2011-02-25 Paramilitary organizations inside Colombian government: human rights violations continue

Over the last decade, the Colombian government has tried hard to free itself from the bonds between government officials, congressmen and military leaders and right wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The group is sponsored by a wide range of people: from high profile corporations and politicians to small landowners looking to protect their interests from opposite guerrilla formations such as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional). Their actual political and economic power is a matter of concern and in the past even ex-President Alvaro Uribe has been questioned about his and his government’s involvement in illegal activities related to the organization. During these years violence has been widespread and thousands of people –civilians, businessmen and politicians have been killed or kidnapped.


For example, a US state cable from 2006 #06BOGOTA1981 mentions that Uribe named Major General Mario Montoya Commander of the Colombian Army (COLAR), a key strategic security post in the country, adding that “Montoya is reportedly close to President Uribe, whom he met while serving as the Fourth Brigade Commander in Medellin”. The cable then goes on to briefly highlight Montoya’s experience in the field, especially with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, after which it adds that the COLAR Counter-Intelligence Center (CECIM) had previously investigated Montoya “for corruption, possible ties to the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and narcotics trafficking, stemming from his time in Antioquia Department and along the north coast. According to DAO reporting, Montoya allegedly was involved in scams with corrupt Colombian National Police officials who allowed him to take credit for drug seizures and anti-terrorist operations, while protecting the narcotrafficking activities of, and providing weapons to, the AUC”. It also states, however, that the “Embassy is not aware of evidence to corroborate these allegations and does not have access to the results of the CECIM investigation”.

In 2008, “Montoya stepped down less than a week after President Alvaro Uribe's dismissal of 27 military officers for their roles in the disappearance and subsequent murders of young men from Soacha and Antioquia. Montoya had been the subject of multiple human rights complaints during his tenure, including alleged abuses committed in Medellin's poorer neighborhoods during Operation Orion, collusion with paramilitaries, and demanding "body count" as a measure of operational success.” (#08BOGOTA4028). At the time the Colombian press quoted U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who said this was a “long overdue and positive step”.

Interestingly, the same cable mentions NGOs complaining that Montoya’s substitute at the head of COLAR was his own protégé Major General Oscar Enrique Gonzalez Pena, criticizing his “close association with Montoya, and voiced concerns regarding 45 alleged extrajudicial killings committed by the 4th Brigade during his command”. Montoya recommended his substitute directly to Uribe and reportedly commented to the media in Colombia that he was the “'best commander in the country' during his tenure as 4th Brigade commander because his unit reported the most combat kills---857”. At the time, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, now President of Colombia, told the U.S. Ambassador he was concerned about Gonzalez Pena’s implications with paramilitary groups. He also put pressure on Uribe not to choose him but was ignored, Santos then “met with Gonzalez who assured him that he was "clean" on all fronts”. Viceministers Pinzon and Jaramillo, however, remained opposed and said that he “could be an obstacle to further improvements on human rights”.

Human Rights Watch, in a letter directed to current Viceminister Angelino Garzon last January, said that President Juan Manuel Santos is on the right track to solve the serious human rights problems in Colombia, however, it firmly states that there is still much to be done and calls for “bold measures by the current government”. They have argued that “in 2010, more massacres were committed in Colombia than in any other year since the beginning of the Justice and Peace process in 2005. The 38 massacres recorded between January and November 2010 represented a 41 percent increase over the same period from the previous year”. The letter also mentions that there are still many trade union leaders and human rights spokespeople being threatened, kidnapped and killed with impunity throughout Colombia. Reporters Without Borders places Colombia in the 145th place (out of 178) in its list regarding free press and safety for journalists. On the same note, Joel Simon, executive director for Committee to Protect Journalists recently said: “We’ve heard repeated pledges from governments that the killers of journalists will face justice, but until these promises are fulfilled, media will continue to be targeted by those who believe they are above the law and immune from consequence”.

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