Pubdate: Thu, 31 Aug 2000
Source: MoJo Wire (US Web)
Copyright: 2000 Foundation for National Progress
Contact:  731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: (415) 665-6696
Author: Steven Dudley


The US is dishing out $1.3 billion to help Colombia's military fight
leftist rebels and drug growers -- but in doing so, it may also be
helping murderous right-wing paramilitary groups.

PUERTO ASIS, Colombia -- Just walk into District Attorney German
Martinez's office, and it becomes obvious he's a watched man. From
across the street in the town's central square, hard-eyed men watch his
every movement. Inside the dark, steamy, one-story building, two
military officers wait to speak to him.

Just a few feet away from the soldiers, the 31-year old lawyer fiddles 
with his neatly stacked papers on the corner of his desk. Martinez gets 
death threats regularly, usually by telephone in this office. Two 
heavily armed bodyguards accompany him everywhere. All of this 
attention makes Martinez nervous; he shakes as he speaks.  

"As public servants, we should have confidence in the military," 
Martinez says softly, hunching over his desk. "But we don't, because 
the ties between these criminals and the armed forces are very clear."  

"These criminals" are the clandestine right-wing paramilitaries which 
operate with impunity in Puerto Asis, unofficial allies of the 
Colombian military in its decades-long war against leftist guerillas. 
Martinez lays the blame for over 100 murders last year on the 
paramilitaries who are trying to violently purge the area of left-wing 

Puerto Asis, a town of 18,000 in Putumayo province, is ground zero for 
the US-backed military assault on coca-growing areas in Colombia. 
Putumayo, located along the Ecuadoran border, and its northern 
neighbor, Caqueta province, are where most of Colombia's coca is 
produced and refined before being smuggled out to the US and Europe. An 
estimated 1,500 left-wing rebels from the country's largest guerrilla 
group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), protect some 
of these fields -- many of which lie just a few miles from Puerto Asis -
- - and siphon a tax from the growers and traffickers to finance their 
own war against the state.  

The Colombian military -- which was barred from getting US money for 
years because of past human-rights abuses -- is now set to receive a 
record $1.3 billion in US aid, most of it to be spent on helicopters, 
intelligence equipment, and training, so it can chase the leftist 
rebels out of this area.  

But Martinez's allegations -- which are backed up by numerous other 
observers and international human-rights groups -- point up important 
questions about whether the US can aid this attack without supporting 
the most brutal element of the war, the right-wing paramilitaries. 
International human-rights groups say the paramilitaries are 
responsible for over 70 percent of the estimated 3,000 extrajudicial 
executions per year in Colombia.  

The legal safeguards that are supposed to prevent US aid money from 
going to such human-rights abusers have been easily sidestepped. On 
Aug. 22, President Clinton signed a waiver that permits the aid to go 
to Colombia despite the fact that State Department did not certify the 
Colombian government for its human-rights record, a stipulation built 
into the package.  

"This is the wrong policy and the wrong time," said Jose Miguel 
Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division. 
"The message is that the bad apples in the armed forces shouldn't be 
worried. Ultimately, the waiver defeats the purpose of any policy meant 
to improve human rights."  

This year's State Department report noted the Colombian military's 
human rights record has improved, but said that parts of the armed 
forces maintained ties with the right-wing groups. Critics within the 
Colombian government say that allegations of the Colombian military's 
wrongdoing have dropped because they have simply passed off the dirty 
work to the paramilitaries.  

Military units receiving aid must also abide by the Leahy Amendment, 
which bars money from going to foreign armed forces that are involved 
in human-rights abuses. Putumayo's 24th Army Brigade is one of several 
military units that has supposedly been cleared of involvement in such 
crimes. But US officials seemed to have overlooked strong evidence 
linking the brigade to the paramilitary groups in the area, revealing 
just how artificial this screening process is.  

Martinez, for instance, said he saw paramilitaries take four peasant 
farmers past one of the brigade's checkpoints last year. The farmers 
later turned up dead. He has filed reports to the central office of the 
Attorney General in Colombia's capital city of Bogota but to little 

US embassy officials in Colombia admitted that it is hard to screen an 
entire brigade, which has several hundred frequently rotated soldiers. 
But they said that if there were specific incidents from credible 
sources, the embassy would investigate.  

One incident the embassy might want to investigate is a massacre in the 
small farming village of El Tigre, a guerilla stronghold some 25 miles 
northwest of Puerto Asis. The bumpy, partially paved road north from 
Puerto Asis hits a fork after several miles; turn left and you go to El 
Tigre, veer right and you run into the 24th Brigade on the outskirts of 
the town of Santa Ana.  

On the night of Jan. 9, 1999, government and international 
investigators say that 150 paramilitaries forced several Puerto Asis 
residents at gunpoint to drive them to El Tigre along this road. That 
night, paramilitaries slaughtered some two dozen people in the village. 
Meanwhile, the 24th Brigade established a check-point just above the 
fork in the road and barred vehicles from going to Puerto Asis from 
Santana. Witnesses told investigators that about 30 buses were stacked 
up in Santana for several hours. The check-point made travel along the 
road between El Tigre and Puerto Asis less congested and a getaway with 
no witnesses easy.  

The current head of the 24th Brigade, Col. Gabriel Diaz, said it was a 
routine checkpoint. And Diaz insisted the stories surrounding the 
massacre are false.  

"This is what the FARC does," Diaz said. "They want to discredit the 

However, another more recent massacre revealed a similar pattern. On 
Nov. 7, 1999, paramilitaries killed 12 people in the town of El Placer, 
according to Amnesty International. Witnesses told investigators that 
the 24th Brigade was in El Placer just days before the massacre, and 
arrived again just hours after the 50 armed men had finished pulling 
locals out of their houses and shooting them in the barren fields 
surrounding the town.  

Colombian human-rights observers say both the El Tigre and the El 
Placer cases are typical of the way in which the Colombian military 
collaborates with the paramilitaries: providing protection, then 
auspiciously timing their arrivals so as not to confront the right-wing 

"In some cases, witnesses have testified to direct coordination and 
participation in massacres," said Winifred Tate, a fellow at the 
Washington Office on Latin America. "In other cases, local armed forces 
have stood by while paramilitary forces occupied towns for several 
days, killing inhabitants, and did not come to the aid of the people 
despite pleas from local government officials, or even prevented 
assistance or the possibility of escape."  

Puerto Asis Mayor Manuel Alzalte said he's informed the armed forces on 
several occasions that paramilitaries ride in their four-by-fours with 
their guns hanging out of their windows in the middle of the city -- to 
no avail.  

"If the army and the police don't do anything, what more can I do?" 
Alzalte said.  

In Puerto Asis, everyone but the 24th Brigade seems to know where to 
find the estimated 500 right-wing paramilitaries that operate in the 
area. Locals said they run their operations from a ranch a few miles 
outside the city. The region's right-wing militia leader, known as 
Commander Yair, told Reuters that the paramilitaries backed the 
government's plan to clear guerrillas from this area when the news 
agency found him at this same farmhouse.  

Rights groups say the 24th Brigade colludes in a counter-insurgency 
strategy that relies on the paramilitaries. In February, Human Rights 
Watch reported that half of the army's 18 brigades maintain systematic 
ties to the right-wing militias. The United Nations Office of the High 
Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia came to a similar conclusion 
in April.  

"The continued existence of direct links between some members of the 
securirty forces and paramilitary groups ... is a cause of great 
concern," the report says. "This office has received testimony from 
some high military officials saying that the paramilitaries do not 
violate the constitution and therefore it is not a function of the 
military to fight them."  

Although the military admits there are "some bad apples" in its units, 
they say they are doing what they can to fight the paramilitaries.  

"The Armed Forces takes human rights seriously," insisted Colombian 
Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez.   

"We are having more and more combat with the self-defense groups all 
the time," Ramirez said. "Maybe there were links between some members 
of the military and the paramilitaries in the past, but today the 
message is clear that this type of activity will not be tolerated."   

Human-rights monitors, however, say that the reports of the military's 
actions against paramilitaries are greatly exaggerated.  

"Most arrests claimed by the security forces are of low-ranking 
paramilitaries, not leaders," WOLA, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty 
International wrote in a statement issued on August 28. "In the few 
cases where top leaders have been arrested, several have been able to 
leave prison unhampered."  

The government has also yet to sanction top military officials for 
their alleged collaboration with paramilitaries. Last year, Colombian 
President Andres Pastrana forced four generals to retire for failing to 
fight paramilitary groups in their jurisdictions. The Colombian 
military also says it's planning a purge of abusive officers. But 
Ramirez admitted that no more than 100 officers would be forced to 
leave the service, and -- like their counterparts whom Pastrana forced 
to retire -- none would face criminal prosecution.  

High Colombian government officials admit that it is difficult to 
attack the military's apparent collusion with paramilitaries because 
they have such popular support. In addition, powerful news outlets have 
given the paramilitaries sympathetic coverage. Caracol Television -- 
which is owned by the most powerful business conglomerate in Colombia, 
the Grupo Santo Domingo -- broadcast a two-hour interview with 
paramilitary leader Carlos Castano during which he acknowledged that 
his men had killed dozens of people in the villages of Ovejas and El 
Salado last February, but calmly justified the incident by claiming the 
victims were guerrilla collaborators.  

This type of impunity has public officials like District Attorney 
German Martinez walking the streets afraid for his and his new wife's 
lives. Many people in Martinez's jurisdiction of Puerto Asis, including 
Mayor Alzalte, say they're surprised he's still alive. The lawyer is 
looking for political asylum.  

"I feel very alone," Martinez says wiping the sweat from his brow, 
"because there's no clear strategy to fight the paramilitaries."  What 
do you think?  

Steven Dudley is a journalist living in Bogota. He reports regularly 
for The Washington Post and National Public Radio.  
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MAP posted-by: John Chase