On August 15, newly re-inaugurated President Uribe made changes to the Colombian military’s high command. The new chief of the armed forces is Gen. Nelson Freddy Padilla, who has been in Colombia’s army since 1966.
A look at this 40-year career makes clear that Gen. Padilla won’t be receiving any human rights awards anytime soon.
- From 1993 to 1995, Padilla headed the Colombian Army’s feared 20th Brigade, which consolidated military intelligence activities until 1998, when it was abolished, in part due to strong human rights concerns. The State Department’s 1997 human rights report noted, "Government and military officials give credence to reports of isolated killings during the year conducted by members of at least one army unit, the 20th Intelligence Brigade." Added a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, "The Twentieth Brigade is also implicated in the killing of human rights defenders, among them Jesús María Valle, president of the “Héctor Abad Gómez” Permanent Human Rights Committee of Antioquia, and Eduardo Umaña, a noted human rights lawyer."
- In 1998, Padilla replaced Gen. Jaime Uscátegui as chief of the army’s 7th Brigade, based in Villavicencio, Meta. Uscátegui is still being tried for his role in allowing a massive paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, Meta in 1997. Mapiripán was the AUC’s first real foray into the guerrilla-dominated coca-growing areas of southern Colombia, and the paramilitaries’ takeover of major towns in the 7th Brigade’s area of operations continued during Padilla’s tenure in 1998. According to a joint report by Amnesty, WOLA and Human Rights Watch, "In July 2000, the press widely reported that the Procuraduría formally charged (pliego de cargos)" Padilla and two other officers "with ‘omission’ in connection with the massacre in Puerto Alvira," a town in Meta, in June 1998.
- From 1998 to 2000, Padilla headed the 2nd Brigade, with responsibility over the cities of Barranquilla and Santa Marta, and surrounding areas along Colombia’s Caribbean coast. During this period, paramilitary leaders Rodrigo Tovar ("Jorge 40") and Hernán Giraldo strengthened their dominance over territory and drug trafficking in the brigade’s area of operations, with little or no opposition from the armed forces.
- In letters to President Uribe written in 2004 and 2005, the Catholic Diocese of Quibdó, the capital of Chocó department near Panama, denounced a consistent pattern of "obvious tolerance, connivance and complicity" between the armed forces and paramilitary groups. (Last year, the Diocese received the National Peace Prize, a prestigious award given by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation and several of Colombia’s top media outlets.)
The armed forces responded late last year by sending a special commission to Chocó to investigate the allegations of collaboration with paramilitaries. The commission was headed by Gen. Freddy Padilla. It found nothing – which is sort of like going to Las Vegas and finding no evidence of gambling. According to one local leader from Chocó with whom I spoke earlier this year, Gen. Padilla’s commission "investigated" by holding large public meetings, with paramilitary allies no doubt present, in which they asked the assembled crowd, "Has anyone here seen any cooperation between the military and paramilitaries? No? Good."
A brief report posted to a Colombian military website noted only that Gen. Padilla’s commission heard "the population’s request that the armed forces stay present in the zones affected by violent groups." Gen. Padilla’s "investigation," noted Quibdó’s bishop, Msgr. Fidel León Cadavid, had "no result."
This record does not reflect well on Gen. Freddy Padilla’s concern for human rights and the rule of law. But it is also not unusual among top military officialdom – many careers are full of postings in charge of notorious units or in zones of paramilitary expansion, with no "smoking gun" to indicate the officer’s direct involvement in human rights crimes.
Nonetheless, it speaks volumes about Colombia’s supposedly "reformed" military institution that a career path like Gen. Padilla’s can still guarantee a quick promotion to the very top.