Report: Colombian army head collaborated with 'terrorist' paramilitaries

The Central Intelligence Agency has evidence alleging that Colombia's top military leader "collaborated extensively" with right-wing paramilitary groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations, according to the Los Angeles Times. Colombia's government, however, denies the accusations.

The Times writes that according to CIA documents the newspaper reviewed, Gen. Mario Montoya, the head of the US-backed Colombian army, coordinated with paramilitary groups during a 2002 military sweep, dubbed Operation Orion, against Marxist guerrillas near Medellin. At least 14 people were killed during the operation, and critics of President Álvaro Uribe's government claim that even more people "disappeared" afterward.

Operation Orion sent 3,000 Colombian army soldiers and police, supported by heavily armed helicopter gunships, though a vast shantytown area controlled by Colombia's largest left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The operation has been widely considered a success and has been a key to Uribe's popularity. But there have long been allegations that after the army swept through, the paramilitaries filled the power vacuum, asserting their control with killings, disappearances and other crimes.

The Times writes that the CIA report implicates General Montoya, who commanded Operation Orion, as well as the overall head of Colombia's armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon. The informant who provided the information to the CIA is cited in the report as saying that the army, local police, and paramilitary groups had signed documents which spelled out their plans for Medellin.

Should the allegation hold up, Montoya would be the highest rankingColombian officer linked to the growing "para-political" scandal in Colombia. Several members of Mr. Uribe's government, including the former foreign minister and various legislators, have been tied to outlawed right-wing paramilitaries. The source who provided the CIA report to the Los Angeles Times — an unidentified US government employee — said that "he was disclosing the information because he was unhappy that Uribe's government had not been held more to account by the Bush administration."

The CIA did not confirm or deny the authenticity of the report, though the agency did request that the Times omit information that "could jeopardize intelligence sources and methods." The CIA also requested that the Times's findings not be released, as some of the sources are considered "unproven." The Times notes, however, that the CIA report itself underscores that the source of the Operation Orion information is confirmed by "a proven source."

Reuters reports that Colombia denied the CIA document's assertions about Montoya.

"Colombia's government rejects accusations made by foreign intelligence agencies against army commander General Mario Montoya, that have been filtered through the press, without evidence being presented to Colombian justice and the government," it said.

Montoya's alleged compact with right-wing paramilitaries is not the first to roil Colombia. Last week, the Colombia's chief federal prosecutor, Mario Iguaran, ordered 20 politicians to explain their involvement in the "Pact of Ralito,"The Associated Press reports.

The so-called Pact of Ralito was signed in 2001 by paramilitaries and elected officials, including former governors and congressmen, from the Caribbean coast. One of the signatories, pro-government Sen. Miguel de la Espriella, revealed its existence during a November newspaper interview.

The curtly worded covenant, named for the northern town of Santa Fe de Ralito near the ranch where it was signed, contains a list of innocuous-sounding goals like "rebuilding the motherland" on the basis of respect for property rights, national independence and the Constitution.

But the fact its existence was kept secret for so long has led many Colombians to conclude that the true aim of the pact was to pledge loyalty to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary umbrella group, and their scheme to take over the country's institutions ahead of their eventual demobilization.

Nine legislators and Jorge Noguera, the former head of Colombia's domestic intelligence agency under Uribe, have already been arrested for their role in the pact, though JURIST reports that Mr. Noguera was released on a technicality Friday. A Colombian appellate judge found that Noguera was "'illegally and unconstitutionally ... deprived of his freedom' because chief prosecutor Mario Iguaran had not personally issued an arrest request."

The Christian Science Monitor notes that right-wing paramilitaries remain in operation in Colombia, though they were supposedly demobilized in agreements forged by Uribe's government.

The chief of Colombia's paramilitary reintegration program, Frank Pearl, said last month that the government had "lost track" of 4,731 demobilized fighters. Former paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso stated last month that groups such as Black Eagles were rearming, and now number up to 5,000.

The same month, the Organization of American States Mission to Support the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) reported that 22 new illegal armed groups were active in 10 departments across the country.

Nowhere is the apparent rise of a "new generation" of paramilitaries on display more than in Barrancabermeja. The city has been rocked by 17 execution-style shootings so far this year, as well as three grenade attacks, one of which killed a young secretary at a real estate agency.

The Monitor reports that the Barrancabermeja police department "blames the fresh violence on criminal groups fighting over their stake in the illegal drug trade, rather than politically motivated paramilitary violence."

But [Father Eliécer Soto, the director of the human rights program of the Catholic diocese of Barrancabermeja] refutes this. "[The right-wing paramilitary group United Self-defense Forces of Colombia] had to disarm a strong part of their military structure so they could reintegrate their chiefs into civilian life," he says "but there are thousands of paramilitaries active around Colombia, and the massacres are continuing." He estimates that 40 to 50 percent of paramilitaries are still active. But he warns that the problem they represent to critics of "para-political" corruption is the same as before demobilization, Now, he says, it's more terrifying because it's clandestine. So, he says, "the effects on the people are the same."

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