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The “Sixth Division”: Military-paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia

IV. U.S. Policy

I think we will waive human rights conditions indefinitely.

- Senior U.S. Embassy official

U.S. officials in charge of supplying security assistance to Colombia are aware of this abundant and persuasive evidence of continued military-paramilitary links and the role these links play in egregious human rights violations. Repeatedly, President Bill Clinton and top cabinet members said publicly that breaking these ties and ensuring accountability for human rights crimes were among the most important goals of U.S. policy. As of this writing, this policy continues largely unchanged under President George W. Bush.

The U.S. Congress also expressed concern about connections between U.S. security assistance and human right violations by foreign security forces receiving that aid by passing, in 1996, the Leahy Provision. This provision is meant to prevent security assistance from going to human rights abusers and is not subject to a waiver.

Yet on August 22, 2000, President Clinton waived the human rights conditions that were an integral part of U.S. security assistance to Colombia. His signature meant that lethal weaponry, intelligence support, and counterinsurgency training supplied by the United States would flow to Colombia's military even as many of its units worked with the paramilitary groups responsible for massacres and widespread terror.

President Clinton said that the waiver was in the national security interest of the United States. Behind closed doors, administration officials added that strict enforcement of human rights law was impractical given the need to fight drug trafficking. At the same time, key officials engaged in a subtle, yet influential effort to minimize, avoid, or discount credible evidence of egregious human rights abuses by units receiving U.S. aid and training - evidence that, if acknowledged, would have obligated a cutoff of aid even with a presidential waiver in force.

Human Rights Watch disputes that the national security interest of the United States would be jeopardized by the enforcement of human rights conditions on U.S. security assistance to Colombia. The fight against criminals and human rights abusers depends on the rule of law. Ensuring that the law applies to all, including the individuals in uniform who foment human rights abuses, should be the shared goal of both the Colombian government and the United States.

Human Rights Watch acknowledges that the United States has sent some positive messages on human rights in Colombia. For instance, the annual country reports on human rights issued by the State Department continue to reflect a detailed and grim picture of the worsening human rights situation. As importantly, U.S. Amb. Anne Patterson has begun a long-overdue policy of speaking out on the human rights situation and expressing concern over specific cases. As this report notes, her timely telephone call to the army commander of a Barrancabermeja battalion over the Christmas holiday was a critical factor in spurring the Colombian authorities to act to address the paramilitary advance. She has also supported the UNHCHR in Colombia, speaking out on the importance of their work at critical moments.

Nevertheless, it remains clear that diplomatic expressions of support for human rights from U.S. officials have yet to translate into a policy that delivers real consequences for the Colombian government's failure to address its most pressing human rights problems.

The Leahy Provision

The U.S. Congress expressed its concern about U.S. security assistance and its impact on human rights worldwide by including a special amendment in the FY 1997 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. Named the "Leahy Provision" after its author, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the language was meant to prevent international anti-narcotics funds from going to members of foreign security forces who violate human rights. Specifically, the provision prohibits funds from being sent to any unit of a foreign security force if the U.S. Secretary of State has determined that there is credible evidence of gross human rights abuse by that unit and that no "effective measures" are being taken to bring those responsible to justice.302 [see appendix 3]]

In practice, it is often impossible to know the names of the individual security force members who are alleged to have committed violations. Therefore, U.S. officials apply the law by identifying the unit to which the individuals are assigned. When the Leahy Provision became law, the State Department interpreted the concept of unit to mean the smallest operational group that committed the offense.303 Applying this law to Colombia, the State Department has defined unit as a brigade, which consists of approximately 3,000 troops.304

Passed with bipartisan support, the Leahy Provision was later expanded to include other security assistance to foreign forces, including International Military Education and Training monies, Foreign Military Financing, and Export-Import Bank funds.305

In 1998, the U.S. Congress included a similar restriction in Section 8130 of the Defense Appropriations Act. This version of the Leahy Provision applied solely to training and modified the phrase "effective measures" to "necessary corrective steps." The Defense Department version also included a waiver for "extraordinary circumstances."306 Neither Leahy Provision covers Colombia-specific resources under the control of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). [see appendix 4 ]

The Leahy Provision applies to funds no matter which country is destined to receive them. So far, however, one country where this law has had broad impact is Colombia. In a decision praised by Human Rights Watch, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that she would instruct the State Department to apply the Leahy Provision as broadly as possible, and include munitions, weapons, and other equipment that was sent to Colombia before the Leahy Provision took effect.307

U.S. Aid to Colombia

For over four decades, the United States has trained, advised, and equipped Colombia's soldiers and police. Before the Leahy Provision became law, the United States routinely provided training and equipment to abusive Colombian Army units. In 1996 -- the year before the Leahy Provision became law -- an End-Use Monitoring report (EUM) filed by the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) noted that two of the Colombian Army units that received American weapons and munitions were the Fourth Brigade in Medellín, Antioquia, and the Seventh Brigade in Villavicencio, Meta. Both have notorious and extensive records of human rights abuses and collaboration with paramilitary groups.308

Among the materiel these units received from the United States were 700 M16A2 rifles, M60E3 machine guns, M9 pistols, shotguns, M79 grenade launchers, and 60 mm mortars.309 The following year, the EUM report acknowledged that, at best, the Colombian Army used this equipment for counterdrug operations only "50 percent of the time... with the remainder of the time performing security and public order missions."310

But aid levels remained relatively modest until 1998, when the Clinton Administration and the Colombian Defense Ministry began planning an entirely new battalion within the Colombian Army to fight drugs. To create it, U.S. officials deployed the bureaucracy in a way that allowed them to create the battalion without first gaining the approval of the U.S. Congress or risking a congressional suspension. Indeed, only a few aides and attentive members were briefed on plans for the proposed 950-troop battalion and the plan to deploy it to "push" into southern Colombia until the unit was fully trained and equipped at a cost of over $3 million.311

The United States began training the battalion in April 1999, using section 1004 funding provided by the Defense Department.312 Section 1004 does not require a consultation with the U.S. Congress, though the Pentagon briefed staff on the House and Senate authorizing committees in March 1999. By the following June, one company of the battalion was operational.313 The U.S. government supplied the battalion with lethal and non-lethal equipment through a Section 506 drawdown.314

Although this law requires the White House to give the U.S. Congress fifteen days' notice of a transfer, Congress cannot halt it. In late 1999, the U.S. Defense Department issued a "no-cost lease" that provided the battalion with eighteen Huey helicopters recently re-purchased from Canada, also a procedure that does not require consultation with the U.S. Congress.315

The first counternarcotics battalion was formally inaugurated on December 19, 1999, and deployed to Tres Esquinas shortly afterward.316 On May 24, 2001, the third of three counternarcotics battalions was formally inaugurated, and the three together compose the Colombian Army's first counternarcotics brigade.317


Also in 1999, the State Department began sharing sensitive, real-time intelligence on the guerrillas with the Colombian military -- again without consulting the U.S. Congress. At the time, officials told the Washington Post that they feared that the Colombian government might be "losing its war against Marxist-led insurgents." This represented a shift away from a long-standing policy that only limited intelligence could be shared with the Colombian Army and only when the information was directly related to counter-drug activities, reflecting a U.S. desire to avoid getting involved in counterinsurgency operations and concern over the possibility that the intelligence might be used to commit crimes or human rights abuses.318

A 1999 General Accounting Office report underscored the way that intelligence can be used for other purposes, including the kind of counterinsurgency operations that have been consistently linked to human rights violations and paramilitary groups. The U.S. Embassy, the report noted, "[does] not have a system to ensure that it is not being used for other than counternarcotics purposes."319

Intelligence-sharing is not covered by the Leahy Provision, even though its consequences for human rights are real. During the hunt for drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in 1992 and 1993, U.S. intelligence on the fugitive was shared with the Colombian security forces, which in turn coordinated its efforts with rival traffickers belonging to the Cali Cartel. In return, traffickers also provided intelligence on Escobar's whereabouts and habits to Colombian authorities. Government investigators told Human Rights Watch that several of the traffickers who took part in this exchange - members of the group calling itself People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Personas Perseguidas por Pablo Escobar, PEPEs) -- now lead and fund the AUC, among them Carlos Castaño and Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, known as "Don Berna."320

Emergency Supplemental

The U.S. Congress did not even debate the changed U.S. policy toward Colombia until a year after the first counternarcotics battalion was created and military intelligence was being provided directly to the Colombian security forces. In July 1999, Gen. (ret.) Barry McCaffrey, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), called for measures to save Colombia from what he termed a "near-emergency" situation created by the nexus between illegal narcotics and leftist insurgency.321

While some members of Congress had proposed new aid for Colombia, it was not until General McCaffrey's call of alarm that the House of Representatives began considering an Administration proposal for U.S. $1.3 billion in "emergency supplemental" aid. It continued the course that was already well established, to create new units within the Colombian Army to fight drugs, train existing units, and equip them with weapons, munitions, and vehicles, including Black Hawk helicopters.322

Despite the desperate human rights situation in Colombia, the White House's proposal for Colombia paid only lip service to promoting greater protection. It took concerned members of the U.S. Congress to introduce human rights conditions that required Colombia's military to break long-standing ties to paramilitary groups, prosecute those responsible, and actively pursue paramilitaries in the field. [ see appendix 5]

In contrast to the Leahy Provision, these conditions were specific to Colombia and were drafted to be consistent with existing Colombian law that was either ignored or routinely flouted by the Colombian military. On August 5, 1997, Colombia's Constitutional Court, the highest constitutional authority in the country, ruled that all cases involving alleged human rights violations, including those that involve security force personnel, must be heard by civilian courts.323

Both the White House and the Colombian government lobbied heavily against the conditions. As the House of Representatives prepared to vote on the bill, supporters of military aid managed to insert an amendment that allowed the president to waive the conditions by arguing that the provision of military aid was in "the national security interest."324 "You don't hold up the major objective to achieve the minor," Brad Hittle, spokesperson for ONDCP drug czar McCaffrey, said by way of explanation.325

On July 13, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the emergency supplemental, known as Public Law (P.L.) 106-246, that included $1.3 billion in aid to fight drugs in the Andes. Of that, $642 million was intended to train and equip two additional Colombian army battalions and provide the Colombian army and police with helicopters, communications equipment, infrastructure, weapons and other equipment.326

Of that total, $109 million was earmarked for human rights programs, judicial reform, and law enforcement and rule of law programs that could improve human rights protections.327 Yet as Human Rights Watch discovered on its January 2001 mission, even as millions in U.S. security assistance flow quickly to the Colombian military, funding for human rights remained stalled and, when it did arrive, inadequate given the emergency nature of abuses.

In 2000 and the first three months of 2001 -- a period of fifteen months -- the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit and advisers from the Internal Affairs agency received a measly U.S. $65,763 from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), half spent on flying prosecutors to the United States to learn about the American judicial system, a dubious pursuit given the unit's desperate need for vehicles, travel funds, and resources to protect threatened witnesses.328 That works out to less than the amount of U.S. military assistance spent in Colombia in only two hours of a single day.329

Waiving Human Rights

Lamentably, President Clinton wasted little time in waiving the human rights conditions placed there by a concerned U.S. Congress. On August 22, 2000, he signed a waiver allowing security assistance to be sent. The waiver applied to six of the seven conditions included in the Emergency Supplemental.

Earlier, the State Department had certified that President Pastrana satisfied the first condition by signing on August 17, 2000, Directive 01, which addressed civilian jurisdiction over human rights crimes.330

Human Rights Watch opposed both the waiver and the single condition certification, which we argued was based on a faulty reading of the directive language.331 In a joint submission to the State Department, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Washington Office on Latin America argued that Directive 01 was intended to comply only partially with Sec. 3201(1) (A) (I). That condition did not call for any directive, but one which directly addressed one of the foundations of impunity in Colombia. Therefore, anything short of full compliance should have resulted in a denial of certification.332

With one signature, the White House sent a direct message to Colombia's military leaders that overshadowed any other related to human rights. Put simply, the message was that as long as the Colombian military cooperated with the U.S. antidrug strategy, American officials would seek to waive human rights conditions.

Judged by the Colombian military's behavior in the field - not by rhetoric or public relations pamphlets - its leaders had no trouble understanding the U.S. government's message. Even as Colombia's military high command has set up new Colombian counternarcotics battalions that are scrubbed for human rights problems, military units in other areas where paramilitaries are present continue to actively coordinate with them.

The message that the United States does not take human rights seriously was underscored on January 18, 2001, when the White House announced that it would not issue a new certification or waiver required for the release of aid scheduled for disbursement in FY 2001.333 The argument made was convoluted, but added up essentially to a legal loophole, a way to skirt the law and continue to fund an abusive military while minimizing the political cost of publicly ignoring a worsening human rights situation.334

In interviews with Human Rights Watch, U.S. Embassy officials in charge of Plan Colombia agreed with our assessment that the Colombian government had not met the human rights conditions. At the same time, however, these officials said that they could not envision any human rights violation that would prompt them to recommend suspending U.S. military aid. "I think we will waive human rights conditions indefinitely," one U.S. Embassy official told Human Rights Watch.335

U.S. Embassy officials did express concern to Human Rights Watch over paramilitary violence and continued links between the military and paramilitary groups. "A break between the two has not happened yet," they conceded. "It's a long term process."336

There is little indication that the strategy established by the Clinton Administration will fundamentally change under President George W. Bush. Expressing his support for the Clinton Administration plan, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced to the U.S. Congress that he would seek another $400 million for Colombia for FY 2002, roughly equivalent to the amount Colombia received in 2000 and in 2001.337 In a hearing before the Senate subcommittee on foreign appropriations, Powell declined to say whether or not he would support continuing to waive human rights conditions.338

A Strategy of Evasion

The strategy of evasion began in 1998, when the United States first began vetting Colombian military units to receive training and funds to fight drugs. Predictably, the Colombian Army had the most difficulty clearing the Leahy Provision. In a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Curtis W. Kamman said that the first list of army units proposed by the Colombian Defense Ministry in September 1997 "was judged to be severely deficient."339

Unidentified U.S. officials later told the Washington Post that the Colombian Army had difficulty finding any units without a record of serious human rights violations. "The question is, is there anyone we can deal with out there?" the official told the reporter.340

In January and February 1998, the Colombian Defense Ministry resubmitted a list that was judged improved. After personnel for the first counternarcotics battalion were chosen, the next unit certified to receive U.S. training and assistance was the Eastern Specific Command (Comando Específico del Sur), based in Puerto Carreño, Vichada, approved on March 17, 1998. The Twenty-Fourth Brigade, based outside Puerto Asís, Putumayo, was certified the following June.341

The delay, Ambassador Kamman noted, was due to the brigade's need to transfer out the second of two officers accused of links to human rights abuses while assigned to other units. By November 1998, Ambassador Kamman noted in his letter to Senator Leahy, both the CES and the Twenty-Fourth Brigade had been provided with M-60 machine guns, first aid kits, and body armor.342

At the time, Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations protested the use of transfers to satisfy the Leahy Provision's requirement that "effective measures" be taken to promote justice. Far from promoting accountability and the rule of law, the practice simply allows the Colombian government to feature supposedly "clean" units eligible for U.S. aid while "dirty units" continued to operate normally. When the U.S. Congress approved the Leahy Provision as part of the FY 2000 Foreign Operations Act, it specified that "effective measures" means that individuals "face appropriate and timely disciplinary action or impartial criminal prosecution in accordance with local law," a rule that continues to be ignored.343

Between 1998 and 2001, eleven Colombian Army units were approved under the Leahy Provision, including the CES, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade, the Twelfth Brigade, the Colombian Army's Special Forces and School, the Army Aviation Brigade, the Forty-Ninth Jungle Battalion, the Joint Intelligence Center at Tres Esquinas in Caquetá, and the three counternarcotics battalions. In addition, all CNP counternarcotics units, the Colombian Air Force, the Colombian Navy, and the Colombian Marines were cleared to receive U.S. assistance.344

As Human Rights Watch discovered, the application of the Leahy Provision can be highly subjective if it threatens a unit considered key to U.S. strategy. U.S. Embassy officials openly acknowledge that the Leahy Provision is not applied in a consistent manner. "It is not an entirely consistent process," admitted one of the officials in charge of vetting. "We use different procedures for different units."345

In fact, if a unit is considered important enough to drug war objectives, Human Rights Watch discovered, the U.S. will violate the Leahy Provision in order to continue funding and training it.

An example is Combat Air Command No. 1 (Comando Aéreo de Combate No. 1), part of the Colombian Air Force. The State Department has never suspended this unit despite credible evidence that one of its helicopter crews committed a serious violation in the village of Santo Domingo, near Arauca, in 1998, by bombing a house where civilians had taken shelter.

The reason appears to be that Combat Air Command No. 1 has long been considered crucial to the war on drugs. In 1991, Air Command No. 1 received U.S. $4.7 million in aid from the United States. In September 1997, it was approved under the Leahy Provision to receive U.S. counternarcotics assistance. The UH-1H helicopter believed to have fired the fatal rocket was provided to the Colombian Air Force in 1989 as Foreign Military Sales assistance.346

Human Rights Watch has followed this case closely. To our knowledge, the Colombian Air Force never conducted an impartial, in-depth investigation either of the incident itself or the role and responsibility of senior officers before, during, and immediately following the alleged bombing, or into any possible cover-up or obstruction of justice. The military's reaction to the incident was to disseminate false or contradictory information and to deliberately mislead investigators. In addition, the Air Force commander, Gen. Héctor Velasco, strongly criticized the human rights groups demanding justice for the victims, openly equating them with guerrillas and drug traffickers.

The incident occurred on the morning of December 13, 1998, after over a day of combat around the village between the military and the FARC-EP's Tenth Front. At about 9:45 a.m., an explosion in Santo Domingo killed seven children. Twenty-eight eyewitnesses told local authorities that the explosion was the result of a rocket fired from a Colombian military helicopter. They said that the Colombian military dropped at least two other explosives in Santo Domingo. Eleven adults were also reported killed.347

In an internal Air Force report four days after the incident, the Air Force liaison officer reported to the Chief of Air Operations that a helicopter had carried and dropped bombs during the operation.348

During combat, the Colombian military acknowledged using American airplanes and munitions. The U.S. Embassy later clarified that all seven aircraft used by the Colombian Air Force in the operation were obtained from the U.S. Six came from the U.S. government under military assistance and sales programs, and one by commercial purchase from a private manufacturer.349

Colombian military spokespersons alleged that guerrillas had used civilians as human shields and had detonated a car bomb that killed civilians, a charge that the evidence simply does not support. Nevertheless, in a letter to Senator Leahy, Ambassador Kamman appeared to embrace this version by focusing exclusively on the military's own investigation into the incident but contrary to abundant eyewitness and forensic evidence.350

The Colombian Army closed its preliminary investigation (archivado, literally, "archived") on December 28, 1998. The U.S. Embassy nevertheless accepted this as constituting the "effective measures" required by the Leahy Provision, even though the State Department itself has consistently criticized the Colombian military for its well-known failure to fully investigate allegations, its cover up of incriminating evidence, and its dismissal of corroborated evidence when it contradicts the military's account.351

In a later communication with Human Rights Watch, a Pentagon official said that the Defense Department had decided not to suspend Combat Air Command No. 1 "because it is not USG policy to suspend assistance on the basis of allegations while awaiting investigation of the credibility of those allegations."352

Meanwhile, the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit collected forensic evidence that was reviewed by Colombian experts and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Both agreed that the remains of an American-made rocket were present in the samples. On May 1, 2000, the FBI confirmed that they had identified remains of a U.S.-made AN-M47 fragmentation bomb and fuze.353 Rockets of this type are routinely installed in launchers on Colombian Air Force helicopters and have been among the munitions sent to Colombia by the United States.354

As a result, the Attorney General's Human Rights unit recommended that the Colombian Air Force reopen its investigation and named the three members of the crew of Colombian Air Force helicopter UH-IH FAC 4407, Lieutenants Johan Jiménez Valencia and Cesar Romero Pradilla, the pilot and copilot, and flight technician Héctor Mario Hernández Acosta. However, the air force declared that ruling null the following September. The case continues to be heard before a military tribunal.355

Almost two years after the incident, Colombian Air Force Gen. Héctor Fabio Velasco filed a complaint of "calumny" (calumnia) against members of Humanidad Vigente, a local human rights group, and the Arauca-based "Joel Sierra" Regional Human Rights Committee, which is on-going. The charge is based on a poster that the groups sponsored that called for justice for the attack, which the groups attributed to the Colombian Air Force. The poster features a child's drawing of the attack, with black helicopters and yellow airplanes loosing bombs over the figures of Santo Domingo villagers.356

General Velasco also publicly attacked the Colombian human rights groups pressing for justice by equating them to guerrillas, a common tactic by military officers to discredit and threaten human rights defenders. In a letter, General Velasco accused the "Joél Sierra" Human Rights Regional Committee of acting in a "false, irresponsible, and capicious [sic]" manner by publishing a poster featuring the drawings of children who had survived the attack. "The defense of human rights," General Velasco added, "cannot be, and isn't, the legitimation of unjust and groundless accusations that only manage to awaken confusion and favor organized crime organizations that are also called the FARC-EP, UC-ELN, EPL, etc."357

Human Rights Watch does not consider in this case that the actions taken by the Colombian government to investigate the alleged abuse can possibly constitute the "effective measures" called for by U.S. law.

Nevertheless, this travesty of justice is considered, in the words of one U.S. Embassy official, "supplemental" and irrelevant to the status of Combat Air Command No. 1. By the end of 2000 -- twenty-four months after the incident -- no military personnel had been effectively investigated or disciplined for an incident that ended with seven children and eleven adults dead. Throughout that time, Combat Air Command No. 1 continued to be authorized to receive U.S. security assistance and training.358

Another way that the intent of the Leahy Provision is subverted is by allowing vetted units to mix, coordinate logistics with, and share the facilities of suspended units. When the suspended unit has a history of support for paramilitary groups, this is a recipe for disaster. Inevitably, relationships are forged and decisions made that directly link U.S. aid to human rights violations, precisely the reason why the Leahy Provision was made law.

This occurred in the case of the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions. On their first joint deployment in December 2000, these battalions depended heavily on the Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance. As this report details, there is abundant and credible evidence that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade has regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the Putumayo.

As noted above, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade was among the first units approved by the United States to receive U.S. aid and training. The reason why U.S. officials picked it is obvious. Located in the Putumayo, where most of Colombia's coca is grown, the brigade is ideally located to support anti-drug efforts. As the U.S. engagement in Colombia's war was being designed, the Twenty-Fourth Brigade was meant to be a key component of the Joint Task Force South (Fuerza de Tarea del Sur, FTS), the elite drug fighting force based at Tres Esquinas and created by U.S. advisers, funds, and political will.359

The newly-created counternarcotics battalions use regular army brigade bases for training, logistical support, and intelligence coordination. Once vetted, these brigades send their soldiers on FTS operations and in FTS vehicles, including in U.S.-supplied helicopters.360

After the Twenty-Fourth Brigade was vetted and cleared by the United States, however, evidence emerged that a 1998 accusation against the Twenty-Fourth Brigade was pending in Colombia's courts. Six months before the Twenty-Fourth Brigade was cleared to receive U.S. aid and training, the unit had been implicated in the extrajudicial execution of three Putumayo residents near San Miguel, Putumayo. On January 17, 1998, troops assigned to the Twenty-Fourth Brigade allegedly detained eight Colombians at a roadblock outside San Miguel, Putumayo. Five were allowed to continue, but soldiers detained Pablo Emilio Maya, Jorge Florencio Portilla, and Aldemar Velasco Ruiz. Locals heard gunshots, and the army later transported three bodies to the Puerto Asís hospital and presented them to the press as guerrillas killed in combat.361

The three were well known in the region, and family members quickly reported them as "disappeared." A later exhumation confirmed that the three supposed guerrillas were Maya, Portillo, and Velasco, and their bodies showed signs of torture.362

The Twenty-Fourth Brigade was suspended from receiving U.S. aid and training in October 1999 pending the results of this investigation. Although the case clearly involved allegations of a serious human rights violation, the military successfully fought for jurisdiction, in contravention of a Constitutional Court ruling.363 A Colombian military tribunal reportedly found no evidence of wrongdoing, and a final determination is pending.364

As a Human Rights Watch mission to Larandia, one of the FTS bases, revealed, however, the suspension proved no impediment to housing the First and Second counternarcotics battalions on facilities occupied and maintained by the Twenty-Fourth Brigade. Housing was only part of the support the Twenty-Fourth Brigade provided, according to Col. Blas Ortiz, the chief of staff of the Counternarcotics Brigade, which includes both battalions.

"During the December fumigations, both counternarcotics battalions were based at the Twenty-Fourth Brigade facilities in Santana, outside Puerto Asís," Colonel Ortiz told Human Rights Watch. "They also assisted us with intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations during the fumigation."365 Col. Ortiz noted that the Twenty-Fourth Brigade had also hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at facilities in La Hormiga - towns where paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable according to witnesses. As the colonel himself noted, the paramilitary presence around La Hormiga was notorious.366

Another way that the Leahy Provision is skirted is by differences in how individuals and units are vetted. An individual is vetted according to his or her record. Each time that individual is proposed for a U.S. program, the vetting is repeated and new information can be included in the review. However, once a unit is vetted, new personnel transferred into the unit are not screened.367

This has already caused serious problems and potential links between U.S. aid and training and soldiers implicated in human rights violations. For instance, in August 2000, the Colombian Defense Ministry submitted to the United States its periodic EUM report for human rights, a document that they claim contains updated information on Colombian security force personnel receiving U.S. military aid or training. According to the U.S. officials who saw this report, it noted that three non-commissioned officers transferred into the Twelfth Brigade - previously vetted and cleared to receive U.S. aid - were implicated in two pending cases of alleged human rights violations against them arising from their service in other units.368

As a result, the aid to the Twelfth Brigade was suspended in August 2000 because of the transfer in of officers with questionable records on human rights.369

Although there is no evidence that any "effective measures" were taken against these officers, aid to the Twelfth Brigade resumed on December 22, 2000. On January 22, 2001, U.S. Special Forces trainers began course work for Twelfth Brigade and Third Counternarcotics Battalion members at the brigade's headquarters at Larandia, Caquetá.

To our knowledge, the United States has implemented no measures to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. What appears likely, therefore, is that the Colombian military will continue to transfer personnel with questionable human rights records into vetted units, defeating the purpose of the Leahy Provision. "To catch these cases, we rely on the Ministry of Defense to give us a six-month report," Col. Kevin Higgins noted.370

State Department Spin

Finally, in its attempt to extract positive news out of an increasingly chaotic and bleak situation, the U.S. has begun to "spin" some news to create the appearance of progress on human rights when, in reality, there is none. One example is the State Department's reaction to a military tribunal's verdict in the Mapiripán case.

In July 1997, paramilitaries working with the Colombian Army killed more than thirty residents of Mapiripán, Meta. Leonardo Iván Cortés, a local judge and resident who witnessed the attack, tried to alert authorities, including the military, with urgent messages describing the macabre events that lasted a full five days. Over thirty people were reported killed.371 "Each night they kill groups of five to six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being tortured," Judge Cortés told the news weekly Cambio 16. "The screams of humble people are audible, begging for mercy and asking for help."372

Judge Cortés was later forced to leave Colombia with his family because of threats to his life. Dozens of others fled the village, joining Colombia's massive population of internally displaced.373

Subsequent investigations by civilian prosecutors showed that troops under Gen. Jaime Uscátegui's command welcomed paramilitaries who arrived by airplane at the San José del Guaviare airport, helped them load their trucks, and ensured that local troops who could have fought the paramilitaries were engaged elsewhere.374

The Attorney General's Human Rights Unit investigated the case, and concluded that troops under the command of Gen. Jaime Uscátegui maintained "a close relationship and communication" with the paramilitaries who carried out the massacre. "That communication could not just have been through low-ranking soldiers or junior officers without command control, but had to include high-ranking officers with the ability to order the movement of troops and the control of territory," the investigators noted in their bid to keep jurisdiction of the case.375

One of his subordinates later testified to the Attorney General's Office that General Uscátegui had ordered him to falsify documents to cover up his complicity.376 In August 1999, the Attorney General's office also charged Lt. Col. Lino Sánchez Prado, at the time commander of Mobile Brigade Two, of actually coordinating the massacre directly with paramilitaries.377

Nevertheless, Colombia's Superior Judicial Council sent the case to a military tribunal. These tribunals have a dense record of shielding high-ranking officers from accountability. On February 12, 2001, the military tribunal found the general guilty only of "erring by omission," or failing to act when informed of the massacre. The same tribunal acquitted Uscátegui of the much more serious charges of crimes against humanity, terrorism, lying and conspiracy. He was sentenced to forty months in prison, a little more than a month for each Colombian murdered in Mapiripán.

The subordinate who had testified against General Uscátegui, Col. Hernán Orozco, was sentenced to thirty-eight months in prison for "failing to insist" that a superior officer act. Orozco had petitioned to transfer his case to a civilian court, since he believed that he would not receive a fair trial before the military. "The desire to help the paramilitaries expand led my fellow officers to betray me and for the high command to give me the cold shoulder," he told the New York Times.378

The verdict demonstrated that high ranking officers who arrange and assist atrocities continue to be shielded by Colombia's military tribunals. In addition, Orozco's conviction sent a clear message to mid-ranking officers that they imperil their careers and face retaliation if they inform on their superiors. Colonel Orozco protested his sentence, arguing that he had spoken out about abuses as few other officers had and provided hard evidence and risked his life and his family's welfare to tell the truth. "They convicted me for informing on a general, and by extension, offending all generals."379

Curiously, the U.S. State Department "welcomed" the verdicts, which it described as "further progress in holding security force personnel accountable for violations of human rights."380 [ see appendix 6 ]

The State Department was required by law to file reports on Colombia's progress on improving human rights protections, including one submitted to the U.S. Congress's Appropriations Committees sixty days after P.L. 106-246 was signed into law. In the report, the State Department asserted that Colombia had "demonstrated an increased willingness" to dismiss from duty security force officers credibly alleged to have committed abuses or worked with paramilitary groups. Yet the report provided no evidence whatsoever to support that claim. Instead, the report cited dismissals that took place months before the law was even signed.381

Since President Clinton signed P.L. 106-246, Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single dismissal of a military officer or soldier on exclusively human rights grounds. To the contrary, as noted earlier in this report, hundreds of police and soldiers have been dismissed for reasons that remain unexplained. None have faced investigation or trial, and a significant number of those who were discharged have moved on to swell the ranks of the paramilitaries.

Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department has lauded these discharges as "a major step forward in promoting greater professionalism and accountability within the Colombian Armed Forces."382

302. P.L. 104-208.

303. Human Rights Watch telephone conversation with Tim Reiser, aide, Senate Committee on Appropriations, April 12, 2001.

304. Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. Embassy, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

305. Nina M. Serafino, "Colombia: Conditions and U.S. Policy Options," Congressional Research Service, October 7, 1999.

306. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a yearly bill that the U.S. Congress uses to establish, continue, or modify programs carried out by the Defense Department. The NDAA describes these programs' purpose, often adding limitations on their use, notification and reporting requirements, or maximum spending limits. Once the NDAA "authorizes" a program's existence, a separate piece of legislation - the Defense Appropriations Act - determines how much money the program will be able to spend in the upcoming year. This act was registered as P.L. 105-262. For more, see the web site maintained by the Center for International Policy at Nina Serafino, Colombia: Conditions and U.S. Policy Options," Congressional Research Service, RL30330, October 7, 1999.

307. Human Rights Watch interviews with senior U.S. Embassy officials, Bogotá, September 29, 1999.

308. For more on these units, see The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links (New York: Human Rights Watch, February 2000).

309. Aid was sent through a "draw down," a special power belonging to the executive to distribute materials from existing military supplies. Previously, the Colombian military had also received extensive training through the Joint Combined Exchange Training Program, administered by the Defense Department. This program was not governed by human rights conditions until 1998. "End-Use Monitoring Report," INL, U.S. Department of State, February 1997; U.S. State Department Press guidance, January 7, 1998; Douglas Farah, "U.S. Aid in Limbo as Colombian Army Fails to Provide Evidence on Rights Abuses," Washington Post, January 10, 1998; and Dana Priest and Douglas Farah, "U.S. Force Training Troops in Colombia," Washington Post, May 25, 1998.

310. "End-Use Monitoring Report," Bureau for International Narcotics Matters, U.S. Department of State, 1998.

311. Electronic mail communication with Adam Isaacson, Center for International Policy, September 19, 2000; and Department of Defense briefing with William S. Cohen, U.S. secretary of defense, and Rodrigo Lloreda, Colombian minister of defense, Cartagena, Bolívar, December 1, 1998.

312. Electronic mail communication with Clyde Howard, Country Director for Colombia and Panama, Defense Department, April 24, 2001.

313. Ibid; and "Drug Control: Narcotics Threat From Colombia Continues to Grow," U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO/NSIAD-99-136, June 1999.

314. Section 1004 had a one-time only reporting requirement attached in 2000. Section 506 allows the president to give up to $75 million annually in spare supplies to a foreign country to fight drugs. Section 1022 of the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act; and United States, White House, "Draft Working Document: FY99 506(a)(2) Drawdown List -- Requested Items," Memorandum, September 30, 1999.

315. Section 1004 allows the defense budget to be used for counter-drug training and several other types of equipment, base construction, and upgrades. The cost of this training is buried in the "counter-narcotics" line item in the defense budget, which is over $700 million, most of it for the cost of U.S. detection and monitoring. Electronic mail communication with Adam Isaacson, Center for International Policy, September 19, 2000.

316. Electronic mail communication with Clyde Howard, Country Director for Colombia and Panama, Defense Department, April 24, 2001.

317. T. Christian Miller, "Anti-Drug Crusade Marks Successes, New Graduates," Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2001.

318. The debate over the use of U.S. intelligence by the Peruvian and Colombian security forces on counternarcotics operations has gone on since the early 1990s. For more, see documents obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act at Douglas Farah, "U.S. Widens Colombia Counter-Drug Efforts Restrictions Loosened on Data Sharing," Washington Post, July 10, 1999.

319. "Drug Control: Narcotics Threat From Colombia Continues to Grow," U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO/NSIAD-99-136, June 1999, p. 21.

320. Human Rights Watch interview with senior government investigator, Bogotá, January 9, 2001; and "Ajuste de cuentas," Semana, Agosto 14 ,2000. For more on U.S. intelligence, Escobar, and the PEPES, see Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001).

321. David LaGesse, "$1 billion sought for drug war Colombian democracy at risk, U.S. official says," Dallas Morning News, July 7, 1999.

322. Larry Rohter, "With U.S. Training, Colombia Melds War on Rebels and Drugs," New York Times, July 28, 1999.

323. Sentence No. C-358/97.

324. "Colombia: U.S. Assistance and Current Legislation," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, June 16, 2000.

325. Ken Guggenheim, "U.S. May Make Colombia Concessions," Associated Press, July 21, 2000

326. Testimony of Rand Beers, Assistant Secretary of State for INL, before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, March 2, 2001.

327. For a breakdown of aid, see the website maintained by the Center for International Policy at

328. Electronic mail communications with the office of USAID-Bogotá, April 24-27, 2001; and Human Rights Watch interview with government prosecutor, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

329. In 2000 and 2001, a total of US$ 695.8 million in U.S. security assistance was spent in Colombia. Over two years - 720 days - that works out to just under US$ 1 million a day or US$ 40,000 an hour. For a breakdown of aid, see the website maintained by the Center for International Policy at

330. "Report On U.S. Policy And Strategy Regarding Counterdrug Assistance To Colombia And Neighboring Countries," in accordance with Section 3202 of the Military Construction Appropriations Act, 2001 (Public Law 106-246), President William J. Clinton, October 26, 2000.

331. On September 26, 2000, U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Edward M. Kennedy wrote Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to dispute the single certification.

332. Instead of basing himself on the Constitutional Court decision, President Pastrana used the new Military Penal Code, which specifically cites only three crimes as belonging before civilian courts, not military tribunals. These crimes are genocide, torture, and forced disappearance. This falls far short of the crimes considered "gross violations of human rights" required by the text of U.S. law. For more, see the joint submission at

333. State Department Daily Briefing, January 18, 2001.

334. For a detailed analysis of this decision, see the website maintained by the Center for International Policy, a nongovernmental organization that monitors security assistance, at

335. Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. Embassy officials, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

336. Ibid.

337. The plan includes $156 million for Bolivia and $101 million for Peru. Eli J. Lake, "Bush changing plan to fight drugs in Colombia," United Press International, March 15, 2001.

338. Transcript of the hearing before the Senate subcommittee on foreign appropriations, May, 2001.

339. Letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy from Amb. Curtis W. Kamman, November 17, 1998.

340. Douglas Farah, "U.S. Aid in Limbo as Colombian Army Fails to Provide Evidence on Rights Abuses," Washington Post, January 10, 1998.

341. Letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy from Amb. Curtis W. Kamman, November 17, 1998.

342. Ibid.

343. This clarification is contained in the report language prepared by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Human Rights Watch interview with Tim Reiser, aide, Senate Committee on Appropriations, May 6, 1998.

344. Human Rights Watch interview with senior State Department official, Washington, D.C., December 22, 1998; and "Drug Control: Narcotics Threat From Colombia Continues to Grow," U.S. General Accounting Office, GAO/NSIAD-99-136, June 1999, p. 20.

345. Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. embassy official, Bogotá, January 19, 2001.

346. Letter from U.S. Amb. Curtis Kamman to Sen. Patrick Leahy, December 30, 1998.

347. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ruth Estela Barbosa, personera, Tame, Arauca, December 17, 1998; and Human Rights Watch telephone interview with international observer, December 17, 1998.

348. Subsequent reports were apparently modified to omit mention of bombs or even the presence of the UH-1H helicopter believed to be responsible for the rocket launch. Testimonies of some of the eyewitnesses as well as a complete summary of the available forensic evidence were included in the Tribunal de Opinion held at Northwestern University School of Law's Center for International Human Rights on September 22-23, 2000.

349. Letter from Amb. Curtis Kamman to Sen. Patrick Leahy, December 30, 1998.

350. Ibid.

351. Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. embassy official, Bogotá, January 19, 2001; and "Justicia a dos fuegos," Cambio, May 6, 2000.

352. Electronic communication with Clyde Howard, Country Director for Colombia and Panama, Department of Defense, October 13, 2000.

353. Report of Examination, Case ID 163G-BG-1059, FBI, May 1, 2000.

354. Efraín Varela and Julio César Niño, "La FAC dice que no hubo bombardeos," El Espectador, December 15, 1998; and Letter from Lorne W. Craner, Acting Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs, to James L. Whitten, Chairman, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, August 25, 1989.

355. U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights, February 26, 2001.

356. Paragraph 173, "Report of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Colombia," E/CN.4/2001/15, February 8, 2001.

357. The EPL is a reference to the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL), which is believed to be extremely small. Letter from Gen. Héctor Fabio Velasco to Corporación "Humanidad Vigente," June 27, 2000.

358. Human Rights Watch interview with U.S. embassy official, Bogotá, January 19, 2001.

359. Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Kevin Higgins and Lt. Col. Ehrich Rose, MilGroup, Bogotá, January 10, 2001.

360. Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Blas Ortiz, chief of staff, Counternarcotics Brigade, Larandia, Caquetá, January 23, 2001.

361. Noche y Niebla, Nros. 7 and 8, January-June 1998, Banco de Datos, p. 27.

362. Solicitud de Exhumación signed by Luz Angela Mulcue Benavides, Segundo Efrain Solarte Maya and Lus Mary Muñoz to Germán Martínez, personero, January 19, 1998.

363. The ruling is the August 1997 decision that determined that crimes of unusual seriousness allegedly committed by the security forces, like this one, should be heard by civilian courts,

364. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Human Rights Unit, Attorney General's office, April 27, 2001; and Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), U.S. State Department, March 15, 2001.

365. Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Blas Ortiz, Larandia, Caquetá, January 23, 2001.

366. Ibid.

367. Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Kevin Higgins and Lt. Col. Ehrich Rose, U.S. Embassy, Military Group, Bogotá, January 10, 2001.

368. Human Rights Watch has not been able to obtain copies of the EUM documents submitted by the Colombian Defense Ministry. The State Department claims that these documents are "privileged government-to-government communications" and are therefore confidential. Human Rights Watch and WOLA interview with U.S. Embassy officials, Bogotá, January 19, 2001; and Letter from Peter F. Romero, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, December 18, 2000.

369. Human Rights Watch telephone interview, March 15, 2001.

370. Human Rights Watch interview with Col. Kevin Higgins, U.S. Embassy, Military Group, Bogotá, January 10, 2001.

371. In a particularly gruesome press tactic, Colombian Army commander General Jorge Mora challenged the Attorney General's count of the victims by asserting that reports of over thirty killed in Mapiripán "are not correct." [no son ciertas] General Mora argued that since only four bodies were located, reports of over thirty victims were spurious. However, General Mora ignored the fact that abundant and credible information showed that paramilitaries systematically chopped up the bodies of their victims and threw them in the river, precisely to eliminate evidence. Only the Colombian Army, apparently, was fooled. Human Rights Watch interview with the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, Bogotá, December 4, 1997; "Nadie quiso evitar masacre," Cambio, November 3, 1997; and "Comunicado de prensa en relación con el fallo contra Señor BG (R) JAIME HUMBERTO USCÁTEGUI RAMIREZ," Fuerzas Militares de Colombia, Ejército Nacional, February 16, 2001.

372. "'Nadie quiso evitar la masacre,'" Cambio 16, November 3, 1997.

373. Human Rights Watch interview with the Attorney General's Human Rights, Bogotá, December 4, 1997; and "Nadie quiso evitar masacre," Cambio, November 3, 1997.

374. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

375. Memorandum de la Unidad Nacional de Derechos Humanos sobre caso Mapiripán, June 21, 1999.

376. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, Bogotá, January 9, 2001.

377. Human Rights Watch interview with government investigator, Bogotá, January 9, 2001; "Colombia army officer arrested over massacre," Reuters, March 31, 1999; and "La clave," Semana, August 30, 1999.

378. Juan Forero, "Colombia Massacre's Strange Fallout," New York Times, February 23, 2001.

379. Ibid; and "┐Inocente?" Semana, March 4, 2001.

380. "Colombian Military Cooperation with Paramilitary Forces," Press Statement by Richard Boucher, Spokesman, Department of State, February 13, 2001.

381. "Colombia 60-day Human Rights Report," Conference Report accompanying the Emergency Supplemental Act, 2000, as enacted in the military construction appropriations act, 2001 (P.L. 106-246), October 2000.

382. "Progress Report on Human Rights in Colombia," U.S. State Department, January 2001.

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