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Colombia Purges Military to Polish Image

October 17, 2000|JUANITA DARLING and MICHAEL EASTERBROOK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BOGOTA, Colombia — In the first major purge of the armed forces here, Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez on Monday announced the dismissal of 388 officers and noncommissioned officers to professionalize the Colombian military.

Ramirez said the dismissals are part of an effort to improve the military's human rights record, but he did not directly accuse any of those fired of abuses.

"It's a decision without precedent in the history of the armed forces," said Gen. Fernando Tapias, Colombia's highest-ranking military officer. Human rights advocates agreed, although they emphasized that the military has room for further improvement.

It was not immediately clear whether the move will fulfill a human rights provision in the $1.3-billion U.S. anti-narcotics aid package for Colombia and its neighbors. President Clinton can override the provision if he deems that national security is at stake.

The funding has increased concerns about the Colombian military's role in a complex war with two major guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries, foes that are financed to some extent by the illegal drug trade. All of the armed groups have been accused of torturing and killing civilians who they believed were sympathetic to another faction, and of assassinating human rights activists investigating abuses.

Monday's mass firing was made possible by a decree recently signed by President Andres Pastrana allowing the defense minister to dismiss officers who are deemed unfit for duty. Previously, only the police were allowed to conduct such purges, and thousands of agents suspected of corruption or abuse of power have been fired during the past six years.

"It is a significant step in the right direction," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, which has documented ties between the armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups that terrorize peasants. "But the real test is criminal prosecution."

The highest-ranking officers in the purge were two lieutenant colonels and 15 majors. More than three-quarters of those fired were noncommissioned officers.

Vivanco urged the armed forces to stop resisting civilian authorities who are investigating accusations of human rights abuses against the top tier of officers.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has long insisted that the United States not give money to foreign armed forces with dubious human rights records, commended the Colombians' action. But he said he too is concerned that so few of those disciplined are high-level officers.

"Human rights crimes are often carried out with orders from above," Leahy said. "The officers who gave those orders should also be held accountable."

Colombian human rights activists attending a peace conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, aimed at bringing together the factions in their country's armed conflict were skeptical.

"It is a small gesture that will not lead to profound change," predicted Jesus Balbin of the Popular Training Institute.

The timing of the purge--the day the three-day conference opened--makes it look suspiciously like appeasement for the international community, he said. Ramirez, the defense minister, denied the accusation.

The United States did suspend military training and support for two battalions last month after learning that three soldiers had been accused of human rights violations, according to a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.

*

Times staff writer Darling reported from San Salvador and special correspondent Easterbrook from Bogota. Researcher Auriana Koutnik in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.

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