The front page of today’s Los Angeles Times has a huge piece of news.
The CIA has obtained new intelligence alleging that the head of Colombia’s U.S.-backed army collaborated extensively with right-wing militias that Washington considers terrorist organizations, including a militia headed by one of the country’s leading drug traffickers.
According to the story, a U.S. intelligence document accuses Gen. Mario Montoya of collaborating closely with paramilitaries in one of the signature military operations of President Uribe’s first term.
The intelligence about Montoya is contained in a report recently circulated within the CIA. It says that Montoya and a paramilitary group jointly planned and conducted a military operation in 2002 to eliminate Marxist guerrillas from poor areas around Medellin, a city in northwestern Colombia that has been a center of the drug trade.
The 2002 Medellín military offensive, "Operation Orión," took place when Gen. Montoya headed the army’s 4th Brigade in that city. It involved weeks of intense house-to-house fighting in one of Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods, and ended up ejecting guerrilla militias from the zone.
Those who praise this military operation (and usually, by extension, President Uribe) argue that it was a critical step toward making Medellín the much safer city that it is today. Critics have long charged, though, that Operation Orión benefited the paramilitary groups who now hold undisputed control over criminal activity in Medellín’s marginal neighborhoods, as CIP noted in a report last November (PDF).
The paramilitaries were not ejected by Operation Orión and other military efforts; by some accounts they even assisted in the assault. They appear, in fact, to have emerged stronger as their principal enemies were pushed out of the city.
“Operation Orión was the beginning of the installation of a new power in [the poor neighborhood known as] Comuna 13, the same one that had ruled over other comunas in the city: that of the paramilitaries,” wrote Ricardo Aricapa, the author of [a 2005 book about this zone], in a recent UN Development Program newsletter.
Note that our report had to say "by some accounts" the military worked with the paramilitaries on Operation Orión. That is a charge we heard in off-the-record conversations with a broad spectrum of analysts in Medellín – a spectrum not limited to leftists or human rights activists – but which we were unable to document with solid written evidence or firsthand testimony.
Today’s L.A. Times indicates, however, that the U.S. intelligence community has heard the same thing, and has taken it seriously: that Gen. Montoya’s men were working hand-in-glove with the paramilitary group headed by "Don Berna" – Diego Fernando Murillo, a feared paramilitary chief whom the U.S. government wishes to extradite to face drug-trafficking charges.
This means big trouble for U.S. military aid to Colombia. Gen. Montoya has been a favorite of the United States. He was trained, and even served as an instructor, at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. He headed "Joint Task Force South," the unit that coordinated U.S.-funded military operations in southern Colombia when Plan Colombia began.
We’re not talking about a rogue "bad apple" from a hard-line military faction. These allegations of paramilitary collaboration are leveled at the head of Colombia’s entire army. The L.A. Times piece goes on to allege that Montoya’s immediate superior, the head of the entire armed forces, is not beyond suspicion either.
According to the document, the attache said information from the proven source "also could implicate" the head of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon, who commanded the military in Barranquilla, in northern Colombia, during the same period.
(Note the concerns we expressed about Gen. Padilla’s record in August.)
These revelations are emerging at a crucial moment, as the new Democratic-controlled Congress begins to consider U.S. aid to Colombia for next year. Many of those involved in drafting the aid legislation are critics of the mostly military nature of past U.S. assistance to Colombia. Most have gone on record several times expressing concerns about human rights, and about allegations of military-paramilitary collaboration.
The U.S. and Colombian authorities have repeatedly assured these congressional critics that charges of military-paramilitary ties are (1) false or exaggerated; (2) something that happens at low levels but is not tolerated at the top; or (3) a problem that is rapidly disappearing as the armed forces improve. These arguments have come from ambassadors, generals, State Department officials, and President Uribe himself; as a result, members of Congress – even skeptics – have generally had to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The "benefit of the doubt" disappears when the L.A. Times’ front page can report that the military’s top leadership truly collaborated with paramilitaries on a recent, high-profile military offensive like Operation Orion. Key members of Congress will be left feeling that their longtime suspicions have been confirmed, and are likely to act accordingly.
The U.S. policy that began with Plan Colombia is in bigger trouble today than it has ever been.