When they saw military helicopters dropping uniformed men on a hillside above town, inhabitants of the mountain village of Buenos Aires thought that the Army had come to protect them from a marauding band of far-right paramilitaries who were terrorizing this rugged Andean region.
But no troops intervened when some 200 militiamen stormed the community two days later. Brandishing assault rifles and machetes, the paramilitaries announced that they were hunting rebels.
"Where were the soldiers? Why didn't they stop those people?" asks villager Marlene Correa.
A new report from the United Nations that the Colombian security forces maintain an intimate relationship with these far-right death squads, could jeopardize the $1.6 billion aid package for Colombia still under debate in the US Senate. Analysts warn that the package - primarily military in scope - might help an Army which supports the violent squads.
According to the UN report, released on April 14, members of the military participated in massacres, organized paramilitary groups, and spread death threats. "The security forces also failed to take action, and this undoubtedly enabled the paramilitary groups to achieve their exterminating objectives," it added.
President Andrs Pastrana and his forces are presently entangled in a devastating civil war with Marxist guerrillas - who have been waging war on the government since the mid-'60s. The main leftist groups are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), mainly in the north. Both are fierce rivals of the ultra-right paramilitaries since all three are battling for territory, political power, and kickbacks from drug traffickers. Yesterday, Mr. Pastrana agreed to pull troops from a northern region and turn the zone over to the ELN for peace talks. But paramilitary commanders announced they might attack the zone.
Colombia's ambassador to the UN, Camilo Reyes Rodrguez, denies any collusion with the far-right militia. Addressing the General Assembly he said, "The Colombian government cannot accept that the authorities have a generalized responsibility for the actions of these criminal groups."
US law forbids aid to military units involved in human rights abuses. Unfortunately, concrete proof of links with the paramilitaries is hard to obtain.
According to one Western diplomat, witnesses are often too scared to testify, and even state investigators fear to delve into cases of possible collusion. "It's like abortion in a Catholic country. Everyone knows it's going on - but nobody sees it happen," he says.
Loosely allied as the "United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia," or AUC, the paramilitaries now field between 5,000 and 7,000 fighters. They are a hybrid force combining the private armies of powerful landlords and drug dealers with now-outlawed rural intelligence networks once set up by the government to combat leftist guerrillas. These militias rarely launch direct attacks against rebel groups, instead targeting civilians accused of supporting the guerrillas.
Although Pastrana has repeatedly pledged to crack down on soldiers who collaborate with paramilitaries, evidence suggests some units have done little to break old habits. According to the State Department, some servicemen provide them with weapons and intelligence. Others merely look the other way.
One region hit by last year's paramilitary onslaught was the Andean range north of Cali. The AUC's "Calima Front" murdered a peasant farmer and his daughter in July and publicly warned locals to leave the region or die. Since August the group has killed more than 90 people, and forced around 2,000 to flee their homes. The Calima Front then arrived in Buenos Aires in late September.
"It was the worst.... They said 'Speak, or we'll kill the men like dogs - where are the guerrillas?' " remembers Marlene Correa. Before dawn, the paramilitaries shot and killed her son, Luis.
What she cannot understand is how the paramilitaries managed to arrive and escape unchallenged.
Local police and army officials deny reports from villagers that military helicopters flew over the village in the days before the raid, dropping off armed men in the mountains above town.
When the paramilitaries finally withdrew from Buenos Aires they marched down the same road used just two hours later by an Army unit sent to intercept them. But those soldiers claim they never saw the militiamen.
"How do you explain that? Two hundred armed men don't just disappear," asked one Colombian human rights official, who asked not to be named.
After the incursion, over 700 villagers fled to the nearby town of Buga - many to makeshift lodgings like the sports arena. They still fear for their safety, especially since a lawyer who had taken up their case was killed in January.
In addition, Lt. Col. Rafael Jani of the "Palace" Battalion in Buga admits that an ex-guerrilla turned paramilitary spy has regularly visited him with information on rebel movements.
"It's true, but he doesn't work with us.... Many informers aren't model citizens, but if someone comes here and tells me where the guerrillas are hiding, I have to use his information," he says.
Military commanders say that the overstretched Army is powerless to stop the paramilitaries, and that many locals are uncooperative, thanks to accusations from human rights groups.
"Information always gets to us too late, because people are scared to speak to us. Look at the damage these slanders create," says Brig. Gen. Jaime Ernesto Canal.
But according to local priest Carlos Alberto Quiceno, "Everyone knows where [the right-wing fighters] are. But when the paramilitaries arrive, the police withdraw to their barracks."
And while Mrs. Correa must sleep in a crowded sports hall, farmers report the Calima Front has set up a permanent base in the abandoned village of Buenos Aires.
"The paras are living in our houses," she says. "They have dances and cock-fights up there. What more information do the army want ?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society