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Colombia inches toward justice in paramilitary killings

TRUJILLO, Colombia — For months the sometimes headless bodies, cut up by chain-saws, washed up on the banks of the muddy Cauca River.

Peasants, a local politician — anyone deemed to have leftist sympathies was targeted. Often the killers came in the dead of night, wearing ski masks.

Early one morning 18 years ago they came for Libia Gonzalez's husband and two brothers-in-law, all three carpenters with a workshop on the town square.

"They caused so much grief and pain for so many mothers," said Gonzalez, referring to the 342 killings that forever scarred this picturesque town in western Colombia.

No one was ever prosecuted, not unusual in a country where right-wing paramilitaries operated with support from powerful landowners and military officers.

But this year, the case of the Trujillo killings was dramatically re-opened after an independent report was published by a distinguished group of researchers calling themselves the Historical Memory Group.

Even more surprising, several arrest warrants were issued last month for 10 army and police officers.

Colombia's historically anemic and corrupt justice system may be beginning to show some teeth, analysts say.

"The reopening of the Trujillo case is a very hopeful sign that the veil of impunity is being lifted," said Michael Evans, who examined the case for the National Security Archive in Washington. "But it's still too early to tell if it's a sign of real accountability with legal consequences."

U.S.-based human rights groups are pressing the government of President Alvaro Uribe to do more, noting that the Colombian military has received $5.5-billion in U.S. aid during the Bush administration.

Colombia's military recently launched a campaign to stamp out human rights violations by its troops, citing observance of human rights as key to winning the 40-year-old war.

Last week, 25 officers and soldiers, including three generals and 11 colonels, were fired for their alleged role in a scandal over the execution of civilians by military commanders in an effort to inflate the body count in the war. Officers were reportedly being paid $1,200 for each dead "combatant."

The mushrooming affair led to the resignation Tuesday of Army chief Gen. Mario Montoya. U.S. officials are deeply concerned by the body-count scandal, pointing out that Colombian military units are constantly vetted for human rights abuses. Some 15 percent of all units are currently deemed ineligible for U.S. funding, they say.

Uribe has promised a full investigation, and jail for those found responsible. But many remain skeptical. None of the disgraced former officers has been arrested or charged.

"In Colombia, the exception is accountability, the rule is impunity," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director for the Americas of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "If you are powerful it's still quite easy to intimidate or corrupt the justice system."

• • •

The right-wing paramilitary groups were created in the 1980s by landowners under siege from left-wing guerrillas who controlled many rural areas. They later allied with drug traffickers to buy guns and pay recruits, and grew into a 25,000-strong force. Human rights groups estimate that their victims number in the tens of thousands.

In 2003 Uribe negotiated a deal to demobilize the main paramilitary armies. But some renegades have since re-armed, allied with drug lords. Their tentacles still reach deep into the military.

In 2006 a Colombian army colonel, Byron Carvajal, was arrested with 28 soldiers for the fatal ambush of 12 U.S.-trained antinarcotics police. Among the victims was a promising young police major, Elkin Molina, 35.

"He was an excellent official and a very good son," said his mother, Mery Aldana, caressing photos of him at a promotion ceremony. "They shot them in cold blood. It was diabolical."

Early on, the case looked to be headed for impunity. Witnesses were threatened, and the judge quit out of fear. Carvajal eventually received a 54-year jail sentence, but only after heavy pressure from the U.S. Embassy.

Accountability for more obscure victims has been much harder to come by.

The Trujillo massacre was actually a series of killings spanning six years between 1988 and 1994. The most gruesome of all was the death of Father Tiberio Fernandez, the local Jesuit priest. He was kidnapped on his way to Mass in April 1990 with his niece and two other parishioners. His decapitated and castrated body washed up a few days later.

A national commission identified the killers with ample evidence: one of Colombia's most elusive drug lords, Diego Montoya; paramilitary chief Henry "The Scorpion" Loaiza; and Maj. Alirio Uruena, with the army's Third Brigade.

The evidence was so damning that in 1995 then-President Ernesto Samper officially accepted state responsibility for the crimes.

Nevertheless, no one was tried for the killings.

• • •

Today a terraced monument of victims' tombs covers a hillside above the town. Under each name are sculpted bas-relief images of each person.

Gonzalez points to an image of the three carpenters sitting around a work table, their tools at their sides.

Despite the recent arrests, she wonders whether anyone will ever be prosecuted.

"We peasants are always the ones who pay the price. Our lives aren't worth 5 cents."

David Adams can be contacted at [email protected]

>>fast facts

What U.S. knew

• Declassified U.S. government documents reveal that American officials in the early 1990s were concerned that the Colombian military had "whitewashed" and "perverted" the Trujillo investigation.

• Army Maj. Alirio Uruena had "personally directed the torture of 11 detainees and their subsequent execution," according to one State Department cable. Evidence from a key witness in the case, a civilian army informant who participated in the murders, was corroborated by "more than a dozen witnesses."

• U.S. officials pressured the Colombian government to fully prosecute the case, to no avail.

Where the alleged killers are

• Henry "The Scorpion" Loaiza was jailed on drug charges. Diego Montoya was indicted in the United States on drug charges involving multiton cocaine shipments.

• Montoya ended up on the FBI's list of 10 most wanted fugitives. He was arrested in September 2007 at a farm not far from Trujillo. He is facing extradition to the United States to face drug charges.

Colombia inches toward justice in paramilitary killings 11/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 5:12pm]
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