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23 October 1997 Edition

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Colombian President admits army death squad links

By Dara MacNeil

With municipal elections scheduled for 26 October, voters in Colombia go to the polls secure in the knowledge that their President has admitted that members of his armed forces are in ``sympathy'' with the country's right wing death squads.

President Ernesto Samper also conceded, in an interview with the daily El Espectador, that the armed forces were guilty of human rights abuses.

Just such an abuse occurred earlier this month, when Colombian armed forces launched a massive offensive in the south of the country. Such was the ferocity of their assault that the areas under attack became literal `free fire zones': in just under a fortnight over a million rounds of ammunition were expended and the local inhabitants were subjected to a sustained, two-week aerial bombardment campaign. Officially, nine civilians lost their lives. Realistically, the death toll had to be much higher.

The Colombian government has claimed that the offensive was part of a strategy to guarantee security for the 26 October poll.

A more likely explanation, however, is that the offensive was planned to lessen official embarrassment at successful guerrilla advances over the past 18 months.

In early October, for example, guerrillas ambushed and almost killed the head of the country's armed forces, Manuel Jose Bonett.

Admitting that the guerrillas had made substantial advances in recent months, President Samper attempted to play down their significance by claiming they had been driven out of other areas. He cited in particular the Uraba region on the country's north-western coast.

As coincidence would have it, the Uraba region is also a powerbase of drug cartels and right-wing death squads.

While President Samper denied any direct link between the death squads and ``his government', he did concede that there were those in the armed forces who were in ``sympathy with the (right-wing) paramilitary groups.''

Unfortunately for Samper, the available evidence suggests the army plays a far more active role than that of a sympathetic bystander. Uraba is infamous as the site of a massacre of fifty campesinos by a death squad in 1988. The massacre was perpetrated, ostensibly, by the euphemistically titled Peasant Association of Farmers & Cattle Ranchers of the Middle Magdalena valley, or ACDEGAM.

A viciously anti-left wing organisation that operated as an umbrella group for other such groups, ACDEGAM was a tool of Rodriguez Gacha and Pablo Escobar, both members of the Medellin Cartel.

An investigation into the organisation, in the wake of the Uraba massacre, exposed links to politicians, police and senior army officers. More damningly, evidence provided by a deserter revealed the presence of senior army officers in the organisation's command structure, and the participation of army personnel in its murderous operations.

In 1987, ACDEGAM gunmen murdered Pardo Leal, then head of the left-wing Patriotic Union. Leal had been preparing a campaign for the presidency and appeared to stand a good chance of winning.

And despite declarations to the contrary, and a supposed war on the drug cartels, little appears to have changed since the 1980s. This year alone, according to a report in The Economist, some 10,000 people have been forced to flee Uraba as a result of continuing death squad activity.

Earlier this month, they withdrew from an area which houses an 800 strong community of campesinos. San Jose de Apartado styles itself as a ``community of peace'', wherein inhabitants have declared a stance of ``active neutrality.'' The death squad withdrawal was prompted by the arrival in the community fo the director of Oxfam.

As the Oxfam party left the village, the death squads re-entered and shot one man dead. The following week three more were killed. Meanwhile Samper's disingenuous attempts to distance himself from the activities of such organisations is proving a fiction too far. Thus, while the army was busy bombarding civilians in the south of the country, one of Colombia's most notorious death squad leaders - Carlos Castano - was on a veritable meet-the-press spree.

The Colombian government claims Mr Castano is a wanted man, even going so far as to put a price of $1 million on his head. Nonetheless, the devilishly cunning Castano has so far eluded all attempts at capture - such as they have been. This has not prevented him, in recent weeks, from meeting with and being interviewed by journalists from the national daily, El Tiempo, along with a plethora of foreign correspondents.

Last February, the US officially blacklisted Colombia, subjecting the country to a series of sanctions for its failure to prosecute the `war on drugs' with the vigour demanded by Washington.

Five months later, Washington dispatched 500 tonnes of war material to Colombia's security forces.

In the 1980s, an official US study estimated that fully one third of Colombia's death squad membership was made up of serving members of the army. They're obviously doing something right, to be deserving of such largesse.


No press freedom in US colony



One of the great myths employed to underwrite the imperialist project was the supposed benefits that would accrue to the colonised, as a result of their being ruled by a more `enlightened' colonial power. Thus, the subject peoples could only gain in terms of greater education, prosperity and freedoms. The reality, of course, was that the traffic went entirely in the opposite direction.

Puerto Rico is a case in point. Occupied by the US in 1898, this contemporary colony now operates under the guise of devolved, local government. However, that which the US boasts of - the freedom of the press - appears to be an alien concept in the country it runs at a remove.

At a recent meeting of the InterAmerican Press Society, in Mexico, delegates form Puerto Rico angrily denoucned the manner in which authorities have curbed freedom of expression on the island. In particular, the Puerto Rican delegates highlighted the manner in which the authorities bring enormous pressure to bear on media outlets which carry criticism of official actions.

Most insidious is the manner in which the (local) government denies any official publicity to any paper which it deems to be too critical. This official `order' has been in place since April last.

The InterAmerican Press Society has resolved to dispatch a delegation to the island colony to investigate the matter.

Strangely, given the propensity of US politicians to work themselves into a fit of apoplexy over similar alleged violations in Sandinista Nicaragua and latterly Cuba, there has been a remarkable reluctance to comment on this suppression of freedom of expression in the United States' own territories.

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