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
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
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
declined, "the number and scale of abuses attributed to paramilitary groups
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
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
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.