Colombia's Death Squads

The US is dishing out $1.3 billion to help Colombia's military fight leftist rebels and drug growers -- but in doing so, it may also be helping murderous right-wing paramilitary groups.

| Thu Aug. 31, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

PUERTO ASIS, Colombia -- Just walk into District Attorney German Martinez's office, and it becomes obvious he's a watched man. From across the street in the town's central square, hard-eyed men watch his every movement. Inside the dark, steamy, one-story building, two military officers wait to speak to him.

Just a few feet away from the soldiers, the 31-year old lawyer fiddles with his neatly stacked papers on the corner of his desk. Martinez gets death threats regularly, usually by telephone in this office. Two heavily armed bodyguards accompany him everywhere. All of this attention makes Martinez nervous; he shakes as he speaks.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

"As public servants, we should have confidence in the military," Martinez says softly, hunching over his desk. "But we don't, because the ties between these criminals and the armed forces are very clear."

"These criminals" are the clandestine right-wing paramilitaries which operate with impunity in Puerto Asis, unofficial allies of the Colombian military in its decades-long war against leftist guerillas. Martinez lays the blame for over 100 murders last year on the paramilitaries who are trying to violently purge the area of left-wing guerrillas.

Puerto Asis, a town of 18,000 in Putumayo province, is ground zero for the US-backed military assault on coca-growing areas in Colombia. Putumayo, located along the Ecuadoran border, and its northern neighbor, Caqueta province, are where most of Colombia's coca is produced and refined before being smuggled out to the US and Europe. An estimated 1,500 left-wing rebels from the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), protect some of these fields -- many of which lie just a few miles from Puerto Asis -- and siphon a tax from the growers and traffickers to finance their own war against the state.

The Colombian military -- which was barred from getting US money for years because of past human-rights abuses -- is now set to receive a record $1.3 billion in US aid, most of it to be spent on helicopters, intelligence equipment, and training, so it can chase the leftist rebels out of this area.

But Martinez's allegations -- which are backed up by numerous other observers and international human-rights groups -- point up important questions about whether the US can aid this attack without supporting the most brutal element of the war, the right-wing paramilitaries. International human-rights groups say the paramilitaries are responsible for over 70 percent of the estimated 3,000 extrajudicial executions per year in Colombia.

The legal safeguards that are supposed to prevent US aid money from going to such human-rights abusers have been easily sidestepped. On Aug. 22, President Clinton signed a waiver that permits the aid to go to Colombia despite the fact that State Department did not certify the Colombian government for its human-rights record, a stipulation built into the package.

"This is the wrong policy and the wrong time," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division. "The message is that the bad apples in the armed forces shouldn't be worried. Ultimately, the waiver defeats the purpose of any policy meant to improve human rights."

This year's State Department report noted the Colombian military's human rights record has improved, but said that parts of the armed forces maintained ties with the right-wing groups. Critics within the Colombian government say that allegations of the Colombian military's wrongdoing have dropped because they have simply passed off the dirty work to the paramilitaries.

Military units receiving aid must also abide by the Leahy Amendment, which bars money from going to foreign armed forces that are involved in human-rights abuses. Putumayo's 24th Army Brigade is one of several military units that has supposedly been cleared of involvement in such crimes. But US officials seemed to have overlooked strong evidence linking the brigade to the paramilitary groups in the area, revealing just how artificial this screening process is.

Martinez, for instance, said he saw paramilitaries take four peasant farmers past one of the brigade's checkpoints last year. The farmers later turned up dead. He has filed reports to the central office of the Attorney General in Colombia's capital city of Bogota but to little avail.

US embassy officials in Colombia admitted that it is hard to screen an entire brigade, which has several hundred frequently rotated soldiers. But they said that if there were specific incidents from credible sources, the embassy would investigate.

One incident the embassy might want to investigate is a massacre in the small farming village of El Tigre, a guerilla stronghold some 25 miles northwest of Puerto Asis. The bumpy, partially paved road north from Puerto Asis hits a fork after several miles; turn left and you go to El Tigre, veer right and you run into the 24th Brigade on the outskirts of the town of Santa Ana.

On the night of Jan. 9, 1999, government and international investigators say that 150 paramilitaries forced several Puerto Asis residents at gunpoint to drive them to El Tigre along this road. That night, paramilitaries slaughtered some two dozen people in the village. Meanwhile, the 24th Brigade established a check-point just above the fork in the road and barred vehicles from going to Puerto Asis from Santana. Witnesses told investigators that about 30 buses were stacked up in Santana for several hours. The check-point made travel along the road between El Tigre and Puerto Asis less congested and a getaway with no witnesses easy.

The current head of the 24th Brigade, Col. Gabriel Diaz, said it was a routine checkpoint. And Diaz insisted the stories surrounding the massacre are false.

"This is what the FARC does," Diaz said. "They want to discredit the military."

However, another more recent massacre revealed a similar pattern. On Nov. 7, 1999, paramilitaries killed 12 people in the town of El Placer, according to Amnesty International. Witnesses told investigators that the 24th Brigade was in El Placer just days before the massacre, and arrived again just hours after the 50 armed men had finished pulling locals out of their houses and shooting them in the barren fields surrounding the town.

Colombian human-rights observers say both the El Tigre and the El Placer cases are typical of the way in which the Colombian military collaborates with the paramilitaries: providing protection, then auspiciously timing their arrivals so as not to confront the right-wing groups.

"In some cases, witnesses have testified to direct coordination and participation in massacres," said Winifred Tate, a fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. "In other cases, local armed forces have stood by while paramilitary forces occupied towns for several days, killing inhabitants, and did not come to the aid of the people despite pleas from local government officials, or even prevented assistance or the possibility of escape."

Puerto Asis Mayor Manuel Alzalte said he's informed the armed forces on several occasions that paramilitaries ride in their four-by-fours with their guns hanging out of their windows in the middle of the city -- to no avail.

"If the army and the police don't do anything, what more can I do?" Alzalte said.

In Puerto Asis, everyone but the 24th Brigade seems to know where to find the estimated 500 right-wing paramilitaries that operate in the area. Locals said they run their operations from a ranch a few miles outside the city. The region's right-wing militia leader, known as Commander Yair, told Reuters that the paramilitaries backed the government's plan to clear guerrillas from this area when the news agency found him at this same farmhouse.

Rights groups say the 24th Brigade colludes in a counter-insurgency strategy that relies on the paramilitaries. In February, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the army's 18 brigades maintain systematic ties to the right-wing militias. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Colombia came to a similar conclusion in April.

"The continued existence of direct links between some members of the securirty forces and paramilitary groups ... is a cause of great concern," the report says. "This office has received testimony from some high military officials saying that the paramilitaries do not violate the constitution and therefore it is not a function of the military to fight them."

Although the military admits there are "some bad apples" in its units, they say they are doing what they can to fight the paramilitaries.

"The Armed Forces takes human rights seriously," insisted Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez.

"We are having more and more combat with the self-defense groups all the time," Ramirez said. "Maybe there were links between some members of the military and the paramilitaries in the past, but today the message is clear that this type of activity will not be tolerated."

Human-rights monitors, however, say that the reports of the military's actions against paramilitaries are greatly exaggerated.

"Most arrests claimed by the security forces are of low-ranking paramilitaries, not leaders," WOLA, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote in a statement issued on August 28. "In the few cases where top leaders have been arrested, several have been able to leave prison unhampered."

The government has also yet to sanction top military officials for their alleged collaboration with paramilitaries. Last year, Colombian President Andres Pastrana forced four generals to retire for failing to fight paramilitary groups in their jurisdictions. The Colombian military also says it's planning a purge of abusive officers. But Ramirez admitted that no more than 100 officers would be forced to leave the service, and -- like their counterparts whom Pastrana forced to retire -- none would face criminal prosecution.

High Colombian government officials admit that it is difficult to attack the military's apparent collusion with paramilitaries because they have such popular support. In addition, powerful news outlets have given the paramilitaries sympathetic coverage. Caracol Television -- which is owned by the most powerful business conglomerate in Colombia, the Grupo Santo Domingo -- broadcast a two-hour interview with paramilitary leader Carlos Castano during which he acknowledged that his men had killed dozens of people in the villages of Ovejas and El Salado last February, but calmly justified the incident by claiming the victims were guerrilla collaborators.

This type of impunity has public officials like District Attorney German Martinez walking the streets afraid for his and his new wife's lives. Many people in Martinez's jurisdiction of Puerto Asis, including Mayor Alzalte, say they're surprised he's still alive. The lawyer is looking for political asylum.

"I feel very alone," Martinez says wiping the sweat from his brow, "because there's no clear strategy to fight the paramilitaries."

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.