Where Does US Military ‘Aid’ to Colombia Go?

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by John Lindsay-Poland

The United States continues to assist Colombian military units that have reportedly violated human rights, a review of recently released State Department documents shows. FOR obtained the list of 353 Colombian military and police units that the United States approved for aid in 2008-09 and 2009-10. US law requires the State Department to review all foreign military units proposed for assistance and exclude those with histories of gross human rights abuses.

According to US officials who spoke to FOR, military aid this year is concentrated in three geographic “bands”: in a long band across southern Colombia, from Meta, Tolima and Huila departments – where the Army-FARC war is focused – west to Buenaventura on the Pacific coast; in the southwestern state of Nariño; and in the northern Montes de Maria area.

The United States continues to fund military units reported to have committed large numbers of civilian killings, including the macabre practice known as “false positives,” in which civilians executed by the army are reported as guerrillas killed in combat. This includes the Codazzi Engineering Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, which operates in Valle and Cauca states and reportedly killed 12 civilians in 2007 and 2008. The battalion’s commander during this period was Coronel Elmer Peña Pedraza, a graduate of the School of the Americas. The Colombian Prosecutor General is investigating nearly 2,000 cases of extrajudicial killings reportedly committed by the army since 2002.

A good deal of current assistance is to increase Colombian military training capacity. Twenty different military training centers and schools, for everything from infantry and special operations to aviation and officer training, are approved for US assistance this year, as well as two police training centers. Colombian officials have stated that the military base agreement signed with the United States on October 30 will strengthen Colombia’s military training program and help it to sell training to other nations, despite the Colombian military’s history of systematic human rights violations.

The United States is also assisting Colombian intelligence units. For the fourth year in a row, three regional army intelligence units in Medellín, Bogotá and Villavicencio have been approved for assistance, despite histories of abuse and scandal. The 6th and 7th Regional Military Intelligence Units have produced specious reports accusing human rights defenders, university professors, and community leaders in Medellín and in the southern department of Caquetá of being members of the FARC guerrillas. On December 3, FOR and Human Rights First wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela urging suspension of US assistance to these units.

The concentration of US aid in Nariño and Cauca is of special concern, given the escalation of violence and reports of military-paramilitary collaboration in the area. In those two states, the United States supports the 19th Mobile Brigade, 23rd Brigade, 6th Mobile Brigade, and battalions in the 29th and 3rd Brigades, as well as police units from both states and Barbosa municipality.

On August 26, armed men killed 12 A’wa indigenous people in a remote settlement of Tumaco, Nariño in the jurisdiction of the 23rd Brigade. Human Rights Watch said “Initial reports suggest that members of the Army may have massacred these people.” The commander of the US-assisted 23rd Brigade, two-time SOA graduate Colonel Joaquín Hernández, said that his troops did not participate in the massacre.

The United States is also funding units that operate in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, specifically the 11th Mobile Brigade and its counter-guerrilla battalions. US officials have long asserted that the 17th Brigade, which has nominal jurisdiction in San José de Apartadó, does not receive funding, in part because of its history of violations against members of the community. However, in the last year a new task force that combines army units has been formed to patrol an area that includes San José. The 11th Mobile Brigade is reportedly part of the task force.

The United States no longer vets assistance to a number of brigades in the oil-rich areas bordering Venezuela, which had been a focus of assistance from 2002 to 2007. The 30th Brigade in Norte de Santander, approved for assistance in 2007, was implicated in the most prominent cases of “false positives,” by which poor young men in Bogotá barrios were recruited for work and claimed shortly after as guerrillas killed in combat in Norte de Santander. The 18th Brigade in Arauca and 16th Brigade in Casanare received training and other assistance especially as part of an oil pipeline protection initiative, which has apparently expired. But the US still assists the 5th Mobile Brigade, which operates in Arauca and to which eight extrajudicial killings have been attributed, according to the Colombia Human Rights Coordination.

In addition, the United States finally suspended assistance to the Pigoanza and Magdalena battalions in the Ninth Brigade, operating in Huila state, with among the worst records for killing civilians in Colombia. In 2007 and 2008 alone, the two units reportedly committed 51 extrajudicial killings. US aid flowed to the two battalions in 2005, 2006, and 2007. However, the United States continues to assist the Ninth Brigade’s support battalion and its command staff, to whom the two battalions report. The Colombian Supreme Court ruled recently that commanders are responsible for abuses committed by their subordinates. And judicial investigations into most of the killings reportedly committed by the two US-assisted battalions have not advanced.

In Meta, the state with one of the worst problems of “false positives” in 2006 and 2007, the United States supports the 28th Brigade, 4th Mobile Brigade, and the 9th Mobile Brigade, and has for most years since 2000. In fact, the United States supports most of the army’s mobile brigades, which have been a focus for the counterinsurgency war.

The United States also approves aid to all six Colombian regional air bases, including the base in Palanquero where the United States will be increasing its presence, despite base personnel’s involvement in the 1998 attack in Santo Domingo, Arauca, in which 17 adults and children were killed by cluster bombs.

The US Congress reduced funds for the Colombian military in 2007, and the response appears to be to suspend aid to many of the worst units. But aid is still flowing to many military units with histories of abuse, and there is to date no accountability for US complicity in violations committed by units that were formerly trained by the United States.