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by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
of Colombia's 18 brigade-level army units are linked to paramilitary activity, according to a new report by a major U.S. human rights group which called on the administration of President Bill Clinton to review its proposed $1.3 billion emergency aid package for Bogota.
In a letter sent Feb. 23 to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had obtained "detailed, abundant, and compelling evidence of continuing close ties between the Colombia Army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations."
"We strongly urge you to place strict conditions aimed at upholding respect for human rights on all U.S. security assistance provided to the Colombian military," wrote Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of HRW's Americas division.
At the same time, the group published a new 22-page report, "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links," which charged that, despite recent moves by Colombian President Andres Pastrana to cashier top officers who have supported the paramilitaries, the country's High Command "has yet to take the necessary steps to accomplish this goal."
HRW's charges are based on interviews with investigators of the Colombian Attorney-General's office -- some of whom have been forced to flee the country because of their work -- as well as its own research and that of independent Colombian rights groups.
They were made public as the U.S. Congress considers an emergency $1.3 billion aid package consisting mainly of aid for the Colombian military.
The package is designed primarily to train and equip three anti-drug army battalions, one of which is already in the field, to secure drug-production areas in the southern states of Putumayo and Caqueta.
The region is largely controlled by Colombia's largest guerrilla faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Washington accuses of protecting and profiting from the drug trade.
The largest single expenditure in the aid package -- for $450 million -- is for supplying 15 Huey and 30 Black Hawk attack helicopters to give the army the mobility it needs to reach and secure remote areas where coca and opium poppy production are concentrated. The Army has already has 18 Hueys.
"We propose to give the (government) the air mobility to reach deep into these lawless zones and establish a secure environment for (government) officials and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to extend basic services to these long-deprived areas," said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Peter Romero, in testimony before Congress last week.
very recently, Washington has been leery of supplying large amounts of aid to the Colombian military, both because of its bad human rights record and evidence that senior officers were involved in the drug trade themselves. Tens of millions of dollars in U.S. security aid was instead directed at the National Police, which enjoyed a cleaner reputation on both counts.
But without the army's support, the police cannot be as effective in remote guerrilla-controlled areas, especially in the south where drug production has exploded in recent years, according to U.S. officials.
Just last week, Washington's "drug czar," Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, disclosed new statistics which he said showed a 140 percent increase in Colombian coca production since 1995.
"We have a drug emergency in Colombia," he told a Congressional committee. "Americans need to understand that we can and must address the drug emergency in Colombia and the Andes if we are to curtail the flow of cocaine and heroin to our own children in the United States."
Some 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States passes through Colombia, according to drug officials.
U.S. officials claim that the military elements of the package will be directed against all armed forces which protect or profit from the drug trade. That includes, according to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, paramilitary groups, as well as the guerrillas.
Pickering, who just returned from Colombia, stressed at a briefing Tuesday here that "the paramilitaries are now playing a major role in protecting drug trafficking in southern Colombia. There is in a sense, if you like, a competition going on between the paramilitaries and the FARC for control of the drug trade (in the region)."
But human rights activists, who say the paramilitaries are responsible for almost 80 percent of political killings and virtually all of the major massacres which have made Colombia the bloodiest country in the Americas, have long claimed that elements of the army actually support them.
"The fact is that the Colombian Army continues to be allied with the paramilitaries," according to Carlos Salinas, a Latin American specialist at the U.S. section of Amnesty International who has assailed the proposed aid package.
"How can the administration justify a major counter-drug program that not only fails to address the paramilitary involvement in drug trafficking, but also sends aid to their allies?" he asked in a statement issued last week.
The new HRW report said it had obtained information implicating the Colombian Army brigades operating in the country's three largest cities, including Bogota itself, as well as six other brigade-level units in paramilitary operations or support.
"These units operate in all of Colombia's five divisions," according to the report. "In other words, military support for paramilitary activity remains national in scope and includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid operate."
In particular, HRW found that as recently as last year, the Third Army brigade actually set up a paramilitary group, the Calima Front, in the department of Valle del Cauca in southern Colombia.
That group included hired guns taken from the ranks of the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Cordoba and Uruba (ACCU) commanded by Carlos Castano, Colombia's most notorious paramilitary leader. Castano, the subject of scores of murder indictments, has never been arrested.
The current commander of the Cali-based brigade, Gen. Jaime Ernesto Canal Alban, served in the same position when the Front was established, the report said. "The Calima Front and the Third Brigade are the same thing," the report quotes one government investigator as saying.
Government investigators interviewed by HRW also found that the country's Fourth Army Brigade, based in Medellin and under the command of Gen. Carlos Ospina Ovalle, has had "pervasive ties" -- even carrying out joint operations -- with paramilitaries under Castano's command, including those responsible for some of the country's most notorious massacres.
Ospina Ovalle has since been promoted and now heads Colombia's Fourth Division, one of whose units in Caqueta has been proposed to receive U.S. military aid.
The Army's Thirteenth Brigade, which is based in Bogota, has also been linked to Castano, although the report notes that its military intelligence officers appear to have been behind a campaign of terror and intimidation against human rights defenders, and even government investigators.
"I signed one case to authorize an indictment of paramilitaries before lunch, and by the time I returned to my desk after eating, a death threat, hand delivered, was there, with intimate details about the decor of my apartment to let me know the killers had already been inside," one prosecutor told HRW investigators regarding his suspicions about the brigade's work.
"When an aid package of this size is debated in Washington, it's crucial that the facts be clear," said Vivanco. "And the facts we've established about links between the Colombian military and paramilitaries are truly alarming."
Pastrana, according to Pickering, has fired four generals and up to 15 other senior officers for ties to the paramilitaries. U.S. officials insist that record demonstrates the government's determination to sever military-paramilitary ties.
But Vivanco said such efforts need to go much further before Washington provides vastly increased military aid to the army.
"US assistance should not be provided either to those who directly commit human rights abuses or to those who effectively contract others to carry out abuses on their behalf and with their assistance," he wrote to Albright.
February 27, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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