When the fourth-most-circulated newspaper in the United States makes serious charges in a story on the front page of its Sunday edition, the response over the next few days is crucial. So far, how has the Colombian government sought to dispel allegations in a leaked CIA document, which claim that the chief of Colombia’s army, Gen. Mario Montoya, has worked closely with paramilitary groups?
The government of Colombia asks of foreign intelligence agencies that any accusation based on evidence against members of Colombian institutions be presented to the competent justice and administrative agencies.
Some of the subsequent steps have been much less effective, though.
2. Return to the scene of the allegations and bask in a spontaneous display of the population’s gratitude. The documents revealed by the Los Angeles Times allege that Gen. Montoya, during his time as head of the MedellÃn-based 4th Brigade, worked closely with paramilitaries under the command of alias â€œDon Bernaâ€ – a longtime narcotrafficker who remains one of the most powerful figures in Colombia’s second-largest city.
Specifically, Gen. Montoya is accused of enlisting Don Berna’s support for â€œOperation OriÃ³n,â€ an all-out offensive in late 2002 that ejected guerrilla militias from Comuna 13, a violent slum on MedellÃn’s western outskirts. Operation OriÃ³n was widely considered one of the first major victories of President Ãlvaro Uribe’s security strategy, and a key step in the dramatic reduction of MedellÃn’s crime rate during the past four years.
On Tuesday, Gen. Montoya returned to Comuna 13, where he made a public appearance before hundreds of grateful citizens of the poor neighborhood. MedellÃn’s main newspaper, El Colombiano, gushed effusively about the population’s passionate support for the general.
The officer arrived at the Las Independencias high school at around 2:30 yesterday afternoon, where 200 people awaited him, many of them young people who violated the security cordon in order to touch General Montoya. …
â€œI ask the press that when they are going to publish something, that it be because they have precise information. The general has come today to the community that supports him,â€ said one of the community leaders who participated in the event.
The high school was filled with posters bearing messages of support for the general’s work, and one of the attendees carried a small sign on which a message in English, directed toward U.S. journalists, could be read.
â€œThe media should generate peace and not violence. If what they said was the truth, there would still be paramilitaries here. There is greater tranquility after Operation OriÃ³n,â€ said Byron Ortiz, a conciliator from the zone who carried the small sign, and who shouted â€œvivaâ€ to the general every time a soldier put the megaphone in front of his mouth.
All was not as it seemed, however, according to this morning’s edition of BogotÃ¡’s El Tiempo:
Instead of helping, the event that took place in the high school in the Independencias barrio, right in Comuna 13, raised questions about who really convened the meeting and who brought the nearly 200 people that attended it.
Montoya most certainly didn’t know it, but many of those who were there had no idea what they had come for.
â€œIt must be some recreation,â€ answered several elderly people as they emerged at noon from a car that had transported them from La Divisa. They noted that they had been invited by the permanent Army post that functions in their barrio.
Several leaders confirmed that the call to attend was received through the Fourth Brigade.
By 12:00 noon soldiers were seen carrying street banners with messages like: â€œMany thanks for your support SeÃ±or General Mario Montoya.â€
Other soldiers prepared the high school’s auditorium and received the first invitees.
It is also troubling that the microbuses [vans that brought many of those in attendance] were from Bellanita de Transportes and Tax & Col Ltda., businesses owned by Albeiro Quintero, who is justifiably questioned for his presumed ties with the â€œparasâ€ of Diego Fernando Murillo, alias â€œDon Berna.â€
An article on the website of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana also found that much of the audience did not know what they had been called to attend:
â€œI’m here to see what they’re giving. I hope they give me some roof tiles for my house,â€ said MarÃa del Rosario Usuga, minutes before General Mario Montoya arrived at a high school in MedellÃn’s El Salado barrio. [The Semana report refers to the same event; El Salado is adjacent to the Las Independencias barrios.] Like her, many were confused about what was to happen at 2:00 Tuesday afternoon at the education center. In addition to roofing tiles, some also came asking for food: â€œIs this where they are giving out chicken?â€ asked an elderly woman who had come from the 20 de Julio barrio.
The Semana article adds further information about paramilitary collaboration with the 2002 Operation OriÃ³n military offensive. It borrows much from testimonies of demobilized paramilitary fighters gathered by the Popular Training Institute (IPC), a MedellÃn-based human-rights organization. (Read in Spanish the IPC’s more extensive excerpts from demobilized paramilitaries’ testimonies about Operation OriÃ³n. Also read in Spanish the IPC’s vivid account of Gen. Montoya’s Tuesday visit to Comuna 13.)
According to these testimonies, some members of the former Cacique Nutibara bloc carried out coordinated actions with the authorities to re-take that sector of the city, which was being held by militias of the FARC, the ELN and the CAP [Armed Commandos of the People, an old organization of guerrilla-linked, putatively leftist street gangs.] These actions lasted for more than two months, during which they implemented a strategy of terror that left at least fifty disappeared.
â€œAll the authorities who took part in the Operation helped us,â€ said one of the demobilized, referring not only to the Army but to the Police, the attorney-general’s office and the DAS (the presidential intelligence service). â€œWe received help, legally, from all the authorities. One of them communicated with ‘King Kong,’ the [paramilitary] commander in the zone. When they came to enter the neighborhood, we retreated, so that they entered and we left,â€ the account continued.
There are coincidences in the operation’s name, which also create suspicions of possible ties between paramilitaries and the military operation in Comuna 13. According to the IPC, the paras themselves, led by Don Berna, gave the name OriÃ³n to the military command that entered the Comuna alongside the legal authorities. In addition, OriÃ³n is the alias of Fabio Acevedo, a former mid-level leader of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc.
Acevedo, the former Comandante OriÃ³n, is now a director and one of the most visible members of the CorporaciÃ³n Democracia, a MedellÃn-based NGO formed by demobilized members of Don Berna’s Nutibara Bloc.
3. Threaten to sue. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told a radio interviewer that a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times is an option on the table.
Santos also told â€œLa FMâ€ radio that the press should â€œbe very careful about mentioning the namesâ€ of military officers who face allegations, because â€œthe enemies of the government, the enemies of the army will do a lot of damage to us.â€
Asked by his interviewer whether he â€œwould hold his hand over a candle flameâ€ for Gen. Montoya, Santos said â€œI believe what the general says, that he did not work with paramilitaries.â€ When the reporter insisted, asking â€œwould you burn your hands?â€ Santos replied, â€œI wouldn’t burn my hands for anyone these days. But I believe Gen. Montoya.â€