Traffickers Infiltrate Military in Colombia
Officers Provided Secret Information On U.S. Navy Ships

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 8, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- An investigation by the Colombian Defense Ministry has found that drug traffickers and rebels from the country's largest guerrilla group infiltrated the U.S.-backed military here, paying high-ranking officers for classified information to help elude capture and continue smuggling cocaine.

The information obtained by the powerful Norte del Valle drug cartel included the secret positioning of U.S. naval vessels and aircraft in the Caribbean early last year, part of a carefully coordinated web designed to stop cocaine from reaching the United States, according to high-ranking Colombian military officials. The cartel is headed by Diego Montoya, who is on the FBI's list of most wanted fugitives.

Separately, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, obtained reports about army operations against guerrilla commanders in the far south, officials say. Gen. Freddy Padilla, head of the armed forces, said in an interview that most of the information that was leaked was from 2003 or earlier.

The episodes, some of which have been outlined in the Colombian press in the past month, represent the most serious cases of infiltration here in recent years and are a blow to a military that depends on U.S. funds and training. The U.S. government has provided $5.4 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia this decade, making the country the biggest recipient of American support outside the Middle East and Afghanistan and helping to make the Colombian military the second-largest force in Latin America.

In interviews, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and the commanders of the armed forces said that the breaches were discovered by military counterintelligence operatives and that the evidence was turned over to the attorney general's office, which has opened several investigations. While other cases of infiltration have been discovered in the past, officials suggested that those cases often were not investigated properly.

"From the beginning, I've said we have to see how penetrated we are," said Santos, a civilian who has headed the Defense Ministry for 15 months. "The situation is a penetration of some sectors of the military forces, and it's a small percentage of the forces. We cannot say it's generalized."

Santos also said that he has sacked about 150 officers during his tenure, many of whom were suspected of corruption or ties to traffickers or illegal armed groups. He said investigators are continuing to search for moles in the ministry.

So far, two lieutenant colonels in the army have been arrested, as have four majors and a noncommissioned officer. Two army generals also resigned from the army's Third Division in the city of Cali, where investigators say traffickers had built close links with corrupt officers. In the navy, Rear Adm. Gabriel Arango has been cashiered, officials say, and is under investigation along with 10 other naval officers.

Adam Isacson, who tracks the Colombian military for the Center for International Policy in Washington, said the military should be commended for revealing the corruption. But he said the scandal probably would give more leverage to Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have pushed for cuts in aid to Colombia.

"When you have this new layer of corruption allegations," he said, "it's just going to give more fuel to the legislative opposition here in Washington."

The case of Arango, a promising commander in the Caribbean port of Cartagena, has captured the most attention here. When a fishing boat used to smuggle cocaine was intercepted in January 2006 by the Colombian coast guard, in a region Arango oversaw, investigators found navigational charts on board that showed not only the positioning of U.S. vessels but also that of warships from Britain, the Netherlands and Colombia.

Investigators said some information useful to traffickers was provided by a former navy sailor who served as middleman, Victor Palmera, who was arrested last week. But Arango's ties to traffickers were reportedly tight. Investigators said they found that Arango had provided a fingerprint on a receipt for a $115,000 payment he'd received from Norte del Valle traffickers, a common way of ensuring allegiance in Colombia's underworld. He also had met with traffickers or had associates meet with them, witnesses have told investigators. Arango has vehemently denied collaborating with traffickers.

Colombian authorities have passed on their findings, particularly the navigational charts, to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. agencies. The Colombian military does not track the coordinates of U.S., Dutch or British ships on patrol, suggesting there had been a breach in American security.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogota would not discuss the case or say whether it was investigating.

At the Southern Command in Florida, the American headquarters for U.S. military operations in Latin America, a spokesman said the military was unaware of any American investigation into the allegations. The spokesman, Jose Ruiz, said security measures were tight at an interagency anti-drug task force in Key West, Fla., that coordinates anti-drug monitoring in the Caribbean for the United States and its allies, including Colombia.

The Joint Interagency Task Force-South, or JIATF-S, as it is known, is run by the Defense Department. "JIATF-South has very stringent and effective security measures," Ruiz said, "and as of today, we have no reason to believe that those security measures have been compromised."

While traffickers on the coast received detailed information, high-ranking officers in Colombia's southwest were allegedly on cartel chief Montoya's payroll, prosecutors say. Those officers include Lt. Col. Javier Escobar, who was chief of operations for the Third Division's Third Brigade in Cali, Defense Ministry officials say.

The investigation into the activities of rogue officers in the Third Division has shed light on a murky episode from 2006 that angered Colombian officials and raised questions among U.S. lawmakers. On May 22, a platoon of troops ambushed and killed 10 members of an elite, U.S.-trained team of policemen that was on a counter-drug operation in the town of Jamundi.

Authorities now say that army Col. Bayron Carvajal and several soldiers -- all of whom were arrested last year -- were probably in the pay of the Norte del Valle cartel. "You can presume that Jamundi is connected to the penetration of the Third Brigade," Santos said, "because of where it happened, because of the ties to narco-trafficking."

The military also found that a guerrilla who was killed in combat in the southern state of Meta in July had been carrying portable hard drives that contained maps outlining anti-guerrilla operations and other information about Omega, an operation aimed at capturing guerrilla commanders.

El Tiempo, Colombia's most influential newspaper, said in an editorial that the disclosures showed that intelligence and counterintelligence had become "the weakest flank" in Colombia's effort to fight the guerrillas and drug traffickers.

Military officials acknowledged the concerns but said a restructuring of the military intelligence apparatus has been in the works. "We started restructuring the counterintelligence more than nine months ago, and it was because we were restructuring, because we strengthened the counterintelligence, that we were able to discover this," Santos said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company