by Constanza Vieira
(IPS) BOGOTA -- "The security forces must have some degree of responsibility" in the vanishing of the chief of Colombia's paramilitary umbrella group, Carlos Castano, a human rights lawyer told IPS.
Castano disappeared on Apr. 16 after a gunfight in Uraba, a rural area in northwestern Colombia, and his whereabouts remain unknown. However, rumours have been circulating that he was killed or has left the country.
"The important thing is to determine who staged the attack, and in what circumstances, because Uraba is a completely militarized and 'paramilitarized' region," said Eduardo Carreno, who belongs to the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective.
He was referring to the simultaneous heavy presence in the area of the army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the right-wing paramilitary coalition headed by Castano.
According to leading rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is abundant and compelling evidence of the close ties and constant coordination between paramilitaries and U.S.-advised army forces in Colombia.
Castano, one of the paramilitary leaders who has worked closest with the armed forces, vanished six days before the Supreme Court began to consider an extradition request from the United States, where he is wanted on drug trafficking charges.
Colombia is in the grip of a civil war involving leftist guerrilla groups that rose up in arms four decades ago, paramilitary militias, and the armed forces. In recent years, the drug trade has become a key source of financing for both the rebels and the paramilitaries.
Castano's disappearance "is extremely serious," considering the crimes he admitted to committing in his book 'My Confession', published in 2002, said Carreno.
Castano admitted to being the "intellectual author" of a large number of assassinations and mass killings, which he justified "saying that the people killed were guerrilla fighters. But in the investigations it has been clearly demonstrated that the executions were committed against totally defenseless civilians," said Carreno, whose human rights organization has won international awards.
One example of Castano's involvement was the July 1997 massacre in the southeastern Colombian town of Mapiripan. Hearings related to that case have been under way at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights since late January. Carreno, as a member of the Lawyers' Collective, is representing the civilian plaintiffs.
In Colombia, Castano as well as several military officers have been convicted and handed long sentences for their role in the massacre.
A retired army general, Jaime Alberto Uscategui, is under arrest and will also be tried in connection with the killings, although the trial was postponed twice and rescheduled for May 11.
The mass killing took place in Mapiripan, a town of 1,000 in a key coca-growing region in the southeastern region of Orinoquia, controlled by the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In July 1997, 200 members of the AUC -- including 50 who Castano sent in by plane from Uraba -- surrounded Mapiripan. From Jul. 15 to 20 they closed off all access routes by river and land and, death list in hand, dragged at least 49 unarmed civilians from their homes to torture and kill them.
The local judge, Leonardo Cortés, was the only local authority still in town. The rest had left with their families eight days earlier.
From his window, he saw the paramilitaries take several local residents to the municipal slaughterhouse. For several days he heard the screams and pleading coming out of the improvised torture centre as the victims were hung alive from meat hooks and their limbs cut off with chainsaws.
According to Castano, his men were killing people he claimed were guerrillas. But Carreno says the victims were opponents of the municipal government, who had accused the mayor and his associates of corruption.
"The people who were executed belonged to the Liberal Party or to the leftist Patriotic Union," while the local administration was in the hands of the Conservative Party, he said.
The day the killings began, judge Cortés telephoned Major Hernan Orozco, commander of the Joaquín París battalion, who also received military intelligence reports of what was happening.
Orozco asked his superior, Uscategui, who was in charge of security in the region at the time, to send in the 2nd mobile army brigade to protect the local inhabitants. The brigade, consisting of hundreds of soldiers, was located in Guaviare, four hours by road from Mapiripan. Its helicopter gunships were just five minutes away by air.
But the army never showed up.
And Orozco was later "threatened by the paramilitaries and by the military officers who were responsible for what occurred," said Carreno.
Orozco is now living in exile under protection from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Judge Cortés, who also received warnings that he should change his testimony, went into exile as well.
The terrified survivors of the town "fled Mapiripan by river, road and plane," said Carreno as he reconstructed events in an interview with IPS.
No one returned. According to the human rights lawyer, the town is now inhabited by "people who are from outside the region."
Castano was sentenced in absentia to 40 years in prison in mid-2003. Colonel Lino Sanchez, then-commander of the 2nd mobile army brigade, also received a 40-year sentence for helping coordinate the torture and murder operation. Sergeant Juan Carlos Gamarra was sentenced to 22 years.
While the paramilitaries were carrying out the grisly killings in the slaughterhouse, Sanchez was one of the officers receiving special training on military planning at the army's special forces school on Barrancón Island, just 35 km west of Mapiripan.
The course was given by U.S. Green Beret special forces.
Investigations have shown that the paramilitaries who were brought into Mapiripan enjoyed military logistical support, using an airstrip controlled by the Colombian armed forces, for example.
Three weeks before the massacre, Sanchez had suggested to the commander of the local anti-narcotics base that he facilitate access to the area by the paramilitaries, because "they are fighting a common enemy, and could teach the guerrillas a lesson," according to the records from the trial.
Although the anti-narcotics base refused to cooperate with Sanchez, it did not report the colonel's request until six months later, under pressure from those investigating the mass killing.
In a telephone conversation that was leaked on Mar. 29 to the Bogota magazine Cambio, Uscategui told an unidentified listener that he is innocent, and that he is not going to take the rap for the massacre all by himself.
He also said that if he speaks out, it would be the country's worst scandal ever, and could lead to the cutting off of U.S. military aid.
Colombia is the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt, through the Plan Colombia anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy.
The justice system has kept certain information under wraps "because it would not be convenient for it to be made public," said Uscategui.
The retired general described the content of 300 codified files that were found in the computer belonging to Sergeant Gamarra.
Gamarra, who is serving a 22-year term, was head of intelligence in the Joaquín París battalion, which was commanded by Major Orozco.
"The pamphlets that were handed out by the self-defense forces during the Mapiripan massacre were produced on that computer, in the París battalion," said Uscategui.
"The same was true of the pamphlets the paramilitaries handed out eight months later in Puerto Alvira" in the same region, where a similar mass killing was carried out, he added.
Also found on the computer "were the payrolls for the monthly payments to the entire AUC front in Guaviare -- which consisted of 93 men and women: their aliases, ranks and what they were paid," the retired general added.
In the conversation, Uscategui mentioned a key element: "The link with the paramilitaries did not only exist in Guaviare, but came from Uraba," in the department of Antioquia, which was under the jurisdiction of General Rito Alejo del Río when Uribe, Colombia's president, was governor of that department.
Uscategui pointed out that after the massacre, the 2nd mobile army brigade and the Joaquín París battalion did not chase down the killers. On the contrary, the brigade mounted "a huge operation to smash the FARC and create a security corridor for the 'paras" to pull out of the area.
"The army not only has ties with the 'paras', not only does it not fight them, but it fought off the FARC to keep them from attacking the 'paras' for making an incursion into guerrilla territory," said the retired general.
A 2001 report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch titled "The 'Sixth Division': Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia" explains that the "Sixth Division" is a phrase used in Colombia to refer to paramilitary groups.
"Colombia's army has five divisions, but many Colombians told Human Rights Watch that paramilitaries are so fully integrated into the army's battle strategy, coordinated with its soldiers in the field, and linked to government units via intelligence, supplies, radios, weapons, cash, and common purpose that they effectively constitute a sixth division of the army."
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2003 shows that the situation has not changed: "Mayors, municipal officials, governors, human rights groups, the public advocate's office, and even some police detachments regularly informed the appropriate authorities about credible threats by paramilitaries. Yet only rarely did military forces take effective action to stop paramilitary advances."
The London-based Amnesty International's 2003 annual country report on Colombia says, "Paramilitaries operating in collusion with the security forces were responsible for the vast majority of 'disappearances' and killings of civilians."
May 6, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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