24 Dead, but Alliance Endures
Colombian Army's Clash With Paramilitary Troops May Be an Aberration
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, Page A16
SEGOVIA, Colombia -- On a cool evening last month, 45 soldiers belonging
to Colombia's privately funded paramilitary force piled into the back of
a cattle truck for a
ride from their mountain camp, past this town's cemetery where more than half of them would be buried two days later, and through the main square.
Grenades, assault rifles and ammunition vests bumped around their feet
as the men, dressed in combat uniforms, rumbled through town toward a bend
in the dirt road
where the Colombian military maintains a checkpoint to search traffic heading into guerrilla territory. The roadblock had been removed that night -- just after twilight on
Aug. 9 -- and the truck passed on, according to paramilitary commanders present.
A half-mile ahead, an army patrol positioned on a lush slope above the
road with assault rifles and an M-60 machine gun hailed the truck to stop.
What happened next
is the subject of a criminal investigation. But the results are not in dispute: When the dust cleared, 24 paramilitary troops lay dead in the road in the largest army strike
against the group since it emerged from these hills two decades ago.
The head of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, declared
Operation Storm a signal success against the United Self-Defense Forces
(AUC) and proof of the army's commitment to fighting its traditional paramilitary allies, as the United States has demanded. But paramilitary commanders interviewed
here and senior leaders at a meeting in northern Colombia earlier this month called the attack a "war crime," accusing the army of tricking them into an ambush to
make precisely the general's point.
"This was a massacre, not combat," said a leading commander in the paramilitary Segovia Front who goes by the name "Samuel." "For us, this was a betrayal."
Operation Storm came two days after the inauguration of President Alvaro
Uribe, who was elected on a pledge to intensify military operations against
two Marxist guerrilla movements in hopes of forcing them to accept a negotiated peace. His commitment to fighting the guerrillas raised concerns in Washington that
he would refuse to confront Colombia's pro-government paramilitary force. Operation Storm seemed to dispel those concerns.
But a closer look at the operation, through survivor accounts, interviews
with paramilitary leaders and the criminal case file, suggests that the
fight on the edge of this
mining town was not a breach of the long-standing relationship between the army and the paramilitary forces, but a temporary aberration.
In the days since the operation, according to paramilitary leaders,
low-ranking army officers and paramilitary troops who do the fighting in
this long conflict have
attempted to repair their alliance, the most effective military partnership in the war.
Pressure From the U.S.
The nature of this alliance is under U.S. scrutiny. At the time of the
shooting here, the United States was conducting its annual human rights
review of the Colombian
military. If the armed forces failed the review, the United States would be required to cut off a $1.3 billion aid package that has made Colombia the third-largest
recipient of U.S. military assistance.
Congress recently lifted restrictions on how the Colombian government
can use that assistance, originally designated as anti-drug aid. Now, the
nearly 80 helicopters
and a U.S.-trained army brigade can be deployed directly against guerrilla and paramilitary forces, and not just to reduce the drug trade. A successful human rights
review depended largely on whether the military had made strides in ending its alliance with paramilitary forces, which have grown dramatically in recent years.
According to the Defense Ministry, operations against the AUC so far
this year have resulted in the capture of 378 paramilitary members, more
than were captured in
all of last year. Eighty-six AUC troops have been killed in combat with the military this year, six times the 2001 total. Almost a third of those deaths occurred in one
battle -- Operation Storm.
Earlier this month, the Colombian military passed the human rights review.
"We have seen the Colombian armed forces taking effective action -- particularly
severing links between military personnel and paramilitary units," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
But the aftermath of Operation Storm suggests that the alliance endures
between the military and paramilitary forces as Colombia's war worsens
in much of the
countryside. Last year, 3,500 people died in the conflict, born 38 years ago as a struggle for security and social justice, and fueled financially by a drug trade that
accounts for 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States.
Most of last year's deaths were committed in large-scale killings by
the two guerrilla groups and the paramilitary force that occupy large portions
of the country -- and
are listed by the State Department as terrorist organizations. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the 18,000-member guerrilla force is known,
maintains a strong presence in these hills, and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) considers Segovia part of its birthplace. Both groups seek to replace the
government with a Marxist-oriented state.
Although the two guerrilla groups rarely work together, they face a
common enemy in the AUC, a national federation of regional paramilitary
groups. Now numbering
10,500 soldiers, the paramilitary forces have traditionally worked alongside the military against the guerrillas. Many AUC members are former soldiers, and consider
themselves proxies for a government with a weak presence in much of the country.
This isolated region of gold mines and cattle ranches is considered
the cradle of Colombia's paramilitary movement. Fidel Castaño, a
rancher, emerald smuggler and
brothel owner, formed the first paramilitary units near here in the early 1980s, initially as drug-protection gangs and then as anti-guerrilla forces. Castaño was the
architect of one of the largest civilian massacres in Colombia's dark history, the 1988 killing of 43 people in the heart of this hillside town 170 miles north of Bogota. He
disappeared in 1994 on an arms-buying trip near the Panamanian border, and his family says he is dead.
Fidel's younger brother, Carlos Castaño, now heads the AUC. He
spends much of his time between this town and the northern coast, an area
where his movement
enjoys huge support, not only from the local cattle ranchers and mining companies it protects from the guerrillas, but also from the Colombian security forces. The
Castaño brothers trained here at the Bombona Battalion of the army's 14th Brigade, and later served as army guides in the northern state of Cordoba.
According to regional paramilitary commanders, there was no suspicion
when a lieutenant from the army battalion made contact with the AUC on
the morning of Aug.
9 to arrange a meeting. The meeting was held at the army checkpoint on the road out of town that afternoon. According to this account, the army's Lt. Jairo Fidel
Velandia asked "Gustavo," the senior paramilitary commander for Segovia, to help attack a FARC column in nearby Cañaverales.
Velandia told Gustavo that the checkpoint on the road to Cañaverales
would be lifted that day between 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., paramilitary leaders
said. Army and
paramilitary units would then join up later near Cañaverales to coordinate the attack. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when the men boarded the cattle truck near
their not-so-secret camp in Campoalegre later that day because, as paramilitary commander Samuel said, such arrangements are commonplace.
"We don't coordinate with the higher [military] officers," he said, "Only those in charge of operations."
In sworn testimony to investigators from the attorney general's office, however, Velandia called the paramilitary account "lies."
"Never at any moment in my military life as an army officer have I worked
with an organization outside the law," he said in his statement to investigators.
"Nor have I
had direct or indirect conversations with any members of those groups."
According to Velandia, he organized the operation after receiving information
from the "civilian population" that a truck carrying armed men would be
the area that evening. He said he did not know whether the men would be guerrillas or paramilitary forces, what time they would pass, or how the truck managed to
get through what on most days would have been a roadblock. He also didn't share the information with his commanding officers.
Velandia said he ordered the truck, normally used for cattle, to stop
after seeing rifles in the back. He said a tarp was pulled down over the
sides of the truck, but the
section above the cab was not covered, allowing him a view inside. Investigators, however, have concluded that the entire rear section of the truck, including the area
above the cab, was covered. Pictures of the crime scene support that finding.
"The first shot was fired by the people inside the truck from a distance
of about [35 feet] away from where I had shouted for them to stop," Velandia
stated. He said
the ensuing firefight lasted between 20 and 40 minutes.
One of three army soldiers wounded in the fight, Jose Gabriel Diaz, said it was unclear who fired first.
Diaz said he received general instructions before the operation. "Our
lieutenant gave the order that we were going to ambush them," he told investigators.
tell us anything more, only that there would be an ambush and how we should arrange ourselves. . . . I heard shots and nothing more."
Asked what he hoped would result from his operation, Velandia said,
"Congratulations for me and my men, and a citation that years in the future
might help me
command a battalion."
The day after the battle, Gen. Martin Orlando Carreño, commander
of the army's Second Division, told reporters that Operation Storm had
been planned for more than
a month. But in his testimony, Velandia said that "the operation developed at that moment" and that "it was baptized" -- given the name Operation Storm -- the following
"Nothing happened the way these bandits said it did -- that we massacred
them," Mora, head of the Colombian armed forces, said when asked about
this week. "That is a lie, and I repeat that it is being told to justify their defeat. They know that if they give us another chance we will beat them again."
Within days of the attack, AUC political leaders here said, they were
meeting with low-ranking officers of the Bombona Battalion in an attempt
to restore the
relationship. Army officials said Velandia was taken along with two corporals to the army's 14th Brigade headquarters in Puerto Berrio, a river town 45 miles south of
here, for questioning immediately after the operation.
Other events also suggest an attempt to restore the relationship. According
to a civilian who works with the AUC here, an army officer at the Bombona
the paramilitary group a list of the soldiers who had participated in the operation.
The civilian said the list was given as a gesture of "our continuing
relationship." The civilian said that when one of the army corporals who
was held at brigade
headquarters heard of this he wept -- fearing he would be subject to a paramilitary reprisal for his role.
A political leader of the AUC, known as Gallo, said that the army and
paramilitaries "must be friends, or if not friends, they must at least
be allied. In my opinion, we
cannot rupture this relationship, and as of now, it continues."