From Knight-Ridder, March 21:
BOGOTA, Colombia – It’s pretty easy to tell when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is angry. The bespectacled president usually airs his grievances in public, particularly against errant generals in his army.
Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has dismissed 11 army generals, most of them in a brusque, public manner that has left many analysts and former military officers wondering how this affects morale in the armed forces.
The latest dismissal came in February, when a scandal over the brutal hazing of cadets at an army training facility led to the dismissal of the respected army commander, Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos.
“The civilian authority doesn’t need to give corrective orders through the press,” retired Gen. Manuel Jose Bonnet told The Miami Herald. Uribe “is showing he has authority, but this is unnecessary and exaggerated because civilian authority over the army has never been questioned.”
Colombia has not had a military ruler since 1957, and rumors of coup plots are rare. What’s more, polls show the public in Colombia has welcomed Uribe’s authoritarian style, especially since it seems to get results.
The president has had consistently high approval ratings since entering office and ordering an unprecedented military offensive into traditionally guerrilla-held territory, altering the map of the country’s four-decades-old conflict. But when things go wrong, the army seems to take the brunt of the blame.
“If we aren’t capable of accepting this responsibility, we should just resign,” Uribe told the media early in his tenure after being informed of guerrilla incursions in the north of the country.
In other instances, he hasn’t been so generous. After an attack in southern Colombia left 12 soldiers dead, Uribe fired the general in the area, along with the director of the presidential intelligence unit known as DAS, and the national director of the army’s anti-kidnapping unit.
When allegations erupted that another general along the southern border with Ecuador had been misusing funds, the president’s office issued a communique stating the general had been removed “for poor spending habits.” He later got rid of four generals at once for poor results in the war against the guerrillas.
“Sometimes President Uribe is hit with the impact that some facts produce in the public arena,” said Alfredo Rangel, a former civilian consultant to the armed forces and current candidate for senator on a pro-Uribe ticket. “And the management in military affairs is run more by public opinion.”
The latest incident last month, when Uribe dismissed Castellanos, came after the newsweekly Semana magazine broke the story involving the brutal treatment of young cadets, who were branded with red-hot pokers, had their faces smeared with cow dung, and were sexually assaulted.
Following the story, Uribe blasted the general, who had led the army to some of its more stunning achievements in recent years, including the capture or killing of several top guerrilla commanders near the capital city of Bogota.
“It’s difficult to defend the idea that we respect human rights … when we are accused of violating human rights inside the armed forces,” he said during the swearing in of Castellanos’ replacement, Gen. Mario Montoya.
Former military officers who wished to remain anonymous because they did not want to become involved in the case told The Miami Herald that Castellanos had the respect of officers like few others before him.
The day Castellanos resigned, he had to convince 10 other generals not to resign with him in solidarity, according to news reports and the former military officers. But the result of his public dismissal, it appears, was to lower morale of the troops.
“It greatly affects the morale of those in combat and the long-term viability of some of Uribe’s programs,” said Rafael Nieto a former interior minister.
One program is Plan Patriota, the massive offensive in the south of the country against strongholds of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s largest remaining rebel group. The guerrillas have retaken the initiative in recent weeks, blocking roads, burning vehicles, destroying oil infrastructure and attacking politicians in urban areas.
“It wasn’t the right moment to do it,” Nieto said of the Castellanos’ dismissal. “As the saying goes, ‘You don’t switch horses in the middle of the river.'”
Sean Donahue of Narco News has this to say about Gen. Montoya:
Alleged Former Paramilitary Named Military Commander
A general who is believed to have once been a member of a right-wing terrorist group now heads Colombia’s armed forces.
Just days before signing a trade agreement with the U.S. which will accelerate the sell-off of Colombia’s land and resources to foreign corporations, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe appointed General Mario Montoya to head Colombia’s armed forces.
Uribe brought in Montoya, long a favorite of the U.S., to help rehabilitate the military’s image following a hazing scandal. Montoya, however, has his own dark past — throughout a long career, working to consolidate resource-rich areas, the general has frequently been charged with working hand in hand with right-wing paramilitaries. At the press conference announcing Montoya’s promotion, Uribe said “In this moment of our Nation’s history we need triumphant commanders. We don’t need commanders to justify defeats” and called for “a final victory” — giving Montoya a clear go-ahead to use any means necessary to crush resistance in Colombia.
I wrote about Montoya’s sordid career in some detail a few years back, but it seems time to review a few of the details:
* Montoya is widely believed to have been an active participant in a bombing campaign carried out by the paramilitary group “American Anti-Communist Action” in 1978. According to Fr. Javier Giraldo, SJ, the group, which was led by military intelligence officers, blew up the offices of the Communist party, a daily newspaper, and a magazine and kidnapped and disappeared activists. Human rights groups made the charges against Montoya public in the 1992 report, “State Terrorism in Colombia.” The following year he served as a guest instructor at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. (See also the 12/31/77 entry in Giraldo’s “Cronología de hechos reveladores del Paramilitarismo como política de Estado.”)
* Montoya commanded the 24th Brigade in Putumayo, where he was charged with taking control of the countryside back from the FARC. Visiting the region in 2000 the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Robert Collier reported:
“Since early last year, when the army started a gradual offensive to try to take back rebel-dominated Putumayo, the paramilitaries have been right behind them, working in silent tandem.
“The paramilitaries came to La Hormiga in January 1999. With army troops from thenearby 24th Brigade blocking roads behind them, the gunmen selected 26 people,mostly youths, and executed them on suspicion of being guerrillas. In November 1999, the death squads massacred 12 more people in El Placer, 10 miles away. And over the past year, as many as 100 civilians have been killed in the province, mostly one by one.”
* The 24th Brigade was barred from receiving U.S. funding due to mounting evidence of strong cooperation between the military and the paramilitaries at La Hormiga. Nevertheless, Montoya was placed in charge of two counter-narcotics battalions entirely armed, trained, and funded by the U.S. while maintaining command of the 24th. The U.S. Embassy was fully aware that the 1st Counter-Narcotics Battalion was sharing barracks and intelligence with the 24th Brigade.
* Montoya was later moved to the Fourth Brigade, based in Medellin, which carried out operations throughout Antioquia and Choco. In May of 2002, Montoya ordered a massive assault on the poor Comuna 13 neighborhood of Medellin. Forrest Hylton reported:
“In the early morning hours of May 21, 2002, some 700 troops backed by tanks moved in while neighborhood militias attempted to impede the advance with machine guns. Blackhawk helicopters rained down bullets indiscriminately on targeted neighborhoods; house-to-house searches that gave way to looting were conducted with no warrant and announced with bullets through front doors; young men were dragged into the streets, bound, beaten and/or killed with children looking on. Heroic neighborhood residents tried to rescue the injured and provide medical attention amidst a hail of bullets fired by agents of the state. People hung white sheets, towels, and shirts from their windows to express their desire for a cease-fire; children armed with sticks and stones confronted soldiers and police, demanding that they leave the neighborhood, shouting, ‘We want peace! We want peace!’ The siege lasted more than twelve hours, and by the time it was finished, nine people including three children were dead, while 37 were injured and 55 detained.
“General Mario Montoya, head of the army’s Fourth Brigade and leader of the scorched earth campaigns in Putumayo in 2000-2001, characterized the May 21 operation in Comuna 13 as an unqualified success: ‘We have obtained excellent results against the various bands of criminals that operate in the city. We will not stop.'”
* Montoya went onto command the military’s First Division and was implicated in the kidnapping of a Colombian teacher and activist from Venezuela.
Years ago a Colombian journalist told me that North Americans who accuse the Colombian military of running paramilitary groups have it backwards — its the paramilitaries and the far right that control the military. Montoya’s appointment seems to confirm his theory.
See our last post on Colombia.