The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States

November 1996, ISBN: 1-56432-203-3



Before dawn on April 6, 1995, Wilson Jose Caceres set out from his home in Sabana de Torres, a municipality in Colombia’s Magdalena River valley. Caceres, a community leader, founding member of the Sabana de Torres Community Movement, and human rights activist, was a candidate for mayor on the ticket of the Popular Peasant Worker Movement, a local political group. Along with eleven others, Caceres had been included on a death list then reported to be circulated in the name of the Peasant Self-Defense Group of Colombia (Autodefensas Campesinas de Colombia, ACC), a paramilitary group. In Colombia, paramilitary has come to mean a clandestine organization of armed men, which can include active duty and retired military officers, who work in partnership with the security forces. Like Caceres, several of those reportedly named had been active in promoting human rights.

Despite the threat, Caceres continued his campaign and human rights advocacy, and had volunteered to help contact local people who could give testimony to the Human Rights Watch mission that began our work on this report. Driving his white motorcycle and wearing a red cap, Caceres stopped that afternoon at his family’s farm, where he worked. It was the last time anyone is known to have seen him alive. His cap was later found on the Panamerican highway.

Wilson Caceres remains missing.

In 1989, Human Rights Watch wrote that although we could not prove that Colombia’s military high command directly ordered paramilitaries to commit atrocities, it should be obvious that their response to these atrocities “to close ranks and avoid and frequently to obstruct any serious investigation” compromised their obligation to uphold the rule of law. We concluded that the failure to investigate and prosecute military officers who have joined with paramilitaries to commit murders and mass murder indicated, at the very least, that their superiors had chosen to tolerate these crimes.

Today, however, we can say much more. Far from being punished, the junior and mid-level officers who tolerated, planned, directed, and even took part in paramilitary violence in Colombia in the 1980s have been promoted and rewarded and now occupy the highest positions in the Colombian army. To be sure, a few, linked to well-publicized cases, have been forced into retirement or dismissed. But many more have been awarded medals for distinguished service and lead Colombia’s troops.

As commanders, they have not only promoted, encouraged, and protected paramilitary groups, but have used them to provide intelligence and assassinate and massacre Colombians suspected of being guerrilla allies. In fact, many victims community and peasant leaders, trade unionists, and human rights monitors among them have no ties to guerrillas, but have been trapped in a conflict where few wear uniforms or admit their rank.

Human Rights Watch has chosen to use the word “paramilitary” deliberately, to mean armed civilians and civilian groups working for or in partnership with the military. Over the past two decades, paramilitaries have been tied to thousands of forced disappearances, murders, cases of torture, and death threats. In 1995, almost half of all acts of political violence where a perpetrator was identified were attributed to paramilitaries.

Human Rights Watch has obtained evidence, including the heretofore secret Colombian military intelligence reorganization plan called Order 200-05/91 and eyewitness testimony, that shows that in 1991, the military institutionalized the key role of civilians in its intelligence-gathering apparatus. This report devotes special attention to this reorganization, which in
essence adopted the military-paramilitary model developed in Colombia’s Middle Magdalena region. 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. This report details how an intelligence network organized by the navy in compliance with Order 200-05/91 was responsible for dozens of extrajudicial executions in Barrancabermeja.

The military-paramilitary partnership is a fact of life throughout Colombia. Human Rights Watch has learned that collaboration between military intelligence, division, brigade, and battalion commanders, and paramilitaries continues, as laid out in Order 200-05/91. Based on our interviews with witnesses and former participants, the government’s own investigations, and abundant material collected by human rights groups and journalists, we believe that the military high command continues to organize, encourage, and deploy paramilitaries to fight a covert war against those it suspects of support for guerrillas.

In our case study on the northern Magdalena region, we show how the military has armed and equipped paramilitaries and patrolled with them. In some cases, the military has apparently moved paramilitaries around the country to carry out political killings. Although the army denies conducting surveillance of political parties and elected officials, we present evidence demonstrating that the surveillance of legal political groups appears to be among the prime duties assigned to military intelligence, which has apparently used paramilitaries to gather information and later act on it by threatening and killing people. In one interview, a retired army major described paramilitaries as the “principal source” of army intelligence. “These people live in the region and have contacts with both their own side and with the enemy,” he told us. “In fact the principal action of the paramilitaries is [to collect] intelligence, in addition to serving as an extermination group.”

Even though government investigators have repeatedly identified paramilitary training camps, they continue to function even when they are close to military bases. When fully armed and equipped paramilitaries pass these same bases, rather than arresting them or seizing their illegal weapons, the Colombian military routinely lets them pass, acting only when it is time to collect the bodies left behind.

But these activities represent only half of the military-paramilitary partnership in Colombia. Fundamental is what we call the “strategy of impunity”: how the deeds of officers who ally with paramilitaries, brought to light again and again by the government’s civilian investigators, are systematically covered up by the military justice system, allowing these same officers to return to the field and continue their work of organizing, directing, and deploying paramilitary groups. The military high command is complicit in paramilitary atrocities and should be held accountable for them.

Human Rights Watch has also documented the disturbing role played by the United States in the military-paramilitary partnership. Despite Colombia’s disastrous human rights record, a U.S. Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) 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. Eyewitnesses have linked the new network run by the Colombian navy to the murders of at least fifty-seven people in and around the city of Barrancabermeja in 1992 and 1993, in incidents documented here.

In addition, U.S. military authorities have provided weapons ostensibly to fight drugs to Colombian military units with a record of serious and continuing human rights violations and has failed to establish appropriate screening mechanisms to ensure that U.S. aid is not used to commit these violations. According to a U.S. government report, U.S. military aid has gone to the First, Third, Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Brigades, Mobile Brigades One and Two, and the Tarqui, Jose Hilario Lopez, Numancia, Luciano D’Elhuyar, Ricuarte, Palace, and La Popa Battalions. All are implicated in serious human rights violations, including violations associated with paramilitaries, some described in this report.

Another U.S. government report revealed that in 1994 U.S. training and equipment went to Mobile Brigade One and the Fourth Division in Meta; the Third Brigade in Cali; the Fourth Brigade in Medellin; the Sixth Brigade in Ibague; the Eighth Brigade in Armenia, Valle; the Ninth Brigade in Neiva; the Eleventh Brigade in Antioquia; the Sixteenth Brigade in Yopal and Arauca; and three Special Forces units. All of these units are primarily devoted to fighting guerrillas and most have been implicated in human rights violations.

Since 1990, the year a U.S. commission of advisors drafted recommendations for Colombia’s military intelligence reorganization, U.S. weaponry provided to the Colombian army and navy has included 2,020 M9 pistols, 426 M16A2 rifles, 945 M60E3 machine guns, and 255 shotguns, as well as various military vehicles and communication equipment. The year 1991, when the Colombian military’s intelligence reorganization plan was implemented, was a banner one for U.S. arms shipments to Colombia: 10,000 M14 rifles, 700 M16 rifles, 623 M79 grenade launchers, 325 M60 machine guns, 26,000 60mm rifle grenades, 20,000 40mm rifle grenades, 37,000 hand grenades, 3,000 Claymore mines, and about fifteen million rounds of rifle ammunition.

Massacres committed by just one of the units that received U.S. military aid, the Palace Battalion, took the lives of at least 120 people since 1990, killings that remain largely unpunished. All told, at least twenty-four Colombian army units comprising a significant percentage of total troop strength have received U.S. weaponry ostensibly to fight drugs.

The potential abuse of U.S. military aid and weaponry by security force units that violate human rights has long been a concern shared by Human Rights Watch and other national and international groups. Congress sought in 1994 to separate U.S. assistance from Colombia’s notoriously abusive counterinsurgency effort by limiting military aid to units that engage “primarily” in counternarcotics operations. Congressional advocates of the 1994 restrictions had hoped to build a wall between counternarcotics units and units engaged in abusive counterinsurgency operations. In fact, the Colombian military does not have such counternarcotic units. Moreover, U.S. military assistance officials have made a virtue of their failure to distinguish between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency support by designating Colombia’s insurgents across the board as “narco-guerrillas” (other drug targets in Colombia are termed “narco-traffickers”). U.S. officials pointed to the “narco-guerrilla” phenomenon as vitiating the distinction between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics objectives, in so doing neatly sidestepping the intent of Congress to insulate the United States from Colombia’s dirty war.

Notwithstanding the efforts to blur Colombia’s counternarcotics and counterinsurgency efforts, the U.S. Military Advisory Group’s 1994 End-Use Monitoring Report published after the investigations identifying units implicated in human rights violations that had received U.S. aid certified that Colombia was in compliance with U.S. legislation limiting weapons sales and that “US assistance is being effectively employed against narcotics activities.”

Such inspections clearly fail to ensure that aid is not being used to commit human rights violations or by the units that commit them. They also fail to clearly show that the Colombian military does not transfer weapons provided by the United States to paramilitary forces. Nor have the U.S. teams that conduct these inspections made any measurable effort to inquire about ongoing human rights cases when visiting bases of publicly reported paramilitary activity.

Indeed, U.S. arms grants and sales to Colombia not only continue unimpeded, but are expected to reach a record level. The Pentagon estimates sales in FY 1996 at $84 million and in FY 1997 at $123 million the highest level ever.

Also, Colombian officers trained by the U.S. and employed as military instructors have been implicated in serious human rights violations, including massacres committed by combined military-paramilitary groups. In 1996, the United States deployed at least two teams of fifty-two U.S. Army Special Forces personnel to Colombia for two-month missions. Out of forty-nine deployments involving a total of 231 U.S. military and intelligence advisors scheduled for 1996, thirty-two deployments involving ninety-seven advisors were in support of the navy. They included the stationing of a U.S. navy intelligence officer with the Colombian navy in Santa fe de Bogota. The CIA Directorate of operations has also sponsored training for Colombian Special Force units.

Not all paramilitaries are intimate partners with the military. Clearly, others in Colombia including wealthy landowners and drug traffickers fund and direct private armies, which also commit acts of criminal and political violence. However, the military has not only created and deployed many paramilitary groups, but also allows virtually all of them to carry out political killings when it serves a common purpose, ridding the country of perceived guerrilla support.

Colombia’s military and paramilitaries are not the only forces that commit acts of political violence. In 1995, three guerrilla insurgencies were linked to over 300 political killings as well as kidnappings, indiscriminate attacks, and death threats. Although all of Colombia’s guerrillas have issued proclamations in support of international humanitarian law, in practice, none have consistently applied these standards, even when it comes to measures that would protect non-combatants. Human Rights Watch continues to condemn these violations and has called on the guerrillas to adopt measures to protect non-combatants.

It is time to clear the smokescreen of official denial and identify the military-paramilitary partnership for what it is: a sophisticated mechanism, in part supported by years of advice, training, weaponry, and official silence by the United States, that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it. The price: thousands of dead, disappeared, maimed, and terrorized Colombians.



Based upon the findings of this report, Human Rights Watch makes a number of recommendations to the Colombian government, the U.S. government, and the international community. Colombian President Ernesto Samper should exercise his power to immediately suspend high-ranking officers implicated in the military-paramilitary partnership and convene a special team headed by the attorney general (Fiscal de la Nacion) to investigate them. The Defense Ministry should fully cooperate by making these officers available for questioning. If merit is found to the accusations against them, these officers should be suspended from active duty pending the resolution of their cases and remanded immediately to civilian courts for prosecution.

In addition, the president should invite the attorney general to chair a joint government-non-governmental commission to investigate army units implicated in a pattern of organizing and promoting paramilitaries, including the Panther Task Force No. 27, Special Plan No. 7, the Bombona, Barbula, Rafael Reyes, Narino, Voltigeros, Palace, Jose Hilario Lopez, Ricuarte, and Luciano D’Elhuyar Battalions, the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Fourteenth Brigades, the First and Second Mobile Brigades, and the Fourth Division. Officers implicated in the military-paramilitary partnership should be suspended pending the results of the investigation. Measures designed to prevent future military-paramilitary activity should also be adopted. These should include a strict accounting of weapons, equipment (including radios), and supplies to certify that they are not being diverted to paramilitaries; clear and public directives prohibiting the recruitment, support, or collaboration with paramilitaries; a prohibition of using paramilitaries or individuals with a history of paramilitary activity as intelligence agents or informants; and quick, effective, and public punishment when military personnel violate these rules. We have also called on President Samper to convoke a special commission within the cabinet and including the presidential human rights counselor and a representative from the office of the High Commissioner on Peace to review all military manuals currently in use and revise them in a way that promotes a respect for human rights and the protection of non-combatants. These manuals should also be reviewed to ensure that they explicitly and clearly bar human rights violations and collaboration with paramilitaries.

In order to prevent this lethal pattern from repeating, President Samper should forward to Congress a reform of the military justice system that includes a narrow interpretation of the concept of “act of service,” preventing military tribunals from gaining jurisdiction over human rights violations like extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, and torture. Because of their evident partiality and the absence of due process guarantees, these tribunals should be limited to cases involving infractions of military discipline. President Samper should also present to Congress and fully support legislation that would make the act of forcible disappearance, defined as an unacknowledged arrest by the security forces, a crime punishable by law.

At the same time, the executive should clearly and forcefully resist military-backed attempts in Colombia’s Congress to reform the constitution to end civilian oversight of the armed forces. We also believe that the government can protect judges and fortify the courts without recurring to the curbs on due process that are part of the “public order system.” The public order system should be reformed to empower justices to aggressively pursue drug traffickers, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and military officers who commit human rights crimes, while safe-guarding those individuals’ right to a fair trial. Finally, the government should increase funding to the attorney general’s witness protection program, to allow prosecutors not only to protect those who testify against suspected drug traffickers and guerrillas, but also those whose testimony implicates security force members and paramilitaries accused of human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the United States to immediately suspend all military aid, arms sales, and military training to Colombia since it is clear that aid has supplied units implicated in gross human rights violations.

In particular, the United States should suspend the pending delivery of $169 million in Black Hawk helicopters, M60 machine guns, and ammunition sold to Colombia as well as the $40 million in helicopters, communications gear, and equipment provided free of charge under the special drawdown authority of Section 506 (a) of the Foreign Assistance Act. In addition, we urge the U.S. government to immediately suspend the visas of Colombian officers implicated in human rights abuses, including those stemming from the military-paramilitary partnership, pending the results of an impartial and public investigation by the Colombian attorney general.

Aid should not be resumed until the longstanding practices of gross and persistent violations of human rights by the Colombian armed forces and their paramilitary partners have ceased. At a minimum, the resumption of aid should be conditioned on the willingness of the Colombian government to implement effective measures to eliminate and prevent any form of support, cooperation, or collaboration between the military and paramilitary forces. Paramilitary forces should be dismantled and disarmed. The Colombian government must demonstrate the effectiveness of its legal mechanisms for investigating and disciplining, including through criminal sanctions, members of the military responsible for human rights abuses.

Specifically, the Colombian government must conduct full and public investigations and effective prosecutions on key cases, including the Trujillo massacre, the Barrancabermeja navy intelligence network, threats and attacks against human rights monitors in Meta, the Puerto Patino and Segovia massacres, and military-paramilitary activity in the Chucuri region.

The Colombian government must also conduct a full review of the armed forces’ progress on stopping human rights abuses, in particular the appropriate punishment of officers found responsible for violations. Any review must pay special attention to the units listed above and implicated in this report in a serious and continuing pattern of human rights abuses.

With the U.S. government considering significant increases in assistance to Latin American drug law enforcement efforts, it must commit itself to making protection of human rights an integral component of those efforts before resuming military aid to Colombia. It must ensure that U.S. counternarcotics funds, training, equipment, intelligence sharing, and other support do not contribute to or underwrite human rights abuses in the recipient countries. The U.S. should immediately adopt safeguards to ensure that any future aid, for whatever declared purpose, is not channeled to forces responsible for patterns of gross human rights abuse or otherwise contributes to the violation of human rights.

Current U.S. legislation on military assistance, including counternarcotics assistance, falls far short of the minimum standard necessary to protect human rights. U.S. legislators can no longer claim that limiting military aid and training to security force units engaged “primarily” in counternarcotics activities helps diminish support to abusive forces. If the Clinton Administration is serious about defending and promoting human rights, it must take immediate steps to ensure that no assistance goes to forces engaged in a systematic pattern of abuses.

Recognizing that this report raises many questions about CIA and U.S. military support for the reorganization of Colombia’s intelligence services and subsequent assistance to the Colombian armed forces, Human Rights Watch urges the U.S. to conduct an immediate, comprehensive investigation of security assistance since 1990 to Colombia. This would include an investigation of the U.S. military and CIA role in advising Colombia’s intelligence services; the extent to which U.S. officials had knowledge of or failed to pursue information on possible human rights violations by Colombian military and intelligence personnel and their paramilitary partners; and possible complicity in shielding military-paramilitary links from public scrutiny, thus shoring up the impunity that has allowed abuses to continue unabated. This investigation should include not just the human rights record of the military, but also inquire into the larger human rights record of paramilitary forces attached or associated in any way to the Colombian armed forces.

Information obtained by the U.S. in the course of counternarcotics intelligence gathering or other activities that indicates the possibility of human rights abuses should be turned over to the appropriate national public authorities. When the U.S. and Colombian Attorneys General renegotiate their agreement to share information on suspected drug traffickers, we strongly urge that these institutions also discuss the sharing of information gathered by the United States in the course of its counternarcotics operations, but which pertain to human rights violations and the military-paramilitary partnership.

All U.S. personnel overseas, including personnel with the U.S. military, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and CIA, should be immediately directed to report to appropriate Colombian and U.S. authorities any human rights abuses by Colombian military units about which they have information, regardless of the identity of the victim or perpetrator.

The Clinton Administration should seek legislation authorizing the incorporation of a human rights assessment in its annual drug “certification” report to Congress. That assessment would review the human rights implications of each country’s anti-drug programs and laws.

Finally, we urge the member states of the European Union to immediately suspend all military aid to Colombia, including training, services, and arms deliveries pending results of the measures and investigations detailed in our recommendations to the Colombian government, including the suspension of military officers implicated in crimes, the adoption of measures to end the military-paramilitary partnership, and investigations of specific units implicated in crimes. Human Rights Watch strongly supports the U.N. plan to set up a permanent office in Colombia under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and urges this office to make full and public reports on the human rights situation in Colombia.








The New Structure
The Barrancabermeja Network

The Northern Magdalena: A Case Study
Unconvincing Denials

The Strategy of Impunity
Impunity in Cases of Military-Paramilitary Actions
1. Segovia
2. La Honduras/La Negra
3. Trujillo
4. Riofrio
5. Meta
6. El Carmen y San Vicente de Chucuri



A. Colombian Armed Forces Directive No. 200-05/91
B. Colombian Police Report on the Puerto Patino massacre of 1/95
C. “List of FY 96 Deployments for USMILGP Colombia”
D. March 11, 1996 Letter from Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Frederick Smith to Senator Patrick J. Leahy

Human Rights Watch      November 1996      ISBN: 1-56432-203-3

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