|Colombian Army Tied To Abuses|
The Colombian army, which the Clinton administration proposes to supply with up to $1 billion in training, equipment and other assistance over the next two years, maintains close operational ties to Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for extensive human rights abuses and escalating involvement in drug trafficking, according to a report released yesterday.
Compiled by Human Rights Watch after a yearlong investigation aided by Colombian government prosecutors, the report comes at a particularly sensitive time in the administration's effort to gain approval for a massive aid package it hopes will stem the flood of cocaine and heroin entering the United States from Colombia.
In recent weeks, the administration has assured skeptical members of Congress that Colombian President Andres Pastrana has made major strides in separating the armed forces from the paramilitary groups. In meetings in Bogota last week, "Pastrana . . . made very clear that he understood, for the future of Colombia, how important it was to continue to push ahead in that area," Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering said Tuesday.
U.S. law prohibits assistance and training to any military units or individuals implicated in human rights violations, and all troops involved in U.S. anti-drug assistance programs are individually vetted.
Last night, Colombian Vice President Gustavo Bell issued a sharp response to the report, saying his government has never denied residual ties between paramilitary groups and armed forces individuals, and that it has moved to break those ties and punish those involved. But the suggestion that there is a "deliberate, institutional will to help and support these illegal groups is something the government does not accept, because it is untrue," Bell said.
The fact that Human Rights Watch received much of its information from government prosecutors, he said, "indicates clearly and emphatically" that the government is doing its job in investigating military crimes. Bell said Colombia is determined to remain open to human rights scrutiny, but he criticized "the explicit intention" of the report "to obstruct the legislative procedures" on U.S. aid for Colombia.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Latin America director of Human Rights Watch, said that Colombian federal prosecutors were frustrated by their inability to apply civilian justice to military officials. Although Pastrana and U.S. officials frequently note that 15 senior army officials have lost their jobs because of alleged paramilitary ties, Vivanco said none of them has been prosecuted. But prosecutors and human rights officials, he said, live in constant fear for their lives, and many have fled the country under threat.
While its intentions are good, Vivanco said, the Pastrana government has been unable to impose its will on the Colombian army.
"Far from moving decisively to sever ties to paramilitaries," the report says, "our evidence strongly suggests that Colombia's military high command has yet to take the necessary steps" to accomplish the government's goals.
Human Rights Watch, located in New York, is the largest U.S.-based human rights group. Its reports have frequently been used by the Clinton administration to buttress its human rights assessments of other countries, including Colombia.
Detailing incidents and evidence it says was collected as recently as last month, the report documents paramilitary ties with army brigades headquartered in Colombia's three largest cities, Bogota, Medellin and Cali. Together with previously issued reports, the report says "evidence collected so far by Human Rights Watch links half of Colombia's 18 brigade-level army units . . . to paramilitary activity."
Among the senior military officials the report identifies as having direct or supervisory involvement with paramilitary units are seven graduates of the U.S. School of the Americas training center for Latin American military officers, now located at Fort Benning, Ga.
Colombia's right-wing paramilitary groups were established and funded during the 1980s by wealthy landowners. Their mission was to help the military combat two major leftist guerrilla groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which carry out widespread kidnappings for ransom.
Now joined together as the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia under leader Carlos Castano, the paramilitaries' estimated 5,000 to 7,000 troops have been held responsible by both U.S. and Colombian authorities for more than 70 percent of human rights abuses in Colombia. These include massacres and dislocation of civilians in the name of rooting out supposed guerrilla sympathizers.
At the same time, Pickering said Tuesday, "the paramilitaries are now playing a major role in protecting drug trafficking in southern Colombia," in effect competing with the FARC.
Among examples of ongoing army-paramilitary collaboration, the report notes "compelling, detailed information" that the Cali-based Third Brigade set up its own "paramilitary" group last year using "active duty, retired and reserve military officers . . . along with hired paramilitaries" taken from the ranks of Castano forces based in northern Colombia. Called the Calima Front, it was formed in response to the ELN kidnapping in May of 140 worshipers in a Cali church--a group that included some alleged drug traffickers.
According to civilian government investigators, witness accounts and the government-sworn testimony of a former army intelligence agent, the front went on a rampage through southwest Colombian villages, committing targeted assassinations, massacres of peasants and the forced displacement of hundreds of villagers.
According to the report, the Third Brigade provided the front with intelligence and logistical support. Working with the army, it says, local drug traffickers also provided the Calima troops with food, supplies and local lodging. "The Calima Front and the Third Brigade are the same thing," the report quotes one government investigator as saying.
Vivanco said Human Rights Watch is not calling for congressional rejection of the $1.6 billion, two-year Colombian aid package. Rather, the report urges that strict new conditions be placed on all U.S. security assistance to Colombia, including the civilian prosecution of all military personnel implicated in human rights abuses and restrictions on intelligence-sharing with Colombian army units. It also calls for additional funding and civilian staff to aid in monitoring and investigating alleged abuses.
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