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30 November 2000 Edition

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Colombian Army Attacks Civilians

On 26 October 2000, members of the Guanes Battalion of the Colombian Army entered the village of Vallecito, part of the peace and resistance community of San Pablo in the south of Bolivar province, and burned and destroyed houses belonging to local residents. The soldiers also robbed materials that the community had received to reconstruct their houses after the joint army-paramilitary incursion of 22 July 2000. The construction materials had been donated by European organisations to help rebuild the village.

The farmers and their families in the peace and resistance community have declared themselves to be in permanent and peaceful resistance to all attempts to force them to flee their land. In the past thousands of farmers have been expelled from the south of Bolivar by a joint army-paramilitary strategy to clear the land and allow for the introduction of multinational corporations. Among the beneficiaries of this policy of forcibly displacing people is the Canadian multinational ``Corona Gold Mines'', which is trying to take control of one of Latin America's largest gold mines in the nearby Serranía de San Lucas mountains also in the south of Bolivar province.

In all the joint army-paramilitary strategy in this part of Colombia has displaced some 30,000 Colombians and resulted in the assassination or disappearance of at least another 500 at the hands of the army and the death squads. On 8 October, for example, a joint army paramilitary unit tortured and then murdered Samuel Acevedo, a local farmer.

The Colombian military refuses to respect the wishes of local residents and is today continuing with their campaign of terror. For their part, the Colombian government is also refusing to protect the civilian population of southern Bolivar department and it appears that as paramilitary forces consolidate their grip on the region things will only get worse.

Two new massacres

On the evening of Tuesday, 21 November 2000, a 30-strong Colombian army-backed paramilitary unit entered the Caribbean coastal town of Nueva Venecia, in the province of Magdalena. The paramilitaries, who were wearing camouflaged battledress and carrying automatic assault rifles, remained in the town until Wednesday morning, during which time they selected 17 civilians from a hit list that they carried.

All 17 of these civilians, both men and women, were ordered out of their homes and shot dead execution-style in front of their families and/or neighbours. Four other civilians were abducted by the paramilitaries and have not been seen since.

Ultimate responsibility for this massacre lies with the local military commander General Freddy Padilla León of the II Division, who has well documented ties to the paramilitaries. Padilla also assisted in the massacre of 18 people in the town of Puerto Alvira in Meta province in May 1998, where many victims were mutilated and/or incinerated. He is also suspected of having been involved in the massacre of 30 civilians in nearby Mapiripan in June 1997.

A second paramilitary massacre, in the village of La Loma in the department of Cesar, occurred on Saturday, 18 November 2000. Some 50 paramilitary fighters entered the town and murdered five people, accusing them of being guerrilla sympathisers.

Journalists killed by death squad

On Friday, 17 November, Colombian journalist Gustavo Ruíz Castillo was killed when two gunmen approached him and fired two shots into his head at point blank range. At the time of the attack, Ruíz was walking home in the northwestern town of Tivijav, on the Caribbean coast. Ruíz, who worked for the independent broadcaster Radio Galeón, had received numerous threats from extreme right-wing paramilitary groups.

A few weeks back, on Tuesday, 31 October, a Colombian Army-backed death squad assassinated another Colombian journalist. Juan Camilo Restrepo, the head of a community radio station in the northwestern province of Antioquia. He had also received numerous threats from the paramilitaries.

Over 170 journalists have been killed in Colombia in the past 20-odd years and both Reporters Without Borders and the Inter-American Press Association have labelled it as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. On top of the assassinations, hundreds of journalists have been the victims of violence or kidnappings, or have been forced to leave the country after death threats. As with most of the violence directed at civilians in Colombia, the military-backed death squads are overwhelmingly responsible for these crimes.

US Special Forces worked with death squad

As many US-based readers will know, both the Philadelphia Inquirer and El Nuevo Herald have recently reported on US collusion with Colombian death squads.

The death squad in question is PEPES - People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar. In 1993, this group, funded by the Cali drug cartel and led by Carlos Castaño, set out to systematically attack and destroy anyone associated with Pablo Escobar. Once Escobar was killed, PEPES was transformed into a nationwide paramilitary network that continues to account for the vast majority of political killings in Colombia. Carlos Castaño is now the chief of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group of right wing paramilitary death squads.

According to the recent reports, an alliance of Colombian police, the PEPES and US personnel - including the US Army's top-secret counter-terrorism unit, Delta Force, along with a clandestine Army electronic surveillance team, CIA and DEA agents - tracked down Escobar and then executed him by shooting him point-blank in the ear. In the process of tracking him down, hundreds of lawyers, bankers and relatives of Escobar were also executed and a bombing campaign was aimed at his properties and vehicles.

The United States continued to supply secret intelligence, training and planning to the project even as the assassinations and bombings continued. Participants said that the clandestine US contributions totalled hundreds of millions of dollars in hardware, personnel and cash. At its height, with all these forces assembled under US Ambassador Morris D Busby and CIA station chief Bill Wagner, Bogota was the largest CIA station in the world.

In 1994, after Escobar had been killed, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) began an investigation into the allegations of collusion, although the withholding of information by US agencies hampered the project. Two years later, in 1996, AIUSA filed a Freedom of Information Act request with various US intelligence and defence agencies seeking information on the PEPES death squad. Some of the requests were denied in full, while others were only partially met. As a result, AIUSA is now preparing a lawsuit to compel the release of information from the CIA, the DEA, and other agencies. ``US agencies such as the CIA are unlawfully withholding information about death squads with whom they have allegedly worked,'' said Carlos M. Salinas, who is leading AIUSA's new inquiry.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer article, a former US Army officer who took part in the Colombian operations called the effect of the PEPES ``very significant''. ``They were stunning,'' he said. ``There was no question in my mind that they were acting on information we gathered. It made it more and more difficult for him to hide. As more and more people were killed, he became terrified for his family.''

An Phoblacht
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