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Colombia army chief linked to outlaw militias

The allegations come as Congress reviews aid to the U.S. ally. The CIA says the intelligence hasn't been fully vetted.

March 25, 2007|Paul Richter and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The CIA has obtained new intelligence alleging that the head of Colombia's U.S.-backed army collaborated extensively with right-wing militias that Washington considers terrorist organizations, including a militia headed by one of the country's leading drug traffickers.

Disclosure of the allegation about army chief Gen. Mario Montoya comes as the high level of U.S. support for Colombia's government is under scrutiny by Democrats in Congress. The disclosure could heighten pressure to reduce or redirect that aid because Montoya has been a favorite of the Pentagon and an important partner in the U.S.-funded counterinsurgency strategy called Plan Colombia. The $700 million a year Colombia receives makes it the third-largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign assistance.

Montoya has had a long and close association with Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, and would be the highest-ranking Colombian officer implicated in a growing political scandal in the South American country over links between the outlawed militias and top officials. The scandal already has implicated the country's former foreign minister, at least one state governor, legislators and the head of the national police, and has shaken Uribe's government.

President Bush called Uribe a "personal friend" two weeks ago during a visit to Bogota, and his government is one of the Bush administration's closest allies in Latin America.

The intelligence about Montoya is contained in a report recently circulated within the CIA. It says that Montoya and a paramilitary group jointly planned and conducted a military operation in 2002 to eliminate Marxist guerrillas from poor areas around Medellin, a city in northwestern Colombia that has been a center of the drug trade.

At least 14 people were killed during the operation, and opponents of Uribe allege that dozens more disappeared in its aftermath.

The intelligence report, reviewed by The Times, includes information from another Western intelligence service and indicates that U.S. officials have received similar reports from other reliable sources.

In addition to his close cooperation with U.S. officials on Plan Colombia, Montoya has served as an instructor at the U.S.-sponsored military training center formerly called the School of the Americas. The Colombian general was praised by U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Pace directed the regional military command for Latin America, and Montoya has been organizing a new Colombian counternarcotics task force with U.S. funds.

There have been rumors that Montoya has worked with the paramilitaries, but no charges have been lodged by authorities.

For decades, Colombia has been wracked by a civil war pitting left-wing militias against the government. An estimated 3 million Colombians have been forced from their homes and thousands killed during the course of the fighting. Right-wing paramilitary groups, long suspected of links to the government, joined the fight in the 1980s. They were formed ostensibly as defensive forces against leftist groups, but soon became involved in massive land grabs, drug trafficking and takeovers of businesses.

After his election in 2002, Uribe offered a plan to end the civil war under which about 31,000 right-wing fighters have given up their weapons and dozens of their leaders have surrendered in exchange for the promise of light sentences.

But Uribe has faced a steady stream of disclosures about links between the paramilitaries and officials close to him. Allegations that the militias' links reached to the top of the military are likely to intensify efforts by Democrats to cut the Colombian military's portion of a pending $3.9-billion multi-year aid package, congressional aides and regional analysts said. Eighty percent of U.S. aid to Colombia goes to the military and police.

In addition to the aid package, the administration is also seeking congressional approval of a separate U.S.-Colombian trade deal that already has met stiff opposition from Democrats.

The CIA document alleging Montoya's ties to the paramilitaries was made available for review by The Times by a source who refused to identify himself except as a U.S. government employee. He said he was disclosing the information because he was unhappy that Uribe's government had not been held more to account by the Bush administration.

The CIA did not dispute the authenticity of the document, although agency officials would not confirm it. At the CIA's request, The Times has withheld details of the document that agency officials said could jeopardize intelligence sources and methods. A spokesman urged against disclosure of the findings, saying that some are considered to be "unconfirmed" intelligence.

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