New Colombian Military Chief's 'Slap' in US' Face
by Jim Lobe
November 21, 2003

The naming of an officer accused of longstanding ties to right-wing paramilitary forces as Colombia's new armed forces commander is a "slap in the face" of the US administration, which has pressed Bogotá to improve its human rights record, says Amnesty International USA (AIUSA).

The group's condemnation of the appointment of Gen. Carlos Ospina Ovalle was echoed this week by US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Troops commanded by Ospina were implicated in a particularly grisly massacre by paramilitary units in the province of Antioquia in 1997 in which 11 villagers were killed. The incident was never formally investigated.

The general was named army commander by President Alvaro Uribe as part of a major cabinet and military reshuffle touched off earlier this month after his government fared unexpectedly poorly in regional elections.

"General Ospina's appointment to the position of the commander of the Colombian armed forces is nothing short of outrageous," said the executive director of Amnesty International USA, William Schulz.

"With so many questions raised about the general's human rights record, President Uribe appears to be signaling once again his disdain for human rights and his willingness to tolerate abusive commanders."

HRW's chief Colombia specialist, Robin Kirk, agreed. The appointment, she said, "demonstrates that Colombia's civilian leaders are not serious about cleaning out the human rights abusers still in positions of command; instead, they reward them with promotions."

Ospina's promotion comes just as the US Congress is putting the final touches on its 2004 foreign-aid appropriations bill which includes some 700 million dollars in mostly military aid for Colombia, which since 2000 has received about two billion dollars in US military assistance, more than any other country except Israel and Egypt.

Most of the aid is supposed to be tied to improvements in the government's human rights record, particularly in ending all military support for paramilitary groups that have carried out most of the mass killings that have wracked Colombia's countryside during the past decade.

Uribe, who as governor of Antioquia in the 1990s was accused of close ties to paramilitaries there, has been recently engaged in negotiating the terms of their disarmament and demobilization as part of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy against left-wing guerrillas.

The terms of those negotiations have worried foreign and Colombian human rights groups. One proposal, which reportedly has the tentative support of the administration of US President George W. Bush, would permit leaders of the paramilitary groups to return to normal life after paying fines or performing other acts of contrition.

In the 15 months of his rule, Uribe's tough line toward left-wing guerrillas has won him substantial popular support in Colombia, but that popularity failed to translate into electoral gains in elections last month in which opposition figures, including leftists, won key local posts, including the mayoralty of the capital Bogotá.

Uribe was also set back when voters rejected a referendum that would have given him greater powers over government spending.

A number of ministers resigned, including Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez, whose blunt manner and efforts to clean up corruption in the military reportedly alienated top officers. She was replaced by Alberto Uribe Echavarria, an insurance executive and friend of the president.

The electoral defeats and the reshuffle that followed them have weakened Uribe's image as a strong, decisive figure, according to analysts, who say the Colombian economy is also under pressure from a ballooning government deficit, due mostly to the rapidly rising defense budget.

In those circumstances, Ospina's appointment might well cast greater doubt on Uribe's judgment.

Most of the concerns about the general's human rights record date to 1997 and 1998, when he served as the commander of the Fourth Brigade. During his tenure, troops under his command committed a number of massacres, executions and torture, the most famous of which was the slaughter in the village of El Aro.

According to many accounts, soldiers from the brigade surrounded the town and then permitted approximately two dozen paramilitary units to enter and conduct a five-day reign of terror that included the torture and brutal murder of as many as 11 villagers, including three children.

When villagers tried to flee the area, Ospina's troops turned them back.

The paramilitaries also reportedly burned most of the town's houses and other buildings, including its church, looted homes and stores, destroyed pipes and ultimately made off with more than 1,000 head of cattle.

While the El Aro incident was the most notorious – the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights formally took it up in 2001 – it was not the only example of close cooperation between the Fourth Brigade and the paramilitaries, according to rights groups.

While Ospina himself was not directly involved, "the fact that the crimes were allegedly committed by subordinates would not relieve him of criminal responsibility if he knew or had reason to know that they planned or carried out the massacre," said Kirk.

Ospina himself was never suspended, nor was any formal investigation of the incident ever launched.

Kirk noted that several of Ospina's battalion commanders were later convicted by a civilian court for working with paramilitaries, but after being charged and supposedly detained, two of them simply left the brigade's headquarters where they were under Gen. Ospina's custody and joined paramilitary groups.

After serving as the Fourth Brigade's commander, Ospina was actually promoted to head the Fourth Division and from there, to the high command.

"The general's appointment is a slap in the face to the US, which has repeatedly reminded the Colombian government that US security assistance is conditioned on its meeting specific human rights criteria," said AIUSA's Schulz.

"The US should see his appointment as clear evidence that the government and military are not taking this mandate seriously and suspend the final allocation of US security assistance for 2003 on human rights grounds as US law requires."

(Inter Press Service)

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Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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