Columbian government, rebels alike leave townsfolk in fear

Pedro Ruz Gutierrez and E.A. Torriero of The Sentinel Staff

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 20, 2000

LA HORMIGA, Colombia -- The death squad arrived before sunrise.

Men in uniforms dragged six peasants from their homes in the hamlet of La Dorada and shot them to death.

Then they dressed the bodies in guerrilla garb, propped weapons near them and took pictures.

The suspects: Colombian troops.

Later, the army tried to pass off the slayings as "combat casualties," according to human-rights reports, but residents here know better. The memory still haunts them.

Against this troubling backdrop, the United States is giving more than $1.3 billion to Colombia, mostly so that the armed forces can wage war on rebels and farmers who are trying to protect the lucrative drug trade.

Included in the U.S. package is $28.5 million to teach Colombia`s armed forces and judicial institutions how to behave.

But residents, critics and even some U.S. officials are questioning whether the underequipped and ill-trained soldiers -- such as the ones who mistakenly shot six schoolchildren on a picnic last month -- can be reformed.

As the U.S. military buildup begins, critics are alarmed the United States is supporting a military with a record of brutality.

They ask: Can the Colombian military be trusted to cut its ties to right-wing groups and carry out its battle plans without abusing Colombians?

A Human Rights Watch report this year found that half the Colombian army`s 18 brigades still have ties to the right-wing militias, the 7,000-strong United Self Defenses of Colombia. Human-rights cases against the military are on the rise, with more than 200 last year alone. The charges are mostly against low-level soldiers, and no one ranked higher than major has yet to answer hard questions in civil courts.

"Government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses . . . at a level that was roughly similar to that of 1998," read a 1999 State Department report on Colombia.

"Individual members of the security forces actively collaborated with members of paramilitary groups -- passing them through roadblocks, sharing intelligence and providing them with ammunition," it stated.

With a dismal record of human rights, the Colombian ministers and commanders have been told by the Clinton administration and Congress to clean up their act. "If Colombia aspires to be a first-world nation, then it has to do something about how it handles human rights," said a senior U.S. aid official in Washington who oversees money earmarked to teach the Colombian military how to treat civilians on the battlefield.

President Andres Pastrana, who sacked four generals last year, said his country is committed to reforms such as transferring more courts-martial to civilian courts. A new human-rights mentality is being instilled across the military branches and state agencies, he said. More than half of the 120,000 armed forces received training last year.

"We know that there could be some links in some areas," Pastrana said of collusion between regular troops and paramilitary units. "But I think now they [the military] know it`s not going to be tolerated."

The U.S. State and Defense departments have completed rigorous background checks of Colombian units due to receive U.S. training and money. Military members under investigation or with blemished records are removed from their posts.

While acknowledging that the Colombian government has failed in six of seven key human-rights conditions tied to the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package, Clinton last month invoked "national security" to make sure the funds begin flowing.

"We`re confident that this package is not going to accomplish the U.S. goals, but it is certainly going to deteriorate the human-rights situation in Colombia," said Gina Amatangelo, a fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

But supporting the Colombian armed forces and police is key to curbing Colombia`s skyrocketing annual output of 550 tons of cocaine and up to 7 tons of heroin.

Using at least 60 new and refurbished U.S. choppers, three airborne units of 950 people are hoping to reclaim the lawless countryside and stop the spiraling coca-leaf production.

In this fertile province, ruthless right-wing groups with ties to the Colombian armed forces and leftist guerrillas are vying for control of up to 150,000 acres of coca growing.

Lawlessness and killings reign in this region of 310,000 people. There are more than 300 slayings a year. Countless more killings go unreported. Men in uniform, especially at night, strike fear. People don`t dare drive or get caught after sundown for fear of encountering a rebel or paramilitary checkpoint.

At least 240 massacres were reported in Colombia this year, an average of one a day, according to the state Ombudsman`s Office in Bogota. About two-thirds of the 3,000 annual homicides are attributed to right-wing death squads, while another 15 percent are committed by leftist groups -- with the remainder reportedly the result of armed bandits, government forces and common criminals.

Officially, the Colombian government goes after the right-wing "paramilitaries" with the same zeal used against guerrillas. And officials in Bogota deny the armed forces cooperate with paramilitaries.

"That is totally false," said a government official when told about a paramilitary contingent near the army barracks in Puerto Asis.

Nationwide, the reality is that most cases go unsolved. Military courts reserve for themselves most cases involving high-ranking officers. There are few prosecutions, and warrants gather dust.

"Colombian justice is a slow justice," the same government official said.

Among locals here, there is no trust of men in uniform.

"There`s no credibility in the public force from the civilian population," said Cayo Miranda, the town`s ombudsman, who has repeatedly complained to authorities in Bogota about the lack of security guarantees and the absence of forensics technicians in the region.

"Here, we live in another Colombia, where the strongest rule and the armed combatants wield power," he said.

Local police are limited by great distances, are stretched thin and don`t dare patrol by themselves, Miranda said. Prosecutors have trouble finding witnesses and collecting evidence, too.

"An investigation begins, there is no basis, there are no proofs, no testimonies," he said. "And that gets shelved."

The armed parties:

Outside the river town of Puerto Asis, members of an 800-strong right-wing contingent travel freely in front of army checkpoints and barracks. The heavy police detachment in town is indifferent to their presence, residents charge.

The Colombian army`s 2,500 men of the 24th brigade, a counterinsurgent and anti-drug unit, have headquarters in the regional capital of Mocoa and several barracks in Puerto Asis and Santa Ana.

At best, critics say, the brigade tolerates the group whose compound is about two miles past an army checkpoint north of town.

"No area of Colombia has been taken by the government without our presence," a right-wing commander told an Associated Press reporter in July. "We can operate effectively because we don`t have the judicial restraints that are imposed on government forces."

This same man, a former sergeant in Colombia`s special forces, told Reuters that he was trained by elite U.S. Ranger and Navy SEAL units, and his men backed the U.S.-Colombia strategy.

That spells trouble, observers say.

"It sounds like they`re waiting to service the vanguard of this Southern Push when it happens," said Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. "The intelligence is almost bound to reach them. There`s real concern."

At times, residents say, the army has closed roads to help the paramilitaries` incursions.

"It is possible that in past times, abuses were committed," said one Colombian army officer who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

The brigade, which was cleared for U.S. aid, did capture eight paramilitaries in 1998 and delivered them to local prosecutors, according to a U.S. State Department report.

Facing them and the paramilitaries are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 guerrillas from the largest rebel force -- known by its Spanish acronym, FARC -- which roams the forested lowlands and jungle. They are experienced combatants who overran several army bases in recent years. They rule the interior with a strong hand and are reportedly arming peasants.

Massacres:

On Oct. 26, 1998, suspected army soldiers buried the slain "unidentified" men in a common grave in the river town of Puerto Asis. Near the site of the executions in La Dorada, relatives found their loved ones` clothing buried, too. Cash-strapped and intimidated, the families were unable to retrieve the corpses from Puerto Asis, a three-hour drive on a dangerous dirt route.

The same day in La Hormiga, paramilitaries are suspected of gunning down a couple in front of their home as well as a 15-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy "who happened by," government documents show. Two days later, a man was shot at least 10 times less than half a block from an army garrison. No one responded, and the suspected right-wing members walked right past the military.

A month earlier, guerrillas on motorcycles shot the Rev. Alcides Jimenez 18 times in the northern town of Puerto Caicedo while he celebrated Mass just after leading a peace rally. In the regional capital of Mocoa, meanwhile, eight public-health workers on an anti-malaria campaign were killed by FARC rebels.

On Jan. 9, 1999, up to 33 people were executed in the village of El Tigre near La Hormiga, after 20 armed men in fatigues picked them from among the 100 or so residents they had assembled from homes, bars, stores and streets.

Seven were shot while lying face down, and six more were driven outside of town, where they were shot and their stomachs were ripped open before they were thrown from the Guamuez River bridge. Two more were slain in the streets, along with a farmer who witnessed five bodies being dumped along the road as the gunmen left town.

About 80 percent of the villagers fled. And in October, fugitive paramilitary leader Luis Millan Cardona was indicted as threats to investigators mounted.

In May 1999, militias killed 11 men in the region. And in November, the hamlet of La Dorada again was targeted along with El Placer and El Vergel when raids by two 60-man squads left 17 people dead.

"They came dressed as soldiers, with armbands of the self-defense groups," acknowledged regional army commander Maj. Carlos A. Granobles at the time.

Kilometer 9:

Close to Puerto Asis is the Kilometer 9 road marker, where several taxi drivers suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers or simply giving rides to "collaborators" have been killed.

In late 1998, armed civilians boarded a taxi and killed the driver at Kilometer 9, which is about five miles outside of town and only a couple from the paramilitary ranch. Another cab driver, who spent the previous two days in jail on suspicion of killing a cop, also was fatally shot at the same road marker.

"Things in this town haven`t been good," says a former taxi driver who shed his cab and switched to a sturdier pickup without the yellow paint. "Before the paramilitaries, it was paid hit men and guerrillas."

Matter-of-factly, he pointed to barren, charred spots where drivers were left to burn in their cabs after being executed.

"If they get in at gunpoint, there`s not a whole lot you can do."

Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at 407-420-5620 or, by e-mail, at pruz@orlandosentinel.com

Posted Sep 19 2000 11:50PM