|The Risks of U.S. Aid|
By Ignacio G?mez G.
Members of the U.S. Congress are concerned that military aid to
Colombia could be used to violate human rights, and they cite a
recent incident as a case in point.
Senator Patrick Leahy, author of an amendment that bans the
United States from providing aid to human rights violators, has
obtained information that Colombian Col. Lino S?nchez was
working on a “military planning” exercise with American Green
Berets at the same time that he was involved in planning the
Mapirip?n Massacre. That information was developed by the
Colombian federal prosecutor’s office.
Leahy’s office began an inquiry into the matter last year, following
an interview session with El Espectador. Information resulting from
that inquiry is the origin for this report, which shows S?nchez’s
relationship with U.S. special forces in 1997.
This week, a discussion on a Colombia aid package was to be held
at the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. Leahy, a member of
the Committee, is also sponsor of a law that bans U.S. military from
training human rights violators. Leahy requested a rigorous
investigation of military forces to be trained, lest the Pentagon end
up assisting the authors of crimes against humanity. This report,
assembled by the Investigative Journalism Team of El Espectador,
details a case in which such a violation has already taken place--
during the Mapirip?n Massacre, on July 20, 1997.
Such investigations are authorized under three agreements which
force the Colombian government to maintain a human rights record
on military forces “eligible” for training, and which at the same time
allow the State Department to veto units in which even one
member is suspected of a human rights violation.
The first agreement was signed in July 1997, when Colombia-U.S.
relations were at their lowest point.
Then Ambassador Juan Carlos Esguerra and Undersecretary of
State Barbara Larkin agreed on the final text in Washington on July
20, 1997, while in Bogot? Ernesto Samper presided over an
Independence Day military parade marked by the absence of any
military commander with him on the reviewing stand and by his
own lack of a visa stamp in his passport to visit the United States.
General Commander Harold Bedoya Pizarro, an opponent of civilian
oversight of human rights violations in the military, did not attend
the parade; on July 22 he declared himself in rebellion and on July
25 he was replaced by Manuel Jos? Bonett. The Inspector General
of the Armed Forces and other members of the military high
command had celebrated National Independence Day instead at the
Army Special Forces School, built by U.S. Special Forces at
Barranc?n Island on the Guaviare River.
Two hours up the river, Mapirip?n was empty. Forty-nine residents
of Mapirip?n had been massacred. The surviving residents of the
village of 1,000 were still homeless on August 1, when the official
announcement came that U.S military aid for the Colombian army
was being unfrozen.
The Green Berets had at least three years of experience in
Barranc?n and had been conducting military planning exercises
there during the two months leading up to the release of aid,
announced in an agreement signed in Washington. The Colombian
forces with them for the exercises were under the command of
Col. Lino S?nchez—accused today by the Colombian Federal
prosecutor’s office with planning the Mapirip?n massacre with
Carlos Casta?o [the leader of paramilitary forces in Colombia].
With support provided by Senator Patrick Leahy, who requested
and obtained information on the case, and the International
Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, the
Investigative Journalism Team from El Espectador, PIE, compiled
and analyzed more than 4,500 pages of official documents in
English and Spanish about the diplomatic, military and humanitarian
events that took place during that Independence Day in San Jos?
del Guaviare, Mapirip?n, Bogot? and Washington.
Based on this information, it can be concluded that the U.S. Army
Special Operations 7th Group (Green Berets) carried out “military
planning” training with Colonel Lino S?nchez’s troops, while he
was planning a massive murder of civilians in Mapirip?n. The goal
was to eradicate the FARC [Colombian Armed Revolutionary
Forces guerrillas] and to allow Colombia’s United Self-Defense
Forces [the paramilitary forces] to seize control of the illegal
economy in the southern region of the Guaviare province which,
according to the State Department, produced 30 percent of the
world’s coca supply.
With no control
U.S. Special Operation Forces, under the command of the assistant
secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity
Conflict (whose English acronym is Solic), trained in Colombia a
long time before it was decided their operations should be
examined in terms of human rights. Carlos Salinas, a specialist on
the subject who works for Amnesty International in Washington,
asserts that training was taking place since 1962.
In 1996, when the Leahy Amendment (which bans aid to military
units involved in human rights violations) took effect, the State
Department ruled that the record of abuses by Colombian Army
personnel made most units “ineligible” to receive aid.
Solic continued sending trainers because, according to its legal
interpretation, “joint combined exchange training” (JCET) must be
considered training for US forces rather than aid for the country in
which it takes place.
Such “exchanges” (or JCET), which take place every year in more
than 123 countries, was the subject of media and congressional
scrutiny in 1997, when the General Accounting Office (GAO) was
ordered to audit its accounts and clarify whether the training was
or was not military aid. In mid 1999, the GAO published a report
that concurred with the Solic legal interpretation. It also quoted an
embassy report (by Curtis Kamman) which said “the few JCETs
that have taken place have been consistent with the foreign policy
goals in the country (fighting drugs), but since only one or two are
carried out annually, they do not have major impact in achieving
The official 1997 report, sent to the U.S. Congress in April 1998,
included in its list six special forces deployments in Colombia.
However, on December 22, 1999, in a letter sent to Senator Leahy,
Solic admitted that just between June and August of that year nine
deployments had taken place in the country, only one of which
was included in those previously reported. In sum, there may have
been more than fourteen deployments during that year, that is, 24
percent of the total amount reported by the South Command in its
area of responsibility.
Except for two of them, all visits were conducted by the same
training team: the Army Special Operations 7th Group, based at Ft.
Bragg, North Carolina. Members of the unit speak Spanish without
an accent and have been combat trained in the Amazon in a wide
range of special skills--with or without technological support--
including organization of public opinion campaigns as well as night
jungle combat training. Their most recent training was for the
[Colombian] 1st Counternarcotics Battalion, and future sessions
will be carried out with other battalions included in the Colombia
For eight months starting in May 1997 the Green Berets’ center of
operations was the Army Special Forces School, five minutes
away by boat or car from the Counternarcotics Base at San Jos?
del Guaviare and “headquarters” for the State Department
programs for the eradication of coca plantations. The name of the
locale is Barranc?n; it is an island formed around a rock in the bed
of the Guaviare River; from its heights the river and the Sabanas
de la Fuga, a historic “sanctuary” for the Farc, can be seen.
When Senator Leahy requested information on those activities,
Solic’s director, Brian Sheridan, explained that the course that
began on May 14 in Barranc?n dealt with “mission planning and
military decision making” and other specific matters related to “light
Colombian reports indicate that the unit being trained was
commanded by Colonel Lino S?nchez. The Counternarcotics Police
Intelligence Office gave the State Department and the federal
prosecutor’s office a report according to which, in those days,
S?nchez pioneered a plan to introduce paramilitary forces in the
sprayed areas, within the framework of U.S. programs and
announced that some aid had arrived that would enable him to
“teach the guerrillas a lesson.”
The federal prosecutor’s office discovered that on July 12, 1997, a
group of fifteen men personally chosen by Carlos Casta?o Gil,
flew in two planes from Urab? to San Jos? del Guaviare Airport,
which is shared by the Counternarcotics Police and the garrison in
which S?nchez had his office. On the Barranc?n road, Casta?o’s
group joined the paramilitary forces of Casanare and Meta, and
from there they went by truck to Charras, on the opposite bank of
the Guaviare River, across from Mapirip?n.
The boats on which they all crossed the river encounter no
problem when they passed the Marine Infantry post in Barranc?n,
built by the Americans and in which “river combat” training took
place. The paramilitary forces, more than 100 men, remained in
Mapirip?n from July 15 to 20, and were at no point challenged
either by civilian or military authorities.
These dates coincide with three Special Forces deployment dates
mentioned in the report to the U.S. Congress, but none of those
listed by Sheridan occurred during the massacre days. However,
the federal prosecutor’s office and other officials say they
crossed paths with U.S. military in San Jos?, when they traveled to
Mapirip?n to aid the massacre survivors and open their
Government files include five reports from five military commands,
including General Bonett’s, mentioning the maneuvers that took
place at that time in Barranc?n to celebrate the closing of a “special
But they only indicate the presence as guest of honor of General
Jos? Mar?a Balza, Commander of the Argentinian Military Forces.
El Espectador’s investigative team requested information on this
point from the Colombian Army Command on December 2, 1999, but
has received no response.
Five years before the massacre, the current setting for the war
along the Guaviare River was only starting to take shape. In the
early 90s, Mapirip?n had become one of the main coca “cities”,
because of its easy access by road from Villavicencio, its airport,
and its access through jungle paths. It was also accessible to the
southern part of the river that connected with the jungle region by
that time already considered the world’s largest coca cultivation
zone-- Miraflores and Calamar (Guaviare).
In May 1992, the 5th Front of the Farc attacked Mapirip?n and
burned down the local police station, which was never rebuilt. A
FARC leader known as Comandante Alex arrived to solve the
conflicts among the raspachines (coca leaf growers), chichipatos
(cocaine basic paste buyers), prostitutes, gasoline dealers,
carriers, merchants, and others. In exchange for security, the
guerrillas established a 10 percent protection tax, calculated
according to the amount of gasoline sold to process coca base
Antonio Mar?a Barrera Calle (el compadre Cotumare, one of the
village founders four decades earlier), Sina? Blanco and other
gasoline sellers were forced to become tax collectors for the
Two hours up the river, the Counternarcotics Police base in San
Jos? del Guavire had already become the main site for State
Department programs against coca cultivation. First the spraying
and later the Marine Infantry patrols had discouraged farmers from
growing coca close to the river. The cultivated plots encroached
into the jungle. “Sometimes the troops went there (to Mapirip?n),
but as the guerrillas didn’t show up, they got bored and returned,”
explained Colonel Eduardo Avila, who was assigned to the area.
Later on, the Barranc?n training camp was in full activity.
“According to the Defense Department annex office at the US
Embassy in Colombia, the Army Special Forces Training School
was built in 1996…(and) there’s also a small Colombian Marine
(Infantry) detachment at the base…apparently built by Navy
Seabees in 1994, as part of a training exercise,” Sheridan told
Leahy. In Bogot?, however, National Planning Department found
out about the school only in mid 1999, when for the first time it
needed money from the Colombian government.
Months before the massacre, the Municipal Unit for Technical
Agriculture (Umata) director, Anselmo Trigos, had started to gather
information on the farmers to carry out a plan prepared for the
town by the National Plan for Alternative Development (Plante),
with a budget of 800 million pesos[about $1 million]. Trigos became
the target of threats and was forced to leave after the 5th and
44th Fronts of the Farc subjected him to a “trial by the people” on
May 18, 1997.
In June, the paramilitary group led by Ren? in Aguabonita (located
between San Jos? and Barranc?n) had started operations, killing
seven chichipatos because they had paid “taxes” to the Farc.
On May 14, according to Sheridan, the Green Berets began a JCET
whose goal was “mission planning and military decision making”
with “the personnel assigned to the Special Forces School in
Colonel S?nchez told the federal prosecutor’s office that “towards
the end of May or beginning of June an order came down to mass
troops of the 2nd Mobile Brigade in the vicinity of Barranc?n;
around that time, the Division Command decided to cancel all leave
and the entire effort was directed to retraining in Barranc?n.”
The colonel (now accused of being the intellectual author of the
massacre and awaiting trial) asserts he divided his time between
Barranc?n and his office in the Par?s Battalion, in the southern
According to intelligence reports, confirmed in a judicial statement
by Major Juan Carlos L?pez and Colonel Arturo Beltr?n (from the
Counternarcotics base, in the northern part of the airport) DEA,
Marine Infantry and Counternarcotics representatives visited the
Mobile Brigade Commander (S?nchez) to request his collaboration
in Operation Sapphire 2. S?nchez did not agree to collaborate
because he had other plans.
On the night of June 21, the colonel himself visited the policemen,
apologized for his absence and asked about the results.
Immediately he described the plan: “He said—according to the
report—“that anyway, the paramilitary fought against a very strong
enemy in the region, and that at that moment, he had support to
teach the guerrillas a lesson, and that the idea was to take
advantage of the operation developed by Counternarcotics to
introduce self-defense forces in the area, but in the last minute
some problems had turned up.” The policemen refused to
participate in the plan and later provided details about the plan to
the federal prosecutor’s office and the State Department.
Two days later, on June 23, according to information provided by
Sheridan, the training program for S?nchez’s troops ended. On
July 24 (four days after the massacre), the American trainers
contingent returned [to Barrancon]; in August two other U.S. Navy
special forces units, the 4th Group of Navy Seals and the 8th
Naval Unit for Special Warfare joined them, initiating an anti-drug
training course with Sanchez’s troops, policemen and marines.
On Saturday, July 12, at 3:05 p.m. and 3:20 p.m. respectively, an
Antonov flying in from Necocl? and a a DC-3 from Los Cedros
(Apartad?) landed at San Jos?. According to the federal
prosecutor’s office Investigation, the 15 men selected by Casta?o,
under the command of a.k.a El Percher?n, Mochacabezas [the
“beheader”] or El Diablo, arrived on the Antonov. Their only
weapons were machetes and knives. They carried with them on
the DC-3 several tons of supplies and the first edition of the
magazine Colombia Libre with an insert titled “To the People of the
Guaviare.” The insert was signed by the Guaviare Front of the
United Self-Defense Forces, and threatened to kill anybody who
dared to pay “taxes” to the Farc.
According to a report sent to Senatory Leahy by Undersecretary
of State Barbara Larkin, “the American personnel involved in the
counternarcotics programs in San Jos? remember having seen an
unusual number of Army personnel at the airport on the day in
question.” A paramilitary deserter said S?nchez was in charge of
flight coordination and unloading.
Six months after the massacre, Ren? C?rdenas was captured at
the Aguabonita gas station, where according to witnesses against
him, he had met up with the occupants of the plane and other
paramilitary, sending them by road to Charras.
From there, they had to cross the river to reach Mapirip?n. Ren?
recruited two boatmen, one of whom did not have proper
identification; since they had to pass through the Navy checkpoint
in Barranc?n (site for other U.S. training) Ren? talked to the guards
and arranged the crossing.
On the afternoon of the 14th, a group of strangers burst into
Charras, forced all the townspeople from their homes and led them
to the main square, where they passed out the magazines and
pamphlets. In the days leading up to the 14th, the Mapirip?n mayor
and his family had left for Villavicencio. The Umata director, the
registrar, and the family and spokesman of Farc Commander Alex,
who had started “working” for the Guaviare Front of the United
Self-defense Forces, also had left, almost without being noticed.
On July 15, at dawn, more than 100 paramilitary surrounded
Mapirip?n. The only authority in town was Judge Leonardo Iv?n
Cort?s Novoa. The judge went to his office to report what was
going on. The paramilitary blocked his entry.
The judge, taking necessary precautions, went off in search of a
working telephone. At around 2:30 p.m. he found a phone in
service at the Hotel Moserrate; he called the commander of the
Joaqu?n Par?s Battalion, describing the
situation in the village and the possible presence of Carlos Casta?o
The Colonel wrote an “urgent information” memorandum to
General Jaime Humberto Usc?tegui, Commander of the 7th Brigade
in Villavicencio. He recommended “a quick and immediate airlift to
Mapirip?n with personnel and equipment from the Mobile Brigade
Number 2 (three battalions in Barranc?n and 3 helicopters).”
Usc?tegui, also charged in the legal proceedings, says he did not
receive such a report.
According to the judge, 27 people were captured on the morning of
the 15th. They were all taken to see Mochacabezas, who had
settled in the butcher yard of the municipal slaughterhouse. Among
the first victims was Cotumare. He was tortured all day long and
his screams froze the jungle air throughout that first night. “Don’t let
me die in such a miserable way,” witnesses recalled hearing him
shout amid his cries.
These were the first victims of the 49 people (4.9 percent of the
estimated population of Mapirip?n) who Carlos Casta?o
acknowledged being killed in the operation.
The paramilitary siege lasted until July 20, when the International
Committee of the Red Cross, also alerted by the judge, sent a plane
to Mapirip?n to rescue the judge and his neighbors. As the Red
Cross personnel raced to the airport, Mochacabezas added a
parting touch—he tossed a dead dog into the crowd. It was the
local teacher’s dog and Mochabezas had strangled it in his own
Tension between civilians and the military
The office of the President received news of the massacre on July
22. The report arrived shortly after Gen. Bedoya’s revolt, followed
by his appeal for other members of the armed forces to join him.
Amid the tense situation, the president’s adviser on human rights,
Luis Manuel Lasso, organized a trip from Bogot? to Mapirip?n with
the members of the federal prosecutor’s office. Their plan was to
go to San Jos? on a Police aircraft and from there a military
helicopter, which would carry them to the massacre site.
They completed the San Jos? leg of the journey, but the military
helicopter didn’t arrive. “The two available helicopters were busy
during ceremonies at Barranc?n, where officials were on hand for
the end of the U.S. Special Forces training course and the visit of
the Argentinian Army Chief of Staff,” explained General Bonett on
July 24, the same day he replaced Bedoya.
Although Sheridan’s letter does not mention any U.S. military
presence in Barranc?n during the massacre days, the federal
prosecutor’s office investigation chief believed the opposite.
According to the lead federal prosecutor’s report, the military said
the helicopters were being used “in a social gathering with military
personnel from the U.S. Embassy.” The incident escalated when,
at the presidential adviser’s request, the Army IV Division
commander, General Agust?n Ardila Duarte was summoned, and
he “ridiculed the presidential advisor and paid more attention to the American guests than to the investigative mission.”
All week long, according to military flight reports at San Jos?
Airport, Army Command and Inspection representatives and
Brigade and Division Commanders “with their entourage” visited
According to the JCET reports to the U.S. Congress, three courses
ended between July 20 and 28 in Colombia, but the Solic does not
acknowledge any of them ended during the National Independence
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