Republican News · Thursday 02 March 2000

[An Phoblacht]

US linked to Colombian atrocities

The latest Human Rights Watch report on Colombia establishes the links between paramilitary groups and the Colombian Army. Seven army officials - named in the report as responsible for human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, involvement in drug trafficking and paramilitary activities - attended the infamous School of the Americas in the United States, where they were trained in counter-insurgency strategies. They were, and some still are, in command of army regiments that are being funded by the US government. The question is obvious. Is the US government contributing towards the financing of the drug trade in Colombia, even while it puiblicly declares war on the drug cartels?

In a letter to US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Human Rights Watch urged the American government to strengthen human rights conditions on any security assistance to Colombia's military. The letter expressed grave concern that a $1.3 billion aid package proposed by the Clinton administration does not require any steps directed to break the obvious links between the military and paramilitary organisations.

``When an aid package of this size is debated in Washington, it's crucial that the facts be clear. And the facts we've established about links between the Colombian military and paramilitaries are truly alarming'', said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Right Watch (HRW).

HRW is an international monitoring organisation based in New York and known in Ireland for its work on contentious Orange parades in the Six Counties.

To those who know the reality of the Colombian conflict, the findings of HRW investigations are not news. Some months ago, and on this same page, Colombian human rights lawyer Miguel Puerto accused the Colombian military of collusion with right-wing paramilitary organisations in some of the worst massacres that have taken place in Colombia.

The Human Rights Watch report links three prominent army brigades based in Colombia's largest cities, including the capital Bogotá, to paramilitary activity and attacks on civilians. The report denounces the assent of Colombian political leaders in these units' support for paramilitary groups, pointing out that ``the government's resolve to end human rights abuses in units that receive US security assistance must be seriously questioned''.

Previous reports and documents have detailed evidence of continuing ties between the military and paramilitary groups in the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Fourteenth, and Seventeenth Brigades.

HRW's 1998 report, ``War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law,'' described in depth the murders, ``disappearances,'' and other abuses being committed by the Colombian security forces and paramilitary organisations.

The report, released on Thursday 24 February, entitled ``The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links'', shows that military support for paramilitary activity remains national in scope and includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive US military aid operate. And even more surprisingly, the US government knows of the close association of these paramilitary organisations with Colombian drugs cartels.

During the investigation, carried out by HRW into the Third Brigade, which is part of the Colombian Army's Third Division and includes a region where military units receive large amounts of US military assistance, it was established that this brigade has set up a paramilitary group in southern Colombia. The HRW report points out that Colombian government investigators linked this group - known as the Calima Front - to ``active duty, retired and reserve military officers attached to the Third Brigade, along with hired paramilitaries taken from the ranks of the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU), led by Carlos Castaño''. The Brigade also provided the Calima front with weapons and intelligence.

``Elias'', a former army intelligence officer and gunman for one of the drugs cartels, told HRW that ``during his employment as an intelligence agent, he witnessed close links between drug traffickers, paramilitaries and the army. In his interview, he described the distinction between drug traffickers, paramilitaries and the Colombian Army as virtually non existent'', and the report points out that the connection between the army and drug traffickers was already known to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá ``since at least 1990''. For example, HRW obtained much of the cable traffic generated by the embassy and related to the activities of the Tangeros, a paramilitary group led by former Medellin cartel member Fidel Castaño.

But, the really worrying aspect of the relationship between the army and paramilitaries is the continuous harassment and violence inflicted on civilians. In 1998 and 1999, army intelligence gathered information on Colombians associated with human rights protection, government investigative agencies and peace talks, who were then subjected to threats, harassment, and attacks by the army, ``at times with the assistance of paramilitary groups and hired killers''.

``One prosecutor told Human Rights Watch: `I signed one case to authorise an indictment of a paramilitaries before lunch, and by the time I returned to my desk after eating, a death threat, hand delivered, was there, with intimate details about the décor of my apartment, to let me know the killers had already been inside.''

Colombia's indigenous and peasant communities have suffered greatly under army rule. The HRW report refers to different massacres carried out by paramilitary/army forces, one of them the massacre in the village of El Aro. At the time, October 1997, General Carlos Ospina, who is listed as having been trained at the School of the Americas in 1967, was in charge of the Fourth Brigade. On 25 October, a joint army-paramilitary force surrounded the village of El Aro and the 2,000 people who live in and around it. Survivors told HRW that while soldiers maintained a perimeter around El Aro, an estimated 25 ACCU members entered the village, rounded up residents, and executed four people in the plaza. One witness told a journalist who visited El Aro soon afterwards that families who attempted to flee were turned back by soldiers camped on the outskirts of town. Over the five days they remained in El Aro, ACCU members are believed to have executed at least 11 people, including three children, burned 47 of the 68 houses, including a pharmacy, a church, and a telephone exchange, looted stores, destroyed the pipes carrying potable water to homes, and forced most of the residents to flee. When they left on 30 October, the ACCU took with them over 1,000 head of cattle along with goods looted from homes and stores. Afterwards, 30 people were reported to be forcibly disappeared.

Mozambique flood crisis

Once again, a developing world country has suffered a major catastrophe and once again, development agencies, the consciences of the West, have been left pleading for international aid which, inevitably, arrives too late and all too little. The UN's food aid agency has warned that Mozambicans hit by devastating floods are at risk of starvation unless the international community sends more aid. A woefully inadequate few helicopter crews and boats have continued to rescue people trapped by rising floodwaters, which started sweeping the area three weeks ago but surged on Sunday 27 February. Tens of thousands of people, however, are beyond the reach of the helicopters and boats.

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