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The failure to prosecute a top Colombian army general accused of working with illegal paramilitary groups shows continuing flaws in the Attorney General’s office, Human Rights Watch said today.

This week, Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio announced that he would not file charges against General Rito Alejo del Río. A cashiered army officer, Del Río had been under investigation for alleged links to paramilitaries while he commanded the 17th Brigade, located in northern Colombia, between 1995 and 1997.

“The first thing that Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio did upon assuming office in 2001 was fire the prosecutors who had gathered enough evidence to arrest Del Río for these serious crimes,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “That purge of prosecutors was only the beginning of a marked trend in the Attorney General’s office of hampering or derailing cases that implicate top military and paramilitary leaders.”

Within seventy-two hours of taking office, Osorio had demanded the resignations of two high-ranking, veteran officials who had handled some of the institution’s most important and complex human rights cases, including this one. A third official felt compelled to resign in response to the attorney general’s actions. Subsequently, the prosecutor who had ordered General Del Río’s July 2001 arrest was forced to flee Colombia because of threats on her life.

Prosecutors had gathered evidence linking Del Río to support for paramilitaries who had attacked villages, executed local civic leaders, and provoked mass displacement and severe hardship for thousands of residents in the Urabá region. According to one soldier interviewed by government prosecutors, General Del Río had ordered his troops to patrol with paramilitaries and take measures to disguise paramilitary killings as casualties of combat between the army and guerrillas.

The evidence was compelling enough to prompt then-President Andrés Pastrana to cashier Del Río in 1998. The U.S. government also canceled his visa to the United States in July 1999, on the grounds that there was credible evidence that implicated him in “international terrorism,” drug trafficking, and arms trafficking.

“The Del Río case is one of the most important in Colombia, since it alleges widespread collusion between the Colombian army and paramilitary groups,” said Vivanco.

Human Rights Watch said the paramilitary coalition known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is currently on the U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Three of its leaders have been indicted in the United States for drug trafficking.

The Attorney General has publicly questioned the testimonies of two former security force officers who claimed to have intimate knowledge of illegal activities by Del Río. In both cases, there is ample evidence that corroborates the testimonies, but this evidence has been discounted by Osorio.

“The Procuraduría should immediately name a special investigator to examine the Attorney General’s actions, which we believe may be in violation of Colombian law,” said Vivanco.

Vivanco noted that under Osorio’s leadership, the Attorney General’s office has been rocked by corruption scandals, including reports of infiltration by paramilitaries, guerrillas, and drug traffickers. Over the past six weeks, three top officials – the national director, the replacement national director, and the head of the Witness Protection Program — have been forced to resign or have been transferred because serious questions were raised about their integrity.

Under international law, Colombia has an obligation to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses. Progress on human rights cases is also critical in determining whether Colombia is meeting the conditions that currently regulate U.S. military aid. Since 2000 the United States has invested over $25 million in the Attorney General’s office.

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