HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Traffickers Infiltrate Military in Colombia
Pubdate: Sat, 08 Sep 2007
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A09
Copyright: 2007 The Washington Post Company
Author: Juan Forero, Washington Post Foreign Service
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Corruption - Outside U.S.)


Officers Provided Secret Information on U.S. Navy Ships

BOGOTA, Colombia -- An investigation by the Colombian Defense 
Ministry has found that drug traffickers and rebels from the 
country's largest guerrilla group infiltrated the U.S.-backed 
military here, paying high-ranking officers for classified 
information to help elude capture and continue smuggling cocaine.

The information obtained by the powerful Norte del Valle drug cartel 
included the secret positioning of U.S. naval vessels and aircraft in 
the Caribbean early last year, part of a carefully coordinated web 
designed to stop cocaine from reaching the United States, according 
to high-ranking Colombian military officials. The cartel is headed by 
Diego Montoya, who is on the FBI's list of most wanted fugitives.

Separately, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, 
or FARC, obtained reports about army operations against guerrilla 
commanders in the far south, officials say. Gen. Freddy Padilla, head 
of the armed forces, said in an interview that most of the 
information that was leaked was from 2003 or earlier.

The episodes, some of which have been outlined in the Colombian press 
in the past month, represent the most serious cases of infiltration 
here in recent years and are a blow to a military that depends on 
U.S. funds and training. The U.S. government has provided $5.4 
billion in mostly military aid to Colombia this decade, making the 
country the biggest recipient of American support outside the Middle 
East and Afghanistan and helping to make the Colombian military the 
second-largest force in Latin America.

In interviews, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and the commanders 
of the armed forces said that the breaches were discovered by 
military counterintelligence operatives and that the evidence was 
turned over to the attorney general's office, which has opened 
several investigations. While other cases of infiltration have been 
discovered in the past, officials suggested that those cases often 
were not investigated properly.

"From the beginning, I've said we have to see how penetrated we are," 
said Santos, a civilian who has headed the Defense Ministry for 15 
months. "The situation is a penetration of some sectors of the 
military forces, and it's a small percentage of the forces. We cannot 
say it's generalized."

Santos also said that he has sacked about 150 officers during his 
tenure, many of whom were suspected of corruption or ties to 
traffickers or illegal armed groups. He said investigators are 
continuing to search for moles in the ministry.

So far, two lieutenant colonels in the army have been arrested, as 
have four majors and a noncommissioned officer. Two army generals 
also resigned from the army's Third Division in the city of Cali, 
where investigators say traffickers had built close links with 
corrupt officers. In the navy, Rear Adm. Gabriel Arango has been 
cashiered, officials say, and is under investigation along with 10 
other naval officers.

Adam Isacson, who tracks the Colombian military for the Center for 
International Policy in Washington, said the military should be 
commended for revealing the corruption. But he said the scandal 
probably would give more leverage to Democrats on Capitol Hill, who 
have pushed for cuts in aid to Colombia.

"When you have this new layer of corruption allegations," he said, 
"it's just going to give more fuel to the legislative opposition here 
in Washington."

The case of Arango, a promising commander in the Caribbean port of 
Cartagena, has captured the most attention here. When a fishing boat 
used to smuggle cocaine was intercepted in January 2006 by the 
Colombian coast guard, in a region Arango oversaw, investigators 
found navigational charts on board that showed not only the 
positioning of U.S. vessels but also that of warships from Britain, 
the Netherlands and Colombia.

Investigators said some information useful to traffickers was 
provided by a former navy sailor who served as middleman, Victor 
Palmera, who was arrested last week. But Arango's ties to traffickers 
were reportedly tight. Investigators said they found that Arango had 
provided a fingerprint on a receipt for a $115,000 payment he'd 
received from Norte del Valle traffickers, a common way of ensuring 
allegiance in Colombia's underworld. He also had met with traffickers 
or had associates meet with them, witnesses have told investigators. 
Arango has vehemently denied collaborating with traffickers.

Colombian authorities have passed on their findings, particularly the 
navigational charts, to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other 
U.S. agencies. The Colombian military does not track the coordinates 
of U.S., Dutch or British ships on patrol, suggesting there had been 
a breach in American security.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota would not discuss the case or say whether 
it was investigating.

At the Southern Command in Florida, the American headquarters for 
U.S. military operations in Latin America, a spokesman said the 
military was unaware of any American investigation into the 
allegations. The spokesman, Jose Ruiz, said security measures were 
tight at an interagency anti-drug task force in Key West, Fla., that 
coordinates anti-drug monitoring in the Caribbean for the United 
States and its allies, including Colombia.

The Joint Interagency Task Force-South, or JIATF-S, as it is known, 
is run by the Defense Department. "JIATF-South has very stringent and 
effective security measures," Ruiz said, "and as of today, we have no 
reason to believe that those security measures have been compromised."

While traffickers on the coast received detailed information, 
high-ranking officers in Colombia's southwest were allegedly on 
cartel chief Montoya's payroll, prosecutors say. Those officers 
include Lt. Col. Javier Escobar, who was chief of operations for the 
Third Division's Third Brigade in Cali, Defense Ministry officials say.

The investigation into the activities of rogue officers in the Third 
Division has shed light on a murky episode from 2006 that angered 
Colombian officials and raised questions among U.S. lawmakers. On May 
22, a platoon of troops ambushed and killed 10 members of an elite, 
U.S.-trained team of policemen that was on a counter-drug operation 
in the town of Jamundi.

Authorities now say that army Col. Bayron Carvajal and several 
soldiers -- all of whom were arrested last year -- were probably in 
the pay of the Norte del Valle cartel. "You can presume that Jamundi 
is connected to the penetration of the Third Brigade," Santos said, 
"because of where it happened, because of the ties to narco-trafficking."

The military also found that a guerrilla who was killed in combat in 
the southern state of Meta in July had been carrying portable hard 
drives that contained maps outlining anti-guerrilla operations and 
other information about Omega, an operation aimed at capturing 
guerrilla commanders.

El Tiempo, Colombia's most influential newspaper, said in an 
editorial that the disclosures showed that intelligence and 
counterintelligence had become "the weakest flank" in Colombia's 
effort to fight the guerrillas and drug traffickers.

Military officials acknowledged the concerns but said a restructuring 
of the military intelligence apparatus has been in the works. "We 
started restructuring the counterintelligence more than nine months 
ago, and it was because we were restructuring, because we 
strengthened the counterintelligence, that we were able to discover 
this," Santos said. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake