The Washington Post
Tuesday , October 17, 2000 ; Page A30

Colombian Military Fires 388 in Human Rights Effort

By Juanita Darling and Michael Easterbrook
Los Angeles Times

BOGOTA, Colombia, Oct. 16 In the first major purge of the armed forces here, Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez today announced the dismissal of 388
officers and noncommissioned officers to professionalize the Colombian military.

Ramirez said the dismissals are part of an effort to polish the military's human rights image, but he did not directly accuse any of those fired of abuses.

"It's a decision without precedent in the history of the armed forces," said Gen. Fernando Tapias, Colombia's highest-ranking military officer.

Human rights advocates agreed, although they emphasized that the military has room for further improvement.

It was not immediately clear whether the measure will fulfill human rights conditions in the $1.3 billion U.S. anti-narcotics aid package for Colombia and its neighbors.
President Clinton can override that provision if he deems national security is at stake.

The funding, which includes $644 million in military hardware and training, has increased concern about the Colombian military's role in a complex war with two
major guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries, foes that are financed to some extent by the illegal drug trade. All of the armed groups have been accused of
torturing and killing civilians who they believed were sympathetic to another faction, and of assassinating human rights activists investigating abuses.

Today's mass firing was made possible by a decree recently signed by President Andres Pastrana allowing the defense minister to dismiss officers who are deemed
unfit for duty. Previously, only the police were allowed to conduct such purges, and thousands of agents suspected of corruption or abuse of power have been fired
during the past six years.

"It is a significant step in the right direction," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, which has documented ties between the
armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups that terrorize peasants. "But the real test is criminal prosecution."

The highest-ranking officers included in the purge were two lieutenant colonels and 15 majors. More than three-fourths of those fired were noncommissioned officers.

Vivanco urged the armed forces to stop resisting civilian authorities who are investigating accusations of human rights abuses against the top tier of officers.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has long insisted that the United States not give money to foreign armed forces with dubious human rights records, commended
the Colombians' action. But he said he, too, is concerned that so few of those disciplined are high-ranking officers.

"Human rights crimes are often carried out with orders from above," Leahy said. "The officers who gave those orders should also be held accountable."

Colombian human rights activists attending a peace conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, aimed at bringing together the factions in their country's armed conflict, were
skeptical.

"It is a small gesture that will not lead to profound change," said Jesus Balbin of the Popular Training Institute.

The timing of the purge, occurring the same day the three-day conference opened, makes it look suspiciously like appeasement for the international community, he
said--an accusation Ramirez denied.

The United States did suspend military training and support for two battalions last month after learning that three soldiers had been accused of human rights violations,
a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said.

Neither of the battalions was part of the anti-narcotics brigade that is being trained and equipped with U.S. funds, she said.