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HRW Letter to Gen. Fernando Tapias Stahelin

Washington, D.C., April 4, 2000

Gen. Fernando Tapias Stahelin
Armed Forces of Colombia
Av. El Dorado CAN Carrera 52
Santafé de Bogotá, COLOMBIA
Via Fax: [57](1)222-2935

Dear General Tapias:

It is my pleasure to write to you in response to your March 1 letter to Senator Mitch McConnell, a copy of which was sent to me by Ambassador Luis Moreno. In it, you explained your reaction to the publication of a recent Human Rights Watch report called "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links."

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COLOMBIA: The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links

I wish to revisit some of the issues you raised in the interest of correcting the record. As I have said to you personally, I believe that Human Rights Watch and the Colombian Armed Forces have maintained a productive, though at times difficult communication regarding human rights in Colombia. I value that communication, and I hope that we can continue to share our concerns as well as our information in the interest of furthering the protection of human rights in Colombia.

Besides making reference to the letter, I would also like to highlight several statements made by yourself and the Colombian Army officers under your command regarding Human Rights Watch and specifically my work with that organization.

First, I must take issue with the personal attacks directed against myself and the false and inflammatory suggestions made against Human Rights Watch, an organization that I believe maintains the highest standards of research and accountability.

Most notably, the Colombian Armed Forces General Command maintains on its official Web Site a text that directly accuses Human Rights Watch and American embassy personnel of forming part of a "strange and shameful alliance" with a criminal drug trafficking cartel and that their goal is to "discredit(ing) Colombia's military forces." The text asserts that an American embassy official is a liar. By featuring these baseless accusations on its official Web Site, Colombia's Armed Forces implicitly endorses these spurious views.

These views are in direct contradiction to your stated commitment to human rights. This text remains available at the following address:

In your interview with Caracol Radio on February 23, you ask a rhetorical question that leaves listeners little doubt that you give credence to the accusation featured on the Armed Forces General Command Web Site. Indeed, we subsequently received telephone calls from several journalists seeking a reaction to the charge -- which they said was made by the commander of the Colombian Armed Forces -- that Human Rights Watch was in the pay of drug traffickers.

According to the transcript you forwarded to Senator McConnell of your reaction to the Human Rights Watch report, you had the following reaction to the Human Rights Watch report:

"Now, what I ask myself is why is it that the fight against drug trafficking is so uncomfortable for some people or some organizations... why is there so much interest in not combating drug trafficking? I remember back in the times of the cartels when an attempt was made to pass tough laws against traffickers they moved heaven and earth, they moved every institution, (so) it is logical that when we now have a determined campaign against drug trafficking and the possibility that this would be the beginning of the end of drug trafficking, [the cartels] are also moving everything that they can move to make sure it doesn't happen." (emphasis added)

During the same broadcast, Gen. Jorge Mora claimed that I earned a "very high salary in the United States" for attacking the armed forces, a clear insinuation of illegal activity without any basis in fact. General Mora also asserted that my work in Colombia was not performed out of a genuine concern for human rights, but for less savory reasons, saying, "I don't know what the motives of Mr. Vivanco are to prevent a fight against drug trafficking in Colombia." (emphasis added)

In a separate response not included in the transcript but which I heard first-hand as I waited to respond, Gen. Mora added that I was paid "millions and millions of dollars" to block the anti-drug package currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress. Of course, he had no evidence to cite to support this outrageous claim since it is patently false.

Other generals quoted in the Colombian media on February 24 echoed these false accusations.

Gen. Eduardo Herrera Verbel, commander of the Fourth Brigade, told the newspaper El Colombiano that "It would be interesting to know what Mr. Vivanco's dark motives are to attack the prestige of the Colombian state and its armed institutions." General Herrera was mentioned in "The Ties That Bind," since he was commander of the Fourth Brigade when Major David Hernández, implicated in the murder of former peace counselor Alex Lopera, was apparently allowed to escape his supposed prison in 1999.

Gen. Jaime Ernesto Canal told the Cali-based El País that "there must be dark interests seeking to prevent the United States from helping us in the war against drug trafficking." General Canal was also mentioned in "The Ties That Bind." Colombian government investigators and Human Rights Watch interviews include compelling, detailed information that in 1999, the Colombian Army's Third Brigade under General Canal's command set up a "paramilitary" group in the department of Valle del Cauca, in southern Colombia. The investigators identify this group by its self-imposed name, the Calima Front (Frente Calima), and told Human Rights Watch that they were able to link the group to active duty, retired, and reserve military officers attached to the Third Brigade along with hired paramilitaries taken from the ranks of the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU), commanded by Carlos Castaño. According to these government investigators as well as eyewitness testimony obtained by Human Rights Watch, the Third Brigade provided the Calima Front with weapons and intelligence.

In your interview with Caracol, you characterize our report as intended to "block" any military aid to Colombia. That is not correct. The report clearly states that any security assistance sent to Colombia should be conditioned on the strict observance of human rights. Given your stated commitment to upholding human rights within the institution you lead, I believe you should embrace these conditions and the opportunity to demonstrate publicly that Colombia's commitment to improving its human rights record goes beyond press statements.

Finally, I would like to respond to affirmations made to me in person by several Colombian military officers that "The Ties That Bind" failed to give sufficient credit to the military for investigating the cases involving the Fourth and Thirteenth Brigades.

Our information shows that far from aggressively investigating these cases and ensuring that those responsible were punished in civilian courts as the law demands, the military did not pay attention to reports of abuses until the National Police and Attorney General's office had developed convincing evidence pointing to the involvement of military officers. Indeed, it was only after the police captured some of the kidnapers and obtained information that led them to exhume businessman Benjamín Khoudari's body that the military began its investigation.

Inaction on the part of the military is particularly evident in the case involving the Fourth Brigade, which delayed years in arresting officers like Major David Hernández, implicated in multiple cases of serious human rights violations.

In both the Fourth and Thirteenth Brigade cases, several of the officers arrested have left the military prisons where they were said to be kept. For instance, military authorities gave Sergeant Juan José Mosquera, implicated in the kidnaping and murder of Khoudari, a pass to leave the Grupo Mecanizado Rincón Quiñonez, administered by the Thirteenth Brigade. He never returned. According to our information, this soldier may have been linked formally to at least twelve other murder investigations, yet was allowed to freely come and go from an army installation.

After the escape of Major Hernández, mentioned above, Major Diego Fino left the Fourth Brigade just this March, in circumstances that remain unclear. As we noted in "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links," the Attorney General's office has linked this officer to the 1999 murder of Alex Lopera. At the time, Major Fino commanded the "Juan del Corral" Battalion.

I look forward to moving beyond the kind of personal and baseless attacks that do nothing to address the serious human rights challenges that lie ahead for Colombia. As always, we welcome the opportunity to address substantive issues with you.



José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director

cc: Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Patrick Leahy
President Andrés Pastrana
Amb. Luis Moreno
Vice President Gustavo Bell
General Jorge Mora
Defense Minister Luis Ramírez
Attorney General Alfonso Gómez Méndez
Procurador Jaime Bernal
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Amb. Thomas Pickering
Amb. Peter Romero
Amb. Harold Koh
Rand Beers, INL
Sandy Berger, National Security Council
Arturo Valenzuela, National Security Council
Eric Schwartz, National Security Council
General Charles Wilhelm, U.S. Southern Command
Brian Sheridan, Defense Department
General Barry McCaffrey, ONDCP
Interested members of Congress