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Colombians' faith in army undermined by litany of scandals

Colombians' faith in army undermined by litany of scandals

Accusations of civilian killings and other scandals have eroded confidence in the very institution that is the linchpin of President Alvaro Uribe's crusade to make this notoriously violent country safer: Colombia's U.S.-bankrolled army.
Doubts were bolstered Friday when two imprisoned rebels phoned a radio station and described how army intelligence officers allegedly paid ex-guerrillas thousands of dollars (euros) to stage phony bombings ahead of Uribe's August swearing-in for a second term.
The jailed guerrillas alleged that the officers intended to take credit _ and claim reward money _ for discovering and defusing the bombs, one of which killed a passer-by and wounded 19 soldiers.
"The officers offered 30 million pesos (US$12,500; euro9,900) for each attack and they paid those who could make one happen," an ex-guerrilla known as Evaristo said from the La Picota prison.
They also said the intelligence officers paid ex-guerrillas to organize the bogus surrender of a rebel unit and to falsely accuse peasants of being rebel fighters.
Colombia's army chief and defense minister acknowledged late last month that such a plot was being investigated. But the guerrillas' claims were just the latest black eye for the military amid a string of scandals that have tried the patience of ordinary Colombians, human rights groups and even some lawmakers in Washington.
"So many of these cases have come to light in recent months, they have planted doubts about all the actions of the armed forces," said Marco Romero, director of the human rights group Codhes.
Of particular concern are complaints that people with no history of guerrilla ties have been seized by security forces only to turn up dead, identified by the army as rebels. In September alone, the chief federal prosecutor's office opened investigations of 14 soldiers for allegedly killing civilians and claiming they were guerrillas.
No one keeps national figures on so-called extrajudicial killings, but between 2002 and 2005, the independent activist group Judicial Freedom Corp. recorded 107 such cases in just five municipalities in the northwestern state of Antioquia.
"There's a pressure on these army units to produce results, to be the most active in killing guerrillas," said Elkin Ramirez, a lawyer for Judicial Freedom Corp. "This comes right from the top, from the presidency."
Uribe has tied his political fortunes to a get-tough approach to crime and violence in this South American country of more than 40 million. Many Colombians credit his initiatives for a sharp drop in sky-high kidnapping and murder rates, and re-elected him by a wide margin in May.
The high-performing Antioquia-based 4th Brigade reported eliminating 705 "hostiles" last year, a figure combining rebels and right-wing paramilitaries killed, captured or surrendered. But rights activists say that number is inflated by extrajudicial civilian killings.
They point to the case of Luz Morales, a 16-year-old girl, who was detained in 2003 by 4th Brigade soldiers on suspicion of belonging to the main leftist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The next day, the army said the girl had escaped custody and then mounted an attack on the unit in which she, and she alone, was killed.
"We know this is not true, my sister had nothing to do with the guerrillas," said Blanca Morales, Luz's sister.
A 4th Brigade spokesman declined to comment, and the Defense Ministry refused repeated requests to discuss cases of alleged extrajudicial killings.
Authorities' standard response to allegations of wrongdoing by the army has been to say they are isolated cases. But rights activists say the problem is more widespread.
Among recent incidents of concern:
_ Eight soldiers, including a major who led an elite anti-kidnapping unit in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla, were arrested for allegedly staging the August abduction and rescue of a civilian in an operation in which the six "kidnappers" were killed. Investigators believe the soldiers were paid to stage the operation so its "victim" could evade large debts. Among those killed were people he owed money.
_ A colonel and 14 soldiers are about to stand trial for killing 10 elite anti-drug officials in a May ambush, allegedly at the behest of drug traffickers.
_ Eighteen soldiers are under investigation in the deaths of 29 people _ initially said to be leftist rebels _ in a single state, Antioquia.
The scandals have even caught the attention of some lawmakers in Washington, who hold the purse strings to some US$4 billion (euro3.2 billion) in aid sent to Colombia in the past six years. Colombia's army has received the bulk of the money under a plan that initially targeted cocaine production but was expanded to help the war on leftist rebels.
"What we're looking for are trials for perpetrators, prosecution of those responsible, strengthening of the judicial system," said Rep. Sam Farr, a Democrat from California who tried, unsuccessfully, to freeze some aid to pressure Colombia for improvements on human rights. "We know they can do it."


Updated : 2021-04-22 12:26 GMT+08:00