Colombia rejects CIA report on army-para ties

The Los Angeles Times reported March 25 on new CIA intelligence indicating that the Colombia’s army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, collaborated extensively with right-wing paramilitaries that Washington considers terrorist organizations. The report circulated within the CIA and obtained by the LAT claims Montoya and a paramilitary group jointly planned and carried out a 2002 “Operation Orion” to eliminate guerrillas from poor areas around Medellin. Operation Orion sent 3,000 Colombian army troops and police, supported by helicopter gunships, into the vast guerilla-controlled shantytowns ringing Medellin. At least 14 people were killed in the operation, and rights observers say dozens more disappeared in its aftermath. The UN and Organization of American Stateshave investigated the reports, and Colombian Sen. Gustavo Petro, an opponent of Uribe, publicly charged that 46 disappeared during the operation.

The CIA report cited an unnamed allied Western intelligence agency as the source for the claims about Montoya’s involvement. The allied intelligence agency said its informant was an unconfirmed source and cautioned that the report was to be treated as raw intelligence. But the document also included a comment from the defense attachĂ© of the US Embassy in Bogota, Col. Rey A. Velez: “This report confirms information provided by a proven source.”

According to the document, the attachĂ© said information from the proven source “also could implicate” the head of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon, who commanded the military in Barranquilla during the same period.

The informant cited in the CIA report claimed that the army, police and paramilitaries had signed documents spelling out their plans for cooperation in the sweep. The signatories were said to be Montoya, a local police commander, and paramilitary leader Fabio Jaramillo—a local subordinate of Medellin paramilitary chief Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano. Murillo, known as Don Berna, is said to have assumed control of the Medellin drug trade after the death of kingpin Pablo Escobar. He is now in a Colombian jail, and the US is seeking his extradition.

Montoya has had a long and close association with Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, and would be the highest-ranking Colombian officer implicated in a growing political scandal over links between the government and outlawed paramilitaries. President Bush called Uribe a “personal friend” two weeks ago during a visit to Bogota, and his government is one of the Bush administration’s closest allies in Latin America.

In addition to his close cooperation with US officials on Plan Colombia, Montoya has served as an instructor at the US Army training center formerly called the School of the Americas. The Colombian general was praised by US Marine Gen. Peter Pace, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Pace directed the US Southern Command.

The CIA did not dispute the authenticity of the document, although agency officials would not confirm it, and urged against disclosure of the findings, saying that some are considered to be “unconfirmed” intelligence.

“By describing what it calls a leaked CIA report containing material from another intelligence service — and unconfirmed material at that — the Los Angeles Times makes it less likely that friendly countries will share information with the United States,” said Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the agency. “And that ultimately could affect our ability to protect Americans.”

LAT managing editor Douglas Frantz responded: “We listened carefully to the CIA concerns and agreed to withhold details that the agency said jeopardized certain sources and ongoing operations, but our judgment is that the significance of the issues raised in this story warrant its publication.” (Los Angeles Times, March 25)

In a brief statement, Colombia’s government rejected the report and called for any charges with proof to be formally presented before judicial authorities. “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,” the statement said. (Reuters, March 25)

See our last posts on Colombia and the para scandal.