It was a moment many Colombians thought they would never see.
A military general and 10 others acknowledged this week that they had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, testifying at an emotional two-day hearing that was the first of its kind in a special court set up to confront the legacy of Colombia’s crushing civil war.
Seated on a stage at a theater in Ocaña, a small city in northern Colombia that was the scene of many of the crimes, the general, nine other military officials and a civilian admitted to orchestrating the killings of at least 120 civilians and trying to pass them off as rebel combatants in a case known as the “false positives” scandal.
The killings, which were used to bolster the country’s argument that it was winning the war, has become one of the most emblematic of the country’s traumatic internal conflict, which dates back to the 1960s.
The relatives of the dead — many of them the mothers, fathers and siblings of murdered young men — have long called for accountability. And many sat on the stage, opposite the accused perpetrators as they spoke.
“I offer my solidarity and will help to try to restore the damage and pain caused. I want to express to you that I feel great remorse that tears my soul,” said retired Brigadier General Paulino Coronado Gámez during the hearing. He added, “I know that we affect entire families, fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren. We leave them and leave a great emptiness.”
The public admission of guilt was held by the country’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a court set up as part of a 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
It is part of larger efforts around the world to address systemic violations of human rights through a process known as transitional justice, and builds on similar truth and reconciliation processes in countries like Argentina following a dictatorship in the 1980s and South Africa following apartheid in the 1990s.
The hearing, according to Colombian court officials, represents the first time that perpetrators have admitted to committing war crimes and crimes against humanity as a result of a court created by a peace accord.
Admissions of such crimes are rare — and conflicts endure — because perpetrators fear prison, while victims say offering blanket amnesty would be unjust.
Eduardo González, an expert on transitional justice based in Peru, said the Colombian hearings show that there is a third route — a way to use the justice system to extract confessions and impose a lesser form of punishment than locking people away for decades.
“I believe this will be a model to look to in other conflicts,” he said.
In the Colombian court, those admitting to committing crimes will not receive prison sentences but instead will be given so-called restorative sanctions, like house arrest or hard labor. Facing their victims in the hearings is part of the process.
Still, the alternative sentences, which are a core principle of the court, have been criticized by some Colombians as going too easy on war criminals.
During the hearing, the military officials wore civilian clothes, despite requests from some victims that they wear their uniforms, while the families of the dead wore black T-shirts that read: “Who gave the order?”
Individuals on both sides cried repeatedly.
In their testimony, officials described how they engaged in a deliberate strategy in which they recruited everyday Colombians, many of them students and poor farmers, with promises of jobs, then killed them and reported the deaths as combat kills.
“Today, I want the world to know that they were peasants,” Néstor Guillermo Gutiérrez, a former corporal in the Colombian military, said of his victims, “that as a member of the military, I cowardly assassinated them, I stole their children’s dreams, I ripped out their mother’s hearts, because of pressure, to produce results, to produce false results, to make a government happy. It’s not right.”
The court’s magistrates believe that their victims are just a small fraction of those killed between 2002 and 2008, during the presidency of Álvaro Uribe, as part of the false positives strategy. In all, the court said in a recent investigative report that the military is responsible for killing 6,402 civilians and claiming they were rebels.
For years, many Colombians have demanded to know who was the highest figure with knowledge of the scheme, who was the highest figure to orchestrate it and why Mr. Uribe did not stop it.
Human rights groups and the United Nations human rights office had raised alarm about suspicious deaths at least as far back as 2005.
The hearing did not answer who was ultimately responsible for the strategy. General Coronado is the highest-ranking official to admit responsibility in the false positives case, but his confession focused on his failure to oversee others.
“I did not comply with the first lesson they gave me when I entered military school: The commander is responsible for what his subordinates do and do not do,” he said in court. “I accept my responsibility for having served as a hierarchical superior.”
The hearings also highlighted a level of institutional coordination designed to cover up the truth.
“We stayed up all night doing documentation, changing documentation, even deleting documentation,” said Juan Carlos Chaparro, a retired major. “And always, after everything was over, tarnishing the name of their relatives, calling them what they really were not.”
Another military official, former Second Sgt. Sandro Mauricio Pérez said: “I became a murderer, a monster for society. I represent for some of you a death machine.”
Investigators at the special court are examining other deaths and more indictments could follow.
Several relatives of the dead spoke at the hearing about getting only partial justice. They acknowledged that they were learning some of the truth, but not all of it, that perpetrators were taking responsibility, but that others who gave the orders also needed to be held to account.
“I’m here to speak not only for my son, but for thousands of victims,” said Carmenza Gómez, the mother of Víctor Gómez, who disappeared in 2008 and was found dead days later in Ocaña at just 23 years old.
“We know that there are powerful people behind you,” Ms. Gómez said. “We need names.”
The false positives case is just one of many crimes being examined by the court. Last year, magistrates indicted eight former FARC leaders, accusing them of orchestrating a kidnapping-for-ransom operation that resulted in more than 20,000 victims, some of whom were raped or murdered. The kidnappings amount to crimes against humanity, according to the indictment.
The former FARC leaders have admitted guilt, and will participate in a similar public hearing in the coming months.
Sentencing in both cases will come later. A larger report on the facts of the war, compiled by a truth commission, will be published in the coming months.
Colombia’s conflict with the FARC began in the 1960s, when two communist leaders declared a rebellion against a state, vowing to transform a vastly unequal society.
The decades-long war — involving left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, the military, drug cartels and the United States, which supplied and advised the military — killed at least 220,000 people and displaced more than five million.
The war between the FARC and government ended in 2016, when the two sides signed a peace deal. But despite the accord, many parts of the country remain without a significant state presence — which has helped fuel the rise of new armed groups.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace is meant to help the country establish a common story about the facts of the conflict and open the door for a new beginning.
“May this never happen again,” said the former corporal, Mr. Gutiérrez, in his testimony.
Speaking of the families that were his victims, he said: “Imagine, the rebels arrived, beat them down; the paramilitaries arrived, and beat them down; and we, the army, arrived, and they trusted us. We deceived them, we lied to them and we murdered their families. God forgive me.”