Colombia Killings Cast Doubt on War Against Insurgents

November 4th, 2008 - by admin

Simon Romero / The New York Times & Kathleen T. Rhem / American Forces Press Service – 2008-11-04 19:37:24

Colombia Killings Cast Doubt on War Against Insurgents
Simon Romero / The New York Times

SOACHAA, Colombia (October 29, 2008) — Julian Oviedo, a 19-year-old construction worker in this gritty patchwork of slums, told his mother on March 2 that he was going to talk to a man about a job offer. A day later, Mr. Oviedo was shot dead by army troops some 350 miles to the north. He was classified as a subversive and registered as a combat kill.

Colombia’s government, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America, has been buffeted by the killings of Mr. Oviedo and dozens of other young, impoverished men and women whose cases have come to light in recent weeks. Some were vagrants, others street vendors and manual laborers. But their fates were often the same: being catalogued as insurgents or criminal gang members and killed by the armed forces.

Prosecutors and human rights researchers are investigating hundreds of such deaths and disappearances, contending that Colombia’s security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing them in guerrilla fatigues.

With soldiers under intense pressure in recent years to register combat kills to earn promotions and benefits like time off and extra pay, reports of civilian killings are climbing, prosecutors and researchers say, pointing to a grisly facet of Colombia’s long internal war against leftist insurgencies.

The deaths have called into question the depth of Colombia’s recent strides against the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and have begun to haunt the nation’s military hierarchy.

On Wednesday, President Alvaro Uribe’s government announced that it had fired more than two dozen officers and soldiers — including three generals — in connection with the deaths of Mr. Oviedo and 10 other young men from Soacha, whose bodies were recently discovered in unmarked graves in a distant combat zone. The purge came after an initial shake-up last Friday, when the army command relieved three colonels from their duties.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Uribe said an internal military investigation appeared to have uncovered “crimes that in some regions had the goal of killing innocents, to make it seem as if criminals were being confronted.”

“The armed forces of Colombia have well-earned prestige,” Mr. Uribe said. “When there are violations of human rights, that prestige is muddled.”

The wave of recent killings has also heightened focus on the American Embassy here, which is responsible for vetting Colombian military units for human rights abuses before they can receive aid. A study of civilian killings by Amnesty International and Fellowship of Reconciliation, human rights groups, found that 47 percent of the reported cases in 2007 involved Colombian units financed by the United States.

“If the responsibility of the army is to protect us from harm, how could they have killed my son this way?” asked Blanca Monroy, 49, Mr. Oviedo’s mother, in an interview in her cinder-block hovel in Soacha. “The official explanation is absurd, if he was here just a day earlier living a normal life. The irony of it all is that my son dreamed of being a soldier” for the government.

Even before the most recent disappearances and killings, prosecutors and human rights groups were examining a steady increase in the reports of civilian killings since 2002, when commanders intensified a counterinsurgency financed in no small part by more than $500 million a year in American security aid.

But more than 100 claims of civilian deaths at the hands of security forces have emerged in recent weeks, from nine areas of Colombia. Cases have included the killings of a homeless man, a young man with epilepsy and a veteran who had left the army after his left arm was amputated.

In some cases, victims’ families spoke of middlemen who recruited their loved ones and other poor men and women with vague promises of jobs elsewhere, only to deliver them hours or days later to war zones where they were shot dead by soldiers.

“We are witnessing a method of social cleansing in which rogue military units operate beyond the law,” said Monica Sanchez, a lawyer at the Judicial Freedom Corporation, a human rights group in Medellin. It says it has documented more than 60 “false positives” – the term for cases of civilians who are killed and then presented as guerrillas, with weapons or fatigues – in Antioquia Department, or province.

Researchers have also obtained thorough descriptions of some killings in the small number of cases – fewer than 50 – that have resulted in convictions this decade.

One April morning in 2004, for instance, soldiers approached the home of Juan de Jesus Rendon, 33, a peasant farmer in Antioquia, and shot him in front of his son, Juan Esteban, then 10. The soldiers placed a two-way radio and a gun near Mr. Rendon’s body, court records show, and told his son that his siblings would suffer the same fate unless he said his father had fired at the soldiers.

Vilma Garcia, 35, Mr. Rendon’s wife, said, “I still fear this can happen again.” The five soldiers involved were recently convicted of homicide, and of torture in connection with the threats to her son. “The soldiers think we are poor and worthless,” she said in an interview in Medellin, where she and her children fled, “so nobody will care how we are killed.”

The civilian killings have increasingly opened the United States to criticism because it is required to make sure Colombian military units have not violated human rights before supplying them with aid.

“If we are receiving aid and vetting from a government in Washington that validates torture, then what kind of results can one expect?” asked Liliana Uribe, a human rights lawyer in Medellin who represents victims’ families.

A senior official at the American Embassy in Bogota said the reports of civilian killings, both in past years and in recent months, were a matter of concern. “If the facts in some cases do show that parts of the armed forces were taking part in murder, that’s wrong, and there should be mechanisms to prevent this from happening and mechanisms to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The official said the units involved in the most recent killings, of the 11 men from Soacha, did not get aid because they had previously been deemed not credible to receive it.

But the official neither confirmed nor denied the contention that almost half of the reports of civilian killings in 2007 involved units that received American aid. The official said a case-by-case review of the episodes had not been carried out by two American contractors hired by the State Department to help vet Colombian military units for abuses.

Reports of civilian killings rose to 287 from mid-2006 to mid-2007, up from 267 in the same period a year earlier and 218 the year before that, said the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a Bogota human rights group.

Altogether, the attorney general’s office in Bogota said it was investigating the killings of 1,015 civilians by security forces in 558 episodes unrelated to combat. Prosecutors said the number of new cases under investigation climbed to 245 in 2007 from 122 a year earlier.

The increase in reports of civilian killings spurred the Defense Ministry to issue a directive last year explicitly making it a priority to capture rebels rather than kill them. In an interview, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon, the top commander of Colombia’s armed forces, said the policy shift, while largely intended to prevent human rights abuses, also had strategic objectives.

“A terrorist captured alive is a treasure, while a dead terrorist is just one-day news,” General Padilla said, citing the example of Nelly Avila Moreno, a FARC commander who surrendered this year and began collaborating with her captors. “A terrorist converted into an informant is useful as long as he or she lives.”

Until the latest wave of killings, it appeared that the new policy was starting to work. The Center for Research and Popular Education, a Jesuit-led group in Bogota that maintains a database on human rights violations, documented 87 reports of so-called false positives in the second half of 2007, a 34 percent drop from the first six months of that year.

But the emergence of cases in Soacha and elsewhere suggests that the problem may be more systemic than once thought.

Some human rights researchers contend that the killings are tolerated by some senior officers in the Colombian Army who chafe at greater scrutiny at a time when security forces have made significant gains against guerrillas, including the killing or capture of several top FARC commanders this year.

One case involves the commander of Colombia’s Army, Gen. Mario Montoya. In March 2002, the army’s Fourth Brigade, then under his command, killed five people in their vehicle and presented them as guerrillas, their bodies dressed in fatigues.

But the driver, Parmenio de Jesus Usme, testified this year that none were guerrillas. According to a report by Cambio, a news magazine, Mr. Usme, a former member of a paramilitary group that opposed the guerrillas, said that two of the victims were teenagers, Erika Castaneda, 13, and Johana Carmona, 14, and that he had been driving them to a party when they picked up three other people.

Mr. Usme said that they were fired upon and that everyone in the vehicle was killed but him. According to the report, General Montoya called the hospital where the bodies were taken and said that they should be turned over only to someone in his confidence, after which the bodies were presented to the media in fatigues at a nearby building.

When asked specifically about the case, General Padilla, the armed forces commander, said, “There are preliminary investigations in which the different declarations are being verified.”

Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed reporting from Bogota, Colombia.

© 2008 truthout

US Helping Colombian Military Cope With Drug War’s Legacy
Kathleen T. Rhem / American Forces Press Service

MIAMI, Nov. 29, 2005 – While US servicemembers are in the Middle East fighting the war on terrorism, Colombia is fighting its own war against terrorists — narco-traffickers and violent militias that support them in the country’s mountainous rural areas.

The US military is helping to train Colombian forces to deal with these violent groups and providing support in other ways, but stopping short of actually getting involved in military action in the country’s triple-canopy jungles.

“The Colombian army is on the offensive for the first time,” Steve Lucas, a spokesman for US Southern Command here, said.

Under the Colombian government’s “Plan Patriota,” the country’s military is making advances against armed groups used to operating unmolested in ungoverned areas of Colombia where drug trafficking has thrived. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – called FARC from the Spanish “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” -and the National Liberation Army – called ELN from “Ejército de Liberación Nacional” – are the main guerrilla groups operating in Colombia’s rural areas. Other guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal groups also pose threats.

The US military has provided training assistance for decades. Currently aid to Colombia consists of about 200 trainers and about 200 other troops providing “information support” in the form of reconnaissance support and leadership and planning guidance. Until early fiscal 2005, Congress had imposed a 400-troop cap on US forces in Colombia. The cap is now 800 servicemembers.

No US troops or advisers operate with Colombian operational forces, Lucas said. “US involvement is limited to training in garrison and planning support to headquarters elements,” he explained.

US soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group provide most of the training, Lucas said. “They are expert land warriors with extensive training in the region,” he said.

US forces provide training on command and staff procedures, basic soldier skills, and “riverine capabilities,” among other areas, he said. Riverine capabilities in warfare are employed when a waterway is the main line of communication and transportation, such as in dense jungles.

Lucas added that the 7th Group soldiers often come away feeling a kinship with the Colombian troops they train, calling them “brothers in arms.”

“They know they’re fighting for their countrymen,” he said.

The US objective is to train Colombian military trainers, so they can, in turn, train the bulk of their country’s forces. “This is the Colombians’ war to win, not our war,” Lucas said.

The US State Department carefully vets Colombian units that receive US aid for substantiated human-rights violations, officials said.

“They’re making a lot of progress regaining their country because of the training we’ve been able to provide,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Mentemeyer, SOUTHCOM’s deputy commander, said.

US-provided medical training for Colombia’s military forces has paid huge dividends. In recent years the Colombian military has seen its “death-from-wounds rate” drop from nearly 100 percent to about 30 percent, largely because of combat-medic training provided by US Special Forces soldiers.

US Southern Command has also helped the Colombian military set up a sergeants major academy to help train a professional noncommissioned officer corps. “We’re working extensively with them to develop an NCO corps,” Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Balch, SOUTHCOM’s senior enlisted advisor, said.

Balch said the Colombians have so far run four iterations of the 10-week course, with 35 to 60 people in each course. They have also opened it up to members of other Latin American countries’ militaries. The Honduran sergeant major of the army and a Bolivian NCO have graduated from the course, Balch said.

“(The academy) is clearly improving the morale of their professional enlisted force,” Balch said. “They have role models and something to aspire to.”

It’s in the United States’ best interest to provide training help to Colombia’s forces so they can counter internal guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal groups, because more stable neighbors improve American security, SOUTHCOM officials said.

Helping Latin American countries deal with their internal problems is also important because international criminal groups are natural bedfellows for terrorists targeting US interests. Trafficking in undocumented immigrants and weapons can add to the terrorist threat in the United States.

For example, between January and June 2004, Mexico deported about 130 Ethiopians transiting Mexico to get to the United States, Nicaraguan Defense Minister Avil Ramirez Valdivia said Oct. 12 during a meeting of Central American defense ministers in South Florida. Roughly the same number of people from each Costa Rica and Belize were also deported from Mexico trying to reach the United States.

This is an example of how many undocumented people from other parts of the world work to enter the US through Latin America. “This shows very clearly how these networks of gangs, drug traffickers, alien traffickers can lead to … terrorism,” Ramirez said.

Lucas also said the United States has a moral obligation to help Colombia deal with its internal terrorist groups, since the United States “is the largest market for cocaine, the flow of which is corrupting their society.”

The vast majority of the world’s cocaine comes from the “Andean Ridge,” consisting of the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, all linked by the immense Andes mountain chain.

Any efforts to help the Colombians also help to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. “In terms of impact on society, illegal drugs could be called weapons of mass destruction,” Lucas said. “It’s hard to quantify (the impact): crime, affect to families, the increase in the prison population.”

Finally, the United States needs to help nations in Latin America develop their professional militaries, because if the US doesn’t, then other countries will, Balch said. US officials have seen evidence of China, Venezuela and Cuba providing military aid in the region. “We want to be the partner of choice in the region,” Balch said.

During a visit to the command Nov. 21, Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, newly appointed senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised SOUTHCOM for its efforts on behalf of the Colombian military and throughout Latin America and urged patience in the face of sometimes slow progress.

“You’re breaking ground here,” Gainey said. “You know how you eat an elephant, right? One small bite at a time.”

• Biographies:
Maj. Gen. Richard Mentemeyer, USAF
Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, USA
• Related Sites:
US Southern Command

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