With aid at stake, Colombia prioritizes human rights

This week, Colombian officials visited Washington to ask for some $1.5

The injured rebel writhes in the dirt as the infantry patrol approaches, rifles cocked and ready. Gunfire from his retreating comrades echoes through the jungle air.

"Soldier, help me! Please don't shoot!" he wails, as the troops surround him.

But instead of delivering the coup de grce, the army commander hunkers down and offers his wounded enemy a canteen of water.

It's not a scene from a Hollywood action movie - but nevertheless, the soldiers and "rebel" are all acting.

On the training grounds of the Tolemaida military base, the Colombian Army is using role-playing to teach the principles of human rights. And with billions of dollars of international aid at stake, Army commanders are eager to show the world that humanitarian conduct is now a top priority.

This week, in fact, Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Fernando Tapias was in Washington, seeking some $1.5 billion in military aid over the next three years to tackle the drug trade and to combat leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

But the Colombian military must first prove that it has broken with its checkered past, because US legislation prohibits assistance to any army unit with a history of human rights abuses.

"They started worrying about human rights the moment their funding was affected," says Tefilo Vargas, an investigator for the Center for Education and Popular Research, a Bogot-based human rights organization.

US military aid to Colombia has more than tripled over the past three years, making the country the third-largest recipient of military support, after Israel and Egypt.

This year alone, Colombia received $289 million from the United States, most of which was channeled to the Colombian National Police for antinarcotics operations. That focus changed this year, with the launch last month of a new US-funded antinarcotics battalion, trained by American advisers at the Tolemaida base.

Colombia's 35-year guerrilla war pits leftist rebels against the Army and paramilitary militias. Most of the casualties are noncombatants - generally poor campesinos hauled from their homes by gangs of masked killers who accuse them of collaborating with their enemies.

According to the US State Department, the Colombian military - especially the Army - was directly involved in torture, assassinations, and intimidation throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Sometimes troops acted in cooperation with the illegal paramilitary squads, funded by powerful landowners and drug barons.

Since then the Army has greatly improved its record, largely because of pressure from the international community. Figures from the Colombian attorney general's office show that the complaints against the military have dropped from 2,000 in 1996 to 40 so far this year.

While the Army's own record has improved, the military still faces regular accusations of tolerating - or even cooperating with - the right-wing paramilitaries.

"The Army says that their violations of human rights have diminished, but they don't just have to behave well - they also have the constitutional responsibility to protect the Colombian people," says independent Congressman Antonio Navarro Wolf.

President Andrs Pastrana has started to crack down on Army links with the paramilitaries. Last month he cashiered Brig. Gen. Alberto Bravo,the third general to be fired this year for tolerating paramilitary actions.

And the Army has stepped up its own public-relations offensive, regularly shipping journalists and foreign correspondents to the sweltering Tolemaida base to witness human rights training exercises.

"I've done countless demonstrations - for officers, for the foreign press, for American officials," second-year cadet Jos Ancizar Espinosa told a group of visiting journalists.

As helicopters roar overhead, Mr. Espinosa and his fellow trainees demonstrate the correct way to deal with a surrendered rebel in a mock-up guerrilla camp. One soldier tries to interrogate the prisoner, but the others pull him away.

"Any information that we get must be voluntary, without any pressure, and especially not torture. I'm going to report you to the company commander," scolds the face-painted patrol commander.

But according to human rights investigator Vargas, training alone cannot change a war in which all sides identify the civilian population with their enemy

"The Army, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries all fail to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. There are entire villages which the Army considers guerrilla strongholds. They do the exercises, but how much theory gets used in practice?" he says.

According to Carlos Salinas from Amnesty International, the priority is not training, but tougher sentences for convicted abusers. "Without effective disciplinary and judicial actions against members of the security forces who are involved with human rights violations, training amounts to nothing. Soldiers get the message that the human rights training is just part of the US window-dressing, but on the ground the reality is still violations and impunity," he says.

And there is evidence that many crimes still go unpunished. In June this year two Army officers were convicted of the 1994 murder of left-wing Sen. Ivan Cepeda, on the orders of Lt. Col. Rodolfov Herrera. They were given a severe reprimand but remain on active service. Colonel Herrera died of a heart attack in 1997, and was never tried for the crime.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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