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COLOMBIA: Entire Battalion Dismantled Over Killings of Civilians

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jan 23 2009 (IPS) - The purge of the Colombian army over killings of civilians passed off as guerrilla casualties continues, this time with the dismantling of an entire army brigade and the removal of 11 officers who served in another battalion.

The purge affected the 15th mobile counterinsurgency brigade, which is active in the district of Catatumbo in the province of Norte de Santander, and the La Popa Battalion based in Valledupar in the province of Cesar. Both provinces are in northeastern Colombia along the Venezuelan border.

The 15th mobile brigade was completely replaced Friday by a new unit, the 23rd mobile counterinsurgency brigade, whose 1,400 members have reportedly received training on human rights, according to official reports.

It was in Catatumbo that the scandal initially broke out in September over extrajudicial killings of civilians presented as “results” in the counterinsurgency war – a practice that local and international human rights groups had been denouncing for three decades.

After the discovery of the bodies of 11 young men who had gone missing from a Bogota slum and appeared in a morgue hundreds of kilometres away registered as battlefield casualties, 30 officers and noncommissioned officers were sacked in late October, including three generals and 10 colonels.

Army chief General Mario Montoya stepped down a few days later. A year ago, IPS had been told that in diplomatic circles, Montoya was considered one of the promoters of the “body count” system, which uses incentives like bonuses, promotions and trips abroad to reward soldiers and officers for “results” in the counterinsurgency effort.

The La Popa Battalion also has a reputation for “false positives,” a military term referring to the corpses of civilians passed off by the Colombian military as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in action.

La Popa was also accused of committing human rights abuses in coordination with drug-running paramilitary groups that were partially demobilised in 2006 after negotiating a deal with the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe.

Former La Popa battalion commander Colonel Hernán Mejía is in prison on charges of carrying out joint operations with the far-right paramilitaries. He is also under investigation for presenting, as guerrilla battlefield casualties, 18 members of paramilitary groups who were killed by their own colleagues.

The 10 officers and one noncommissioned officer who were sacked Wednesday – in a decision that was not reported until Thursday – formed part of La Popa in the past but were now serving in other army units.

Armed forces chief General Freddy Padilla said legal charges have not been brought against the officers. But the conclusions of the internal military investigation will be turned over to the ordinary courts, which have received complaints of 150 civilians allegedly killed by the La Popa battalion.

The Colombian government, the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt, has in fact been under heavy diplomatic pressure since early 2008 because of the practice of extrajudicial killings.

The 15th mobile brigade was accused of extrajudicial executions by the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report, which was based on information from 2007.

Nevertheless, until recently, in meetings on international aid, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota has merely repeated Colombia’s official figures on the number of guerrilla casualties, deserters and prisoners, and demobilised paramilitaries.

Adding up the figures provided by the Defence Ministry from the February 2002 breakdown of the peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) until August 2008, the results are “surprising,” stated the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a highly respected local human rights group.

According to these figures, the “democratic security policy” followed since Uribe took office in 2002, in line with the “war on terrorism” promoted by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, led to a total of 114,259 paramilitaries or guerrillas killed, demobilised or imprisoned in that six and a half year period, said CODHES.

CODHES obtained that total by adding up the statistics provided in official reports on how many guerrillas have deserted or have been captured or killed, and how many paramilitaries have voluntarily demobilised or been seized or killed.

In the period in question, the Defence Ministry reported 12,713 “subversives killed,” 2,602 paramilitary deaths, and 3,948 “murdered” members of the security forces.

This month, the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA), a non-governmental research and archival institution located at the George Washington University, reported that declassified documents showed that U.S. authorities were aware of the practice of civilian killings by the army since at least 1990.

The declassified documents obtained by the NSA make it clear that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former U.S. ambassadors also knew about collaboration between the military and the largely drug-funded paramilitaries, even as the U.S. government gradually increased its support for the Colombian armed forces, stating that the “war on drugs” was one of its top priorities.

A tone of indignation can be detected in some of the declassified cables wired by ambassadors and other U.S. officials in Colombia.

U.S. expert Adam Isacson at the Centre for International Policy, also based in Washington, said “there has been – and still is – frustration among many U.S. officials over the repeated human rights scandals in the (Colombian) armed forces.

“My impression is that, despite their indignation, they continue to move forward in the belief, in first place, that the main interest of the United States, whether it be the anti-drug or counterinsurgency struggle, is more important than these ‘side-effects’,” he wrote in an email interview with IPS.

In addition, the officials believe that “contact and training with U.S. soldiers will lead to a reduction in these abuses,” said Isacson.

He added that “many officials have told me that the abuses by the armed forces in the 1990s were partly due to a lack of contact with the United States. I don’t know what they blame the abuses of this decade on.”

Isacson, an expert on U.S. policy towards Colombia, does not expect a major shift in the priorities of the administration of Barack Obama with respect to this civil war-torn South American country.

“I think there will be changes, but they won’t be very drastic,” he said.

The Obama administration “will continue working with the Colombian armed forces, and Colombia will probably remain the top recipient of military aid in the region,” he said, although he added that as a result of the escalation of drug trafficking and violence in Mexico, that country “could eventually take over that position.”

“However, the amount of aid (to Colombia) will be reduced, and it will be attached to stricter human rights conditions.”

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