to the killings, and he denies any knowledge about the extrajudicial killings.
Along with Alfamir Castillo's testimony, the case against Montoya will rely on the testimonies of soldiers who were convicted of murdering false positives by the ordinary justice system, and whose cases are now being re-evaluated as part of the war crimes tribunal. In a June 2019 hearing, a colonel said that Montoya had suggested he "grab some guys from the morgue, put a uniform on them and present them as results." The colonel also said that his unit was expected to engage in combat every day, and that the general demanded "litres of blood," only caring about the number of deaths and never about arrests.
Montoya's supporters say the colonel and other soldiers are lying. They point out that these are convicted killers, already sentenced to decades in prison for false positives murders, who are trying to secure reduced sentences by shifting the blame for their crimes on to more senior figures. But others have pointed out that those soldiers have already been proven to have told the truth on other significant matters. In a series of testimonies during early December 2019, soldiers told judges about an undiscovered false positives mass grave site, in which the tribunal's investigators found more than 70 bodies.
Whatever the outcome of the trial, it remains to be seen if Colombia will learn the lessons of the false positives scandal. Although the Farc has disarmed, there are still smaller illegal armed groups wreaking havoc around the country. The government is prioritising an aggressive offensive to fight them off. Leaked army reports say soldiers are not required to "demand perfection" when executing lethal attacks against an enemy, even if there are doubts about their targets. Radical measures to prevent a scandal like the false positives from ever happening again are yet to be taken.