PUTUMAYO, a vast, rainforest-carpeted province in southern Colombia, is the main military target of the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package known as Plan Colombia. Coca grown in the region provides 40 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Pilots working for DynCorp, a major U.S. government military contractor, spray poison on the coca of Putumayo, while U.S.-trained assault troops secure the area for the fumigation raids. But there are other forces operating here, as well.

From a base about one mile north of Puerto Asís, the largest town in Putumayo, the Colombian army’s 1,000-man 24th Brigade is responsible for securing this Massachusetts-sized province. According to dozens of witnesses and a U.N. report, the brigade works closely with Colombia’s notorious paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym AUC. This right-wing army—blamed for the vast majority of human rights abuses in Colombia—has tortured, murdered and mutilated thousands of people in the past five years. It is also intimately tied to drug trafficking, much like the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who are the main target of both the AUC’s ghoulish war—and of U.S.-supported counternarcotics operations. Reckoning with the AUC, and its secretive alliance with forces in the Colombian military, is one of the greatest challenges facing the United States in Colombia.

Just outside Puerto Asís, on the road to the 24th Brigade, lies Hacienda Villa Sandra. Before September 2000, when they relocated to other nearby farms, illegal paramilitary death squads operated from the Villa Sandra ranch in plain sight of Colombian Army soldiers. Despite the obvious juxtaposition of forces, the 24th Brigade commander, Col. Gabriel Díaz, denied that he or anyone under him collaborated with the AUC forces, whose very existence is illegal. At an Aug. 4, 2000, forum with Putumayo farmers, sponsored by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Díaz angrily refuted allegations that his troops plotted with the AUC to target suspected leftists for torture and murder. “The [paramilitaries] are just as delinquent as the guerrillas,” Díaz told the audience gathered in a schoolhouse auditorium. But at the same time that Díaz was making his denials, across town a local police agent was testifying to just the opposite before the human rights ombudsman of Puerto Asís. The policeman’s detailed affidavit, which was obtained by ICIJ, was corroborated by many witnesses in and around Puerto Asís. 

The paramilitaries, according to the affidavit, “operate under the command of Comandante Rafael,’’ whose senior men include a former Colombian National Police lieutenant. “The southern bloc of the Self-Defense Forces has approximately 600 members with many kinds of arms, mostly AK-47 rifles . . . they have all the equipment they need. They impose taxes on general businesses, drug traders and small producers. Their main bases are less than five minutes by car on the way toward [the 24th Brigade] on the ranch called Villa Sandra and an abandoned house . . . in front of the military base. . . . I do not know the tricks or skills these individuals use to evade the Army’s checkpoints, for they must pass by them,’’ the affidavit says. It goes on to state that Colombian army commanders have met with the AUC leaders at Villa Sandra.

Municipal authorities in Putumayo provided copies of the testimony to the Colombian Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Embassy. A few weeks later, U.S. officials informed human rights groups that they were suspending military deliveries to the Army’s 24th Brigade because of the evidence of collaboration with the AUC. And several soldiers were later removed from the unit under U.S. pressure, one U.S. Embassy official said. (A 1997 law authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., prohibits the United States from providing assistance to any foreign military unit that has been credibly linked to gross human rights violations.) Nevertheless, as of mid-2001, the 24th Army Brigade was still being supplied by other Colombian army units that receive U.S. military aid and was still collaborating with the paramilitaries, according to human rights officials in Colombia. Díaz, who remains in the brigade though not as commander, is under preliminary investigation by the Colombian attorney general’s office for aiding paramilitary groups. The human rights conditions attached to U.S. military aid to Colombia stipulate that officers who are credibly accused of collaborating with paramilitaries must be suspended from duty and prosecuted.

There was one notable change in the region: AUC paramilitaries moved out of Villa Sandra to several bases farther outside of town. But they still operated freely in and around Puerto Asís. “Residents quietly point out the paramilitary gunmen drinking at the local bar or enjoying a snow cone in the town plaza,” The New York Times reported in November 2000. Eventually, according to the United Nations human rights office in Colombia, they returned to Villa Sandra. A March 2001 U.N. report said the “paramilitaries were still operating at the Villa Sandra estate . . . a few minutes away from the [24th] Brigade.” 

Throughout Colombia’s southern region, paramilitary forces are on the march, attacking guerrillas, killing peasants and making drug profits. As U.S.-trained and accessorized army units drive deep into the FARC-held coca regions, securing areas to be sprayed with glycophosphate (commercially known as Round Up), the AUC moves in tandem to take over drug transactions previously controlled by the FARC, according to farmers and local government officials in the region interviewed by ICIJ. The paramilitaries now control coca paste transactions in the main provincial towns of Putumayo, these sources say, while the FARC controls deals in the countryside. Each side routinely kills anyone suspected of selling paste to the other. The principal difference between the two is that the paramilitaries pay 25 percent higher prices for the paste.

For nearly four decades, leftist revolutionary groups—mainly the FARC and the National Liberation Army, or ELN—have waged a guerrilla war against the Colombian government. As early as 1962, U.S. Army documents stated that paramilitaries could be effective military allies in counterinsurgency operations in Colombia, an idea that did not die even after the paramilitaries were banned in 1989. According to a Colombian military document made public by Human Rights Watch, a panel of U.S. military officials in 1991 drafted a blueprint that the Colombian military used to secretly incorporate right-wing paramilitary forces into its intelligence networks. In one area where the plan was implemented, paramilitaries working with the Colombian Navy slaughtered dozens of civilians, including leading trade unionists.

Recently, U.S. and Colombian officials have said they are deeply opposed to the right-wing paramilitaries. Yet, the heavily U.S.-influenced Plan Colombia made no specific effort to target them. Instead, the focus of the plan was the coca-growing areas held by the leftist FARC.

The Colombian government faces two left-wing armies, although one, the ELN, has suffered many defeats and today has fewer than 2,000 full-time combatants. The FARC, Colombia’s largest and oldest leftist guerrilla organization, emerged in the early 1960s, an offshoot of the Colombian Communist Party with links to Moscow and its allies. The FARC championed land reform and other measures on behalf of Colombia’s rural poor, and it extorted money from cattle ranchers, land owners and others through kidnapping and other acts of violence. Beginning in the 1980s, the FARC found another lucrative stream of revenue: it began to levy “war taxes” against growers of coca leaf and marijuana. In the mid-1990s, after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the FARC’s Central Committee instructed its various regional guerrilla fronts to protect and tax coca growers in order to maintain the organization’s war effort. The approximately 15,000-strong FARC concentrates its actions in southern Colombia in the provinces of Caqueta, Guaviare and Putumayo.

The ELN, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla organization, was a New Left group fashioned in the mold of “Che’’ Guevara’s vision of the selfless revolutionary. The ELN once received aid and training from Havana, but since the early 1980s, much of its financing has come from extorting oil companies. “Our contractors are forced to pay a ‘war tax’ or face the very real threat of having their equipment destroyed and their personnel attacked,’’ Lawrence Meriage, vice-president of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, testified before the U.S. Congress in 2000. “Local workers at our facilities must pay ‘protection’ money or place their personal safety and that of their families at risk.’’ The ELN has increased kidnappings in recent years but, unlike the FARC, its leadership discourages involvement in the drug trade, although some ELN fronts protect coca growers and tax their products. The ELN is concentrated in northern Colombia, especially in the provinces of Arauca, Bolivar, Santander and Norte de Santander.

The paramilitaries began in the early 1960s, initially with the support of cattle ranchers seeking to defend themselves from guerrilla extortion. In 1997, Carlos Castaño united longstanding paramilitary groups from around the country into the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, or AUC. The AUC’s ostensible targets are the FARC and ELN, but is notorious for killing anyone who has contact with the guerrillas or who supports even mild social reforms. In 1989, Colombia outlawed the paramilitaries after some were implicated in terrorist attacks organized by the notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. Although paramilitary forces have been illegal in Colombia since, the military has continued to work with them in secret, according to human rights groups and U.S. government documents obtained by ICIJ. The AUC paramilitaries have long been concentrated in the northern Colombian provinces of Cordoba and Antioquia, as well as in Meta in the east. But in 2000 they began expanding their operations in central and southern Colombia, including a new front in Putumayo. Colombian paramilitaries are responsible for 70 percent to 80 percent of Colombia’s human rights abuses, which included about 4,000 murders in 2000, according to the U.S. State Department.

Rights groups leery of Plan Colombia

Human rights violations blamed on the Colombian military have declined in recent years. U.S. support for Plan Colombia—which included $519.2 million for the armed forces and $123.1 million to the Colombian National Police in its first two-year tranche—is conditioned on respect for human rights. But many groups that monitor rights violations, including the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Washington Office on Latin America, believe that the military continues to be intimately involved in violence against civilians. Its aid to the paramilitaries, say these groups, ranges from outright logistical and intelligence support to simply keeping away when the paramilitaries attack an area.

Thus, human rights groups have been leery of Plan Colombia, which shifted the lion’s share of aid from the Colombian police to the military in 2000 and 2001. While U.S. aid to Colombian police, the traditional recipients of such assistance, increased only from $250 million to $363.1 million, direct U.S. aid to the Colombian military increased from $70 million to $519.2 million. The Colombian Armed Forces and National Police received another $330 million in U.S. aid over the same two-year period under other, ongoing assistance programs. Plan Colombia also includes $55.3 million for a classified intelligence reform program.

Of the $519.2 million in new U.S. aid for the military, 80 percent funds an offensive known as “the push into southern Colombia.” The effort is being led by three newly created counter-narcotics battalions that have been trained by U.S. Special Forces, or “Green Beret,” personnel. The remainder goes to fund national air, river and ground interdiction operations along with military human rights training and military justice reforms. Nearly two-thirds of the new military aid ($328 million) was earmarked for helicopters—16 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and 30 UH-1H Huey helicopters that have been upgraded to a “Super Huey” gunship configuration. The United States is also providing the Colombian National Police with two Blackhawks and 12 upgraded Hueys. The Colombian army already had 18 Hueys that the United States provided in 1989. With a total of 78 American helicopters by the end of 2001, the Colombian armed forces and National Police will have the strongest Latin America helicopter fleet to date. 

The Bush administration’s 2002 budget proposal includes no new helicopters, but $363.4 million in fresh military aid – an increase in non-helicopter related military aid. In addition to the money spent on Colombia, Plan Colombia provides $77 million in counternarcotics military aid to Colombia’s neighbors, including Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

The overall U.S. military and intelligence presence in Colombia is larger today than it was in El Salvador in the late 1980s at the peak of that country’s civil war, meaning that Colombia has surpassed El Salvador as the site of the largest U.S.-backed counterguerrilla effort since the Vietnam war. Colombia—which is, of course, many times larger than El Salvador—was receiving more than $1.6 million a day in U.S. military aid in 2000-2001; El Salvador got $1 million a day at the height of U.S. support there. 

In 1989, the United States began to re-label its counterinsurgency programs in Latin America as counter-drug programs, although in many instances the actual quality of aid didn’t change much–Green Berets from Fort Bragg, N.C., for example, trained Colombian troops in the 1990s, just as they had in the 1960s. With the exception of a handful of Defense Department programs, including land mine clearance, hostage rescue and disaster relief, nearly all U.S. military aid to Latin America since 1990 has been earmarked for the drug war.

As part of the U.S. military’s expansion in the region, three new forward operating locations—staging areas for U.S. aircraft involved in surveillance and interdiction of drug traffickers—were created after the U.S. military pulled out of Panama in 1999. The three “FOLs” are located in the Caribbean nations of Aruba and Curaçao, in El Salvador and in Ecuador. U.S. military personnel also now maintain about 17 radar sites, including six ground-based sites in Colombia and in Peru.

Largest U.S. aid in Latin America

Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. The U.S. military mission in Colombia is by far the largest in Latin America. Under the terms of Plan Colombia, as many as 500 U.S. military advisers and 300 civilian contract employees may be in the country at any given time. The CIA, which had some significant tactical successes in fighting drug cartel leaders in the mid-1990s, has its largest Latin American branch in Bogotá. And at the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, Colombia ranked second in 1999, behind Chile, in the number of soldiers trained there, and third behind Chile and Peru in 2000.

The Clinton administration’s rhetoric on aid to Colombia focused exclusively on curbing the flow of drugs. The purpose of the aid was “to eliminate the production of illegal drugs,” then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Brian Sheridan told Congress in 2000. “We are not in the counterinsurgency business.” Added Rand Beers, the assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, “The United States government proposal with respect to Plan Colombia is an effort that is focused principally on narco-trafficking.” Bush administration officials initially seemed less concerned about the distinction between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency. But the Bush State Department’s 2002 budget request for aid to the Andes also focused on counternarcotics, though it would spread the assistance around more to Colombia’s neighbors. 

Increasingly, military analysts say the dichotomy between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency is false in Colombia and that no U.S.-funded campaign will work unless it deals serious blows to the leftist FARC rebels. In a March 2000 U.S. Army War College paper, Donald E. Schulz, a former War College professor, wrote, “We have still not come to terms with the interrelationship between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency. For domestic political reasons, we have chosen to pretend that the two can be separated—that we can aid the Colombian government’s counter-narcotics efforts without becoming involved in counter-insurgency. But this is disingenuous.’’ In an April 2001 War College paper, Col. Joseph R. Nunez went even further, arguing that without greater security in Colombia, efforts to stop drugs and other forms of corruption were fruitless. Plan Colombia lacks a “comprehensive approach to subduing the guerrillas, narcotraffickers and paramilitaries,’’ he wrote. “Colombia’s government appears to be parroting our counterdrug mantra, and faces criticism from Colombia’s citizens for not being able to prevent guerrilla and paramilitary offensives that are now more frequent and bloody.’’ 

U.S. officials told Congress that U.S. military aid for Plan Colombia would focus on coca fields controlled by the FARC in southern Colombia. But, apparently stung by criticism that the aid package was one-sided and ignored the right-wing paramilitaries, the U.S. fumigation effort under Plan Colombia began in late 2000 by first targeting coca fields controlled by the AUC. “We didn’t want anybody to say we were soft on the paras,” a U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá told ICIJ. 

Indeed, after ignoring the AUC while formulating Plan Colombia, Washington belatedly has acknowledged the problem. The U.S. approach to handling the paramilitaries was summed up in a May 16, 2001 news conference by a State Department official. “Our argument would be that as we attempt to address these economic and social conditions through economic and social development assistance, as we try to address these concerns about governmental institutions that do not work . . . what we are doing, in a sense, is denying the ground to paramilitary organizations,’’ said William Brownfield, a senior State Department official for Latin America. “And to that extent, I would say that most, if not all of our assistance, both in last year’s Colombia supplemental and this year’s proposed Andean Regional Initiative, as it relates to Colombia, would go to addressing the paramilitary problem.’’

Be that as it may, the focus on the FARC in southern Colombia continues. The push, in Putumayo and Caquetá provinces, has been accompanied by heavy fumigation of coca fields along with many food crops. Colombia has seen an expansion in coca leaf growing: by 20 percent from 1998 to 1999, according to the White House drug czar; by over 60 percent in 2000, according to the Colombian news magazine Cambio. These huge increases are clearly a response by the cocaine industry to declining coca leaf cultivation in Peru and Bolivia—where U.S.-backed government drives caused coca acreage to fall by 66 percent and 55 percent, respectively, from 1995 to 1999, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. U.S. officials adamantly maintain that the military push in southern Colombia is aimed at drugs, not guerrillas. Nonetheless, Plan Colombia of necessity has a counterinsurgency component. 

U.S. officials acknowledged this, after a fashion. “To the extent that the FARC are involved in narco-trafficking, they can expect that our assistance may well be directed against them,” Beers explained in 2000. Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, then commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America, went even further. “[The FARC] is the only self-sustaining insurgency I’ve ever seen. There is no Cuba in back of it. There is no Soviet Union in back of it. It’s this delicate merge of criminals and narcotraffickers with insurgents, so it’s a one-of-a-kind phenomenon.”

Rightist paramilitaries just as involved

Unique though the FARC may be, it has not been the only rebel army in Colombia up to its neck in drug trafficking. Colombia’s rightist paramilitaries are just as involved as the guerrillas, if not more so, according to Colombian government documents obtained by ICIJ in Bogotá. “Six organizations that comprise the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [AUC] have been linked to narco-trafficking activities since 1997,” reads one 2000 Colombian intelligence report. State Department cables obtained by ICIJ through the Freedom of Information Act further confirm the role of paramilitaries in the drug trade. According to a January 1998 cable from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, “investigators found identity papers in the pockets of [a] dead paramilitary leader” that led not only to the arrests of paramilitary suspects implicated in a 1997 massacre of 14 peasants at La Horqueta, southwest of Bogotá, but also to the arrest of Hernando Montoya Montoya, who “has made a rather large fortune in recent years from narcotics trafficking.” The cable also confirmed that Montoya, like other Colombian traffickers, worked closely with paramilitary groups to fight leftist guerrillas and that the Horqueta massacre “was Montoya’s act of retaliation against the FARC’s local spies and supporters.” 

The AUC has been competing with the FARC for control of the drug trade in southern Colombia since 1999. Castaño, the head of the AUC, admitted in a March 2000 television interview that his forces earn about 70 percent of their income from taxes levied on various stages of drug growing, processing and exports. Unlike any of Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla commanders, Castaño himself has been linked to high-echelon drug trading. In testimony in 1997 and 1998, Donnie Marshall of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told Congress that Castaño was linked to the Henao-Montoya syndicate, which he described as the biggest of the newly ascendant trafficking organizations in the Valle Norte region of Colombia. Castaño “is a major drug trafficker in his own right,” said Marshall, now the DEA administrator.

In other words, the United States is backing the Colombian military, which has collaborated with rightist paramilitaries involved in the drug trade, in its fight against leftist FARC guerrillas because of their involvement in the drug trade. 

Colombian officials have long denied the charge of military collaboration with paramilitary groups, and the U.S. position has been that the Colombians are making great strides to eliminate links between the two. But U.S. officials have long been aware of the collaboration, as is demonstrated by a 1996 cable to the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by ICIJ. “Some members of the military have welcomed the opportunity to fight the war by proxy,’’ wrote the cable’s author, political officer Peg Willingham. “Paramilitary defectors have told judicial authorities about their links with army, police, and local landowners. . . . Paramilitaries are also believed responsible for the murders of left-wing political activists, with the tacit approval of the military in some cases.” The cases included the murders of at least 57 trade unionists, community leaders, journalists and others by a Colombian Navy intelligence network, backed by the United States, in the river port town of Barrancabermeja in 1991 and 1992. 

U.S. aid to Colombia so far has done nothing to diminish the violence there; if anything it may have even exacerbated it. The number of fatalities from political violence has risen from an average of 10 a day between 1988 to 1997, to 12 a day in 1998-1999, to about 20 a day during a six-month period from April to September 2000, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the most respected human rights organization in the nation. The CCJ study said that 85 percent of those killed died because of state or paramilitary actions, while 15 percent were killed by leftist guerrillas.

Of all the irregular armed groups, including the FARC, the ELN, and the AUC paramilitaries, “the latter pose the greatest security threat in Colombia today,” wrote War College author Schulz. “The ‘paras’ commit the vast majority of political killings, and their ranks are growing even more rapidly than those of the insurgents.” Yet, Schulz concluded, “U.S. policy has neglected the paramilitaries.” 

Even Colombian President Andrés Pastrana has attested to the alarming growth of the paramilitary threat. “The AUC is now a veritable cancer spreading in our body politic,” Pastrana said in a February 2001 interview with The Washington Times. “The guerrilla numbers have risen by 16 percent in the last two years; the increase in AUC group members in that same period is estimated to have been five times greater.”

But when the Colombian military goes on the offensive against irregular armed forces, it has been—according to its own figures—far more active in fighting the left than the right. As recently as 1999, the military claimed to have killed or captured 1,018 guerrillas of the FARC and ELN Marxist organizations. That same year, it killed or captured only 130 AUC paramilitaries. Moreover, many of the military’s claims of actions against rightist paramilitaries have turned out to be untrue. In March 2000 outside Puerto Asís, for example, soldiers under the command of the 24th Brigade claimed to have engaged in a firefight with a passing car carrying two armed men wearing AUC armbands. During the firefight, they said, the car caught fire and exploded. However, an investigation by the Attorney General’s office concluded that the two burned cadavers were not the remains of AUC paramilitaries but those of two local farmers who had previously disappeared. 

Clinton waives most rights requirements

The Colombian aid package passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000 contained several human rights conditions, including a requirement that members of the Colombian armed forces who face credible allegations of aiding or abetting paramilitary groups be prosecuted in civilian courts. However, the aid package also gave the president the option to waive the conditions if he deemed it to be in the U.S. national interest. President Clinton exercised that right in August 2000 and waived most of the human rights requirements of the aid. 

Colombia has made some strides to meet the human rights conditions of the aid package. More than 300 soldiers have been thrown out of the military for collaborating with paramilitaries under the terms of a decree signed by the Colombian president last year. The government can now remove members of the armed forces suspected of violations without a formal military trial. 

But despite the recent efforts of the Colombian government, the potential for human rights abuses and military collaboration with the outlawed AUC remains high, in part because it was long U.S. policy to encourage it. Perhaps no better example of the deadly consequences of such a policy was a U.S.-sponsored reorganization of the Colombian military’s intelligence networks, carried out in 1991, and reported on extensively by Human Rights Watch in its November 1996 report, “Colombia’s Killer Networks.”

In the 1991 intelligence reform, according to a Defense Department letter sent to Sen. Leahy, a 14-member assessment team of U.S. intelligence experts, led by a Navy captain, traveled to Colombia in 1990 at the military’s invitation. The American team’s goal was to make Colombia’s intelligence organizations “more efficient and effective,” the letter said. “The team reviewed Colombia’s military intelligence organizations and provided a list of recommended changes.”

Colombia adopted the changes, and the Defense Ministry “ordered the restructuring of Military Intelligence at all levels” in May 1991, “based on the recommendations made by the commission of advisors of U.S. Military Forces,” according to the classified Defense Ministry orders for the reorganization obtained by Human Rights Watch. 

No reference to drugs

Although the United States said in 1990 that its military assistance to Latin America would be devoted to counternarcotics, nowhere in the Colombian Defense Ministry document was there any reference to drugs, nor any indication that the team of U.S. military advisers had even discussed the cocaine trade. The purpose of the intelligence reorganization, the ministry said, was to combat “escalating terrorism by armed subversion”—the Colombian military’s term for Marxist guerrillas.

The CIA’s Directorate of Operations fully supported the reorganization, according to retired U.S. Army Col. James S. Roach, Jr., who was the U.S. military attaché and Defense Intelligence Agency liaison for the Pentagon in Bogotá at the time. “The CIA set up the clandestine nets on their own,” Roach told a journalist in 1998. “They had a lot of money. It was kinda like Santa Claus had arrived.” 

The reorganized military intelligence had 41 networks divided among the Colombian army, air force and navy. In addition to reporting to local and regional military division and brigade commands, each network was to be “directly linked to the Intelligence Battalions of the 20th Brigade’’—a unit that was disbanded seven years later because of its involvement in a series of brutal paramilitary actions. 

The secret, discreet and deniable design of the U.S.-aided reorganization allowed military intelligence to bring paramilitaries into the network. “The administration of the networks will be covert and compartmentalized allowing for the necessary flexibility to cover targets of interest,” the Colombian order said. “The members of the network should avoid going to military installations. Contacts and exchanges should be secret,” it continued. “There should be no written labor contracts with the informants or with any civilian member of the network, nor should any be entered into. Everything should be done orally.” 

One of the new networks was in Barrancabermeja, a port town in central Colombia on the Magdalena River. Retired officers and paramilitaries reported to a navy captain, Juan Carlos Álvarez, who in turn reported to a navy lieutenant colonel, Rodrigo Quiñónes. It was Quiñónes who reviewed the action and “gave the green light’’ if the subject of an observation was deemed ripe for killing. Quiñónes passed the orders back to Alvarez, who told network leaders what to do, according to one agent’s later testimony. “If it was by phone, they used the following codes: ‘There are some broken motors. I need you to repair them,’’’ the agent testified. “‘They are in such and such a place.’ And they would give the address. ‘Take good mechanics and good tools.’ Mechanics meant sicarios [assassins], good tools meant good weapons, and the motors meant the victims.”

None of the known targets of the Barrancabermeja network were involved with the drug trade. Its victims included leaders of the transportation and oil workers’ unions, a peasant leader and two human rights monitors, according to the testimony of four former agents of the network. An investigation led Ismael Jaimes, editor of Barrancabermeja’s leading independent newspaper, La Opinión, to begin writing columns alleging that the military was behind the attacks. Then Jaimes, too, was targeted by the network. “After following him for several months,’’ one agent told prosecutors of the Colombian Attorney General, “they established that he went every morning to drop off his son at school in the Torcoroma neighborhood, where he was killed one morning.”

Eventually, the facade of deniability between the Colombian navy and the network began to crumble, and the navy, seeking to keep the network and its operations secret, began killing off network members, including retired officers it had recruited. On June 1, 1992, after four network paramilitaries were apprehended by a regular Army unit, naval intelligence officials kidnapped the paramilitaries, who were never seen again, according to a document signed by the Army unit’s commander. The murders led four surviving network agents to testify against their superiors before investigators from Colombia’s Attorney General’s office. But instead of prosecuting the superior officers, the Colombian government charged and imprisoned one of the whistle-blowers, an ex-agent named Saulo Segura. In October 1995, from inside La Modelo, Bogotá’s maximum security jail, Segura told a journalist, “I hope they don’t kill me.” Two months later, Segura was dead. 

Murder never solved

Segura’s murder was never solved; the three other witnesses’ whereabouts are unknown. But the testimony they provided included details about the murders of 57 political opponents and activists by the Barrancabermeja network. According to U.S. State Department cables obtained by ICIJ, the military officers in charge of the combined military/paramilitary death squads in that period were never prosecuted for their crimes. “Indeed, anti-terrorism courts [in April 1998] sentenced two [paramilitary hitmen] to 60 years in jail each for having committed at least 49 assassinations in Barranca[bermeja] in 1991-92,” according to a May 19, 1998, classified State Department cable by then U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Curtis W. Kamman. But “the military officials who had employed the hitmen as part of the Navy’s urban intelligence net in Barranca[bermeja] were absolved of all charges by separate military courts.” 

The cable also demonstrates full U.S. awareness that the reign of terror unleashed in Barrancabermeja continued even after its existence was revealed. On May 16, three days before writing his cable, Kamman said, there had been another massacre in Barrancabermeja. “Some 40 to 50 paramilitaries arrived in trucks at an afternoon block party in the Patio Bonito barrio. . . . Brandishing weapons, the invaders rounded up many of the young adults in the crowd and forced them onto the trucks. Some ‘paras’ wore ski-masks; many did not. Some witnesses claimed the attackers appeared to be high on drugs. The attackers then proceeded to five other nearby slum areas, grabbing more youths. When it was over, at least a dozen bodies had been dumped along roadsides; another 31 to 42 persons are reported to be missing.”

The Barrancabermeja massacres are part of an active pattern of collaboration between the military and paramilitaries nationwide, 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 identify of the individual(s) responsible for committing them. This problem with identifying the perpetrators is often insurmountable,” he wrote in Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy. “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.” 

In recent years, as human rights atrocities attributed to paramilitaries have risen, abuses by uniformed Colombian troops have been relatively unusual. Still, there continue to be accusations. On Dec. 13, 1998, a bomb exploded in Santo Domingo, in Arauca province, killing at least 19 civilians, including children. The army had been fighting FARC guerrillas less than three miles from the hamlet and claimed that the explosion was caused by a car bomb planted by the FARC guerrillas. But Colombian government aircraft were seen flying overhead at the time. And an FBI investigation, done at the Colombian government’s request, showed that bomb fragments were consistent with “a twenty (20) pound United States designed AN-M41 fragmentation bomb and fuze [sic]”—materiel provided by the United States to the Colombian air force in a 1997 aid package. 

On other occasions, troops have been accused of intimidating human rights advocates. On May 13, 1998, following the assassination of Defense Minister Fernando Landazabal Reyes, 15 Colombian army members of a U.S.-trained counterterrorist unit called the Fuerzas Especiales Anti-Terroristas Urbanas (AFEAU) raided the Bogotá offices of the Comision Intercongregacional de Justicia y Paz, a highly regarded human rights monitoring group with many Roman Catholic nuns on staff. During the raid, soldiers filmed and harassed nuns and brought along computer experts to break into the organization’s electronic files, which contained Colombia’s largest database of human rights violations—including information on witnesses. The deputy attorney general, Jaime Cordova Triviño, said the raid was carried out after the 20th Brigade, then the central army intelligence bureau, claimed that ELN guerrillas had planned the assassination of Landazabal at an address that turned out to be the headquarters of Justicia y Paz. International outcry led to government scrutiny of the raid on Justicia y Paz. An inquiry concluded that the 20th Brigade had misled the AFEAU and contributed to the brigade’s dismantling. 

According to U.S. Defense Department records, the AFEAU completed training with U.S. Special Operations Forces between March 4 and April 20, 1998, just weeks before the raid. Among the topics covered in the training were combat skills, including marksmanship and sniper training, and, for the first time, human rights. 

Troops trained by U.S. Special Forces personnel were also implicated in another human rights violation, one that, unlike the raid on the offices of Justicia y Paz, had deadly consequences. In July 1997, AUC paramilitaries killed 49 people over a five-day rampage in the town of Mapiripán, in an eastern jungle region. Civilian prosecutors accused AUC paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño and Colombian Army Col. Lino Sánchez of being the intellectual authors of the crime and charged both with murder. Sánchez remains in a civilian prison—a rarity for Colombian military officers – and Castaño remains at large. Only a month before the massacre, men under Sánchez’s command were trained by a team of U.S. soldiers from the 7th Special Forces of Fort Bragg at Barrancón island, a permanent U.S. Special Forces training site located about 45 miles upriver from Mapiripán. Paramilitary killers from northern Colombia began arriving in the area five days before a celebration marking the end of the training mission. They landed in two airplanes at San José del Guaviare—a military air base used by U.S. civilian pilots who fly coca leaf-spraying missions and a common destination for U.S. military personnel. Some of them boated from San Jose down to Mapiripán, passing along the way through a Colombian military checkpoint at Barrancon. 

The Bogotá daily El Espectador reported that the goal of the attack was to reverse control of the Mapiripán area, a coca growing region, from the guerrillas to paramilitary forces. A report by Colombia’s Counternarcotics Police Intelligence Office stated that Sánchez introduced paramilitaries into the zone in order to “teach the guerrillas a lesson.” Two days after El Espectador’s report, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for special operations, Brian Sheridan, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations: “Obviously our people do not teach torture. They do not teach massacres. They teach human rights in every single class.” Nonetheless, the report prompted an inquiry by Leahy, a member of the Senate’s Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and longtime proponent of linking U.S. military aid to improved human rights conditions. In a March 30, 1998, letter to Leahy, Barbara Larkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said “that U.S. personnel involved in counternarcotics programs at San Jose [del Guaviare] remember seeing an unusual number of Army personnel at the airport on the day in question”–the day that the paramilitaries allegedly landed at the airfield. Pentagon documents provided to Leahy gave contradictory information on whether U.S. personnel were present at Barrancon when the paramilitaries passed through.

U.S. interest in the case might have helped persuade Colombian judicial authorities to pursue prosecutions. In February 2001, for the first time, a military court convicted a Colombian general for a crime involving human rights violations. Gen. Jaime Uscategui, commander of the army’s 7th Division, was convicted of charges that he failed to stop the massacre in Mapiripán, but was acquitted of homicide charges, and sentenced to 18 months in his barracks. However, the Colombian colonel who blew the whistle on the military’s role in the Mapiripán massacre was sentenced by a military tribunal to 40 months in military prison for not acting to prevent the massacre.