Colombia's Army Chief Steps Down

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Nov. 4 -- The top commander of Colombia's U.S.-backed army resigned Tuesday after an investigation implicated three generals and other officers under his command in the killings of civilians who were later presented as enemy combatants killed in battle.

Gen. Mario Montoya was a favorite of American officials, who saw him as an able caretaker of the U.S. war against Marxist rebels and cocaine cartels. But Montoya had long been dogged by allegations that he was linked to right-wing death squads. A paramilitary fighter testified in court in August that Montoya had funneled arms to paramilitary groups, and human rights groups said he encouraged policies that led some army units to kill peasants and count them as rebels killed in combat to win favor with commanders.

Then last week, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced that 27 army officers and soldiers had been dismissed amid an investigation by a special military commission into the disappearances of 11 poor young men who were lured from a slum outside Bogota this year and allegedly killed by troops deep in the countryside. The bodies were found in unmarked graves days after the men were reported missing. Military commanders initially said the young men had been members of rebel groups and criminal bands.

"The pressure, after the results of the commission, left him little space to maneuver," a senior government official in Bogota, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of Montoya. "He's obviously been under fire for a long time, from all sides, but I think it was only when there was an internal investigation done by the military itself that he made his decision."

Uribe's government has been under pressure to come down hard on rights abusers in an army that has benefited from $5.5 billion in U.S. aid provided to Colombia during the Bush administration. That aid has helped rebuild Colombia's once-incompetent military into a potent force that has pushed back rebel groups and made much of the country safer.

The Colombian government has been especially cognizant of the new political realities in the United States, with Uribe recently suggesting that he believed Barack Obama would probably win the presidency. Obama, as well as Democratic congressional leaders, have said Colombia needs to improve its human rights record if it expects the United States to approve a free-trade agreement.

One critic of the army, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), called Montoya's departure "a long overdue and positive step."

"He shares responsibility for widespread and systematic abuses by the Colombian military," said Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees funding for the Colombian army. "For years, our concerns about these crimes, and General Montoya's role, have been ignored."

A soldier for 39 years, Montoya has been celebrated in Colombia as relentless in his pursuit of guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. U.S. officials credit him with important battlefield successes. Even detractors acknowledge the central role he played in the daring operation in July that rescued three Americans and 12 others held by the rebels in Colombia's southern jungles.

But in a series of recent interviews, residents of the Comuna 13 neighborhood in the city of Medellin described how the army's 4th Brigade, under Montoya's command, teamed with paramilitary fighters to wrest control of the slum from rebels in 2002. The allegations were also contained in a CIA report disclosed by the Los Angeles Times in 2007.

Montoya commanded troops along the country's northeastern coast and in the far south when paramilitary death squads expanded their campaign of terror, in many cases while collaborating closely with army units. Then this year, the number of extrajudicial executions, as the killings of civilians at the hands of soldiers are called, increased to the point that the attorney general's office is now handling 550 cases involving as many as 1,000 victims.

The dismissal of the officers last Wednesday signaled a dramatic step for an administration that has resisted large-scale reforms in the past.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company