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Published on Tuesday, June 6, 2000 by the Center for International Policy
If You Wouldn't Buy A Used Car From Nixon, Why Would You Buy A Military-Aid Package From Colombia's Pastrana?
by Dennis Hans
With the full U.S. Senate poised to take up the billion-dollar aid package for Colombia recently approved by the Appropriations Committee (a $1.7 billion version passed the House in March), the time is ripe to assess the credibility of the bill's principal salesman, President Andrés Pastrana.

It's a tough sell -- or at least it should be. Human rights groups have documented the Colombian armed forces' depridations for decades. Even in recent years, as the number of union leaders, peasant organizers, crusading journalists, peace activists, human rights investigators and government prosecutors murdered by the army has plummeted, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, the U.N. and even the State Department have reported that right-wing paramilitary death squads linked to the army have taken up the slack. They are killing in record numbers the very people army intelligence has long targeted.

"The Colombian military should not get a clean bill of health until it severs its ties to paramilitaries," argues José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of HRW's Americas Division. "U.S. assistance should not be provided either to those who directly commit human rights abuses or to those who effectively contract others to carry out abuses on their behalf and with their assistance."

Because sales is not the most honorable profession, smart people who are looking to buy a used car -- but don't know a gasket from a spark plug -- bring along a knowledgeable friend. That friend will ask tough questions and follow up on evasive answers. He or she will look under the hood and put that vehicle through a demanding test drive.

Members of Congress and big-shot journalists with scant experience in Colombia need to bring a knowledgeable friend when they question Pastrana. Otherwise, they won't have a clue whether he is telling the truth or selling a lie.

On the April 15 edition of the CNN show Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields, Al Hunt asked Pastrana about the accuracy of the latest HRW report, "The Ties that Bind,"which asserts that half of the army's 18 brigades feature links between military intelligence, the paramilitary and hired killers.

Pastrana replied, "No, I don't say that it's correct because sometimes it's not absolutely correct. But we have been investigating, and I think if you see the figure four years ago, three years ago, the people that were linked with the paramilitaries, according to Human Rights and even according to the militaries and the attorney's office in Colombia, were about 1,500 men. Today, it's not more than 50, 60 men that were accused of having links with the paramilitaries. So we're working very hard on that."

Hunt, a lame moderate who plays a liberal on CNN, did not have a buddy along. One who could have helped is Robin Kirk, a careful, experienced researcher for HRW. Via email, I got her responses to Pastrana's statements.

"I have not seen any reports that show a dramatic decrease in the number of military officers linked to support for paramilitary groups," she wrote. "In Colombia, a common tactic of the government is always to cite vague and unconfirmable 'statistics' that are very general. That is why we nailed it down to at least nine out of eighteen brigades, three of which operate in Colombia's largest cities. When you use specifics, it is clear that this relationship continues and is met with, at the very least, tolerance by the armed forces. I can give several concrete examples of high-ranking officers who government investigators have tied to work with paramilitary groups, who remain on active duty and have been promoted."

Pastrana told Hunt that "we proposed a reform inside our militaries in Colombia to really reform our institution, because legally, according to the law in Colombia, you cannot seize or throw away of the military any military before they're 50 years in the military. So that's why we're going to reform the army."

Kirk's response: "What he is referring to is a proposal we and other groups have put forward. It is to purge the military of officers against whom there is credible evidence of human rights abuses. The police have this ability, and have used it effectively to clean up their ranks. But the military refuses to get rid of these killers NOT because they can't (with one executive order, Pastrana could get rid of them all) but because they won't. Pastrana himself has signed orders cashiering several generals BEFORE this spurious 50-year limit -- which is a crock, by the way -- and he should do it much more often. The reason he doesn't is probably because he risks a military mutiny if he does -- precisely because they tacitly support the alliance with [the paramilitaries] and shield the officers involved."

Hunt, without a buddy along, bought the used car. He praised the salesman as "an extraordinarily courageous and determined man" who "may well be the last best hope for any chance of peace." So in the name of peace, Hunt will support massive military aid to an army that collaborates with murderous paramilitaries, refuses to subject itself to the rule of law and is hostile to the peace process!

Bear in mind that Hunt is far better informed than most viewers, as he had read HRW's latest report and talked to skeptical policy experts. If Pastrana sold him, what chance did defenseless viewers have? That show was, in effect, an infomercial. If CNN cares one whit about its reputation and obligation to viewers, it will get Pastrana back in the studio and subject him to cross-examination by informed experts, such as Kirk and Vivanco of HRW and Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International.

A few months ago Pastrana pulled the wool so far over Mike Wallace's eyes that the December 5 <60 Minutes> puff profile, which implicitly endorsed military aid, contained not one word about the army-paramilitary alliance. CBS left viewers with the impression no such alliance existed.

In a portion of his interview with Pastrana that didn't make the 60 Minutes final cut, Wallace did in fact ask the president a series of questions about the links, eliciting dubious answers that satisfied the interrogator. (The unedited, 80-minute Wallace-Pastrana dialogue aired several times on C-SPAN last December.) For example, Wallace asked, "Does the army and the paramilitaries ever go after the guerrillas together?"

"No," Pastrana replied. "I don't think so. Really, I don't think so."

I asked Kirk about that. She said Pastrana's "own Attorney General contradicts him" and directed me to HRW's report "The Ties that Bind." One passage states:

"In 1997, 1998, and 1999, a thorough Colombian government investigation collected compelling evidence that Army officers worked intimately with paramilitaries under the command of Carlos Castaño [who, I might add, is regarded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a "major drug trafficker"]. They shared intelligence, planned and carried out joint operations, provided weapons and munitions, supported with helicopters and medical aid, and coordinated on a day to day basis. Some of the officers involved remain on active duty and in command of troops. . . .

"Colombia's civilian investigative agencies, in particular the Attorney General's office, are capable of sophisticated and hard-hitting investigations. However, many investigators assigned to cases that implicate the Army and paramilitaries have been forced to resign or to flee Colombia."

U.S. congressional and journalistic investigators have no such fear, and the lesson for them is clear: Before you buy anything from Pastrana, be sure to bring along some knowledgeable friends. And take a long hard look under the hood.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer and an occasional adjunct professor of mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida in St Petersburg. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada), San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, In These Times and online at Mother Jones, Working Assets and Z Magazine, among other outlets. He can be reached at

©2000 Dennis Hans


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