Colombia Briefing: Bad Press

The original story ran here on the Committee to Protect Journalists website

This Colombian warlord cultivates journalists. He also murders them. For Carlos Castaño, it’s all about image.

Bogotá — On May 3, 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño to its annual list of the ten worst enemies of the press. Six weeks later, a reporter from the Paris daily Le Monde caught up with Castaño in northern Colombia and asked how he felt about the distinction.

“I would like to assure you that I have always respected the freedom and subjectivity of the press,” said the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia’s leading right-wing paramilitary organization. “But I have never accepted that journalism can become an arm at the service of one of the actors of the conflict. Over the course of its existence the AUC has executed two local journalists who were in fact guerrillas.” He no longer remembered their names.

Since 1999, in fact, forces under Castaño’s command have been linked to the murders of at least four journalists, the abduction and rape of one reporter, and threats against many others, according to CPJ research. “Against the violent backdrop of Colombia’s escalating civil war, in which all sides have targeted journalists, Carlos Castaño stands out as a ruthless enemy of the press,” CPJ’s citation noted.

This self-confessed murderer of journalists is now turning to the local press in an effort to rehabilitate his image in Colombia. To that end, Castaño has launched a uniquely Colombian public relations campaign, seemingly modeled after tactics employed by legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar. Not unlike Escobar, Castaño’s strategy combines a charm offensive with forthright acknowledgements of the AUC’s use of terror.

While Escobar attacked journalists who favored his extradition to the United States to face drug trafficking charges, Castaño attacks any journalist whom he suspects of cooperating or even sympathizing with Colombia’s left-wing rebels. This year, Castaño admitted that he had murdered journalists and tried to bomb a newspaper for its alleged communist sympathies. He has been implicated in many other attacks on the press in recent years.

In November 2000, Castaño granted an exclusive interview to the Bogotá weekly Semana. The reporter asked whether Castaño thought he deserved to be compared to the late Escobar. “There is no way you can compare me with a monster like that,” replied Castaño. “While he sought to destroy the country, I intend to save it.”

Old war

Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War remains hot in Colombia. The U.S.-backed Colombian military has been fighting against various Marxist guerrilla organizations (see sidebar) for nearly forty years. The army frequently collaborates with private paramilitary groups, including the AUC, which the Colombian government has outlawed. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the army’s 18 brigades were sharing intelligence and other resources with rightist paramilitary groups, most of them under Castaño’s command.

Since the 1980s, both right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas have increasingly been supported by profits from Colombia’s burgeoning trade in illegal drugs.

Carlos Castaño is Colombia’s top paramilitary leader as well as the country’s leading fugitive. He is currently wanted on multiple murder, kidnapping, and arms trafficking charges dating back to 1988. He is also “a major drug trafficker,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Last April, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Anne W. Patterson told the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador that if Castaño is involved in drug trafficking, “and we think he is,” the United States might one day seek to prosecute him in the United States.

Childhood memories

In 1981, when Carlos Castaño was 15 years old, his father was kidnapped and murdered by leftist guerrillas. At 23, he allegedly participated in a series of massacres of banana pickers in northwestern Colombia. Also known as “Monoleche” (Milkwhite) because of his fair complexion, Carlos allegedly killed at the side of his brother Fidel, and both brothers joined Colombia’s first national paramilitary organization, “Death to Kidnappers” (MAS).

According to DEA documents, MAS was founded in 1981 by Escobar’s Medellín cartel. But the Castaño brothers and Escobar later fell out. Fidel Castaño became chief of operations for a paramilitary strike force called “Los Pepes” (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Following Fidel’s mysterious 1994 disappearance in northern Colombia, Carlos emerged as Colombia’s leading anti-communist militant.

Three years later, Carlos Castaño unified a number of regional rightist groups to form a national paramilitary organization called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 1997, Castaño admits, he ordered the massacre of 49 peasants in rural Mapiripán, eastern Colombia. Since then, Castaño and his allies have committed about 80 percent of Colombia’s human rights abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. The Colombian Defense Ministry reports that rightist paramilitaries carried out three-fourths of the country’s massacres last year.

“Guerrillas, whether in uniform or civilian clothes, remain a legitimate military objective,” Castaño said on camera on March 1, 2000, when he showed his face to Colombians and others for the first time. “I know this violates international humanitarian law.”

On May 30 of this year, Castaño issued a cryptic online communiqué announcing his resignation as military commander of the outlawed AUC. Days later, he announced that he was forming a nonviolent political organization, linked to the AUC, that would seek legal recognition in Colombia (none was granted). And he continued to grant interviews.

AUC meets the press

Journalists have figured prominently among Castaño’s victims. In January 1999, for example, Castaño repeatedly threatened Alfredo Molano Bravo of the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador after Molano wrote a story about anti-communist paramilitary groups and their ties to Colombian drug traffickers.

In June 1999, AUC members threatened Carlos Pulgarín, a reporter for Bogotá’s largest daily, El Tiempo, after Pulgarín wrote an article about paramilitary assassinations of indigenous activists. Pulgarín fled to Peru, where his movements were apparently monitored; he later received telephone threats in Lima.

On September 16, 1999, two assassins on a motorcycle shot and killed Guzmán Quintero Torres, editor of the northern Colombian daily El Pilón. Quintero was investigating several AUC-linked murders at the time, including the 1998 slaying of television journalist Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares, who was killed after she reported that local paramilitary forces had murdered peasants.

On September 9, 2000, AUC paramilitaries abducted and killed a rural community leader named Carlos José Restrepo Rocha, who ran two small regional publications. AUC fliers were left next to Restrepo Rocha’s bullet-ridden corpse, but the motive for this particular murder remains unclear. Later that year, AUC members threatened Eduardo Luque Díaz, of the daily La Nación, at his office and home, demanding that he reveal the whereabouts of a family he had mentioned in a story.

On April 27 of this year, Flavio Bedoya, a southwesternColombia correspondent for the Communist Party weekly La Voz, was murdered. Colleagues believed the murder was linked to a series of highly critical reports that Bedoya had published in La Voz since the beginning of April about collusion between the security forces and outlawed right-wing paramilitary gangs in southern Nariño Department.

One month after Bedoya’s death, the AUC tried unsuccessfully to bomb the Bogotá offices of La Voz. Castaño took responsibility for the incident a few days later.

On October 31, 2000, rural community radio station director Juan Camilo Restrepo Guerra was summoned to a meeting by rightist paramilitaries who were apparently incensed by his sharp criticisms of the local administration. Restrepo Guerra’s brother drove him on a motorcycle to the rendezvous site. The paramilitaries shot Restrepo Guerra dead in front of his brother, who has since declined to testify and has gone into hiding.

Journalists who choose to remain in Colombia despite Castaño’s intimidation privately admit that they censor their own reports to protect themselves and their families. “Of course I censor myself,” said one threatened journalist who elected to stay. “You have to tell the story, but there are some things I can’t include.”

Carrot and stick

Although journalists all over Colombia have been threatened and attacked for daring to criticize the AUC, Castaño has also used the press to launch a PR offensive. The formerly reclusive leader has “gained public visibility in the national and international media with disconcerting ease,” according to a March 2001 report by the United Nations human rights office in Colombia.

“Carlos Castaño, Colombia’s fugitive paramilitary leader, unleashed a national stir when he stepped from the shadows and submitted to a ninety-minute, one-on-one interview, televised on March 1 [2000],” wrote then-U.S. Ambassador Curtis W. Kamman in a recently declassified U.S. embassy cable. “The 35-year-old Castaño appeared intelligent, articulate, well-poised, and, above all, very charismatic.”

Nearly one in five Colombian adults watched at least half the program, about the same percentage that supports Castaño, according to opinion polls. Since that first television appearance, Castaño has made himself freely available to both domestic and foreign reporters.

The Garzón murder

While Castaño has been linked to numerous attacks on the press, he currently faces just one criminal charge over an attack on a journalist. The charge, aggravated homicide, relates to the 1999 murder of Colombian television host Jaime Garzón. According to the official charge sheet, Castaño ordered Garzón’s murder because of the journalist’s role in negotiating the release of hostages held by leftist guerrillas.

The 39-year-old Garzón was a morning news host for the Caracol network and a regular columnist for the weekly magazine Cambio. But Garzón was best known for his work as a television comedian who used humor to criticize all factions in the civil conflict. He specialized in uncannily accurate impersonations of Colombian officials and other notables and was so popular across Colombia that in 1997, then-presidential candidate Andrés Pastrana Arango appeared live with other candidates on his TV show.

Garzón regularly traded on his stature as a well-respected broadcaster to negotiate for the release of victims of guerrilla kidnappings. He also served on an independent commission that mediated between the government and the leftist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Two points emerge clearly from the Garzón case. First, some of Colombia’s most dangerous criminals work for Carlos Castaño; and second, not even famous and well-connected journalists are safe from him.

On August 10, 1999, Garzón heard that Castaño was planning to kill him. The news was conveyed by a Colombian senator named Piedad Córdoba, who chaired the Senate’s human rights committee at the time. In late 1998, Castaño’s men kidnapped Córdoba and held her for nine months. During that time, Castaño told Córdoba that Garzón was on his list of targets. Castaño read her excerpts from what he said were transcripts of Garzón’s private telephone conversations. He claimed that the transcripts proved Garzón was really a guerrilla.

After Córdoba was released in June 1999, she told Garzón that Castaño was planning to eliminate him. During the second week of August, Garzón learned that Castaño had ordered him killed by the end of that week. On August 10, desperate to get in touch with Castaño, Garzón visited La Modelo prison, a maximum-security installation in Bogotá where several important AUC figures are incarcerated.

According to the charge sheet, Garzón met with Ángel Custodio Gaitán Mahecha, also known as “The Baker,” and with Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as “Popeye.” Velásquez was an early 1990s Escobar loyalist who later transferred his allegiance to the AUC. Both were well-connected members of the Colombian underworld.

Gaitán used his cell phone to call Castaño. He handed the phone to Garzón, who pleaded with Castaño to spare his life. Castaño called Garzón a son of a bitch who supported the guerrillas and added that he was a coward who didn’t have the guts to meet him face to face. Before hanging up, the two men arranged to meet the following Saturday, August 14.

On August 13, a motorcycle-riding gunman shot Garzón dead at a traffic light just four blocks from his office. A few hours later, Castaño himself called Garzón’s radio show and denied responsibility on the air. Velásquez and Gaitán also claim they had nothing to do with Garzón’s death.

The gunman who shot Garzón allegedly belonged to a criminal band known as La Terraza. In the past, La Terraza carried out attacks for the late Pablo Escobar. However, Castaño admits he has hired La Terraza to carry out a number of crimes in recent years, including kidnappings. The official government charge sheet accuses him of hiring La Terraza to kill Garzón.

On August 3, 2000, three months after Castaño was formally charged with Garzón’s murder, he invited seven La Terraza leaders to a meeting in northern Colombia. Authorities later discovered all seven of their corpses near a local road. Meanwhile, Castaño issued a communiqué saying that the AUC had executed them for giving leaders like him a bad name.

Three months later, several young men who claimed to be La Terraza members surfaced in Medellín. Wearing masks, they taped a television interview in which they claimed to have committed many kidnappings and murders on behalf of the AUC, including the Garzón assassination. During the interview, they claimed that Castaño was planning to kill them and their families with the help of local police and military forces. Castaño did not deny the accusation. In March 2001, he told El Tiempo that only one or two members of the band were still alive.

War on El Espectador

On May 24, 2000, a suspected AUC militant tried to abduct Ignacio Gómez, an investigative reporter with El Espectador, in downtown Bogotá. The man who failed to trick Gómez into boarding a “taxi” that day matched the composite sketch of an AUC suspect in the massacre of 49 peasant farmers at Mapiripán in 1997.

Gómez had just published a story that documented the Colombian Army’s collaboration with the AUC in the Mapiripán massacre. That same day, Gómez found an envelope with his name stenciled on it in his mailbox at work. The envelope contained a photocopy of a recent article by Jineth Bedoya, one of his colleagues at El Espectador.

Bedoya had reported that La Modelo prison guards were allowing AUC inmates to keep guns in their cells even after clashes between them and other inmates that left 25 prisoners dead, 18 wounded, and an undetermined number missing, according to a United Nations report on the incident.

Bedoya and her editor, Jorge Cardona, received identical envelopes. An hour and a half later, Bedoya’s telephone rang. Gaitán was calling from his cell in La Modelo. He offered Bedoya the opportunity to interview him at the prison at 10:00 a.m. the next day. He promised the 25-year-old reporter an exclusive and asked her to come alone.

Cardona insisted on accompanying Bedoya and on bringing a photographer. The three El Espectador journalists arrived at La Modelo shortly before 10:00 a.m. on May 25. Prison guards told them to wait.

The visitors waiting area is just inside the entrance to La Modelo, although many visitors prefer to wait in the street just outside the entrance. Cardona and the photographer walked to a nearby concession stand to buy sodas, leaving Bedoya standing in front of the prison entrance. She stayed within view and earshot of the waiting area in case the guards cleared them to enter the jail.

Bedoya disappeared during the few minutes it took her colleagues to buy the sodas and return to the prison entrance. The prison guards claimed they had seen nothing.

At 8 p.m., the police reported that Bedoya had been admitted to a police medical clinic in the city of Villavicencio, a three-hour drive from La Modelo. A taxi driver found her lying with her hands tied in a garbage dump on the outskirts of town. She had been drugged, brutally beaten, and sexually assaulted. Bedoya was found in a state of nervous collapse but eventually recovered from the attack and returned to work at El Espectador.

During the assault, the men told her in graphic detail about all the other journalists whom they planned to kill, including her colleague Gómez. They did not explain why they chose to free her. A week later, Gómez fled to the United States.

No suspects have been charged in the attack on Bedoya. Gaitán and Velásquez both denied any role in her abduction, as do La Modelo prison authorities.

In a June 2000 interview with El Tiempo, Castaño also disclaimed responsibility for Bedoya’s ordeal. He acknowledged that Gaitán was his subordinate, but claimed that Gaitán had assured him he was not involved.

On the evening of September 7, 2001, Gaitán was murdered in a prison called La Picota. He was apparently killed by leftist guerrilla inmates in retaliation for last year’s jailhouse massacre at La Modelo.

The hunt for Castaño

Since the death of Pablo Escobar, no Colombian has terrorized so many members of the Colombian press, to say nothing of Colombian society in general. Carlos Castaño’s extraordinary assault against local journalists comes as the Colombian government is receiving a record amount of U.S. aid. On September 10, as U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell was about to leave on a visit to Colombia, the State Department formally designated the AUC as a terrorist organization.

Yet U.S.-backed Colombian forces have so far been powerless to stop Castaño. As a result, he has enjoyed complete impunity for his crimes. The Attorney General’s Office was the only Colombian law enforcement agency that even tried to pursue Castaño. Earlier this year, its civilian agents launched a series of raids against the AUC. But they complained of working without the support of the military or other government bodies. “In this struggle…the Attorney General’s Office has been alone,” chief investigator Pablo Elías González told El Tiempo in June 2000.

At that time, the AUC had just kidnapped seven members of González’s staff while they were exhuming the corpse of an alleged AUC victim in Cesar State. All seven investigators remain missing and are presumed dead at the hands of Castaño’s men.

Leftist guerrilla attacks on the press

Carlos Castaño is by no means the only threat to the embattled Colombian press. The country’s two main leftist guerrilla organizations, the ELN and the FARC, have both threatened and kidnapped dozens of journalists in recent years.

The FARC kidnapped seven journalists in October 1999 and held them for five days. El Tiempo editor Francisco Santos (who was once kidnapped by Pablo Escobar) has also been threatened by the FARC and is now living in Spain. And RCN television correspondent Claudia Gurisatti received FARC threats last year after the station aired her interview with Castaño. Both Santos and Gurisatti have since fled into exile.

There are indications that FARC was responsible for the December 13, 2000, killing of radio station director Alfredo Abad López, according to reliable Colombian sources. Abad was the director of Voz de la Selva (“Voice of the Jungle”), an affiliate of the national Caracol radio network in the southern Colombian city of Florencia. Just before his death, Abad had conducted an on-air discussion on whether the government should renew its grant of a Switzerland-sized chunk of territory to the FARC. A majority of the callers apparently opposed renewal.

The FARC has also been linked to the July 6 killing of José Duviel Vásquez Arias, who took over as news director of Voz de la Selva after Abad was murdered. Vásquez’s last broadcasts dealt with an AUC communiqué announcing changes in local leadership and promising to refrain from kidnapping and extortion.

On May 23, 2001, FARC guerrillas briefly detained three employees of the Medellín daily El Colombiano, according to the Colombian press freedom organization FLIP (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa). Correspondent Gustavo Gallo Machado, photographer Donaldo de Jesús Zuluaga Velilla, and driver Ramón Morales were held for several hours, and their vehicle was damaged. That same day, FLIP reported, an urban faction of the ELN distributed a pamphlet directed at all Colombian journalists, who were warned to avoid partiality.

Frank Smyth is an investigative reporter and CPJ’s Washington representative.

Still Seeing Red: The CIA Fosters Death Squads in Colombia

Back in 1989, the CIA built its first counter-narcotics center in the basement of its Directorate of Operations headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Since then, the newly renamed “crime and narcotics center” has increased four-fold, says CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher. She says she cannot comment about any specific counter- drug operations, except to say that the agency is now conducting them worldwide.

The CIA was established in 1947 as a frontline institution against the Soviet Union. Today, nine years after the Berlin Wall fell, the agency is seeking a new purpose to justify its $26.7 billion annual subsidy. Besides the crime and narcotics center, the CIA now runs a counterterrorism center, a center to stymie the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and even an ecology center to monitor global warming and weather patterns, including El Nino.

George J. Tenet, the Clinton Administration’s new Director of Central Intelligence, recently told Congress the United States faces new threats in “this post-Cold War world” that are “uniquely challenging for U.S. interests.”

But the CIA remains a Cold War institution. Many officers, especially within the clandestine operations wing, still see communists behind every door. They maintain warm relationships with rightist military forces worldwide that are engaging in widespread human-rights abuses. These ties conflict with the agency’s purported goal of fighting drugs, since many of the rightist allies are themselves involved in the drug trade.

Take Colombia. In the name of fighting drugs, the CIA financed new military intelligence networks there in 1991. But the new networks did little to stop drug traffickers. Instead, they incorporated illegal paramilitary groups into their ranks and fostered death squads. These death squads killed trade unionists, peasant leaders, human rights, journalists, and other suspected “subversives.” The evidence, including secret Colombian military documents, suggests that the CIA may be more interested in fighting a leftist resistance movement than in combating drugs.

Thousands of people have been killed by the death squads, and the killings go on. In April, one of Colombia’s foremost human-rights lawyers, Eduardo Umana Mendoza, was murdered in his office. Umana’s clients included leaders of Colombia’s state oil workers’ union. Reuters estimated that 10,000 people attended his funeral in Bogota.

Human-rights groups suspect that Umana’s murder may have been carried out by members of the security forces supporting or operating in unison with paramilitary forces. At the funeral, Daniel Garcia Pena, a Colombian government official who was a friend of Umana’s, told journalists that before his death Umana had alerted authorities that state security officials along with security officers from the state oil company were planning to kill him.

The killings are mounting at a terrible pace. In February, a death squad mowed down another leading human-rights activist, Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo. He had pointed a finger at the military and some politicians for sponsoring death squads.

“There is a clear, coordinated strategy of targeting anyone involved in the defense of human rights,” says Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International. “Every statement of unconditional support by U.S. lawmakers only encourages these kinds of attacks.”

A new debate is taking place today between human-rights groups and the Clinton Administration over U.S. aid to Colombia. The Clinton Administration has escalated military aid to Colombia to a record $136 million annually, making Colombia the leading recipient of U.S. military aid in this hemisphere. Now the administration is considering even more, including helicopter gunships.

Colombia did not figure prominently on the world stage back in late 1990 and early 1991. Germany was in the process of reunification, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait, and El Salvador was negotiating an end to its long civil war. But the Bush Administration was not ignoring Colombia. It was increasing the number of U.S. Army Special Forces (or Green Beret) advisers there. And the CIA was increasing the number of agents in its station in Bogota — which soon became the biggest station in Latin America.

“There was a very big debate going on [over how to allocate] money for counter-narcotics operations in Colombia,” says retired Colonel James S. Roach Jr., the U.S. military attaché and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) country liaison in Bogota in the early 1990s. “The U.S. was looking for a way to try to help. But if you’re not going to be combatants [yourselves], you have to find something to do.”

The United States formed an inter-agency commission to study Colombia’ s military intelligence system. The team included representatives of the U.S. embassy’s Military Advisory Group in Bogota, the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, the DIA, and the CIA, says Roach, who was among the military officers representing the DIA. The commission, according to a 1996 letter from the Defense Department to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, recommended changes in Colombia’ s military intelligence networks to make them “more efficient and effective.”

In May 1991, Colombia completely reorganized its military intelligence networks “based on the recommendations made by the commission of U.S. military advisers,” according to the secret Colombian reorganization order, which Human Rights Watch made public in 1996. The U.S. commission of advisers backed the reorganization plan ostensibly as part of the drug war. Yet the secret Colombian order itself made no mention anywhere in its sixteen pages or corresponding appendices about gathering intelligence against drug traffickers. Instead, the order instructed the new intelligence networks to focus on leftist guerrillas or “the armed subversion.”

The forty-one new intelligence networks created by the order directed their energies toward unarmed civilians suspected of supporting the guerrillas. One of these intelligence networks, in the oil refinery town of Barrancabermeja in Colombia’s strife-torn Magdalena Valley, assassinated at least fifty-seven civilians in the first two years of operation. Victims included the president, vice president, and treasurer of the local transportation workers union, two leaders of the local oil workers union, one leader of a local peasant workers union, two human-rights monitors, and one journalist.

Colonel Roach says the Defense Department never intended the intelligence networks to foster death squads. But Roach says he can’t speak for the CIA, which was more involved in the intelligence reorganization and even financed the new networks directly.

“The CIA set up the clandestine nets on their own,” says Roach. “They had a lot of money. It was kind of like Santa Claus had arrived.”

The secret Colombian order instructed the military to maintain plausible deniability from the networks and their crimes. Retired military officers and other civilians were to act as clandestine liaisons between the networks and the military commanders. All open communications “must be avoided.” There “must be no written contracts with informants or civilian members of the network; everything must be agreed to orally.” And the entire chain of command “will be covert and compartmentalized, allowing for the necessary flexibility to cover targets of interest.”

Facts about the new intelligence networks became known only after four former agents in Barrancabermeja began testifying in 1993 about the intelligence network there. What compelled them to come forward? Each said the military was actively trying to kill them in order to cover up the network and its crimes. By then the military had “disappeared” four other ex-agents in an attempt to keep the network and its operations secret.

Since the military was already trying to kill them, the agents decided that testifying about the network and its crimes might help keep them alive. Saulo Segura was one ex-agent who took this gamble. But rather than prosecuting his superiors over his and others’ testimony, Colombia’s judicial system charged and imprisoned Segura. In a 1996 interview in La Modelo, Bogota’s maximum-security jail, Segura told me he hadn’t killed anyone and that his job within the network was limited to renting office space and handling money. Segura then glanced about nervously before adding, “I hope they don’t kill me.”

Two months later, on Christmas Eve, Segura was murdered inside his cellblock. His murder remains unsolved; the whereabouts of the other three ex-agents is unknown. No Colombian officers have been prosecuted for ordering the Barrancabermeja crimes.

In 1994, Amnesty International accused the Pentagon of allowing anti-drug aid to be diverted to counterinsurgency operations that lead to human-rights abuses. U.S. officials including General Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration drug czar who was then in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, publicly denied it. But back at the office, McCaffrey ordered an internal audit. It found that thirteen out of fourteen Colombian army units that Amnesty had specifically cited for abuses had previously received either U.S. training or arms. Amnesty made these documents public in 1996 (full disclosure: I provided the internal U.S. documents to Amnesty; Winifred Tate and I provided the secret Colombian order to Human Rights Watch).

Colombian military officers, along with some of their supporters in the United States, say the line between counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations in Colombia is blurry, as Colombia’s leftist guerrillas are more involved today than ever before in drug trafficking.

Indeed, they are. For years, about two-thirds of the forces of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and about half the forces of the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been involved in the drug trade, mainly protecting drug crops, according to both U.S. intelligence and leftist sources.

Colombia’s rightist paramilitary groups, however, are even more involved in the drug trade, and they have been for a decade. Back in 1989, Colombia’s civilian government outlawed all paramilitary organizations after a government investigation had found that the Medellin drug cartel led by the late Pablo Escobar had taken over the largest ones.

At the time, Escobar and his associates were fiercely resisting U.S. pressure on the Colombian government to make them stand trial in the United States on trafficking charges. They took control of Colombia’s strongest paramilitaries and used them to wage a terrorist campaign against the state. These same paramilitaries, based in the Magdalena Valley, were behind a wave of violent crimes, including the 1989 bombing of Avianca flight HK-1803, which killed 111 passengers. Investigators concluded that Israeli, British, and other mercenaries, led by Israeli Reserve Army Lieutenant Colonel Yair Klein, had trained the perpetrators in such techniques. In February, Klein and three other former Israeli reserve officers, along with two Colombians, were indicted in absentia for their alleged involvement in these crimes.

The CIA bears some responsibility for the proliferation of drug trafficking in the Magdalena Valley since it supported rightist counterinsurgency forces who run drugs. But the CIA has also helped combat drug trafficking in Colombia. In other words, different units within the agency have pursued contrary goals.

The CIA’s most notable success in the drug war was the 1995-1996 operations that, with the help of the DEA, apprehended all top seven leaders of Colombia’s Cali drug cartel. One of those apprehended was Henry Loaiza, also known as “The Scorpion,” a top Colombian paramilitary leader. He secretly collaborated with the CIA-backed intelligence networks to carry out assassinations against suspected leftists.

A young, techno-minded CIA team led the Cali bust. Heading up the team was a woman. “I’m just a secretary,” she protested when I called her on the phone at the time.

But despite her denials, she was not unappreciated. On September 19, 1995, a courier delivered a white box to her at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. I happened to be in the lobby at the time. She opened the box to find roses inside. They had been sent by the head of Colombia’s National Police, General Rosso Jose Serrano.

Most other agency counter-drug operations, however, have yielded few breakthroughs.

The net result of CIA involvement in Colombia has not been to slow down the drug trade. Mainly, the agency has fueled a civil war that has taken an appalling toll on civilians.

Colombia is not the only place where these two elements of the CIA nave clashed with each other.

In Peru, the CIA coordinates all of its counter-drug efforts through the office of the powerful Intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos — even though DEA special agents have produced no fewer than forty-nine different intelligence reports about Montesinos and his suspected narcotics smuggling. It is no wonder that agency counter-drug efforts in Peru have failed.

In Guatemala, the agency has played a strong role in both counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations. As in Peru, the agency has worked with Guatemala’s office of military intelligence, even though DEA special agents have formally accused a whopping thirty-one Guatemalan military officers of drug trafficking. Despite the CIA’s efforts, not even one suspected officer has been tried.

The Clinton Administration finally cut off CIA counterinsurgency aid to Guatemala in 1995 after revelations that an agency asset, Guatemalan Army Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, had been involved in the murder of Michael DeVine, a U.S. innkeeper, as well as in the murder of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, a leftist guerrilla who was married to the Harvard-educated lawyer, Jennifer Harbury. But the Clinton Administration has allowed the CIA to continue providing counter-drug aid to Guatemala.

Most of the major drug syndicates so far uncovered by the DEA have enjoyed direct links to Guatemalan military officers. One of the largest syndicates, exposed in 1996, “reached many parts of the military,” according to the State Department.

This year, the State Department reports, “Guatemala is the preferred location in Central America for storage and transshipment of South American cocaine destined for the United States via Mexico.”

Mexico is the next stop on the CIA counter-narcotics train. The fact that Mexico’s former top counter-drug officer, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was himself recently indicted for drug trafficking, raises the same old question: What is U.S. policy really all about? Before Gutierrez was busted, the DEA thought he was dirty, while U.S. officials, like General McCaffrey, still sporting Cold War lenses, thought he was clean and vouched for him shortly before his indictment.

Some DEA special agents question the CIA’s priorities in counter-drug programs. Human rights groups remain suspicious of the same programs for different reasons.

“There is no magic line dividing counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency operations,” says Salinas of Amnesty International.

“Given the current deterioration of human rights in Mexico,” an expanded role in counter-drug operations by the United States “could lead to a green light for further violations.”

Testifying before Congress in March, the CIA Inspector General Frederick R. Hitz finally addressed allegations that the CIA once backed Cold War allies like the Nicaraguan contras even though they ran drugs. Hitz admitted that, at the very least, there have been “instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity, or take action to resolve the allegations.”

What CIA officials have yet to admit is that the agency is still doing the same thing today.