Witness Ties Colombian General to Paramilitaries

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Gen. Mario Montoya has for years been a trusted caretaker of the sizable aid package Washington provides Colombia's army, leading helicopter-and-commando teams that eradicated drug crops and helping orchestrate this summer's dramatic rescue of hostage Ingrid Betancourt and three captured U.S. defense contractors from Marxist rebels.

With his cinematic bluster and take-charge nature, he impressed visiting American congressional delegations and military officials as an effective, no-nonsense commander who produced results.

But now, a former paramilitary fighter has said in special judicial proceedings that Montoya, who heads Colombia's army, collaborated with death squads that took control of this city's poor neighborhoods from the guerrillas a few years ago. His testimony, along with that of at least four paramilitary commanders, is illuminating the links between Colombia's potent, U.S.-backed military and its brutal paramilitary proxies.

The allegations, if proved, could be highly damaging for the government of President Álvaro Uribe, a strong ally of the Bush administration who has staunchly supported the general in the face of past allegations. Investigations into the ties between illegal paramilitary groups and the Colombian state have already implicated numerous allies of the president, including dozens of lawmakers and the former head of the secret police.

Videotaped testimony by Luis Adrián Palacio, made during two days of closed-door hearings in August and viewed by The Washington Post, has prompted the attorney general's office in Bogota to open a preliminary criminal investigation of the allegations against Montoya, senior investigative officials said.

In a separate jailhouse interview this month, Palacio recounted an April 2002 episode in which he says Montoya funneled weapons to a potent paramilitary militia commanded in this important northern city by Carlos Mauricio García, better known by his alias, Rodrigo 00.

"Montoya is under investigation," said an official in the attorney general's office in Bogota who is familiar with the case. "He has not been charged, but that is the next step." Another official familiar with the case added that Palacio "has a high degree of credibility."

In an interview, Montoya vigorously denied the allegations and called Palacio "a bandit" who is testifying against him to secure an early release from jail. The general also said that Palacio's specific claim that Montoya personally delivered a vehicle loaded with six assault rifles and a grenade launcher was absurd.

"He is lying; he is lying out of all sides of his mouth," Montoya, accompanied by two aides, said in his office. "I am a fighter. I am a warrior. That is why I have enemies. I defend Colombian democracy."

Palacio's testimony comes after several jailed paramilitary commanders, recounting their crimes as part of a government-supervised disarmament of militias, have implicated 30 military officers and police officials. Taken together, testimony by the former fighters shows how some commanders of an army that has for years received U.S. military hardware and training may have collaborated more closely than previously thought with death squads in the 1990s and the early part of this decade.

The testimony against Montoya, well known in Washington because of his early role in managing the large U.S. military-aid package, is particularly embarrassing as the Uribe administration lobbies the U.S. Congress for a free-trade agreement, a debate closely watched by international human rights organizations.

Colombian officials say Palacio may actually receive additional jail time for testifying against Montoya because, by agreeing to cooperate in special hearings for paramilitary fighters, he also has to admit to killings and other crimes he committed. Already, Uribe's administration has been shaken by the arrest this month of a friend and ally of the president, retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, on murder charges. Investigators say del Río built a brutally effective counterinsurgency force with paramilitary militias and often planned joint operations with the top paramilitary leader of the late 1990s and early part of this decade, Carlos Castaño. Del Río denies ties to paramilitary groups.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company