Pubdate: Mon, 23 Jul 2001
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
Author: Jared Kotler


BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - A retired army general with alleged links to 
right-wing death squads was arrested Monday - a move that could strengthen 
the government's case for receiving more U.S. military aid to fight drug 

Former Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio faces charges of supporting paramilitary 
groups during his 1995-1997 tenure as an army commander in northwest 
Antioquia State, according to a brief statement from the prosecutor's office.

He would be the first Colombian general tried before a civilian court for 
ties to the paramilitaries, outlaw militias who are waging a brutal 
massacre campaign against suspected leftist rebels.

Monday's arrest comes as the U.S. Congress considers new aid for Colombia 
atop a $1.3 billion package approved last year for the South American 
country and its Andean neighbors. Cracking down on army officers who work 
with the militias is one of several condition governing U.S. counterdrug 
aid to Colombia's security forces.

Del Rio, who was forced into early retirement amid human rights accusations 
in 1999, has been a contentious figure. Some conservatives consider him a 
hero for helping pacify a northern banana-growing and cattle-ranching 
region that was crawling with rebels in the early 1990s.

Human rights groups see him as the embodiment of a dirty alliance between 
the military and the paramilitaries. There was no immediate comment from 
Del Rio. However, his attorney, Orlando Perdomo, said the former general is 

President Andres Pastrana forced Del Rio and another general into 
retirement in 1999 as a demonstration of his resolve to sever 
army-paramilitary ties. But critics complained that Del Rio was not being 
brought to justice. On Monday, a leading U.S. human rights group applauded 
the arrest. "It's exactly the kind of step we've been hoping to see in 
Colombia for a long time," said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.

With the help of military officers and cattle ranchers seeking protection 
against guerrilla harassment, the rightist United Self Defense Forces of 
Colombia, or AUC, has grown from just a few hundred fighters in the early 
1990s into a 8,500-strong nationwide force. The group is blamed for a 
majority of the massacres committed annually in the country's 37-year war.
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