Colombian army chief accused of arming paramilitaries

A former paramilitary fighter testified in special judicial proceedings that Colombia’s armed forces chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, delivered weapons to a paramilitary death squad when he was a commander in Medellín, and the Colombian prosecutor general has opened an investigation into the charges, the Washington Post revealed on Sept. 17.

Videotaped testimony by Luis Adrián Palacio, made during two days of closed-door hearings in August, was viewed by the Post, which also quoted unnamed Colombian officials as confirming that the prosecutor general has initiated a preliminary criminal investigation of the allegations. In his testimony Aug. 11 and 12 in a Medellín courtroom, Palacio said Montoya was known as “the cousin” for his close relationship with the city’s notorious paramilitaries.

The Post’s Juan Forero also conducted a jailhouse interview in which Palacio recounted an April 2002 episode in which he asserted Montoya funneled weapons to a Medellín paramilitary militia commanded by Carlos Mauricio García AKA “Rodrigo 00”—including the personal delivery of a vehicle loaded with six assault rifles and a grenade launcher.

Montoya denied the allegations and called Palacio “a bandit” who is testifying against him to secure an early release from prison. “He is lying; he is lying out of all sides of his mouth,” Montoya, accompanied by two aides, said in his office. “I am a fighter. I am a warrior. That is why I have enemies. I defend Colombian democracy.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees funds to the Colombian army (Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee), expressed concern over the allegations. Leahy is holding up $72 million in funding because of reports that the army has killed hundreds of peasants in recent years and falsely presented the bodies as those of rebels killed in combat. Montoya is a leading proponent of compiling “combat kills” to measure success, a policy that human rights groups say fuels the slaying of civilians.

“There have been continuing concerns with reports linking General Montoya and troops under his command to paramilitaries,” Leahy said in a statement. “These allegations should be thoroughly investigated to assure that the chief of the Colombian Army—an institution that receives hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid each year—is of unimpeachable integrity.”

The White House stands behind Montoya. “Our experience with Montoya is a good one,” Thomas A. Shannon Jr., assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told Forero. “He is a great field commander. He’s done very well with the FARC.” Shannon said US officials were aware of past allegations against Montoya but “found nothing to support them.” Shannon did say the current accusations should be investigated.

In interviews, residents of Medellín’s Comuna 13 said the army’s 4th Brigade, under Montoya’s command, teamed up with paramilitary fighters in “Operation Orion” of October of 2002 against urban guerilla units. Reports surfaced later that paramilitary fighters killed suspected guerilla collaborators and buried their bodies in unmarked graves.

“No paramilitary commander operates alone,” said Sister Rosa Cadavid, a Catholic nun in the neighborhood who has publicly denounced Operation Orion. “They operate with the military, and the man in charge then was General Montoya.”

The allegations about Operation Orion are also contained in a classified CIA report, disclosed by the Los Angeles Times on March 25, 2007, that said Montoya conducted operations with the AUC in Comuna 13. Colombian authorities said the CIA report was based on unproven intelligence, and Montoya told Forero that Orion also was directed at paramilitary fighters.

But officials in the prosecutor general’s office said the CIA report is considered important evidence for investigations into paramilitary networks in Medellín. Montoya called the CIA report inaccurate. “In that operation, irregular things happened,” one anonymous official said of Orion.

Montoya’s rise through the army has included intelligence work in the Charry Solano Battalion—which was implicated in assassinations and bombings in the 1970s and ’80s—to leading Colombian forces in “counter-drug” efforts in southern Colombia earlier this decade. Paramilitary activity expanded dramatically in many of the regions of the country where he has been a top commander—such as Medellín and northeastern Santa Marta department, where court documents have shown close links between the state security apparatus and paramilitary commanders.

Montoya maintains he has always battled the paramilitaries as vigorously as he fought the guerillas. “In this job, you always have people accusing, but never have these accusations had legal repercussions,” he boasted to Forero. “People know that by making accusations you can get a lower sentence.”

But Forero pointed out that by agreeing to testify against Montoya, Palacio could actually end up serving more prison time—not less. A veteran of both the Colombian army and paramilitary AUC, Palacio was arrested in May 2003 on extortion, arms smuggling and other charges. He pleaded guilty in 2005 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. But having won credit for time served and good behavior, Palacio could have been released within a year when he agreed to testify under the paramilitary demobilization process. This also meant confessing to his own crimes. Testifying against Montoya while admitting to more than 20 homicides, could mean two to three additional years in prison.

Palacio told Forero he joined the paramilitary movement in 1998 and was ordered by “Rodrigo 00” to join the army the following year, so he could steal weapons, provide intelligence and form ties with corrupt officers. By November 2001, Palacio said, he was participating in counter-guerrilla operations with Medellin’s Granaderos Battalion, alongside paramilitary fighters. Montoya headed Medellin’s 4th Brigade from December 2001 to December 2003. “They collaborated with us, and we collaborated with them,” Palacio said. “They came with us, to patrol the neighborhoods.”

In a Sept. 6 editorial, the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Colombia needs to turn its attention to the growing number of murders allegedly committed by its armed forces… [A]ccording to a coalition of Colombian human rights groups, the military is killing civilians at an alarming pace—more than 300 in the last year. Worse, according to the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, 47% of the extrajudicial killings were committed by army units that had been vetted by the US State Department.”

The editorial called for accountability in US military aid: “Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on State Department and foreign operations and the author of a law linking foreign military aid to human rights compliance, has rightly called on Bogota to investigate and prosecute these crimes. The country’s military is operating under a culture of impunity that has to change. Colombia has received more than $4 billion in US aid since 2000, much of which has been used in the successful fight against the FARC. But the US should not be the financial backer of army-sponsored domestic terrorism.”

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is calling for messages to be sent to Congress: “They have the power to keep a hold on funds for guns, training and hardware for the Colombian army. They should use it! With the recent evidence linking Montoya to the paramilitaries, insist that Congress keep a hold on US military aid to Colombia. To send a message, click here.

See our last posts on Colombia and the paramilitary scandal.