July 27, 2000

Colombia charges 5 top army officers of aiding death squad

                  BOGOTA, July 27 (Reuters) -- Four Colombian army generals and a colonel
                  were formally charged Thursday of turning a blind eye to a wave of attacks by
                  an outlaw ultra-right death squad that culminated in the massacre of 18 civilians
                  in May 1998, judicial officials said.

                  The move came a month after the U.S. Congress approved a record $1.3 billion
                  package of mostly military aid to help the Colombian army, with one of the most
                  dismal human rights record in the hemisphere, launch an offensive on drug
                  traffickers and Marxist rebels.

                  Earlier this week, the government Comptroller General's office said it had
                  launched an investigation in a $3 million corruption scandal in the Army's air
                  wing, due to spearhead the imminent U.S.-backed campaign.

                  The charges of dereliction of duty -- the latest sign of high level collusion
                  between the army and paramilitary gangs -- were leveled at two former division
                  commanders, one of whom is currently a member of the army's chief-of-staff,
                  two ex-Brigade commanders and the former head of a anti-guerrilla battalion.

                  International human rights groups and even the U.S. State Department have
                  frequently alleged Colombia's military is backing the paramilitary groups in a
                  "dirty war" against Marxist rebels and their civilian sympathizers.

                  "The Attorney General's Office has formally charged five army officers for
                  incidents that occurred in Puerto Alvira, Meta, in May 1998, where 18 people
                  were murdered by a paramilitary group," read a statement issued by the Attorney

                  The statement named the accused as Gen. Jaime Humberto Cortes, former
                  Fourth Division commander and currently the army's inspector general, Gen.
                  Freddy Padilla, former Seventh Brigade chief and current Second Brigade
                  commander, Gen. Agustin Ardila, former Fourth Division commander now
                  retired and Gen. Jaime Uscategui, former Seventh brigade commander now

                  A former battalion commander Col. Gustavo Sanchez was also charged.

                  The death squad suspected of carrying out the 1998 Puerto Alvira attack also
                  allegedly massacred more than 30 other civilians in nearby Mapiripan in June

                  Prior to raiding Puerto Alvira, the paramilitary gunmen spent months roaming the
                  countryside, murdering individuals suspected of supporting the guerrillas and
                  blockading roads to prevent food supplies reaching civilians.

                  Despite repeated requests by the government's Human Rights Ombudsman, army
                  commanders in the region took no action to combat the paramilitary force,
                  which eventually attacked Puerto Alvira, mutilating and incinerating some of the
                  18 victims.

                  International human rights groups have warned the U.S. aid package, that was
                  sanctioned by President Bill Clinton earlier this month, could drag Washington
                  into a Vietnam-style expeditionary war.

                  They also fear the funding could fuel rights violations and collusion between the
                  military and illegal paramilitary gangs.

                  U.S. aid to Colombia's military has been conditional on U.S. officials vetting
                  recipient units for human rights abuses.

                  But a 1999 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office suggested vetting
                  procedures may have been sidestepped by approving battalions or platoons for
                  aid even though the rights record of the entire brigade or division had been