MONTEVIDEO - General Mario Montoya Uribe, the national commander of the Colombian army, whom Ingrid Betancourt thanked on Wednesday for rescuing her from captivity, has a controversial service record.
Montoya, whom Betancourt embraced soon after her rescue from over six years as a hostage of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was born on Apr. 29, 1949 in the western department (province) of Valle del Cauca.
Throughout his army career he has received more than 20 decorations, including a U.S. Army medal. He has been in command positions in many regions of his country, and holds a postgraduate degree in higher management from the University of the Andes, according to his rÃƒ©sumÃƒ© posted on the army Internet site.
He followed courses of study at the National War College, an advanced course on armoured vehicles at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was a military attachÃƒ© at the Colombian embassy in Britain.
A cable despatched in 1979 by the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, declassified at the request of the non-governmental National Security Archive (NSA), a U.S. research institute, "reveals that a Colombian army intelligence battalion linked to Montoya secretly created and staffed a clandestine terror unit in 1978-1979," researcher Michael Evans said in an article published in July 2007 in the Colombian weekly Semana.
"Under the guise of the American Anti-communist Alliance (AAA or Triple-A), the group was responsible for a number of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations against leftist targets during that period," he wrote.
Evans, the head of NSA's Colombia Documentation Project, also referred to a mass grave discovered in the department of Putumayo in March 2007 containing the remains of more than 100 victims "killed over the same two-year period that Montoya led the Joint Task Force South, the U.S.-funded unit charged with coordinating counternarcotics and counterguerrilla operations in that region from 1999-2001."
"Declassified documents also detail State Department concern that one of the units under Montoya's command at the Task Force, the 24th Brigade, had ties with paramilitaries based in (the town of) La Hormiga, the location of the gravesite," he said.
Montoya was the commander of the Fourth Brigade of the army, with jurisdiction over the municipality of Bojayá in the western department of ChocÃƒÂ³, when 119 civilians were massacred in the urban centre of Bellavista on May 2, 2002.
In spite of three warnings delivered days in advance about the imminent danger to the civilian population, the army did not enter the area or take action to protect residents.
On Apr. 21, 2002, at least seven motorboats brought some 250 paramilitaries belonging to the ultra-rightwing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to Bellavista and the nearby town of VigÃƒÂa del Fuerte, through three separate checkpoints manned by the navy, the police, and the army, the latter in Riosucio, 157 kilometres north of Bellavista.
The paramilitaries took up positions in both towns, observed from the surrounding rural areas by the FARC.
On Apr. 23, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed its "concern" about the paramilitary incursion to the Colombian government and urged it to take action to protect civilians. On Apr. 24 and 26, the Attorney General's Office and the Ombudsman added their voices to the warning.
On May 1 the battle between the FARC and the AUC started. More than 300 people sought sanctuary in the Bellavista church and the AUC took cover behind and around it. The following day the guerrillas launched gas cylinder bombs at the paramilitary positions, one of which fell through the church roof and exploded, killing 119 people including 44 children, and leaving over 100 injured or mutilated.
The army showed up five days later. Survivors of the tragedy told IPS last year about General Montoya's arrival on the scene, and how he wept for the dead children in front of television cameras, holding up a little shoe of an expensive brand that local children had never seen before.
In May this year, an administrative tribunal issued two verdicts, blaming the state for not having protected the population, and ordering it to pay an indemnity of 1.5 billion pesos (870,000 dollars) to the victims' families. Fourteen other civil lawsuits are still pending.
The military justice system and the Attorney General's Office investigated army officers implicated in the events for dereliction of duty. But Montoya's career was not interrupted and he was promoted, although soon afterwards, in October 2002, he was involved in another controversial situation.
An intelligence report produced by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was leaked to the Los Angeles Times, which published it in March 2007. It indicated that Montoya and a paramilitary group known as Bloque Cacique Nutibara "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 centre of the drug trade."
What is known as Operation Orion began at 2:00 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2002 in MedellÃƒÂn's 13th district. At least 14 people were killed, and residents and human rights organisations testified that about 50 more "disappeared" in the following weeks.
On Oct. 21 that year the presidential web site featured a statement by Montoya saying that "we will continue, and what we are doing in the 13th district is a message to the violent, telling them: desist, we will go everywhere in the country because urban guerrilla warfare has no place in Colombia."
Bloque Cacique Nutibara's actions in the 13th district went on for two months and, according to demobilised paramilitaries, were coordinated with the authorities.
The CIA intelligence report included information from other Western intelligence services and indicated that U.S. officials have received similar information from a "proven" source, according to journalists Greg Miller and Paul Richter, the authors of the Los Angeles Times article.
The report was leaked to the newspaper by a source who would only identify himself as a U.S. government employee. The CIA would neither deny nor confirm the information, but asked the newspaper not to publish certain details.
In addition to his close collaboration with U.S. officials on Plan Colombia, a strategy financed by Washinton to combat drug trafficking and insurgency, Montoya was an instructor at the former School of the Americas, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001.
On Wednesday night, when the government showed on television how the operation to rescue Betancourt and the other 14 hostages was planned and executed, President ÃƒÂlvaro Uribe announced that Montoya had commanded the successful rescue mission, and praised the 2002 Operation Orion in MedellÃƒÂn, without further comment.
Uribe mentioned that the same day he had received messages from members of the military, complaining that they were "unjustly" imprisoned and asking him to "intercede" for them.
In Colombia there is freedom of opinion, Uribe said, and he asked human rights organisations to "believe in Colombia, in this government; the respect shown for human rights in this operation is no accident."
The president "respectfully" asked judges to review the cases of the imprisoned members of the army and "if an error appears, to correct it".
© 2008 Inter Press Service