Colombian Army commander Mario Montoya resigned on November 3, in the wake of a scandal over army killings of civilians that a United Nations official on Saturday called "systematic and widespread." A protégé of the United States, Montoya received training at the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) and has also taught other soldiers as an instructor at the SOA.
Montoya was an architect of the "body count" counterinsurgency strategy that many analysts believe led to the systematic civilian killings. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced the dismissal of 27 military officers on October 29, including three generals and 11 colonels and lieutenant colonels, for human rights abuses. The abuses include involvement in the killings of dozens of youths who were recruited in Bogotá slums and shortly after were reported as killed in combat by the army, hundreds of miles away.
The dismissal is a positive action, which we at the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) applaud. Officers responsible for killing civilians must face consequences, or the killing will continue.
Human rights organizations have documented more than 500 reported extrajudicial killings by the army since the beginning of last year. This week, Amnesty International issued a scathing report on worsening conditions in Colombia, including massive displacement of internal refugees, increased extrajudicial killings, and attacks on human rights defenders. A New York Times front-page story on October 30 also highlighted the problem, and cited FOR's research on extrajudicial executions, as did a Los Angeles Times story.
Detonating the issue was a report that poor Bogotá youths, whose families said they had disappeared, had been recruited by the army or others, and then reported as dead in combat. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos admitted that the army still harbors "holdouts who are demanding bodies for results."
The dismissal of officers also demonstrates extensive U.S. complicity with the abuses. The United States gave military training directly or assisted the units of nearly all of the officers implicated in the killings. At least 11 of the officers, including Brigadier Generals Paulino Coronado Gamez and José Cortes Franco, were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and Cortes even served as an instructor at the school in 1994. Most of the officers commanded units that had been "vetted" by U.S. officials for human rights abuses and approved to receive assistance in 2008, or received training for some officers, despite extensive reports that their units had carried out murders of civilians.
Yet the dismissal, which focuses on officers operating in a northeastern region of Colombia where the disappeared youths were found, addresses only a small number of the army units responsible for civilian killings.
In the oil-rich Casanare and Arauca departments, the U.S.-trained 16th and 18th Brigades have reportedly committed dozens of killings, as has the U.S.-supported 9th Brigade in the coffee-growing department of Huila. In southwestern Valle and Cauca, the Third Brigade's Codazzi Batallion receives U.S. support and reportedly committed at least nine killings of civilians last year, and it might be implicated in firing on peaceful indigenous protesters this month. In southern Meta and Guaviare departments, the United States supports multiple mobile brigades in areas where the army has committed a large number of civilian killings.
The government named General Oscar Enrique González Peña to replace Army chief Montoya. Unsurprisingly, Gen. González Peña is also a graduate of the School of the Americas with a history of extrajudicial executions under his command. General Peña was commander of the Fourth Brigade, based in Medellín, from December 2003 to July 2005, when units under his command reportedly committed 45 extrajudicial executions in eastern Antioquia, according to a report published last year by a coalition of human rights organizations known as the Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Observatory.
Most of the Colombian army's current leadership—including 17 of 24 brigade commanders—was trained by the United States at the School of the Americas. This is in addition to the U.S. training provided to Colombian officers at dozens of other military schools and in Colombia. Washington is involved in the army's human rights problem through and through, and journalists, activists, and Congressional staff ought to ask when the United States will stop financing such murderous criminal operations. We believe the time is now.
John Lindsay-Poland is the co-director of FOR's Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean.
In two weeks, thousands of human rights activists will converge on November 21-23, 2008 at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia to demand a new direction in U.S.-Latin America foreign policy and the closure of the School of the Americas/ Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC).