February 24, 2000

New report links Colombian army, paramilitary killers

                   Pastrana defends military, vows crackdown
                   From staff and wire reports

                   BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombian President Andres Pastrana defended
                   his army's record as international human rights watchdogs accused the
                   country's military of continued collaboration with right-wing paramilitaries.

                   Pastrana conceded that Colombia has been the scene of a "humanitarian
                   tragedy," and vowed to crack down on the paramilitaries, which authorities
                   blame for scores of recent killings. Late Wednesday, he vowed stronger military
                   efforts against paramilitary "barbarism, cruelty and cowardice."

                   But Pastrana denied allegations leveled by the activist group Human Rights Watch that
                   Colombia's military continues to work closely with the militias -- allegations that came as
                   critics already were raising questions about a proposed $1.6 billion, two-year U.S. aid
                   package to fight the drug trade and the Marxist guerrillas who protect it.

                   "There shouldn't be the slightest shadow of doubt that the military and police
                   are combating, with increasingly greater efficiency, all forms of armed
                   insurgency, and this clearly includes the self-defense groups," Pastrana said.

                   A government statement added that four generals with suspected
                   paramilitary ties have been forced out of active duty since Pastrana took

                   More than 35,000 people, most of them civilians, have died in Colombia's
                   civil war against two leftist insurgencies in the past decade. The paramilitaries
                   have killed rebels and suspected rebel sympathizers with impunity for more
                   than a decade.

                   Human Rights Watch said that while reports of atrocities by the military have
                   declined, "the number and scale of abuses attributed to paramilitary groups
                   have skyrocketed."

                   A 'truly alarming' report

                   Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that half of Colombia's army brigades
                   have documented ties to the paramilitaries. Colombian investigators have
                   evidence that military officers shared intelligence and planned operations with
                   the paramilitaries, it concluded, and said the military provided weapons,
                   ammunition and medical aid, as well.

                   In a statement accompanying the report, Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human
                   Rights Watch executive director for the Americas, called the organization's
                   findings "truly alarming."

                   Citing Colombian government documents and interviews with refugees,
                   government officials and survivors, the U.S.-based group concluded that
                   "military support for paramilitary activity remains national in scope and
                   includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid

                   While Pastrana promised to crack down on the paramilitaries, Human
                    Rights Watch found that civilian investigators in Colombia's government
                    have been forced to quit or flee the country after their work
                    implicated paramilitary leaders or military officers.

                   U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey on Thursday defended the army's record
                   while visiting a military base in southern Colombia. McCaffrey, a retired
                   general and Vietnam war hero, said complaints against the military have
                   "dwindled to near zero" and that police and army have a better image in
                   Colombia than the Catholic Church -- a fact that surveys in major cities have

                   Despite eradication efforts, cocaine production in Colombia has more than
                   doubled since 1995. Both left- and right-wing paramilitaries have benefited
                   from the drug trade, and the country produces 90 percent of the world's
                   cocaine supply.

                   U.S. lawmakers fear echoes of Vietnam

                   Pastrana has made peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
                   Colombia, the larger of the two rebel groups, a top priority. But U.S. critics
                   fear the aid package pending in the U.S. Congress could lead to American
                   troops fighting in Colombia's guerrilla war.

                   "Who's going to go in if this thing blows up?" U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens,
                   R-Alaska, asked during a hearing Thursday. "We've got 800 people on the
                   ground. Tell me this is not a Vietnam again."

                   "Sir, it is not a Vietnam again," replied Gen. Charles Wilhelm, chief of the
                   U.S. Southern Command.

                   "I spent '65, '66, '69 and '70 in Vietnam and I think I'll know it when I see it
                   happening again," Wilhelm said. "When I go to Colombia, I do not feel a
                   quagmire sucking at my boots."

                   Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee also demanded tougher
                   conditions on the mostly military aid package that ensure the Colombian
                   army did not abuse human rights.

                   Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, said he was inclined to support
                   rapid aid for Pastrana's government. But he expressed serious concerns
                   about Colombia's failure to prosecute crimes committed by paramilitary
                   groups, which Lautenberg said have taken on the military's "dirty work."

                   Another senator, Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, said the aid
                   package has to clear a "high hurdle" in Congress.