BOGOTA, Colombia — Washington should tighten controls on military aid to Colombia because President Andres Pastrana has made only token efforts to sever links between his armed forces and a brutal right-wing paramilitary group, a human rights group said Thursday.
The report by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch alleges collaboration between three Colombian army brigades and the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, which has been assassinating suspected rebel collaborators.
In southern Putumayo state--the main target for a U.S.-backed offensive against drug crops--Colombian counternarcotics troops trained and equipped by the United States have been allowed to "freely mix" with the Colombian army's 24th Brigade. That division worked closely with and received money from the AUC, the report alleges.
Paramilitary groups are infecting Colombia like "a cancer," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch. U.S. military aid should be cut off if there is no certifiable progress on human rights, he added.
Responding to the report, Interior Minister Armando Estrada condemned the paramilitary groups Thursday and insisted that any reports of collaboration between the military and the groups would be investigated.
But according to Vivanco, the government's words are different from its actions.
"Even as President Andres Pastrana publicly deplores successive atrocities, each seemingly more gruesome than the last, the high-ranking officers he commands fail to take the critical steps necessary to prevent future killings," the report says.
It urges tougher enforcement of a U.S. law tying military aid to human rights improvements, controls on U.S. intelligence sharing, a review of visas granted to Colombian officers and increased U.S. aid for civilian prosecutors.
In recent weeks, Colombia has focused on human rights violations by the paramilitary groups' archenemy--the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Colombians are increasingly fed up with the rebels and the slow-moving peace talks.
Despite the AUC's brutal tactics, including village massacres, some here see its presence as a necessary evil in countering the guerrillas.
Pastrana has repeatedly pledged action to cut any ties between military personnel and the AUC. He has also dismissed several generals with suspected AUC ties.
But "the gulf between words and effective action remains vast," Human Rights Watch said.
Human rights monitors have long charged that paramilitary groups act as a shadow army, carrying out massacres with military complicity in a campaign to eliminate the guerrillas' civilian supporters.