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CHAOS IN COLOMBIA

Incidents May Link Colombian Army to Paramilitary Squads

September 15, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARAUCA, Colombia — Efrain Varela had a big mouth.

During his daily radio show, he lashed out at all the players in this humid provincial capital. Corrupt politicians. Leftist guerrillas. And, most recently, right-wing paramilitary squads.

And so it came as little surprise when two SUVs packed with armed men forced the outspoken journalist's car off the road in June. They dragged him out screaming and shot him point-blank in the face.

What was surprising was where the killing took place: between two military checkpoints a few miles apart, according to witnesses. Despite roadblocks and constant searches of vehicles, nobody was caught in the June 28 killing.

"The military and the paramilitaries here are the same," said one of the people traveling with Varela when he was killed.

Varela's slaying was the most recent indication of possible cooperation between Colombia's violent right-wing paramilitaries and soldiers in the 18th Brigade, the local army unit.

Human rights activists have long documented collaboration between the Colombian military and the paramilitaries, who share a common enemy in the nation's leftist guerrillas.

But a link between the 18th Brigade and paramilitaries, if proven, would be serious, because the U.S. is planning to embark on an ambitious program over the next several years to train soldiers in the brigade.

U.S. aid to Colombia is supposed to be suspended if the Colombian military does not aggressively pursue the paramilitaries, who are listed as terrorists by the State Department.

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Attacks on Pipeline

The 18th Brigade is responsible for providing protection for an oil pipeline jointly owned by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum and the Colombian state oil company. Colombia's leftist rebels unleashed a wave of attacks against the pipeline last year, but the number of strikes has since diminished.

The 18th Brigade was most recently cleared of human rights violations in June. And last week, the State Department certified that the Colombian military as a whole was actively combating paramilitaries.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), head of the Foreign Operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, protested the certification, saying he was concerned about reports of links between the brigade and the paramilitaries.

"We do not want to repeat the experience of El Salvador, when we, in effect, provided training and equipment to death squads," he said.

The U.S. proposal in Arauca is similar to aid provided to El Salvador during the 1980s, when U.S. troops trained Salvadoran military units to fight that country's leftist guerrillas. Some of those units were later accused of committing massacres and torture.

The U.S. has proposed spending $98 million to fund new helicopters, increased intelligence sharing and training for the estimated 7,000 men in the brigade. The proposal is the first time that U.S. money will go directly to help the Colombian army in its nearly 40-year-old battle with the guerrillas.

"This is a corrupted force, and now [the U.S.] is going to make it stronger," said Jose Murillo, a local human rights worker.

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Other Incidents Reported

Human rights groups say they have information on several other incidents of selective killings that took place within a few hundred yards of police or military posts.

In January, Angel Riveros was killed in the town of Tame by heavily armed men who somehow passed through a military checkpoint. Riveros was a key witness in a case in which the military has been accused of dropping a bomb on the town of Santo Domingo, killing 18 civilians.

There have also been cases in which the two groups seem to have closely coordinated movements. Witness for Peace, a left-leaning activist group, documented a case this year in which a paramilitary squad entered a town only days after the departure of an 18th Brigade unit. The paramilitaries had free rein for a month, leading to eight disappearances. They left days before the unit returned.

But Colombian prosecutors insist that they are aggressively investigating charges of collaboration between the two groups. They are reviewing scores of allegations of human rights violations against the 18th Brigade, but so far have found no evidence of a link between the army and paramilitaries.

"There has been nothing. Put that in big letters," said one of those working with a special task force of prosecutors investigating the charges in Arauca.

Gen. Carlos Lemus, whose record as a commander of the 18th Brigade contains no history of human rights violations, said there is no proof that any of his men has ever worked with paramilitaries. The army has killed at least nine paramilitary fighters in battle this year.

"The accusations of [cooperation with paramilitaries] are totally unfounded," Lemus said.

Still, during interviews, paramilitary leaders displayed an uncanny knowledge of military operations. Comandante Mario, leader of a local squad, told two anecdotes--the killing of several Colombian soldiers in Venezuela and the planting of a bomb inside the Occidental compound--that are not widely known outside local military circles.

In addition, his men have been able to move freely through Arauca in the past months, possible only by using heavily guarded local roads during the seasonal flooding that fills the marshy prairies of eastern Colombia this time of year.

Comandante Freddy, a paramilitary squad leader, said at a paramilitary roadblock about 15 miles from battalion headquarters that his men must flee whenever the army comes in sight.

"The army is apart from us, and we're different from the army," he said as he lounged at the crossroads with about three dozen men.

"Of course, there are some sectors that share our beliefs."

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