High-powered incentives for the military and security services have become a common counterinsurgency strategy over the last several decades. We investigate the use of such incentives for members of the Colombian army in the long-running civil war against left-wing guerillas and show that it produced several perverse side effects. Innocent civilians were killed and misrepresented as guerillas (a phenomenon known in Colombia as ‘false positives’). Exploiting the fact that Colombian colonels have stronger career concerns and should be more responsive to such incentives, we show that there were significantly more false positives during the period of high-powered incentives in municipalities where a higher share of brigades were commanded by colonels and in those where checks coming from civilian judicial institutions were weaker. We further find that in municipalities with a higher share of colonels, the period of high-powered incentives coincided with a worsening of local judicial institutions and no discernible improvement in the overall security situation.