Lecture notes: Michael Reed Hurtado, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Bogotá) on “Body count and false positives in the Colombian war: state crime and denial.”

October 31, 2013, Yale University.


Attendees were asked to consider lecture specifics to be given in confidence, but here, some broad strokes:

Hurtado is a consultant for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bogotá, Colombia, and he wears the heart of a prosecutor on his sleeve.  He repeatedly emphasized his  “practical orientation,” and has been searching for patterns of causality (which is, of course, broader culpability) in the phenomena of “false positive” extrajudicial killings.

Hurtado aims to recruit other academics in joining him in creating  a “typology of false positives.”

“Qualifying the generalization,” as he puts it, requires new ways of looking at old information, sometimes literally:  even visually mapping victim counts by political/geographical regions has been problematic for fine-grained analysis since—as he quotes a statistician colleague of his—”geographic representation distorts data.”

The more meaningful plot mapping for causal analysis in this case would be, of course, by military division. 

A false positive is no rogue kill: the state is involved from the time the body is (first) inspected by the military.  Massive amounts of ritualized paperwork results; and, especially in rural regions, crimes by state affiliates intersect heavily with public resources.

Hurtado also detailed the challenge of moving cases through the court system, where only a small fraction of the cases have reached prosecution: “Time that passes is truth that escapes.” 

Hurtado advocates sifting though all of this paperwork, all of this statistical data, all of these tragic and maddening narratives,  with not just the eye of a prosecutor but the framing tools of an academic.  He closed by encouraging research agendas that transcend description to move into rigorous analysis, through the lenses of sociology, political science, and international criminal law. 

It’s the kind of autopsy that might bring some prevention, as well as justice.