Plan Colombia Aid and the Paramilitaries

In January of 2001, in a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, one of the top aides to then-U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson ridiculed the idea that any of the weapons or equipment given to the Colombian military as part of Plan Colombia could wind up in the hands of the right wing paramilitaries of the AUC.

Events this week reveal the deceitfulness or naïveté of her comments, and reflect a long-standing pattern of U.S. military collaboration with Colombian paramilitaries going back to the 1960’s. As Dan Feder reported in these pages today, and The New York Times reported yesterday, earlier this week, Colombian authorities arrested Allan Tanquary and Jesus Hernandez, with either 32,000 or 40,000 rounds of ammunition. According to Juan Forero of the Times:

“Authorities said the two had been in contact with a former Colombian Police Sgt. Will Gabriel Aguilar, who has been linked to paramilitary groups. Aguilar, another retired policeman and two other Colombians were also arrested, police said. The ammunition had been sent to Colombia by the United States under its Plan Colombia aid program.”

The two are now in U.S. custody and are being flown back to the United States.

While this is the first documented case of weapons supplied for Plan Colombia apparently being funneled directly to the paramilitaries, it certainly is not the first case in which U.S. aid has been implicated in paramilitary activity. A short and by no means exhaustive catalog of such cases follows:

-- In February of 1962, General William Yarborough led a U.S. Special Forces delegation to Colombia, which recommended the formation of armed paramilitary groups to counter “subversion.” His report suggested:

“[A] Concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view toward development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.”

It should be noted that this report pre-dates the formation of either the ELN or the FARC, the two guerilla groups the paramilitaries were supposedly formed to combat. Michael McClintock writes in his seminal history of U.S. counterinsurgency, Instruments of Statecraft, that “The principal recommendations of the 1962 mission were subsequently adopted in the Colombian military’s comprehensive counterinsurgency plan, the Plan Lazo, adopted at the end of 1962 and continued through 1965. The programs that followed combined guerrilla and counterguerrilla warfare, and involved both counterterror and counterorganization.”

-- In the late 1970’s, a group of Colombian military officers formed a group called American Anti-Communist Action (AAA), which carried out a series of bombings against a range of civilian targets in Bogotá, including the offices of left-leaning newspapers and magazines. Fr. Javier Giraldo, SJ wrote in his now out of print Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy that:

“The names of the officials who were charged with these deeds would later on be familiar to the majority of Colombians, since they received all of the promotions and military honors possible and occupied the highest offices and responsibility in the hierarchy of the Colombian Armed Forces.”

Among these officers was Mario Montoya Uribe, who would later go on to be the first head of the U.S. funded counter-narcotics brigade in Putumayo.

As I reported in Milenio Semanal two years ago:

“Montoya was selected in 1983 for training at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, then located in Panama. [...] In 1993, the year after Montoya was publicly accused of being involved in the 1978-79 AAA bombing campaign, Montoya, then a Lieutenant Colonel returned to the SOA as an instructor.”

Years later, U.S. Ambassador Curtis Kamman would approve putting Montoya in charge of the U.S.-funded Joint Task Force South, because he wasn’t sure that the bombings constituted a “gross human rights violation.”

-- In 1991, the CIA and the Defense Department assisted the Colombian military in the creation of new intelligence networks that included paramilitary groups. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report concludes that

“In 1991, the military made civilians a key part of its intelligence-gathering apparatus. Working under the direct orders of the military high command, paramilitary forces incorporated into intelligence networks conducted surveillance of legal opposition political figures and groups, operated with military units, then executed attacks against targets chosen by their military commanders. Human Rights Watch has also documented the disturbing role played by the United States in support of the Colombian military. Despite Colombia’s disastrous human rights record, a U.S. Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency team worked with Colombian military officers on the 1991 intelligence reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas.”

-- In 1997, paramilitaries carried out a brutal massacre in the village of Maprirpan. Ignacio Gomez Garcia, reporting for El Espectador, later discovered that U.S. Special Forces were training Colombian troops at the military base the paramilitaries passed through on their way to Mapiripan. According to a May 30, 2000 story on Democracy Now:

“Just a few miles away from Mapiripan is a military base built by the United States and used by the US Special Forces for anti-narcotics training. The death squad sent by paramilitary leader Carlos Castano was allowed to land at an airstrip controlled by the Colombian military, and passed through the military base on their way to Mapiripan. On July 12, 1997, over 100 paramilitaries surrounded Mapiripan. By the time they left the village on July 20, almost 50 people were dead - perhaps many more. The total may never be known because the victims were dismembered and their bodies thrown into the nearby river. The paramilitaries would wait until nightfall, cut off the town’s electric generator and knock on doors looking for victims. Then they would hang their victims from meat hooks and cut off their limbs with chainsaws while they were still alive. Despite repeated calls from the local judge to the nearby military base, Colombian troops did not arrive in Mapiripan until well after the massacre was over.”

-- The first Colombian army units to receive funding under Plan Colombia, the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions under the command of the aforementioned Gen. Montoya, shared resources, intelligence, and equipment with the 24th Brigade of the Colombian Army which was officially banned from receiving U.S. military aid because of its known paramilitary links. To quote again from my 2002 report in Milenio Semanal:

“In January, 2001, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson told me that the black-listing of the 24th Brigade insured that units with links to paramilitaries in Putumayo would not have access to U.S. military aid. But in July, 2001, the Center for Public Integrity reported that: ‘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.’ In addition, a recently declassified diplomatic cable sent by Patterson’s predecessor, Curtis Kamman, the previous June, reported that the U.S.-funded First Counternarcotics Battalion was ‘bedding down’ at the headquarters of the 24th Brigade’s 31st Battalion in Santa Anna just outside Puerto Asis and that the two units were sharing facilities and intelligence.”

In its 2001 Annual Report, Human Rights Watch charged that:

“On their first joint deployment in December 2000, [the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions] depended heavily on the army’s Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance, particularly with regard to intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations. Yet there was abundant and credible evidence to show that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo. Indeed, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormiga -- a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable”

-- In January, April, and May of 2003, soldiers from the Navos Pardo Battalion of the Colombian Army, based in Saravena where U.S. Special Forces are permanently stationed, put on AUC armbands and carried out a series of attacks against the community of Betoyes, culminating in the rape of three teenage girls and the rape, murder, and mutilation of a pregnant 16 year old. The attacks are detailed in an excellent article by Eric Fichtl in Colombia Report. In June of 2003, a U.S. Embassy official told me that the Eighteenth Brigade, of which the Navos Pardo Battalion was part, would continue receiving U.S. military aid because the people of Betoyes hadn’t cooperated with an investigation of the attacks carried out by the Colombian military and the U.S. Embassy.

In the days to come, the Pentagon and the State Department will do everything theu can to distance themselves from the actions of Seargeants Tanquaray and Hernandez. We need to put their actions in context and make clear that U.S. support for the paramilitaries is the rule, not the exception.

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About Sean Donahue

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Sean Donahue is a poet, healer, activist, and freelance journalist wandering through New England.