Pubdate: Mon, 25 Dec 2000
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
Page: 21
Contact:  P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378
Author: Jared Kotler, Associated Press


Authorities Pledge To Sever Ties To Get Aid

BOGOTA, Colombia - Lieutenant Carlos Acosta was trained in the United
States, earned the Colombian army's top combat medal, and believed
he'd served honorably in the war with leftist guerrillas.

The government thought differently, after Acosta allegedly abducted
and killed a federal human rights investigator and two other people
while in uniform.

In a head-spinning turn of events underscoring concerns about growing
US ties to the Colombian military, the war hero was convicted of
murder, escaped twice from military custody and returned to the front
lines - as a commander of a right-wing paramilitary group whose
massacres have horrified the world.

Then in July, one month after appearing on national television to
declare his membership in the outlawed United Self-Defense Forces of
Colombia, or AUC, Acosta was himself slain by his new comrades in arms.

Facing heavy international scrutiny on human rights, Colombian
authorities have pledged to sever army-paramilitary ties.

Doing so is a condition for receiving US combat helicopters and
training for thousands more Colombian soldiers under a $1.3 billion
anti-narcotics aid package. However, that condition can be waived for
national security reasons, as President Clinton did in August.

Acosta's story, like that of many other former soldiers who have
become paramilitary fighters, raises a fresh set of concerns.

Fleeing investigations, unable to find other work, or simply convinced
that illegal methods are needed to defeat the guerrillas, a growing
number of soldiers is migrating into the ranks of the AUC - prompting
fears that US aid and combat instruction could end up in the wrong
hands and fuel an unofficial "dirty war."

With US Green Berets imparting combat skills to thousands of Colombian
counternarcotics soldiers under the aid package, rights monitors are
sounding an alarm.

"Colombian soldiers trained today by the US Special Forces could
become tomorrow's human rights abusers or paramilitary leaders," said
Andrew Miller of Amnesty International. "Neither the US or the
Colombian governments have offered credible guarantees that this won't

US and Colombian officials contend Colombia's military is cleaning up
its human rights record. President Andres Pastrana has dismissed
several generals implicated in paramilitary activities.

Officials also stress that soldiers receiving US training for an
offensive into guerrilla-held southern coca fields are being carefully
selected to weed out potential human rights abusers.

But Acosta's odyssey, from war hero to war criminal, shows just how
difficult that task may be.

The lieutenant's fall from grace was as fast as his rise to

The son of a surveyor's assistant from the northern city of
Bucaramanga, "he always wanted to be a general," recalled his oldest
brother, Severo.

Fresh out of high school, Acosta enrolled in 1990 in Colombia's West Point:
the Jose Maria Corboba Military Academy in
the capital, Bogota.

Before graduating two years later, he attended a monthlong infantry
course at the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., an
institution often criticized for its association with students who
have gone on to commit human rights abuses or participate in military

At Fort Benning, he practiced firing M-16 assault rifles and M-60
machine guns and received training in radio communications,
battlefield tactics and - ironically - human rights, according to
school records.

After receiving additional Colombian special forces training back
home, the chain-smoking Acosta was sent into battle. He quickly earned
honors as a squad leader in an elite counter-guerrilla battalion in
his home state of Santander.

Acosta won the army's top combat medal in 1994, was wounded and
received many commendations for "operational results" - an army
euphemism for killing rebels in battle.

"Carlos was a risk taker," said Juan Pablo Mateus, a retired second
lieutenant who trained with Acosta. "He told me he'd killed 15 or 20
guerrillas by his own hand."

While building an enviable military record, Acosta was already wading
into the violent world of local Santander paramilitary forces, court
records show.

San Vicente de Chucurri, the town where he was posted, is part of a
strategic northern area. During the 1990s, troops allegedly working
with local paramilitary squads were killing guerrillas and their supporters.

The army's 5th Brigade, to which Acosta was assigned, had one of the
worst human rights records; the defense minister called it a
"national embarrassment."

The paramilitary band in San Vicente de Chucurri received support from
local landowners and businesses seeking relief from guerrilla
extortion, and its members reportedly even joined army patrols.

Acosta made clear he considered human rights monitors the enemy. "He
used to say that a soldier in Colombia has to fight not only the
guerrillas but also the human rights groups and prosecutors and the
attorney general," Severo, the brother, recalled.

On June 22, 1994 - one month before Acosta won the coveted army combat
medal - an agent from the federal prosecutor's office was sent to a
village near San Vicente de Chucurri to arrest a paramilitary boss.

Testimony from witnesses and soldiers led to the arrest and October
1997 conviction of Acosta and three soldiers. A court determined
Acosta and his men had intercepted the group, tied them up, shot them
and dumped their bodies into a river.

Acosta professed his innocence, but the judges handed him a 56-year
prison sentence for murder and for sponsoring paramilitary forces. He
later escaped and joined the main rightest paramilitary group. He was
killed for disobedience, the group said. 
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