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Documents detail U.S. role in Colombia's rights record

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 4, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Newly declassified government documents have cast fresh and disturbing light on U.S. efforts to clean up the human rights record of the Colombian military in the war on drugs.

The documents reveal some of the problems faced by the Clinton administration during the early stages of Plan Colombia, a $1.3-billion counterdrug initiative passed by Congress in 1999.

According to one document, the leader of a U.S. congressional delegation, Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told Colombian military officers in May 1997 that he was "sick and tired" of the human rights restrictions governing U.S. antidrug aid.

Hastert, now House speaker, also encouraged Colombian military and police to bypass the White House and deal directly with Congress, according to a cable signed by then-Ambassador Myles Frechette.

Two other documents show that in 2000, U.S. officials feared that Colombian troops from a U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalion were "bedding down" with soldiers from another Colombian military unit accused of human rights abuses.

The State Department cables are among 70 documents obtained by the National Security Archive, an independent foreign policy research center in Washington. The documents were posted on its Web site Friday.

Their publication comes two days after the State Department certified the Colombian government's compliance with human rights conditions. Human rights groups criticized the certification, saying it ignored evidence that the Colombian government had made little progress in improving a poor human rights record.

Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery, contested the ambassador's account, saying Frechette "overemphasized what the speaker said" due to a disagreement the two men had during the visit.

While Hastert "obviously is supportive of human rights," Feehery said the speaker thought the human rights restriction made it difficult for Colombian security forces to fight the drug war effectively. "To help human rights, you have to get rid of the narcotraffickers," Feehery said.

Frechette, who is retired from the Foreign Service, characterized as "absolutely ludicrous" and "absolutely untrue" the notion that he had a conflict with Hastert.

He noted that there were plenty of witnesses to support his cable. "That cable I approved speaks for itself," he said. "If it's embarrassing, that's his problem."

Frechette said it was no secret that Republicans felt the Clinton administration was not doing enough to fight the drug war. He also pointed out that it was the U.S. Congress -- with the White House's blessing -- that implemented the restrictions on U.S. aid to Colombia.

The embassy's cables from 2000 were also indicative of the problems U.S. policymakers faced when trying to implement the human rights restrictions on the ground in Colombia.

In June 2000, U.S. Ambassador Curtis Kamman warned of his concerns over a new Colombian counternarcotics unit deployed in Putumayo, the heart of drug production in south Colombia.

The 180-man unit -- specially vetted for human rights -- had just received U.S. training before being sent into action to provide backup for aerial eradication of coca crops. But the unit was being housed at the military base of the 24th Brigade, which was being investigated for human rights abuses.

"Given the questioned vetting status of the 24th Brigade," Kamman said he "wished to note this deployment for the record."

After previously being one of the first Colombian units to be approved for U.S. aid, the 24th Brigade was suspended in October 1999 after some of its soldiers were accused of executing three Putumayo residents at a roadblock. Other officers, including the brigade commander, Col. Gabriel Diaz, also faced repeated allegations of collaboration with illegal paramilitary units operating in the area.

According to human rights experts, the final results of the roadblock investigation are still pending. Counternarcotics units trained and vetted by the United States have also continued to share quarters with the 24th Brigade, said Robin Kirk, a Colombia researcher for the Washington group Human Rights Watch.

"Far from moving to clean up the 24th Brigade, the United States and Colombia have made this unit a key part of the eradication efforts carried out in December 2000 and January 2001," according to a report last year by Human Rights Watch.

Kirk said her research indicated that the 24th Brigade had one of "the most amazing records of paramilitary collaboration in the entire Colombian military."

Though the 24th Brigade may not have received recent U.S. training, helicopters or weapons, Kirk said she was more concerned about intelligence sharing.

"That's the synaptic link between the military and the paramilitary," she said. "That's the way they work together. That's the way they make death lists."

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