Source: Washington Post
Pubdate: Tue, 11 Aug 1998
Author: Douglas Farah and Laura Brooks


General Reportedly Served as a Key CIA Informant While Maintaining Ties to
Death Squads Financed by Drug Traffickers

For years Colombian Gen. Ivan Ramirez Quintero was a key intelligence
source for the United States. After training in Washington he was the first
head of a  military intelligence organization designed by U.S. experts to
fight Marxist guerrillas and drug traffickers, and served as a liaison and
paid informant for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to U.S. and
Colombian intelligence sources.

But during many of the years he was funneling information to the CIA,
according to U.S. and Colombian intelligence officials, Ramirez, now the
army's third in command, maintained close ties to right-wing paramilitary
groups who finance much of their activities through drug trafficking.

"We began to hear of Ramirez's ties to drug trafficking, paramilitary
activities and human rights violations in the mid-1990s," said a
knowledgeable U.S. official. "That was reported back to the appropriate
consumers. The [CIA] severed contact with him because of that in 1995."

In May the United States took the unusual step of revoking Ramirez's U.S.
visa because of alleged "terrorist" activities. Ramirez, according to
knowledgeable sources, is also under investigation by the Colombian
prosecutor general's office for ties to paramilitary violence.

In a move welcomed by U.S. officials, Colombian President Andres Pastrana
on Sunday --two days after taking office-- dismissed the entire military
high command, in part because the military has suffered a string of
humiliating defeats by Marxist guerrillas. Ramirez, while not in the high
command, will be retired soon because of his strong ties to Colombia's
outgoing military leadership and strong U.S. pressure, sources in
Washington and Bogota said.

A CIA spokesman declined to comment on the Ramirez case.

Ramirez's story underscores the dilemma the United States faces in working
with the Colombian military, which is under siege by well-funded and
well-trained Marxist guerrillas. The guerrillas of the Armed Revolutionary
Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) now number
about 20,000 and control almost half the national territory. The rapid
expansion of the guerrillas in recent years is due in large part to growing
profits from protecting and aiding drug traffickers who operate in areas
they control.

While many U.S. policymakers are anxious to step up aid to the military and
say the line between the guerrillas and drug trafficking is blurred, there
is little stomach in Washington for helping a military with an abysmal
human rights record and whose senior leaders are suspected of ties to
paramilitary groups and, at least indirectly, to drug trafficking.

Underscoring the problem, the Colombian prosecutor general's office
yesterday announced that Gen. Fernando Millan, commander of the 5th
Brigade, is under investigation for recent collaboration with paramilitary
forces in Santander, a province in central Colombia. The office also
announced that Gen. Rito Alejo Del Rio is under preliminary investigation
for suspected collaboration with such groups when he was commander of the
17th Brigade in the northwestern region of Uraba, where paramilitary forces
in recent years have used selective killings to rid the area of suspected
guerrilla sympathizers.

When word leaked to the Colombian press in May that Ramirez's U.S. visa had
been revoked, his response was angry and bitter.

"All I have done for the 36 years of my career is fight terrorists,"
Ramirez, the army's inspector general, told a news conference on May 15.
"So it is impossible that, at the end of my career, I am suddenly turned
into the terrorist. It is not true. People know how I have acted, my
actions have been clear and my conscience is clear."

In numerous telephone calls to his office, reporters were told he would be
unavailable to answer any further questions.

Paramilitary groups, often operating under the protection of the military,
were responsible for 70 percent of the political murders in Colombia in
1997, according to the State Department's annual human rights report.
Intelligence sources in Colombia and the United States say paramilitary
groups are now operating large cocaine laboratories in Casanare and Meta
provinces in central Colombia.

How to break the ties between the paramilitary groups and the military,
which often supplies them weapons and protection, is a top priority for the
United States in dealing with the Pastrana government.

"We view the paramilitaries as a serious problem, they are a real factor,"
said one U.S. official. "Dealing with the military-paramilitary tie is
where Pastrana will have to start. It is an aspect of the problem he can
and must deal with, and we think he will."

Ties between senior military officials and paramilitary groups, which
control at least 15 percent of the national territory, date to the 1960s,
when the military helped form the units to aid the army in combating the
guerrillas. The groups were outlawed in the 1980s following a series of
massacres and after they had become increasingly reliant on drug barons.

"Far from being punished, the junior and mid-level officers who tolerated,
planned, directed and even took part in paramilitary violence in Colombia
in the 1980s have been promoted and rewarded and now occupy the highest
positions in the Colombian military," said a 1997 Human Rights
Watch/Americas report on paramilitary activities."

Ramirez was one of those officers who rose through the ranks.

Ramirez received intelligence training in Washington in 1983, according to
his service record. From 1986 to 1988 he was commander of the 20th Brigade,
an intelligence unit that was disbanded in May because of overwhelming
evidence the group had carried out scores of assassinations and
"disappearances" in the 1980s and1990s.

In 1991, seeking to beef up the Colombian military's capabilities, the
United States sent an intelligence assessment team to help redesign the
military's intelligence structure. The following year, when the military
began implementing the U.S. recommendations, Ramirez was named the first
commander of military intelligence.

The appointment came at a key time, when drug baron Pablo Escobar had
escaped from prison, and U.S. and Colombian police and military were making
his recapture or elimination their highest priority. Because of his
position, U.S. officials said, it was natural for the CIA to deal with
Ramirez, despite strong intelligence linking him to death-squad activities.

"It was known he was a bad guy, but who else were we going to deal with?"
said a U.S. official with direct knowledge of Ramirez's case.

According to U.S. and Colombian officials, Ramirez already had established
a close relationship to Carlos Castano, leader of Colombia's largest
paramilitary organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of
Colombia. Castano has been identified by the Drug Enforcement
Administration as "major" drug trafficker, and human rights organizations
identify the group as one of the most violent in the nation.

In 1992, Castano, with financing from the Cali cocaine cartel, Escobar's
main business rival, attacked Escobar and his family's properties and
passed on intelligence to the police and military.

One of the main conduits to pass the information to the military, according
to Colombian and U.S. sources, was Ramirez. Escobar was killed by police in
December 1993.

By 1994, U.S. and Colombian officials said, the CIA had cut back its
dealings with Ramirez because of human rights concerns. In 1995, they said,
the relationship ended.

U.S. officials, including Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's
anti-drug policy chief, in private meetings earlier this year warned the
military high command that Ramirez and several other generals would have to
be removed if American support for the military was to go forward.

Farah reported from Washington; Brooks from Bogota.

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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Checked-by: (Joel W. Johnson)