The risks of U.S. aid

U.S. Special Forces trained human rights violators in Colombia



Members of the U.S. Congress are concerned that military aid to Colombia could be used to violate human rights, and they cite a recent incident as a case in point.

Senator Patrick Leahy, author of an amendment that bans the United States from providing aid to human rights violators, has obtained information that Colombian Col. Lino Sánchez was working on a “military planning” exercise with American Green Berets at the same time that he was involved in planning the Mapiripán Massacre. That information was developed by the Colombian federal prosecutor’s office.

Leahy’s office began an inquiry into the matter last year, following an interview session with El Espectador. Information resulting from that inquiry is the origin for this report, which shows Sánchez’s relationship with U.S. special forces in 1997.

This week, a discussion on a Colombia aid package was to be held at the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. Leahy, a member of the Committee, is also sponsor of a law that bans U.S. military from training human rights violators. Leahy requested a rigorous investigation of military forces to be trained, lest the Pentagon end up assisting the authors of crimes against humanity. This report, assembled by the Investigative Journalism Team of El Espectador, details a case in which such a violation has already taken place— during the Mapiripán Massacre, on July 20, 1997.

Such investigations are authorized under three agreements which force the Colombian government to maintain a human rights record on military forces “eligible” for training, and which at the same time allow the State Department to veto units in which even one member is suspected of a human rights violation.

The first agreement was signed in July 1997, when Colombia-U.S. relations were at their lowest point.

Then Ambassador Juan Carlos Esguerra and Undersecretary of State Barbara Larkin agreed on the final text in Washington on July 20, 1997, while in Bogotá Ernesto Samper presided over an Independence Day military parade marked by the absence of any military commander with him on the reviewing stand and by his own lack of a visa stamp in his passport to visit the United States.

General Commander Harold Bedoya Pizarro, an opponent of civilian oversight of human rights violations in the military, did not attend the parade; on July 22 he declared himself in rebellion and on July 25 he was replaced by Manuel José Bonett. The Inspector General of the Armed Forces and other members of the military high command had celebrated National Independence Day instead at the Army Special Forces School, built by U.S. Special Forces at Barrancón Island on the Guaviare River.

Two hours up the river, Mapiripán was empty. Forty-nine residents of Mapiripán had been massacred. The surviving residents of the village of 1,000 were still homeless on August 1, when the official announcement came that U.S military aid for the Colombian army was being unfrozen.

The Green Berets had at least three years of experience in Barrancón and had been conducting military planning exercises there during the two months leading up to the release of aid, announced in an agreement signed in Washington. The Colombian forces with them for the exercises were under the command of Col. Lino Sánchez – accused today by the Colombian Federal prosecutor’s office with planning the Mapiripán massacre with Carlos Castaño [the leader of paramilitary forces in Colombia].

With support provided by Senator Patrick Leahy, who requested and obtained information on the case, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, the Investigative Journalism Team from El Espectador, PIE, compiled and analyzed more than 4,500 pages of official documents in English and Spanish about the diplomatic, military and humanitarian events that took place during that Independence Day in San José del Guaviare, Mapiripán, Bogotá and Washington.

Based on this information, it can be concluded that the U.S. Army Special Operations 7th Group (Green Berets) carried out “military planning” training with Colonel Lino Sánchez’s troops, while he was planning a massive murder of civilians in Mapiripán. The goal was to eradicate the FARC [Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces guerrillas] and to allow Colombia’s United Self-Defense Forces [the paramilitary forces] to seize control of the illegal economy in the southern region of the Guaviare province which, according to the State Department, produced 30 percent of the world’s coca supply.

With no control

U.S. Special Operation Forces, under the command of the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (whose English acronym is Solic), trained in Colombia a long time before it was decided their operations should be examined in terms of human rights. Carlos Salinas, a specialist on the subject who works for Amnesty International in Washington, asserts that training was taking place since 1962.

In 1996, when the Leahy Amendment (which bans aid to military units involved in human rights violations) took effect, the State Department ruled that the record of abuses by Colombian Army personnel made most units “ineligible” to receive aid.

Solic continued sending trainers because, according to its legal interpretation, “joint combined exchange training” (JCET) must be considered training for US forces rather than aid for the country in which it takes place.

Such “exchanges” (or JCET), which take place every year in more than 123 countries, was the subject of media and congressional scrutiny in 1997, when the General Accounting Office (GAO) was ordered to audit its accounts and clarify whether the training was or was not military aid. In mid 1999, the GAO published a report that concurred with the Solic legal interpretation. It also quoted an embassy report (by Curtis Kamman) which said “the few JCETs that have taken place have been consistent with the foreign policy goals in the country (fighting drugs), but since only one or two are carried out annually, they do not have major impact in achieving those goals.”

The official 1997 report, sent to the U.S. Congress in April 1998, included in its list six special forces deployments in Colombia. However, on December 22, 1999, in a letter sent to Senator Leahy, Solic admitted that just between June and August of that year nine deployments had taken place in the country, only one of which was included in those previously reported. In sum, there may have been more than fourteen deployments during that year, that is, 24 percent of the total amount reported by the South Command in its area of responsibility.

Except for two of them, all visits were conducted by the same training team: the Army Special Operations 7th Group, based at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. Members of the unit speak Spanish without an accent and have been combat trained in the Amazon in a wide range of special skills—with or without technological support—including organization of public opinion campaigns as well as night jungle combat training. Their most recent training was for the [Colombian] 1st Counternarcotics Battalion, and future sessions will be carried out with other battalions included in the Colombia Plan.

Two plans

For eight months starting in May 1997 the Green Berets’ center of operations was the Army Special Forces School, five minutes away by boat or car from the Counternarcotics Base at San José del Guaviare and “headquarters” for the State Department programs for the eradication of coca plantations. The name of the locale is Barrancón; it is an island formed around a rock in the bed of the Guaviare River; from its heights the river and the Sabanas de la Fuga, a historic “sanctuary” for the Farc, can be seen.

When Senator Leahy requested information on those activities, Solic’s director, Brian Sheridan, explained that the course that began on May 14 in Barrancón dealt with “mission planning and military decision making” and other specific matters related to “light infantry.”

Colombian reports indicate that the unit being trained was commanded by Colonel Lino Sánchez. The Counternarcotics Police Intelligence Office gave the State Department and the federal prosecutor’s office a report according to which, in those days, Sánchez pioneered a plan to introduce paramilitary forces in the sprayed areas, within the framework of U.S. programs and announced that some aid had arrived that would enable him to “teach the guerrillas a lesson.”

The federal prosecutor’s office discovered that on July 12, 1997, a group of fifteen men personally chosen by Carlos Castaño Gil, flew in two planes from Urabá to San José del Guaviare Airport, which is shared by the Counternarcotics Police and the garrison in which Sánchez had his office. On the Barrancón road, Castaño’s group joined the paramilitary forces of Casanare and Meta, and from there they went by truck to Charras, on the opposite bank of the Guaviare River, across from Mapiripán.

The boats on which they all crossed the river encounter no problem when they passed the Marine Infantry post in Barrancón, built by the Americans and in which “river combat” training took place. The paramilitary forces, more than 100 men, remained in Mapiripán from July 15 to 20, and were at no point challenged either by civilian or military authorities.

These dates coincide with three Special Forces deployment dates mentioned in the report to the U.S. Congress, but none of those listed by Sheridan occurred during the massacre days. However, the federal prosecutor’s office and other officials say they crossed paths with U.S. military in San José, when they traveled to Mapiripán to aid the massacre survivors and open their investigation.

Government files include five reports from five military commands, including General Bonett’s, mentioning the maneuvers that took place at that time in Barrancón to celebrate the closing of a “special forces course”.

But they only indicate the presence as guest of honor of General José María Balza, Commander of the Argentinian Military Forces.

El Espectador‘s investigative team requested information on this point from the Colombian Army Command on December 2, 1999, but has received no response.

Strategic point

Five years before the massacre, the current setting for the war along the Guaviare River was only starting to take shape. In the early 90s, Mapiripán had become one of the main coca “cities”, because of its easy access by road from Villavicencio, its airport, and its access through jungle paths. It was also accessible to the southern part of the river that connected with the jungle region by that time already considered the world’s largest coca cultivation zone— Miraflores and Calamar (Guaviare).

In May 1992, the 5th Front of the Farc attacked Mapiripán and burned down the local police station, which was never rebuilt. A FARC leader known as Comandante Alex arrived to solve the conflicts among the raspachines (coca leaf growers), chichipatos (cocaine basic paste buyers), prostitutes, gasoline dealers, carriers, merchants, and others. In exchange for security, the guerrillas established a 10 percent protection tax, calculated according to the amount of gasoline sold to process coca base and paste.

Antonio María Barrera Calle (el compadre Cotumare, one of the village founders four decades earlier), Sinaí Blanco and other gasoline sellers were forced to become tax collectors for the guerrillas.

Two hours up the river, the Counternarcotics Police base in San José del Guavire had already become the main site for State Department programs against coca cultivation. First the spraying and later the Marine Infantry patrols had discouraged farmers from growing coca close to the river. The cultivated plots encroached into the jungle. “Sometimes the troops went there (to Mapiripán), but as the guerrillas didn’t show up, they got bored and returned,” explained Colonel Eduardo Avila, who was assigned to the area.

Later on, the Barrancón training camp was in full activity. “According to the Defense Department annex office at the US Embassy in Colombia, the Army Special Forces Training School was built in 1996 (and) there’s also a small Colombian Marine (Infantry) detachment at the base, apparently built by Navy Seabees in 1994, as part of a training exercise,” Sheridan told Leahy. In Bogotá, however, National Planning Department found out about the school only in mid 1999, when for the first time it needed money from the Colombian government.

Months before the massacre, the Municipal Unit for Technical Agriculture (Umata) director, Anselmo Trigos, had started to gather information on the farmers to carry out a plan prepared for the town by the National Plan for Alternative Development (Plante), with a budget of 800 million pesos [about $1 million]. Trigos became the target of threats and was forced to leave after the 5th and 44th Fronts of the Farc subjected him to a “trial by the people” on May 18, 1997.

In June, the paramilitary group led by René in Aguabonita (located between San José and Barrancón) had started operations, killing seven chichipatos because they had paid “taxes” to the Farc.

Combined Forces

On May 14, according to Sheridan, the Green Berets began a JCET whose goal was “mission planning and military decision making” with “the personnel assigned to the Special Forces School in Barrancón.”

Colonel Sánchez told the federal prosecutor’s office that “towards the end of May or beginning of June an order came down to mass troops of the 2nd Mobile Brigade in the vicinity of Barrancón; around that time, the Division Command decided to cancel all leave and the entire effort was directed to retraining in Barrancón.”

The colonel (now accused of being the intellectual author of the massacre and awaiting trial) asserts he divided his time between Barrancón and his office in the París Battalion, in the southern airport zone.

According to intelligence reports, confirmed in a judicial statement by Major Juan Carlos López and Colonel Arturo Beltrán (from the Counternarcotics base, in the northern part of the airport) DEA, Marine Infantry and Counternarcotics representatives visited the Mobile Brigade Commander (Sánchez) to request his collaboration in Operation Sapphire 2. Sánchez did not agree to collaborate because he had other plans.

On the night of June 21, the colonel himself visited the policemen, apologized for his absence and asked about the results. Immediately he described the plan: “He said, according to the report, that anyway, the paramilitary fought against a very strong enemy in the region, and that at that moment, he had support to teach the guerrillas a lesson, and that the idea was to take advantage of the operation developed by Counternarcotics to introduce self-defense forces in the area, but in the last minute some problems had turned up.” The policemen refused to participate in the plan and later provided details about the plan to the federal prosecutor’s office and the State Department.

Two days later, on June 23, according to information provided by Sheridan, the training program for Sánchez’s troops ended. On July 24 (four days after the massacre), the American trainers contingent returned [to Barrancon]; in August two other U.S. Navy special forces units, the 4th Group of Navy Seals and the 8th Naval Unit for Special Warfare joined them, initiating an anti-drug training course with Sanchez’s troops, policemen and marines.

Plan B

On Saturday, July 12, at 3:05 p.m. and 3:20 p.m. respectively, an Antonov flying in from Necoclí and a a DC-3 from Los Cedros (Apartadó) landed at San José. According to the federal prosecutor’s office Investigation, the 15 men selected by Castaño, under the command of a.k.a El Percherón, Mochacabezas [the “beheader”] or El Diablo, arrived on the Antonov. Their only weapons were machetes and knives. They carried with them on the DC-3 several tons of supplies and the first edition of the magazine Colombia Libre with an insert titled “To the People of the Guaviare.” The insert was signed by the Guaviare Front of the United Self-Defense Forces, and threatened to kill anybody who dared to pay “taxes” to the Farc.

According to a report sent to Senatory Leahy by Undersecretary of State Barbara Larkin, “the American personnel involved in the counternarcotics programs in San José remember having seen an unusual number of Army personnel at the airport on the day in question.” A paramilitary deserter said Sánchez was in charge of flight coordination and unloading.

Six months after the massacre, René Cárdenas was captured at the Aguabonita gas station, where according to witnesses against him, he had met up with the occupants of the plane and other paramilitary, sending them by road to Charras.

From there, they had to cross the river to reach Mapiripán. René recruited two boatmen, one of whom did not have proper identification; since they had to pass through the Navy checkpoint in Barrancón (site for other U.S. training) René talked to the guards and arranged the crossing.

On the afternoon of the 14th, a group of strangers burst into Charras, forced all the townspeople from their homes and led them to the main square, where they passed out the magazines and pamphlets. In the days leading up to the 14th, the Mapiripán mayor and his family had left for Villavicencio. The Umata director, the registrar, and the family and spokesman of Farc Commander Alex, who had started “working” for the Guaviare Front of the United Self-defense Forces, also had left, almost without being noticed.

The siege

On July 15, at dawn, more than 100 paramilitary surrounded Mapiripán. The only authority in town was Judge Leonardo Iván Cortés Novoa. The judge went to his office to report what was going on. The paramilitary blocked his entry.

The judge, taking necessary precautions, went off in search of a working telephone. At around 2:30 p.m. he found a phone in service at the Hotel Moserrate; he called the commander of the Joaquín París Battalion, Col. Hernán Orozco, describing the situation in the village and the possible presence of Carlos Castaño in Mapiripán.

Colonel Orozco wrote an “urgent information” memorandum to General Jaime Humberto Uscátegui, Commander of the 7th Brigade in Villavicencio. He recommended “a quick and immediate airlift to Mapiripán with personnel and equipment from the Mobile Brigade Number 2 (three battalions in Barrancón and 3 helicopters).” Uscátegui, also charged in the legal proceedings, says he did not receive such a report.

According to the judge, 27 people were captured on the morning of the 15th. They were all taken to see Mochacabezas, who had settled in the butcher yard of the municipal slaughterhouse. Among the first victims was Cotumare. He was tortured all day long and his screams froze the jungle air throughout that first night. “Don’t let me die in such a miserable way,” witnesses recalled hearing him shout amid his cries.

These were the first victims of the 49 people (4.9 percent of the estimated population of Mapiripán) who Carlos Castaño acknowledged being killed in the operation.

The paramilitary siege lasted until July 20, when the International Committee of the Red Cross, also alerted by the judge, sent a plane to Mapiripán to rescue the judge and his neighbors. As the Red Cross personnel raced to the airport, Mochacabezas added a parting touch – he tossed a dead dog into the crowd. It was the local teacher’s dog and Mochabezas had strangled it in his own hands.

Tension between civilians and the military

The office of the President received news of the massacre on July 22. The report arrived shortly after Gen. Bedoya’s revolt, followed by his appeal for other members of the armed forces to join him. Amid the tense situation, the president’s adviser on human rights, Luis Manuel Lasso, organized a trip from Bogotá to Mapiripán with the members of the federal prosecutor’s office. Their plan was to go to San José on a Police aircraft and from there a military helicopter, which would carry them to the massacre site.

They completed the San José leg of the journey, but the military helicopter didn’t arrive. “The two available helicopters were busy during ceremonies at Barrancón, where officials were on hand for the end of the U.S. Special Forces training course and the visit of the Argentinian Army Chief of Staff,” explained General Bonett on July 24, the same day he replaced Bedoya.

Although Sheridan’s letter does not mention any U.S. military presence in Barrancón during the massacre days, the federal prosecutor’s office investigation chief believed the opposite. According to the lead federal prosecutor’s report, the military said the helicopters were being used “in a social gathering with military personnel from the U.S. Embassy.” The incident escalated when, at the presidential adviser’s request, the Army IV Division commander, General Agustín Ardila Duarte was summoned, and he “ridiculed the presidential advisor and paid more attention to the American guests than to the investigative mission.”

All week long, according to military flight reports at San José Airport, Army Command and Inspection representatives and Brigade and Division Commanders “with their entourage” visited Barrancón.

According to the JCET reports to the U.S. Congress, three courses ended between July 20 and 28 in Colombia, but the Solic does not acknowledge any of them ended during the National Independence Day commemoration.

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