Published on Monday, February 26, 2001 at WorkingforChange.com
The Colombian Army Punishes One of its Own
by Dennis Hans
In a stirring development, a Colombian military tribunal has punished a “bad apple" -- a "rogue element" whose actions in 1997 and 1998 besmirched the good name of the Colombian armed forces.
Colonel Hernán Orozco was sentenced to 38 months in prison for a dastardly deed committed in July 1997; his vile actions in subsequent months have so far escaped censure.
A February 13 press release from Human Rights Watch provides the background:
"In July 1997, paramilitaries working with the Colombian Army killed more than thirty residents of Mapiripán, Meta. Judge Leonardo Iván Cortés tried to alert authorities, including the military, with urgent messages describing the macabre scene that lasted a full five days. 'Each night they kill groups of five to six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being tortured,' he said. 'The screams of humble people are audible, begging for mercy and asking for help.' Judge Cortés was later forced to leave Colombia with his family because of threats on his life. Dozens of others fled the village, joining Colombia's massive population of internally displaced.
"Subsequent investigations by civilian prosecutors reveal that troops under General [Jaime] Uscátegui's command welcomed paramilitaries who arrived at the San José del Guaviare airport, helped them load their trucks, and ensured that local troops who could have fought the paramilitaries were engaged elsewhere. General Uscátegui ignored alerts about the massacre, and a subordinate testified that the general later ordered him to falsify documents to cover up his complicity in it."
Colonel Orozco was the officer who told General Uscátegui about the ongoing actions of the paramilitaries in Mapiripán. His purpose, however, was not merely to inform, but to persuade the general to take action that would terminate the paramilitaries' work before completion.
Had Orozco succeeded, many residents of Mapiripán -- including several guilty of the heinous crime of knowing someone who knows someone who knows a guerrilla -- would be walking the streets today, still knowing someone who knows someone who knows a guerrilla. Fortunately, the good general knew better than to interfere with the paramilitaries' good work. He paid no heed to Orozco's appeal.
Orozco didn't stop there. He somehow got it into his head that he had acted rightly and the general had acted wrongly. So he squealed. Orozco "cooperated with civilian investigators, and his testimony helped Colombia’s Attorney General prepare formal charges against Uscátegui for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups," reports HRW.
Squealing is conduct unbecoming an officer of what former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey properly hails as Colombia's "national democratic forces." It's the sort of thing only a "rogue" -- a go-his-own-way troublemaker -- would do. Bad-apple Orozco might have infected an entire barrel of officers if the military tribunal hadn't acted.
Now if you get your news about Colombia from the U.S. media, you may have heard the terms "rogue" and "bad apple" applied to officers who collaborate with the paramilitaries. (If you learned about Colombia from Mike Wallace's glowing portrait of President Pastrana on the Dec.5, 1999 edition of 60 Minutes, or if you trust the current editorials of the Washington Post, you of course assume there are no links at all and the army-paramilitary relationship is strictly adversarial.)
Alas, our Fourth Estate has led you astray. Colombian officers who work with paramilitaries couldn't be more mainstream, as collaboration is the army’s institutionalized if unstated policy.
That doesn't mean every officer collaborates. There's no need for every last officer to do so -- just enough to coordinate an effective, below-the-radar-screen working relationship. What could be more obvious?
And guess what? It's obvious to everyone involved in U.S. Colombia policy, whether he or she works for the White House, State Department, armed forces or CIA. These people aren't stupid, and they weren't born yesterday.
HRW neatly summarized the army-paramilitary relationship in its bookColombia's Killer Networks: "a sophisticated mechanism, in part supported by years of advice, training, weaponry, and official silence by the United States, that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it. The price: thousands of dead, disappeared, maimed, and terrorized Colombians." That passage was penned in 1996, but HRW Colombia researcher Robin Kirk told me it holds true for today.
If our officials, through their media mouthpieces, have given you the wrong impression, there's a simple reason: They understand that you, being weak-willed and faint of heart, might object to the U.S. backing an army that collaborates with, and in some cases directs, paramilitaries who routinely decapitate with chainsaws civilians who know someone who knows someone who knows a guerrilla.
If you would just accept that the crime just described merits execution, there’d be no need for our officials to do a song-and-dance about “rogues" and "bad apples," or to pretend that this counterinsurgency crusade is strictly a "drug war."
From the perspective of U.S. government officials seeking to maintain public support for military aid to Colombia, you are the problem.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets. He has taught mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida, and he can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.
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