Colombia’s Gringo Invasion

The US military boasts that its Army Special Forces or “Green Berets” are “the most versatile special operations soldiers in the world.” [1] While serving under the Department of Defense (DoD), members of these units, trained in unconventional warfare, psychological operations, and other skills, sometimes work on temporary “attachment” to the CIA’s Directorate of Operations.[2] Under CIA auspices, Green Beret advisers have been involved in both covert actions (never to be attributed to the US) such as Operation Phoenix, which set up death squads in Vietnam in the 1960s, and clandestine operations (secret only during their execution) such as the training of El Salvador’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols in the 1980s.[3]

In the 1990s, Green Berets and other US advisers have been deeply involved in Colombia, even though it has the worst ongoing human rights record in Latin America.[4] Last year, at least 231 US military and intelligence advisers were sent there, according to the DoD’s official deployment schedules.[5] These include two teams with 52 US Green Beret advisers each to train the Colombian Army in “junior leadership” combat skills. That official count is only three fewer than the congressionally-imposed limit (often violated[6]) on the number of in-country US advisers deployed in El Salvador during the peak of its war. Even more Green Beret advisers have trained Colombian Army Special Forces units outside Colombia at US bases in Panama.[7] According to US officials involved, this particular training has taken place under the auspices of the CIA as part of a “Top Secret” counter-drug program.[8]

Since 1989, all US military training, advice, arms and services to Colombia have been officially earmarked for the drug war. While most coca leaf is grown in surrounding Andean countries, Colombia refines and exports about 80 percent of the world’s processed cocaine.[9] US anti-drug policy, by prioritizing law enforcement over prevention and treatment measures, puts considerable pressure on countries such as Colombia. All of Washington’s $169 million annual aid to that country is earmarked to counter drugs. Some has actually been used for this purpose. A Bogota-based CIA team, for example, was instrumental in the 1995 arrests of the top leaders of the Cali cartel. But most US aid has been diverted to Bogota’s counterinsurgency war against leftist guerrillas. Since the 1960s, the Colombian military, with US backing, has been fighting the formerly pro-Moscow Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the pro-Cuba National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as other groups. In recent years, the conflict has heated up, with Amnesty International reporting more than 20,000 dead since 1986.[10] While all sides have committed abuses, the military and allied (though illegal) rightist paramilitary groups are guilty of the vast majority.[11]

Spooks Bearing Gifts

Human rights monitors have long accused Washington of complicity in these crimes. Now they have proof. Last October, Amnesty International released internal US military documents showing that the US had provided arms to 13 of 14 Colombian army units that Amnesty had cited for abuses.[12] In November, Human Rights Watch released US and Colombian military documents, along with oral testimony, showing that in 1991, both the CIA and DoD advised Colombia before its Defense Ministry established 41 clandestine intelligence networks. According to a classified (reservado) ministry order creating the program, the networks’ only function was to target “the armed subversion,” i.e., leftist guerrillas and their suspected supporters. Four former members of one network, based in the river port town of Barrancabermeja, testified that it incorporated illegal paramilitary groups and was responsible for killing hundreds of civilians.[13]

The CIA was directly involved in helping design and fund the intelligence networks, according to retired US Army Col. James S. Roach, Jr., then military attaché and Defense (Department) Intelligence Agency liaison in Bogota. “The CIA set up the clandestine nets on their own,” Roach says. “They had a lot of money. It was kind of like Santa Claus had arrived.” CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield declined to comment.[14]

These CIA-promoted intelligence networks enabled the Colombian military and illegal paramilitaries to expand the pattern of secret collaboration which began in the early 1980s. According to Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and founder of Colombia’s Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace:

A vast network of armed civilians began to replace, at least in part, soldiers and policemen who could be easily identified. They also started to employ methods that had been carefully designed to ensure secrecy and generate confusion. Because of this, witnesses and victims of crimes are unsure of the exact identity of the individual(s) responsible for committing them. This problem with identifying the perpetrators is often insurmountable.

At the same time, members of the army and police began to conceal their identities, frequently wearing civilian clothes and hoods, to drive unmarked cars and to take their victims to clandestine torture centers, all in order to forego legal formalities in arrest. What has frequently followed these abductions is intimidation or torture, enforced disappearances and murder.[15]

SOA’s Traditional Values

While DoD officials continue to deny complicity in human rights violations, the close ties between US intelligence and defense agencies and their Colombian counterparts are well documented. Last year, for example, the US Navy deployed 97 operations and intelligence advisers in-country. There they helped plan strategy with the Colombian Navy command and provided tactical advice to units based out of ports including Barrancabermeja.[16] Meanwhile, US Green Berets train the Colombian army in Cimitarra, a town that even Colombian police reports identify as a center of illegal paramilitary operations.[17] Other US officials work closely with Colombia top commanders. The US Military Advisory Group’s office is inside the Colombian Armed Forces command compound, conveniently down the hall from the offices of the Colombian army commander.

As is the case throughout much of Latin America, many key human rights violators have received US training. Commander Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett Locarno is one of hundreds of Colombian officers who have graduated from the US School of the Americas (SOA).[18] He was later implicated in torturing and murdering trade unionists, community leaders, and human rights monitors. Bonett, who denies responsibility for these or any other crimes, reports to Gen. Harold Bedoya Pizarro, Colombia’s Armed Forces commander, who studied military intelligence at the SOA in 1965 and was invited back to teach it as a guest professor in 1978 and 1979. A coalition of European human rights groups and others have accused him of running death squads comprised of joint military and paramilitary forces. More recently, Bedoya has mapped out “intelligence planning regarding the country’s internal political situation” through El Diario de Bedoya, a classified analysis with general orders from Bedoya himself, regularly sent to all divisions and brigade commanders.[19]

While Bedoya acknowledges that he has identified suspects for army surveillance, both he and Bonett deny that these targets include such legal entities as community leaders, non-governmental organizations, or political parties and their elected officials. But a July 1995 “reservado” division-wide order signed by Bonett instructs army intelligence networks to conduct “permanent surveillance of the municipal governments and the ways in which they are managing their funds.”[20] Another classified Colombian army document from March 1995 claims that the guerrillas have infiltrated an estimated 800 locally-elected municipal governments nationwide and an unknown number of non-governmental organizations, “especially leftist ones … in Colombia, the United States, Canada, Europe.” This activity has led the groups, the document goes on, to adopt positions favoring “the overcoming of impunity,” “the vigilant and effective monitoring of human rights,” and “the construction of a peace process.”[21]

Within Colombia’s tense climate, simply identifying an organization or individual as “leftist” is tantamount to authorizing anything from surveillance to murder, and indeed, many Colombians so labeled have disappeared or been killed. Take the rural town of Aguachica in the northern Magdalena Valley, where the army’s ability to process intelligence is made more efficient with computers. One classified printout, “Latest Information on the Enemy,” was prepared by army Task Force No. 27 Pantera (Panther). It names dozens of alleged subversives, including leaders of the local Community Action Movement (CAM), a legal group which this printout identifies as a “political branch” of the guerrillas. Their crime? Community leaders “led a meeting of peasants where they espoused their political objectives and how they plan to achieve them as a movement.”[22]

Among CAM’s popular leaders were “Libardo Galvis, a.k.a. Lalo” and his brothers, Jesus Emilio and Luis Tiberio. On September 24,1995, two months after the army printout, Jesus and Luis were abducted by armed men, “some wearing civilian clothes and others wearing army uniforms with the insignias of the Counter-guerrilla Unit Task Force No. 27.” Witnesses quoted by the human rights group, MINGA, later said: “The brothers were brutally tortured. They burned the fingers of their hands, and then decapitated them.” The same armed men then walked to a nearby village and killed a local police inspector, Emelda Ruiz, who had been investigating death squad crimes. According to witnesses: “The perpetrators announced that they would be back for other people whose names they had on their lists.”[23]

There is also good documentation of abuses by the Colombian Navy, which has also been armed, trained, and advised by the United States. The US helped design its Riverine units to patrol rivers in search of trafficking boats. One of the ports the Riverines are based in is Barrancabermeja, also the site of one of the 41 intelligence networks promoted by the CIA. Four ex-agents of this network have testified about it. In a pattern used around the country, naval intelligence wanted to keep the network covert, so it incorporated retired military officers and other civilians to both gather intelligence and execute operations. One such clandestine operative was ex-naval Sgt. Saulo Segura. He reported to Capt. Juan Carlos Alvarez, the network chief who served under Lt. Col. Rodrigo Quinonez, then the Navy’s top intelligence commander.[24] Together these men identified targets for surveillance and decided which ones to hit.

One ex-agent testified:

[Lt.] Col. Rodrigo Quinonez was told everything about the [surveillance] operations. And according to what was discovered, he would speak with Capt. Juan Carlos Alvarez, alias El Ingeniero [“The Engineer”], giving the green light if the operation was OK or not, in other words, to kill people or not. After that, Capt. Juan Carlos Alvarez would communicate directly with [our team leaders], who told us what to do. If it was by phone, they used the following codes: “There are some broken motors. I need you to repair them. They are in such and such a place.” And they would give the address. “Take good mechanics and good tools.” Mechanics meant sicarios [hired assassins], good tools meant good arms, and the motors meant the victims.[25]

According to the testimony of four ex-agents, early victims included the president, vice-president, and treasurer of the local transportation workers union; two leaders of the local oil workers union (another one of its leaders was killed last October); one leader of a local peasant workers’ union; and two human rights monitors.[26]

These murders and others drew the interest of Ismael Jaimes, editor of La Opinion, Barrancabermeja’s leading independent newspaper. After investigating for several months, he began writing columns alleging that the military was behind these crimes. Finally Jaimes was targeted too. One witness said: “After following him for several months, they established that he went every morning to drop off his son at school in the Torcoroma neighborhood, where he was killed one moming.”[27]

Soon the network attracted even more attention as many of its sicarios were also accused of robberies and other common crimes. To protect itself from exposure, the Navy began killing off operatives. On June 1, 1992, after four network sicarios were apprehended by a regular army unit over an authorized murder, military intelligence officers disappeared all four, according to a document signed by the regular unit’s commanders.[28] Later, several more network personnel were killed. Unidentified gunmen eventually tried to kill Segura, wounding him twice. [29]

This turned Segura against the Navy, and he joined three of his former colleagues who testified against their superiors. But instead of prosecuting the officers named by these ex-agents, the Colombian government charged and imprisoned Segura. Last year inside La Modelo, Bogota’s maximum security jail, he glanced about nervously before saying, “I hope they don’t kill me.” Two months later, on Christmas Eve, Segura was murdered inside his cellblock with a handgun left next to his corpse. His murder remains unsolved; the whereabouts of the other three witnesses remain unknown. Nonetheless, they provided solid and overlapping details about the murders of 57 specific political opponents and activists. Yet not one case has gone to Court.[30]

American Hand

The US bears complicity in Colombia’s human rights record, having armed, trained and advised most of the military units and commands directly implicated in the killing. Still, the Clinton administration is now increasing aid to the Colombian military. This year, the US is sending a record $169 million in arms. They include 12 Blackhawk helicopter gunships, even though Amnesty International has already shown how US weapons have been diverted to the Colombian military’s dirty counterinsurgency war. Nonetheless, US officials insist that this time, the weapons will be used to fight drugs. “[W]e are very clear that the military assistance that we provide to Colombia must be used for the purposes intended, counter-narcotics,” said Nicholas Burns, The State Department spokesman.[31] But human rights groups no longer believe it. Recent revelations by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch “confirm what we expected,” says Charles Roberts of the Washington, DC-based Colombia Human Rights Committee. ” While trying to avoid the appearance of complicity in human rights violations, the United States has continued to provide training and materiel to the Colombian military irrespective of its horrendous abuses.”[32]

1. US Special Operations Forces Posture Statement, (Washington, D.C.: US Defense Department, 1994), p. 10
2. Interviews with senior Department of Defense (DoD) officials, Dec. 1995.
3. Douglas Valentine, Phoenix Program (New York: William Morrow, 1990); and Frank Smyth, “Secret Warriors: U.S. Advisors Have Taken Up Arms in El Salvador,” The Village Voice, Aug. 11, 1987. The US role in training these patrols first came out in testimony by Lt. Col. Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings. One of the CIA operatives involved, Felix Rodriguez, a.k.a. Max Gomez, also participated in the 1967 Bolivian operation, which resulted in the capture and summary execution of Che Guevara.
4. See, among others, Amnesty lnternational, Political Violence in Colombia: Myth and Reality (London: Al Publications, 1994); Javier Giraldo, S.J, Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996).
5. “List of FY96 Deployments for USMILGP [US Military Advisory Group] Colombia. This document first appeared in Appendix 3 of Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military/Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, Washington, D.C., 1996)
6. Interview with Anne Manuel, deputy director, Human Rights Watch/Americas, Feb. 1997.
7. Human Rights Watch. op. cit., p. 91.
8. Interviews with senior DoD officials, Dec. 1995.
9. See “The Cali Cartel: New Kings of Cocaine,” US Drug Enforcement Administration Drug Intelligence Report, Nov. 1994; and The National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee Report 1993: The Supply of Illicit Drugs to the United States, Aug. 1994, pp. 2-6.
10. Amnesty International, op. cit., p. 1.
11. Ibid., pp. 67-74.
12. See, among others, Reuters, “Amnesty calls for halt in U.S. aid to Colombia,” Oct. 29, 1996.
13. Human Rights Watch, op. cit., pp. 27-41.
14. Telephone interview, March 1996.
15. Giraldo, op. cit., p. 22.
16. List of FY96 Deployments, op. cit.
17. “Human Rights Watch,” op, cit., p. 91.
18. Out of the one list of 247 Colombian military officers implicated in specific human rights cases, 124 of them have received training at the US School of the Americas. Another seven Colombians, including Bedoya, have been invited to teach there. This Alumni list was prepared by Fred Gaona and is on file at the Washington Office on Latin America. Profiles of both the known abusers and the evidence against them was compiled by a coalition of European human rights groups in El Terrorismo de Estado en Colombia (Brussels), Ediciones NCOS, 1992, pp. 71-72.
19. Authors’ notes on document, Oct. 1996.
20. “Asunto: Examinacion de la Estrategia Divisionaria, Reservado,” signed by Maj. Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett Locarno, when he was the Colombian Army Second Division commander, July 24,1995.
21. “Asunto Apreciacion Coyuntural Situacion Nacional,” signed by Lt. Col. Jose Domingo Garcia Garcia, second commander and chief of staff of the Colombian Army Fifth Brigade, March 2, 1995.
22. Fuerza de Tarea No. 27 “Pantera, Ultimas Informaciones del Enemigo,” April 8-July 11, 1995.
23. MINGA Urgent Action, “Political Genocide Continues in Aguachica, Cesar,” Sept. 25, 1995.
24. Interview with Saulo Segura Palacios, La Modelo prison, Bogota, Colombia, Sept. 18, 1995.
25. Testimony of Carlos Alberto Vergara Amaya to the Colombian attorney general, Feb. 11, 1994.
26. Letter from Carlos David Lopez to the Colombian attorney general, Dec. 7, 1993; Letter from Saulol Segura Palacios to the Colombian attorney general, Dec. 7, 1993; Testimony of Carlos Alberto Vergara Amaya to the Colombian attorney general, Feb. 11, 1994; and Letter from Felipe Gomez to the Colombian attorney general, Nov. 29, 1994.
27. Letter from Carlos David Lopez, Dec. 7, 1993
28. “Asunto: Informe desaparicion personas,” signed by Colombian Army Gen. Marino Gutierrez Isaza, June 2, 1992, as quoted in Human Rights Watch, op. cit.
29. Interview with Segura, op. cit.
30. See Human Rights Watch, op. cit.; and Charles Roberts, “Rule of Law and Development: U.S. AID and the Public Courts of Colombia,” Georgetown University Law Center manuscript, Spring 1995.
31. Transcript of State Department briefing, Washington, D.C., Oct. 29, 1996.
32. Interview, Washington, D.C., Jan. 21, 1997.”