Colombia army chief linked to outlaw militias

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

By Paul Richter and Greg Miller
Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2007

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.

"By describing what it calls a leaked CIA report containing material from another intelligence service ‹ and unconfirmed material at that ‹the Los Angeles Times makes it less likely that friendly countries will share information with the United States," said Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the agency. "And that ultimately could affect our ability to protect Americans."

Douglas Frantz, a managing editor of The Times, responded: "We listened carefully to the CIA concerns and agreed to withhold details that the agency said jeopardized certain sources and ongoing operations, but our judgment is that the significance of the issues raised in this story warrant its publication."

A key finding in the CIA document was that an allied Western intelligence agency reported in January that the Colombian police, army and paramilitaries had jointly planned and conducted the military sweep in 2002 around Medellin, known as Operation Orion.

The allied intelligence agency said its informant was a yet-unproven source and cautioned that the report was to be treated as raw intelligence.

But the document also included a comment from the defense attache of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Col. Rey A. Velez: "This report confirms information provided by a proven source."

According to the document, the attache said information from the proven source "also could implicate" the head of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla de Leon, who commanded the military in Barranquilla, in northern Colombia, during the same period.

After Uribe was elected in 2002 on a platform of tough measures against the rebels, he quickly organized the Medellin offensive. It was commanded by Montoya, 57, who hails from the same northern region of Colombia as the president.

Operation Orion sent 3,000 Colombian army soldiers and police, supported by heavily armed helicopter gunships, though a vast shantytown area controlled by Colombia's largest left-wing rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The operation has been widely considered a success and has been a key to Uribe's popularity. But there have long been allegations that after the army swept through, the paramilitaries filled the power vacuum, asserting their control with killings, disappearances and other crimes.

The Organization of American States and the United Nations have investigated the reports. Recently, Colombian Sen. Gustavo Petro, a political opponent of Uribe, publicly charged that 46 people disappeared during the operation.

The informant cited in the CIA document reported that in jointly conducting the operation, the army, police and paramilitaries had signed documents spelling out their plans. The signatories, according to the informant, were Montoya; the commander of an area police force; and paramilitary leader Fabio Jaramillo, who was a subordinate of Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, the head of the paramilitaries in the Medellin area.

Murillo, known as Don Berna, took control of the drug trade around Medellin after the death of fabled drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. He is now in a Colombian jail, and U.S. authorities are seeking his extradition.

In an interview, U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said they have closely investigated whether Uribe himself has collaborated with the right-wing paramilitaries in illegal activities and have so far found no proof that he has. But they emphasized that they also could not rule it out.

One of the officials said that it would have been "unusual" for Uribe to be personally involved in the details of a military activity such as Operation Orion, even though the president conceived the campaign. "You don't see him typically involved in that sort of detail," the official said.

One longtime Colombia analyst, Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank, said that any collaboration between Montoya and paramilitaries "would bring the army right into the heart of the scandal." U.S. and Colombian officials have insisted that any links between the Colombian military and the militias involved only low-level, renegade officers.

Already, eight members of the Colombian Congress have been jailed in the scandal, and the foreign minister, a close Uribe ally, has been forced to resign. Colombia's former secret police chief, Jorge Noguera, was arrested last month for allegedly giving paramilitary leaders information on left-wing labor organizers, some of them later killed. He was released Friday on a procedural issue but is subject to rearrest, government officials said.

At a news conference in Bogota, the capital, during his visit this month, Bush expressed confidence that Uribe's government could carry out a thorough investigation of the ties between officials and the paramilitaries.

"I support a plan that says that there be an independent judiciary analyzing every charge brought forth, and when someone is found guilty, there's punishment," Bush said. He said Uribe supported the same approach. Bush administration officials say Uribe deserves credit for being willing to seek the truth about the growing scandal.

Many Democrats in Washington have been less confident. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, (D-Vt.) has argued that the scandal shows the need for a reassessment of U.S. support for Uribe. Many in Congress have contended that if aid to Colombia is not cut, it should at least be shifted so that more goes to non-military purposes.

One of the U.S. officials interviewed said there were signs that the scandal would be increasingly focusing on the military, including Montoya.

"A lot of people in the political class are very nervous," he said.