|The Life and Crimes of General Montoya Uribe|
PUTUMAYO DEPARTMENT COLOMBIA, JANUARY 2001 ? All of us knew we were taking certain risks when we flew by helicopter from Puerto Asis to La Hormiga with Gen. Mario Montoya Uribe ? the countryside in Putumayo is controlled by FARC guerillas who are rumored to have anti-aircraft weapons. But I?m not sure we realized how much of a risk Nancy Sánchez took by riding with our delegation of journalists and peace activists.
Nancy Sánchez was the human rights director for the health department in the region ? a dangerous job in a country where the right wing death paramilitaries responsible for 70% of the political killings consider human rights workers to be guerilla sympathizers, and thus legitimate targets for assassination. I mention her by name only because ?60 Minutes? and The New York Times have since reported on her work, and there is now no anonymity to protect. She worked with local peasants to document the devastation caused by the crop fumigations Gen. Montoya oversaw in his role as commander of Joint Task Force South ? the military command that includes the 24th Brigade of the Colombian army and two new U.S.-trained and funded Counternarcotics Battalions.
Nancy loved the land. Late at night over a few beers she told us about the pink dolphins that swim in the river in the nature preserve on the other side of Putumayo where she grew up, and about the cloud forests in the mountains.
The fumigations U.S. pilots working for a private company called Dyncorp carried out in cooperation with Gen. Montoya?s troops were ostensibly designed to destroy coca plants ? the raw plant material used to make cocaine. But the fumigations were actually killing everything alive. Nancy introduced us to leaders of the Cofán tribe who told us how their food crops, their medicinal crops, their ritual plants, and the forest around their reservation were completely destroyed by the fumigations and their children had developed rashes and respiratory problems. The culture of the C?fan is completely tied to the ecology of the rainforest ? to watch these plants die was to watch their culture die. (We later learned that there is oil under the C?fan reservation, and the tribe had refused to allow foreign corporations to exploit it. The fumigation was a MONTOYA forced displacement under the guise of an an anti-drug operation.)
Gen, Montoya would tell us ?We are winning the war? as he showed us maps indicating that more and more land was being fumigated every year. What he neglected to mention is that coca cultivation has grown far faster than the fumigation program, Nancy took us to La Hormiga because the village had recently been fumigated and she wanted us to meet some of the campesinos who has lost everything they had. A local priest introduced us to a 74 year old man who had been partially blinded by the chemicals and had lost his corn, plantain, and yucca crops ? even though he didn?t grow any coca.
At a nearby yucca cooperative, we discovered another dimension of the campesinos? suffering. The yucca cooperative was an alternative development project developed with government assistance to help farmers wean themselves off growing coca. But that didn?t stop the crop dusters from fumigating the cooperative and killing the whole yucca crop. At the gates of the cooperative we met a woman who told us she had invested all her money in the cooperative. Her four children were starving, and she wanted to go to Puerto Asis (the nearest city) to try to find food for them. But the paramilitaries controlled the only road out of town, and they had already destroyed her car and killed all of her brothers.
The paramilitaries, it turns out, control all of La Hormiga and most of the cities and towns in Putumayo. According to Human Rights Watch?s 2002 Annual Report, in 2001 (and presumably stull today): ?the Twenty-Fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormiga?a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable.? The army base named in the report is the same one we landed at with General Montoya.
A few months later, Nancy S?nchez was forced to leave the country after receiving death threats from these same paramilitaries. Fortunately, she made it out of Colombia alive.
Gen. Montoya would go on in the next year to play host to visiting politicians and journalists, assuring them that the Colombian military was using U.S. tax dollars well to win a war against drug traffickers and terrorists (despite the fact that the paramilitaries not only terrorize civilians, but are also deeply involved in cocaine and heroin trafficking.) He is now the commander of the 4th Brigade, based in Medellin, another Brigade notorious for its paramilitary links.
But that should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Gen. Montoya?s history.
PARAMILITARY TIES GOING BACK TO THE LATE 1970?s
In the late 1970?s Mario Montoya Uribe was allegedly involved in the ?AAA? (American Anti-Communist Action) paramilitary group, and was involved in a series of bombings the group carried out in 1978 and 1979. The targets included the offices of the Communist Party, a newspaper, and a magazine. Several leading activists and academics were kidnapped and murdered. A defector would later tell one of Bogota?s leading daily newspapers that the AAA was led by military officers. Fr. Javier Giraldo, SJ writes in his account of AAA?s campaign of terror that:
? The names of the officials who were charged with these deeds would later on be familiar to the majority of Colombians, since they received all of the promotions and military honors possible and occupied the highest offices and responsibility in the hierarchy of the Colombian Armed Forces.?
(Incredibly, a recently declassified diplomatic cable sent by then U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Curtis Kamman in 2000 regarding Gen. Montoya?s appointment to head Joint Task Force South, indicates that Kamman was aware of these allegations against Montoya, and that in addition to being unable to determine whether the chages were true, wasn?t sure that the bombings constituted ?gross human rights violations.? If bombing civilians isn?t a ?gross human rights violation,? then what is?)
Par for the course, Montoya was selected in 1983 for training at the U.S. Army?s School of the Americas, then located in Panama ? anyone who wants to advance quickly in the ranks of the Colombian military needs to receive U.S. military training, preferably at the SOA. In 1993, the year after Montoya was publicly accused of being involved in the 1978-79 AAA bombing campaign, Montoya, then a Lieutenant Colonel returned to the SOA as an instructor. That same year the Prosecutor General of Colombia issued a scathing report on the Colombian military?s paramilitary links, in which he wrote:
"[The security forces] act under the premise that gained currency in El Salvador, of ?draining the sea,? which means that a direct relationship is established, for example, between trade union or peasant movements and the subversive ranks. When counter guerrilla actions are carried out, these passive subjects are not identified as ?independent? victims, but rather, as part of the enemy."
Yet despite these broad allegations about the Colombian military, and the specific allegations against Montoya, the U.S. Army considered Montoya to be a suitable instructor for military officers from throughout Latin America. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the School of the Americas ? after all, the military officers who developed the policy of ?draining the sea? in El Salvador had studied counter-insurgency at the SOA.
Montoya?s name next turns up in a letter from of Human Rights Watch to Ray Irani, Chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum, in 1997. Occidental has significant oil investments in Colombia, and there was a rash of ?extrajudicial executions,? in the Arauca department where Occidental had encouraged the Colombian military to crack down on ELN guerillas who were attacking its pipeline. At the time Montoya, who had been promoted to Colonel, was serving as head of Operative Command No. 2 of the 18th Brigade of the Colombian army. Soldiers under his command were implicated in the murders of several innocent campesinos, which the army tried to cover up by claiming that the dead were guerillas killed in combat. None of these incidents came up when Montoya was being considered for his position as commander of Joint Task Force South.
The Eighteenth Brigade has continued to commit horrendous human rights, most recently kidnapping, torturing, and killing two leaders of a farming cooperative ant their son. U.S. law forbids Colombian military units with a record of serious human rights abuses from receiving military aid. Nevertheless, the 18th Brigade continues to receive U.S. military aid and training. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson visited Arauca earlier this year to announce that the Bush administration is asking for another $98 million in military aid to create a new battalion to protect Occidental Petroleum?s Ca?o Limon pipeline. The batallion would be part of the 18th Brigade. The National Peasants Association protested the announcement by calling a general strike and blockading roads throughout the area.
MONTOYA AND THE PARAMILITARIES IN PUTUMAYO
By 200, Brigadier General Mario Montoya took command of Joint Task Force South, assuming the leadership of the military components of the Clinton administration?s ?Plan Colombia.? The task force?s mission was to protect the fumigation planes Virginia-based Dyncorp was flying under contract to the State Department, and to drive the FARC out of southern Colombia.
The paramilitaries were an integral part of the strategy to drive the FARC out of Putumayo. In December of 2000 Robert Collier of the San Francisco Chronicle:
?Since early last year, when the army started a gradual offensive to try to take back rebel-dominated Putumayo, the paramilitaries have been right behind them, working in silent tandem. The paramilitaries came to La Hormiga in January 1999. With army troops from the nearby 24th Brigade blocking roads behind them, the gunmen selected 26 people, mostly youths, and executed them on suspicion of being guerrillas. In November 1999, the death squads massacred 12 more people in El Placer, 10 miles away. And over the past year, as many as 100 civilians have been killed in the province, mostly one by one. Human-rights groups in Bogota and Washington complained, government investigators were sent, reports were written. No one has been convicted. Instead, US diplomats temporarily blacklisted the 24th Brigade, barring it from receiving US aid or training However, American assistance is flowing faster and faster to Montoya?s regional command these days as the US aid program gets cranked up. Critics call the process a public-relations shell game, in which wrists are slapped yet vast quantities of US aid wind up helping the paramilitaries..?
In January, 2001, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson told me that the black-listing of the 24th Brigade insured that units with links to paramilitaries in Putumayo would not have access to U.S. military aid. But in July, 2001, the Center for Public Integrity reported that: ?as of mid-2001, the 24th Army Brigade was still being supplied by other Colombian army units that receive U.S. military aid and was still collaborating with the paramilitaries, according to human rights officials in Colombia.?
In addition, a recently declassified diplomatic cable sent by Patterson?s predecessor, Curtis Kamman, the previous June, reported that the U.S.-funded Frist Counternarcotics Battalion was ?bedding down? at the headquarters of the 24th Brigade?s 31st Battalion in Santa Anna just outside Puerto Asis and that the two units were sharing facilities and intelligence. Human Rights Watch documents further ties between the two units in its 2002 annual report:
?The U.S. violated the spirit of its own laws and in some cases downplayed evidence of ties between the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups in order to continue funding abusive units. Compelling evidence emerged, in particular, of ties between paramilitaries and Colombian military units deployed in the U.S. antinarcotics campaign in southern Colombia, showing that U.S.-vetted, -funded, and -trained troops were mixing freely with units that maintained close ties with paramilitaries. This occurred in the case of the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions. On their first joint deployment in December 2000, these battalions depended heavily on the army?s Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance, particularly with regard to intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations. Yet there was abundant and credible evidence to show that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo. Indeed, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormiga?a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable.?
Amnesty International?s 2001 annual report noted that:
?A wide-ranging pattern of collusion between the national police, the army and paramilitary forces in the area of Puerto As?s, Putumayo department, was revealed to the authorities by a member of the national police and the local human rights ombudsman. According to their sworn testimonies, paramilitary groups consorted openly with army personnel and police in the town of Puerto As?s. On the outskirts of the town they maintained a base, where people who had been abducted were taken to be tortured and killed. The base was only a few hundred metres from the headquarters of the army?s 24th Brigade and a base of the 25th Battalion. Army officers held regular meetings with paramilitary leaders in the base.?
Gen. Montoya clearly bears responsibility for the crimes his troops helped the paramilitaries commit in Putumayo under his watch. Yet instead of being prosecuted or investigated, Montoya was recently appointed commander of the 4th Brigade, based in Medellin in the Antioquia department ? another unit with a long history of collaborating with the paramilitaries. The Brigade also operates in the Choco department, where paramilitaries have long terrorized Afro-Colombian communities. Last year 35 union organizers were murdered in Antioquia, and human rights abuses have continued at an alarming rate in the department. In one recent incident, soldiers under Montoya?s command killed three teenagers in Medellin. Yet the Colombian military continues to put Montoya forward as an example of an ideal officer in press releases celebrating his victories against the FARC and the ELN. Most recently Montoya's name came up in connection with the May 2 massacre in Bojaya in Choco in which 117 people were killed during fighting between the FARC and paramilitaries, many of them by a FARC bomb that accidentally hit a church. Montoya has yet to provided any satisfactory answers about why the Fourth Brigade ignored warnings that paramilitaries were planning on attacking the village, and allowed paramilitaries to enter Choco by boat and by helicopter. On a visit to Bojaya, UN human rights envoy Anders Kompass expressed concern about the links between the military and the Fourth Brigade, telling reporters that "The people ... are saying with a lot of anguish that the paramilitaries are present and that ? along with the presence of the security forces ? has created confusion among the civilian population" An angry Montoya said that there is no evidence of ties between the military and the paramilitaries and that his command receives too many warnings of potential massacres to be able to respond to all of them.
Ambassadors Kamman and Patterson clearly were aware of the abuses being committed by Montoya?s troops, and chose to look the other way: a policy also followed by their superiors at the State Department.
MONTOYA?S CASE EXEMPLIFIES ?SEE NO EVIL? POLICY
For the past several years the budget item granting U.S. military aid to Colombia has included provisions requiring the Secretary of State to certify that the Colombian military has made significant progress in severing its ties with paramilitaries and improving its human rights record before the aid money is released. In recent years, Presidents Bush and Clinton have signed waivers overriding these provisions. But last year Congress eliminated the loophole that allowed the waivers. So this year Secretary of State Powell, ignoring the evidence of military-paramilitary collaboration in Putumayo and elsewhere, certified that Colombia had met the human rights conditions necessary for receiving U.S. military aid.
In making this extraordinary claim, Powell cited the fact that several Colombian officers had been disciplined for human rights violations. It is true, that the Colombian government did take limited action in a few high profile cases over the past year. The extent to which officers have been ?disciplined? is questionable. For example, Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich recently praised the Colombian government because ?senior Colombian naval official?s career was recently ended because of allegations that he collaborated with paramilitaries.? However, according to human rights activist Jon Patrick, Leary:
?Qui?ones was in fact promoted twice after Colombian government investigators linked him to at least fifty-seven murders of trade unionists, human rights workers, and community leaders in 1991 and 1992. Government investigators also determined that the general gave safe passage to AUC death squads who executed 26 people with sledgehammers in the village of Chengue. Despite what Reich says, however, Qui?ones has not recently been punished, as if a career change could be considered punishment. He has simply been reassigned as a military attach? abroad. ?
The policy seems to be that human rights abuses by officers like Montoya who have good public relations skills are ignored, and notorious human rights abusers like Qui?ones who draw attention to themselves are simply moved out of the public eye.
In order to conclude that Colombia was meeting the human rights conditions, Powell had to ignore every respected authority on human rights, Amnesty International?s annual report says that in 2001:
The human rights crisis continued to deepen against a background of a spiralling armed conflict. The parties to the conflict intensified their military actions throughout the country in campaigns characterized by gross and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The principal victims of political violence were civilians, particularly peasant farmers living in areas disputed between government forces and allied paramilitaries, and armed opposition groups. Human rights defenders, journalists, judicial officials, teachers, trade unionists and leaders of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities were among those targeted. More than 4,000 people were victims of political killings [up from 1,187 in 2000], over 300 ??disappeared??, and an estimated 300,000 people were internally displaced. At least 1,500 people were kidnapped by armed opposition groups and paramilitary organizations; mass kidnaps of civilians continued. Torture - often involving mutilation - remained widespread, particularly as a prelude to murder by paramilitary groups. ??Death squad??-style killings continued in urban areas. Children suffered serious human rights violations particularly in the context of the armed conflict. New evidence emerged of continuing collusion between the armed forces and illegal paramilitary groups. Progress continued in a limited number of judicial investigations, but impunity for human rights abuses remained the norm.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said that:
?The overwhelming majority of [Colombian] Governmental responses to [U.N. High Commission on Human Rights] about specific cases and situations . . . have been unsatisfactory, inoperative and purely bureaucratic.?
Hina Jiliani, an assistant to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, has sharply criticized the Colombian government?s failure to prosecute military officers involved in human rights abuses. Even the State Department?s own annual human rights report, released shortly before Powell granted the certification, said that:
?Members of the security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups that committed abuses, in some instances allowing such groups to pass through roadblocks, sharing information, or providing them with supplies or ammunition. Despite increased government efforts to combat and capture members of paramilitary groups, security forces also often failed to take action to prevent paramilitary attacks. Paramilitary forces still find support among the military and police, as well as among local civilian populations in many areas.?
The human rights certification couldn?t have come at a worse time. Peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerillas broke down in February, dramatically escalating the war. The new ?Law of National Security and Defense? went into effect in Colombia last August, and grants the Colombian President the authority to place parts of the country under martial law. The Bush administration is pushing to increase this year?s military aid package to Colombia by $35 million, bringing it up to $377.67 million, and to increase next year?s military aid package to $493 billion.
Legislation before the U.S. Congress would also allow all past, present and future U.S. military aid to Colombia to be used in a ?unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to its national security.?
To make matters worse, right wing extremist Alvaro Uribe Valez is expected to win Colombia?s presidential election by a landslide. Uribe has pledged to take a harder line against the FARC and create ?civilian intelligence? networks to aid the military ? human rights activists warn that the creation of such networks may mark a veiled attempt to legalize the paramilitaries. Journalist Al Giordano has documented Uribe?s links to drug traffickers and paramilitaries in a frightening article available online at http://www.narconews.com/narcocandidate1.html.
Why the escalation of U.S military . involvement in Colombia at a time when human rights conditions are worsening and the country is plunging deeper into war? U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson recently told the Bogota daily newspaper El Tiempo that:
?After Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia is the most important oil country in the region. After what happened on September 11th, the traditional oil sources for the United States (the Middle East) are less secure . . . Latin America could not cover a shortage, it could not supply (us) in a crisis, but it allows a small margin to work with and avoid price speculation . . . Colombia has great potential for exporting more oil to the United States, and now more than ever it is important for us to diversify our oil sources.?
Increasing oil production in Colombia to meet U.S. needs will inevitably require forcing more farmers and indigenous people off their land. This can be achieved through three methods: crop fumigations, paramilitary massacres, and the escalation of the war. Displaced people provide a potential work force for sweatshops, providing another economic benefit to U.S. corporations. These policies, together with the Colombian government?s policies of alternately luring and forcing farmers from the countryside to the cities, a seemingly endless agricultural recession that began in the early ?90?s, and the devastating impact of IMF loan agreements on public services in Colombia, create increasing poverty and misery for the vast majority of Colombians.
Desperate poverty, coupled with political repression, pushes more people to join the guerillas. The labor movement, the women?s movement, and movements of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people are working hard to provide people with a viable alternative to armed struggle. But when the leaders of these movements are branded ?guerilla sympathizers? and targeted for assassination, it is impossible for a nonviolent, democratic left to emerge.Colombian human rights activist Hector Mondragon writes:
?Both the right and the guerilla are trying to impose war. The strengthening of the movmeents of the left for peace could possibly resolve the confilct. This is the possibility that the dirty war and assasinations have tried to prevent.? Guerilla violence provides a justification for the further escalation of military/paramilitary violence. And so the cycle continues.
Its time for all of us to rise up and demand a complete end to U.S. military aid to Colombia.
Note: In February of 2006, Montoya was named as the head of the Colombian Army. Read more.
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