WikiLeaks on Colombia – Uribe’s Informants Network Employed Ex-Paramilitaries; More Trouble for Former Army Commanders

A new round of WikiLeaks published on the pages of El Espectador may spell trouble for former Colombian officials, including President Álvaro Uribe and two of his top military commanders.


A Colombian army intelligence officer told the U.S. in 2007 that his unit had incorporated former members of an illegal paramilitary drug gang into a network of civilian informants (Red de Cooperantes) promoted by President Uribe, according to a leaked State Department cable published on the newspaper’s Web site. The official said that his unit—identified by the paper as the army’s 17th Brigade—had been secretly authorized by the government to work with ex-members of the notorious Elmer Cárdenas paramilitary bloc who were “providing good information” on emerging paramilitary groups in the conflictive Urabá region. Colombian law barred ex-paramilitaries from joining the Red de Cooperantes groups.

The official also told the embassy that more than 70 percent of the new criminal gangs that had emerged in Urabá since the start of a government-sponsored demobilization program aimed at dismantling the illegal groups “had prior military experience” and often received “advance notice of operations from their former colleagues” in the Colombian security forces.The document is part of a new round of Colombia-related disclosures that have come to light since El Espectador obtained some 16,000 U.S. diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in late February. With the leaked documents now in the hands of Colombian journalists, it seems likely that the pace of WikiLeaks disclosures on Colombia’s multitude of national scandals and human rights crimes will continue to increase.

Uribe established the Red de Cooperantes and another program, Soldados Campesinos (“Hometown Soldiers”), using emergency powers he invoked soon after taking office 2002. By the end of 2004, more than 20,000 civilians had been recruited into Uribe’s new programs to provide security in more than 500 rural municipalities. The initiatives were similar to the controversial Convivir militias Uribe had backed as governor of Antioquia, some of which had turned out to be nothing more than fronts for paramilitary death squads, according to previously-released documents.

* One Colombian Army colonel told the Embassy in 1997 of “serious problems” with the government-sponsored Convivir militias, which he said were “very difficult to control.” The officer said that the ministry of defense—which had been accused of illegally arming some of the groups—knew of the “potential for Convivir’s to devolve into full-fledged paramilitaries” but was “reluctant to admit it publicly.”

* From 1997-1999, the Chiquita fruit company made millions of dollars in illegal payments to the paramilitary United Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) through the Convivir groups.)

The revelation that Uribe’s Informants Network included ex-paramilitaries adds to an already rich collection of declassified documents citing the 17th Brigade’s reliance on right-wing death squads to inflate enemy body counts.

* In one previously-published cable from 1998, the embassy reported that “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries” had been “pivotal” to the brigade’s success against guerrilla groups in the mid-1990s while under the command of Gen. Rito Alejo Del Río, who is currently on trial for murder and collaboration with paramilitary death squads.

* One of Del Río’s top deputies told U.S. military contacts in 1997 that the army suffered from a “body count syndrome” that “fueled human rights abuses by otherwise well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” The colonel ominously warned that the emphasis on producing enemy kills “could also lead to a cavalier, or at least passive, approach when it comes to allowing the paramilitaries to serve as proxies for the COLAR [Colombian Army] in contributing to the guerrilla body count.”

Falsos Positivos

Another new WikiLeaks cable published by El Espectador spotlights a pair of former army commanders closely associated with the “body count” policy under President Uribe. The document highlights the opposition of former defense minister (and current president) Juan Manuel Santos to the appointment of Gen. Óscar González Peña as army commander in November 2008. González replaced Gen. Mario Montoya Uribe after a report revealed that the army had been responsible for thousands of illegal executions in the so-called falsos positivos (“false positives”) scandal, in which innocent civilians were systematically murdered and dressed to appear as enemy casualties to artificially inflate the number of guerrillas killed in action. At least 2,000 civilians were murdered as part of the “false positives” affair, and some 4,000 military personnel have been tied to the scandal, including several top-ranking generals.

Two other high-level defense ministry officials cited in the same leaked cable told U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield that González, as “Montoya’s protégé,” would be “an obstacle to further improvements on human rights.” Santos told the ambassador that Montoya had “personally convinced President Uribe” to name González, despite his objections. (Santos quickly replaced González with a new army commander after taking office in 2010.)

This is the second major WikiLeaks bombshell for Gens. Montoya and González stemming from the “false positives” affair. A previously-leaked cable described a February 2009 meeting in which army inspector general Carlos Suarez told a U.S. Embassy official that the “phenomenon originated in the 4th Brigade in Medellín,” a unit once led by “former Army Commander Mario Montoya and current Army Commander Oscar Gonzalez.” Suarez said that González “opposes his work” and—in a revelation that may have important legal implications—had “tried to intimidate witnesses not to testify about murders committed by the 11th Brigade in Sucre.”

Declassified records reflect longstanding U.S. concern about the Colombian army’s use of body counts and extrajudicial executions going back more than 20 years.

* In a 1990 cable, U.S. Ambassador Thomas McNamara reported a disturbing increase in abuses attributed to the Colombian Army, including one report that nine civilians had been “executed by the Army and then dressed in military fatigues.” The ambassador added that many of the army’s recent abuses had “come in the course of operations by armed para-military groups in which Army officers and enlisted men have participated.”

* In 1994, U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette described “body count mentalities” among Colombian Army officers seeking promotions. Frechette cited a U.S. military intelligence finding that, “Field officers who cannot show track records of aggressive anti-guerrilla activity (wherein the majority of the military’s human rights abuses occur) disadvantage themselves at promotion time.”

* A CIA intelligence report, also from 1994, went even further, finding that the Colombian security forces continued to “employ death squad tactics in their counterinsurgency campaign.” The document, a review of President César Gaviria’s anti-guerrilla policy, noted that the Colombian military had “a history of assassinating leftwing civilians in guerrilla areas, cooperating with narcotics-related paramilitary groups in attacks against suspected guerrilla sympathizers, and killing captured combatants.” Traditionally, the Army had “not taken guerrilla prisoners,” according to report, and the military had “treated Gaviria’s new human rights guidelines as pro forma.”

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