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Tuesday, May 30, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: Former US Army Depleted Uranium Expert Alleges...
2000-05-30

Colombia

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Right now, a military aid bill for Colombia to fight the drug war is being held up in Congress. The bill, valued at around $1.6 billion, is strongly supported by the Clinton administration. Critics of the aid are feverishly working to have it killed, saying that the aid will train and arm a military force known for human rights violations, with close links to the notorious paramilitary death squads. [includes rush transcript]

Outgoing Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrion just returned from Colombia, where she investigated a paramilitary massacre three years ago that was planned and orchestrated by a Colombian army unit trained by the US military. According to an ongoing investigation, the head of a Colombian army battalion, Colonel Lino Sanchez, planned the massacre as he and his unit were receiving training in military planning by the Seventh Mobile Brigade of the US Special Forces.

The massacre took place in July of 1997, in a peasant village named Mapiripan. It was a town of 1,000 people, located in southwestern Colombia in the province of Meta. The lush jungles around Mapiripan are the setting for some of the country’s vastest cocaine plantations. For thirty years, the region had been controlled by the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group.

Just a few miles away from Mapiripan is a military base built by the United States and used by the US Special Forces for anti-narcotics training. The death squad sent by paramilitary leader Carlos Castano was allowed to land at an airstrip controlled by the Colombian military, and passed through the military base on their way to Mapiripan.

On July 12, 1997, over 100 paramilitaries surrounded Mapiripan. By the time they left the village on July 20, almost fifty people were dead, perhaps many more. The total may never be known because the victims were dismembered and their bodies thrown into the nearby river.

The paramilitaries would wait until nightfall, cut off the town’s electric generator and knock on doors looking for victims. Then they would hang their victims from meat hooks and cut off their limbs with chainsaws while they were still alive. Despite repeated calls from the local judge to the nearby military base, Colombian troops did not arrive in Mapiripan until well after the massacre was over.

One reporter who visited Mapiripan wrote that when Red Cross helicopters arrived to evacuate the population "even the dogs tried to leap into them and had to be dragged out howling."

Maria spoke with attorney Luis Guillermo Perez, who represents the survivors of the Mapiripan massacre. He works with a lawyers’ human rights collective called Jose Albea Restrepo, an organization that specializes in cases involving links between the military and paramilitaries. Maria interviewed Perez in the organization’s bulletproof, unmarked offices in downtown Bogota.

Guest:

  • Luis Guillermo Perez, with Jose Albea Restrepo, an organization that specializes in cases involving links between the military and paramilitaries.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, an unprecedented military aid bill for Colombia is being held up by the US Senate. The bill was presented by and supported by the Clinton administration. Critics of the aid are feverishly working to have the bill killed, saying that the aid will be used to train and arm a military force known for human rights violations — that’s the Colombian military — with close links to the notorious paramilitary death squads.

Outgoing Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrion has just returned from Colombia, where she investigated a paramilitary massacre three years ago that was planned and orchestrated by a Colombian army unit trained by the US military. According to an ongoing investigation, the head of a Colombian army battalion, Colonel Lino Sanchez, planned the massacre as he and his unit were receiving training in military planning by the Seventh Mobile Brigade of the US Special Forces.

The massacre took place in July of ’97 in a peasant village named Mapiripan. It was a town of 1,000 people, located in southwestern Colombia in the province of Meta. The lush jungles around Mapiripan are the setting for some of the country’s vast cocaine plantations. For thirty years, the region had been controlled by the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group.

Just a few miles away from Mapiripan is a military base built by the United States and used by the US Special Forces for anti-drugs training. The death squad, sent by paramilitary leader Carlos Castano, was allowed to land at an airstrip controlled by the Colombian military and passed through the military base on their way to Mapiripan.

On July 12, 1997, over 100 paramilitaries surrounded Mapiripan. By the time they left the village on July 20, almost fifty people were dead, perhaps many more. The total may never be known, because the victims were dismembered and their bodies thrown into the nearby river.

The paramilitaries would wait until nightfall, cut off the town’s electric generator and knock on doors looking for victims. Then they would hang their victims from meat hooks and cut off their limbs with chainsaws while they were still alive. Despite repeated calls from the local judge to the nearby military base, Colombian troops did not arrive in Mapiripan until well after the massacre was over.

One reporter who visited the area wrote that when Red Cross helicopters arrived to evacuate the population, “even the dogs tried to leap into them and had to be dragged out howling.”

Maria spoke with attorney Luis Guillermo Perez, who represents the survivors of the Mapiripan massacre. He works with a lawyers’ human rights collective called Jose Albea Restrepo, an organization that specializes in cases involving links between the military and paramilitaries. Maria interviewed Perez in the organization’s bulletproof, unmarked offices in downtown Bogota.

    MARIA CARRION:

    You are the civil attorney representing the people affected in the massacre of Mapiripan in August of 1997, where almost fifty peasants were killed over the space of five days, some of them decapitated, mutilated and tortured. What happened in Mapiripan, those five days where people were massacred? What took place?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] The paramilitaries took control of the town. They began to select their victims, to seek them in their homes. They would take them to the town slaughterhouse, where the cattle would be killed daily to feed the population. And there, at the slaughterhouse, they would torture them.

    The residents who lived around there tell of the agonizing cries of the victims. They would be dismembered with chainsaws. They would cut off part after part of their bodies while they were still alive. You can imagine the screams of terror. Some survivors told of how two children, who witnessed these acts were also dismembered, and their bodies were thrown into the Guaviare River. This happened during all these days people were tortured in this manner. And the entire population was a witness to their laments and their agonizing cries. The levels of brutality reached absolute disregard for life.

    On top of dismembering people in order to show off their power, there was a man who was known as the slaughterer, and he was in charge of quartering and butchering his victims. He strangled a dog in front of the village children. He took it and choked it and threw it against the kids who were watching. The witnesses described all of this with profound horror, with an immense fear that they too could be the next victims. This is what happened during these days.

    The paramilitaries were communicating by radio with each other as they exerted control over the movements of all the residents of the town.

    MARIA CARRION:

    Why did they do this? Why did the paramilitaries come in and massacre this village?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] It’s a strategy on the part of the armed forces, who wanted to show the guerrillas that in their own areas of influence, they, too, can arrive and massacre the population. And at the same time that it was a message to the guerrillas, it was also a message to the population who’s had to live with the presence of these guerrillas for decades. This creates a terror campaign that tells the population that has traditionally been controlled by the guerrillas that the guerrillas cannot protect them, that the guerrillas cannot guarantee their lives. They send a message that backing the guerrillas can mean that they too will be massacred. It is the first paramilitary massacre that was carried out in the south of the country.

    MARIA CARRION:

    The Leahy amendment in the US, which was passed in 1997, says that the US cannot give military aid to those units of the Colombian army associated or linked to human rights violations. Do you think that it’s possible for the US to give military aid right now without violating the Leahy amendment?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] The Mapiripan massacre is an example of this. It was organized by Carlos Castano, the big paramilitary chief who sent men and weapons from the region of Aruba to San Jose Del Guaviare, as well as by a unit of the Colombian army, headed by Colonel Lino Sanchez, who was the commander of the army’s number two mobile brigade in this region of the country.

    In the months leading up to the massacre, Colonel Sanchez and his units were trained by members of the United States Army Special Forces at a military base close to Mapiripan. There is proof in the judicial documents that demonstrates the participation of the Special Forces of the United States there. And in the closing ceremonies of the training courses by the Special Forces, there was an envoy there from the US embassy. High-level military officials from the Pentagon were present. Even General Balsa, Commander of the Argentine armed forces was there, as well as the high commanders of the Colombian military.

    On that day, a few miles from there, the paramilitaries were massacring the last peasants in Mapiripan. It was well known that the capability of surveillance that the United States has with their radars and their military presence in Colombia allows them to tape conversations in any part of the country, and more so if their high-level officials are present and an area such as this. It is obvious that they would have absolute control over the entire region. So the government of the United States and the Pentagon, in particular, could not ignore the fact that a paramilitary massacre was taking place there, that this paramilitary massacre was being coordinated by the army and that this army had been trained by them.

    I have asked Colombia’s Attorney General that he request through Janet Reno in the United States that all of these military officials who were at the graduating ceremonies testify, as well as the members of the US Special Forces that participated in the training of this anti-guerrilla mobile brigade headed by Colonel Lino Sanchez. To this date, I have not received an answer, but this massacre, which was committed about two-and-a-half years ago, clearly shows how the United States has backed an army that is deeply involved in human rights violations.

    MARIA CARRION:

    I want to ask you if you know specifically who was present from the US embassy at the military base that was close to Mapiripan, the military base that was used by the paramilitaries to arrive in the area and then proceed to Mapiripan.

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] We do not know the names of the US embassy personnel who were there nor the names of the US military officials who were there. That information is handled with a lot of secrecy by the embassy here. And they have not wanted to give us that data. Nevertheless, we believe that if we had the collaboration of the Department of State and from those sectors of the US government that do not want to back those military units that are involved in human rights violations, they could facilitate the process so we could learn the names of these American military officials or these American representatives from the embassy that were there. We are also hoping to get help from US Attorney General Janet Reno, so we can move ahead with this investigation.

    MARIA CARRION:

    Could you talk a little about the geographical positions — in other words, where this military base was located versus where the village of Mapiripan was?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] Well, this region is in the southwest of the country, and it is in the department of Guaviare, whose capital is San Jose del Guaviare. There, close to the capital, is the military base known as Barrancon, which was built with US help. And it is there at that military base, where the mobile brigade number 2 of the army was based, headed by Colonel Lino Sanchez. And from there, a whole paramilitary strategy was developed for the region.

    Mapiripan is about twelve kilometers — or seventeen kilometers or twelve miles from the Barrancon military base. The paramilitaries that went to massacre the population of Mapiripan landed at the military airport in San Jose del Guaviare. And there, they had to pass through the Barrancon military bases on their way to Mapiripan. So this demonstrates the responsibility of those who were there in regard to the massacre.

    MARIA CARRION:

    You are the civil attorney representing the people affected in the massacre of Mapiripan. Talk about this legal process and what you hope to accomplish in a country where there is a great amount of impunity when it comes to the armed forces of Colombia.

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] This has been one of those cases where we have been able to advance the most in the prosecution of those charged with crimes against humanity. For the first time, an active-duty general of the armed forces was arrested for aiding in the commission of crimes against humanity. For the first time, there is an army colonel in prison who will be prosecuted in a civilian court for these crimes. There are several detained army officials. There are several arrested paramilitary members.

    But unfortunately, in the case against the general, who was one of the principal people that made the massacre possible, General Uscategui Ramirez, the commander of the army went before the Superior Council for the Administration of Justice, which determines how a person will be prosecuted, and argued that General Uscategui should not be tried in civilian courts. They argued that he has the right to be tried by military courts. And this Superior Council for the Administration of Justice, bowing to pressure because the senior justice, Dr. Romulo Gonzalez Trujillo, is presently the Minister of Justice, is also the brother-in-law of the army commander who argued before the court, decided to hand over the prosecution of General Uscategui to the military courts.

    Of course, two months later, Uscategui was released thanks to the statute of limitations under military justice, and the case has not advanced at all, so that the General’s huge responsibility in this has been met with impunity.

    MARIA CARRION:

    Who is General Uscategui, and what was his involvement in this massacre?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] General Uscategui was the top military commander in the region. He was based in the city of Villavicencio, and from Villavicencio he contributed both directly and indirectly to the perpetration of this massacre. He was the only general in the area.

    From the first day that the paramilitaries got to Mapiripan, the local Mapiripan judge, Dr. Cortes-Novoa communicated with Major Orozco Castro, who was temporarily in charge of the nearest military battalion, Joachin Paris, in San Jose del Guaviare. The judge told the major that the army urgently had to come to protect the civilian population, that there was a possibility that Carlos Castano himself might be present there, and that the paramilitaries were threatening to massacre the population. And he asked them to urgently intervene.

    Major Orozco Castro, who was not involved in the planning or the carrying out of the massacre, contacted General Uscategui and asked him to send men there, to send the mobile brigade and to take Mapiripan by surprise in order to protect the population and capture the paramilitaries. He also sent the general a written account of this. The general responded by telling him to forget about the matter and ordered him to change the content of his memo. He also ordered him to keep silent on this. This demonstrated that there was active complicity on the part of the general in the carrying out of the massacre.

    MARIA CARRION:

    What happened with Army Colonel Lino Sanchez, who was trained by the US Special Forces and who participated directly in the massacre in Mapiripan?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] Colonel Sanchez is currently detained at a military installation, and so even though he is being prosecuted for human rights violations and for helping to form paramilitary groups, he is able to continue working in intelligence operations. He can also continue his counter-insurgency work from those military installations.

    But the Colombian Attorney General determined that he should be tried in a civilian court. This trial will probably take place in the next few months, and they will hold public hearings, which I will participate in in order to make sure that the case does not end with impunity.

    MARIA CARRION:

    Are you also hoping to bring to trial those Americans who were on the base, on the military base, those days that the massacre in Mapiripan was being committed and that you say knew about this massacre and did nothing to stop it?

    LUIS GUILLERMO PEREZ:

    [translated] I hope that they will be investigated and that they are investigated by the US justice system. I would love it if Janet Reno would take this matter into her hands. And if that were not possible, I would wish that the Colombian judicial system would dare to judge these American military officials, which is much more complicated and difficult, given the fact that the American government gives substantial help to this country’s judicial system, particularly the Attorney General here.

    We need an independent and fair process that would take this investigation as far as it can go, so that all those responsible, either in action or omission, are tried. The documents so far show that there is a responsibility on the part of officials of the United States Army’s Special Forces. We want an investigation to determine who they were, and that they be sanctioned if they are found to have had any participation in the commission of the massacre or in the forming of paramilitary groups in the region.

AMY GOODMAN:

Luis Guillermo Perez represents the survivors of Mapiripan massacre. He was speaking with Democracy Now! producer Maria Carrion, who has just returned from Colombia. The bill in congress for military aid to Colombia is being considered now by the Senate. In the coming days, we’ll hear from Ignacio Gomez, who is a leading journalist in Colombia, under death threat for exposing this story.

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