William Wood, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, was on a mission to Washington last week lobbying to shake loose stalled appropriations to fund the country's war against narco-guerrillas when a shocking disclosure was made in Bogota. On Sept. 15, a Colombian Army major was arrested in connection with the murder of six innocent people in a fake rescue operation.
That closely followed disclosure that Army officers participated in a fatal car bombing on the eve of President Alvaro Uribe's second-term inauguration, an attack originally blamed on leftist guerrillas. Meanwhile, senior officers are reportedly still obstructing the trial of the Army's massacre May 22 of U.S.-trained drug enforcement police.
The situation is summarized in a Sept. 19 memo by a well-informed source: "The Colombian Army is hemorrhaging with problems. The chief problem is that we took a very mediocre barracks-bound military force, gave it some little amount of training and lots of equipment but never demanded the structural reform like we did with the Colombian National Police [CNP] some 12 years ago. . . . Everyone seems incapable of seeing the 'elephant in the room' and realizing that years of cooperation with the paramilitary forces have corrupted the Colombian Army officer corps all the way up, and the institution requires a dramatic house cleaning and structural reform just like Gen. [Jose] Serrano did with the police in 1994."
The White House prefers not to see any elephant. Colombia, under Uribe's leadership, is the most reliable U.S. ally on a South American continent filled with hostile leftist demagogues. A National Security Council staff preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan has handed Colombia over to the State Department, where diplomats take the position that the Army and CNP are rival government agencies not different in quality.
The strategy at State is to play down Colombian outrages out of fear that they will be seized on by left-wing members of Congress to throttle appropriations for Plan Colombia. U.S. diplomats are overlooking the increasing number of "friendly fire" incidents that really constitute rogue Army activity.
The most recent incident was revealed by the announcement Aug. 14 of a successful military operation in Barranquilla to rescue two allegedly abducted businessmen, with six "kidnappers" killed in the operation. The Army's general staff proclaimed a "victory over terrorism." The truth is there was no kidnapping, and Uribe has declared that the six victims were murdered. In addition to the arrested Army major, also being held are a captain, a non-commissioned officer, five troopers and a secret drug agent. At the root of this crime was an apparent dispute over a debt totaling millions of dollars.