â€œEarly one Sunday, when Colonel MejÃa had barely been in command for ten days, he called me to headquarters and told me to get a weapon and come with him in the battalion’s car. We both wore civilian clothing. We went to Bosconia [in Cesar department, in northeastern Colombia] and passed through a town called San Ãngel. About five kilometers from the town there was a roadblock run by paracos (paramilitaries). One of them approached the car, he [the colonel] identified himself, and they let us through. We arrived at a farm where there were some 200 paramilitaries. In the main house, seated at a table, was the entire high command of the Northern Bloc: Mr. ‘Jorge 40,’ Mr. HernÃ¡n Giraldo [both wanted in the United States for narcotrafficking], ‘Tolemaida,’ ‘Omega’ and ‘39,’ who was David HernÃ¡ndez, a retired military officer who had been a friend of the colonel. They greeted each other with much joy because they had been friends in school.â€
This is the testimony of an unidentified retired military officer, reported in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. It details a 2002 meeting between Col. HernÃ¡n MejÃa, the new head of the Popa Batallion in the northeastern city of Valledupar, and the paramilitary drug lords who were (and perhaps still are) the true power in the eastern half of Colombia’s Caribbean coastal zone.
That day, the witness contends, â€œJorge 40â€ agreed to pay Col. MejÃa 30 million pesos per month (about US$12,500) to guarantee that the Popa Batallion left the paramilitaries alone.
â€œLater, they all sat down to lunch,â€ the testimony continues, â€œand MejÃa said he hadn’t just come for the money, but that he came for glory, and glory meant bajas.â€ Bajas means guerrillas killed in combat, and Col. MejÃa had already built up a reputation for commanding units that racked up large numbers of dead guerrillas. With five medals for battlefield victories, Col. MejÃa was considered one of the army’s rising stars.
â€œOld HernÃ¡n Giraldo said that it would be easiest for ‘39′ to provide him with results. As is known, this man was the Northern Bloc’s military chief in Cesar, and hundreds of deaths are attributed to him. ‘39′ told the colonel that the only problem was that his men had different rifles from the army’s Galils, which would make it difficult to â€legalizeâ€œ the dead bodies. So the colonel ordered that four decommissioned Galils in the battalion be delivered to ‘39′ and his people. Since the order came from the colonel, nobody questioned the rifles’ removal from the battalion.â€
One such example of false â€œbajasâ€ occurred in October 2005, when the Northern Bloc and other paramilitary units were already very far along in negotiations with the Colombian government.Â The paramilitary leader â€œ39â€ carried out a purge of men under his command who, in his view, had defied him. He ordered nineteen of them killed. The dead paramilitaries were then dressed in camouflage fatigues and ELN armbands, and delivered to Col. MejÃa’sÂ battalion, where they were presented as guerrillas killed in combat. The head of the armed forces even traveled to Valledupar to help celebrate the victory.
On Friday, perhaps because of the coming cover story in Sunday’s edition of Semana, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos publicly announced that â€œa colonelâ€ (he didn’t name MejÃa) was being suspended for links to â€œJorge 40,â€ and his case turned over to the civilian justice system. This is the first time in Colombia’s history that the Colombian Defense Ministry and high command have voluntarily, publicly turned over a high-ranking officer to face charges of helping paramilitaries. (There have been past firings, but they have never been acknowledged to be for paramilitary links, and no criminal investigations followed.)
That Col. MejÃa has been suspended at the Defense Ministry’s initiative, and is under civilian criminal investigation, is a good precedent. It is an important step forward for those in Colombia’s military establishment – and there are some – who want to see the institution break with its long history of collaboration with the drug-funded death squads.
For the United States, though, the revelations about Col. MejÃa are a nasty black eye. The colonel has commanded military units that have been key beneficiaries of U.S. assistance.
The Popa Battalion in Valledupar is not one of these units. But when he was suspended, Col. MejÃa was commanding the army’s 13th Mobile Brigade, based in Larandia, CaquetÃ¡.
This brigade has been central to U.S.-supported anti-guerrilla efforts in southern Colombia, including the large-scale â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ military offensive that sent 18,000 Colombian troops, with U.S. advisors, into a broad swath of territory from 2004 to 2006. The brigade forms part of the â€œJoint Task Force Omega,â€ which carried out Plan Patriota and successor efforts with significant amounts of U.S. assistance. U.S. personnel maintain a near-constant presence at the Larandia military base where Col. MejÃa’s brigade is headquartered.
The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports that Col. MejÃa also commanded troops in the U.S.-aided 12th Brigade in Florencia, CaquetÃ¡, and at the military base in Santana, Putumayo, which contains many facilities built with U.S. funds, and which has been a center of operations for the Army Counter-Narcotics Battalions that were set up with U.S. funding when â€œPlan Colombiaâ€ got started in 1999-2002. Both Florencia and Santana (a sort of suburb of Puerto AsÃs, Putumayo’s largest city), are strongly dominated by paramilitaries – demobilization notwithstanding – though guerrillas rule in the surrounding countryside.
It is terribly embarrassing that significant amounts of U.S. aid have apparently gone to military units commanded by someone with such intimate, friendly ties to drug-running paramilitaries. It calls in question the degree to which U.S. officials know with whom they are working. Are they asking questions about their aid recipients’ past or present relationship to paramilitaries – no matter how senior or how â€œeffectiveâ€ they are? Is the vetting process credible? And how many more top officers may face similar charges?
A high-level U.S. delegation, including two assistant secretaries of state and a deputy assistant secretary of defense, is in Colombia today. They should be made aware of Col. MejÃa’s command of U.S.-aided units, and should make a priority of avoiding seeing this situation repeated. Even if that means making radical, uncomfortable changes to the U.S. military aid program in Colombia.