Pubdate: Fri, 29 Dec 2000
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Contact:  200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281
Fax: (212) 416-2658


BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Lt. 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 Mr. Acosta allegedly abducted and 
killed a federal human-rights investigator and two other people while in 

In a head-spinning turn of events underscoring concerns about growing U.S. 
ties to the Colombian military, the war hero was convicted of murder, 
escaped twice from military custody and returned to the front lines -- this 
time 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, Mr. Acosta was himself slain by his new comrades in arms.

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

Doing so is a condition for receiving U.S. 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.

Mr. 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 
U.S. aid and combat instruction could end up in the wrong hands and fuel an 
unofficial "dirty war."

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

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

U.S. 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 U.S. training for an 
offensive into guerrilla-held southern coca fields are being carefully 
selected to weed out potential human-rights abusers.

But Mr. 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 glory.

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, Mr. 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 U.S. 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 coups.

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 

Mr. 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 Mr. Acosta. "He told me he'd killed 15 or 20 
guerrillas by his own hand."

While building an enviable military record, Mr. 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 Mr. Acosta was assigned, had one of the 
worst human-rights records; the defense minister called it a "national 

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.

Mr. Acosta made clear he considered human-rights monitors as 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 in an interview.

On June 22, 1994 -- one month before Mr. 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. The 
investigator, his driver and a boy serving as their guide were murdered.

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

Mr. Acosta professed his innocence, but the judges handed him a 56-year 
prison sentence for murder and for sponsoring paramilitary forces.

Dismissed from the military, Mr. Acosta began serving his sentence at a 
military base in Bucaramanga, his home town. Even then, the army treated 
its star warrior with kid gloves.

A month after his conviction, Mr. Acosta was allowed to visit his parents' 
home accompanied by military police. While the guards sipped hot chocolate 
and munched on tamales in the living room, Mr. Acosta went out for 
cigarettes and didn't come back.

He was recaptured in Bogota a few days later and sent to the military's 
main detention center, at Tolemaida army base west of the capital.

Mr. Acosta escaped again in July 1999. Colombia's chief prosecutor 
protested, listing dozens of soldiers who had escaped from military custody 
while under investigation or sentence.

Accounts vary on how Mr. Acosta managed his second escape.

He told a TV reporter he painted himself black and crawled to freedom 
through Tolemaida's sewer system. But he gave a different version to 
Severo: that he simply jogged out the front gate unchallenged by the guards.

Mr. Acosta's whereabouts were unknown until he appeared on national TV last 
June. He was back in combat fatigues, but this time as an AUC commander 
going by the nom-de-guerre "Fabian."

Flanked by fighters with bandoliers, AUC armbands and black masks, Mr. 
Acosta declared himself the first ex-army officer to publicly admit his 
membership in the paramilitary group.

One month later his shirtless, shoeless corpse was found by a rural road 
along with a dead teen-ager who authorities believe was either his 
girlfriend or an AUC bodyguard. Both were shot in the head, neck and back. 
Mr. Acosta was 29.

An AUC commander appeared on television a few weeks later to announce that 
Mr. Acosta had been executed after a "trial" in which the group found him 
guilty of disobedience, corruption and human-rights abuses. The AUC has not 

There are indications the former lieutenant had been waging a turf battle 
within the group. The army has never commented on Mr. Acosta's death.

It's unclear how many army veterans have joined the paramilitaries, but Mr. 
Acosta's story is just one of many examples. Last year, the AUC's top 
commander, Carlos Castano, claimed his main bodyguard was a former army 

In northern Bolivar State this year, a young AUC officer told reporters he 
was a former soldier fleeing human-rights charges brought by federal 
prosecutors. A former private, seated behind a wall of sandbags at an AUC 
camp, said he had joined the paramilitaries because Colombia was in a 
recession and he couldn't get a job.

Paramilitary militiamen manning AUC roadblocks in southern Putumayo State 
in November wore camouflage shirts from army counter-guerrilla units, and 
proudly identified themselves to journalists as former government soldiers, 
some claiming to have had U.S. training.

Former army Maj. David Hernandez, wanted in the March 1999 murder of a 
state government peace envoy, is now an AUC commander near Cali, Colombia's 
third largest city, prosecutors believe. Like Acosta, Hernandez received 
training at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.

In early December, Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez acknowledged that 
some former soldiers kicked out of the military on human rights or other 
grounds have found a new home in the AUC.

"It's very sad, but it's a reality of the country," he said.

Mr. Ramirez's admission followed a local TV report alleging that at least 
50 of nearly 400 soldiers fired as part of an October army purge are now in 
the AUC.

Mr. Miller, of Amnesty International, said that when the military simply 
fires tainted soldiers instead of putting them up for trial, it fosters "a 
revolving door phenomenon in which the Colombian state, and perhaps the 
United States, is effectively subsidizing the training of future 
paramilitary leaders."

Retired Gen. Harold Bedoya, who as army chief from 1994 to 1996 often faced 
accusations that he supported paramilitary groups, is not surprised that 
government soldiers are defecting. He feels they are getting fed up with 
scrutiny from human-rights groups, prosecutors and foreign governments, 
including the U.S.

"You kill a terrorist and they say it was a peasant farmer, they open an 
investigation and end up punishing you unjustly," Mr. Bedoya said. "There 
are a lot of people who think the paramilitaries are the solution. A lot of 
retired soldiers are going to join their struggle."

Visiting in November, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey said the 
Colombian military is trying to crack down on the AUC and punish soldiers 
who abuse human rights. He characterized many of the charges leveled 
against the armed forces as "black propaganda" and "deception operations" 
by the guerrillas aimed at tying up effective soldiers in court cases.

Under the aid plan from Washington, U.S. elite troops have already trained 
two 1,000-man army counternarcotics battalions in the jungles of southern 
Colombia. Another battalion will be prepared next year, when dozens of 
U.S.-donated Blackhawk helicopters are expected to begin arriving.

Pentagon officials say every man selected for the new battalions has been 
vetted to ensure his human-rights record is clean. Instruction in human 
rights and respect for civilian authorities is given along with combat skills.

Steve Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in charge of U.S. 
military operations in Latin America, said Special Forces trainers take 
human-rights instruction as seriously as other aspects. But he conceded 
there is no way to guarantee soldiers being trained in "deadly arts" will 
not someday join the paramilitaries or commit abuses while in the army.

"You can't deny the obvious," Mr. Lucas said. "Obviously there are some 
people who will take the training and misuse it."
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