Colombia Drug-Fighter Learns Hazard of Blowing the Whistle
Army hero who revealed military's ties to 'death squads' loses his job
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Until last year, retired Col. Carlos Alfonso Velasquez could boast 30 years of exemplary service in the Colombian Army, 14 decorations, pivotal victories against the Cali cocaine cartel, and an immaculate record.
Then in August he was declared disloyal, dishonest, and insubordinate. On Jan. 1, the Army asked for his resignation. This year, he's working for a bank in Bogota.
"What happened was that I talked. Clearly and publicly," Colonel Velasquez says.
Velasquez talked about what the Colombian Army has denied for years: the Army's tolerance, if not outright cooperation, with paramilitary groups that terrorize Colombia's citizens while ostensibly battling the country's powerful guerrilla forces.
"Many in the Army see the guerrilla as a personal enemy. They think 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' So they don't see the paramilitaries as their opponents," Velasquez explains.
Paramilitaries are right-wing private armies, usually funded by large landowners and drug traffickers to protect them from the "taxes" levied on them by guerrilla groups. In recent years, paramilitaries have become more organized - even holding a convention last year.
Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Cordoba and Uraba, one such group, has taken credit for more than 100 executions in the last three months. The victims are usually unarmed farmers accused of collaborating with guerrillas.
In his report to Gen. Manuel Jose Bonnet, commander of the Army, Velasquez indicated that there was a crucial omission in the fight against paramilitary groups in the northern region of Uraba, where he served as second in command of the XVII brigade. He suggested that by failing to protect civilians from the paramilitaries as well as the guerrillas, the Army had lost the support of the public. When officials investigated, they denied the substance of the report and sanctioned Velasquez for insubordination and dishonesty.
Human rights groups call the paramilitaries death squads and criticize the Army for tacitly supporting them. In November, New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report alleging that cooperation with paramilitaries was formal policy within the armed forces.
On Jan. 30, the US State Department released an assessment of Colombia's human rights record that reinforced Velasquez's allegation: "The Samper administration has not taken action to curb increased abuses committed by paramilitary groups, verging on a policy of tacit acquiescence.... The armed forces seldom restrained paramilitary activity and abuses."
Last month, after a killing spree by paramilitaries and pressure from rights groups, the Army released its priorities for 1997. Combating paramilitaries, protecting human rights, and regaining community support were top priorities. Ironically, it's just what Velasquez had suggested in the report that he says got him fired.
Gen. Harold Bedoya, chief of the armed forces, would only comment, "The Army as an institution may require one of its officers to resign at its discretion."
Velasquez first gained kudos as commander of the Army's antidrug task force in Cali. In the summer of 1994, the colonel arrested Guillermo Pallomari, accountant for the leaders of the Cali cartel. The arrest of Mr. Pallomari and subsequent analysis of his files led to the investigation of campaign contributions made by the drug lords to President Ernesto Samper. Mr. Samper was later cleared of any knowledge of the contribution, but the cartel had begun to unravel. Within the year, the two leaders of the cartel were behind bars.
"[Velasquez] did a superb job, and is totally incorruptible," says US Ambassador Myles Frechette regarding the colonel's performance fighting the cartel.
Indeed, during his tenure in Cali, he says the cartel tried to bribe him, beginning with an offer of $200,000. Next the cartel tried threats, delivering the first messages through Velasquez's sister. "They wanted me to know that they could get to my family," he says.
Finally, the cartel tried to discredit Velasquez with a high-profile smear campaign. But none of these tactics shook him off their track.
After a year in Cali and six months back in Bogota, Velasquez transferred north to the Gulf of Uraba. Uraba is one of the most polarized regions in Colombia's 30- year civil war - a conflict that claimed more than 4,000 deaths last year in combat and related political violence. Rights groups estimate that up to 90 percent of the victims in Uraba are unarmed civilians. After analyzing the situation, Velasquez decided the Army needed to focus on protecting civilians rather than chasing guerrillas.
"The Army still counts its success in the number of guerrillas killed or captured," he says. "For me, ... the indicators should be whether kidnaps and homicides go down. The Army is chasing the guerrilla like it is the bull. If we protect civilians, we will be the bullfighter."