The Colombian elephant

Posted: Sep 28, 2006 12:01 AM
The Colombian elephant

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.

The mass assassination followed the incident July 31 in Bogota when a car bomb directed at a truck carrying troops killed one civilian and wounded 10 soldiers. Colombian authorities depicted an offensive by leftist FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas to disrupt the presidential inauguration. A month later, it was disclosed that this and other pre-inauguration bombings actually were the handiwork of military officers and men seeking reward money and commendations.

Uribe has come down hard on this outrageous behavior. He has succeeded in restoring to civilian jurisdiction the trial of 15 Army officers and men accused of slaughtering 10 CNP anti-narcotics officers after the case had been on track for a military court's whitewash. Nevertheless, generals are reportedly engaged in obstructive tactics to save their comrades.

Fearful of a backlash in Congress, the State Department writes off rogue Army behavior as isolated incidents. But a former U.S. official who recently visited Colombia saw deeper troubles: "The real crux of the problem is that once the citizenry lose trust and confidence in their army as an institution, that army is defeated in a more severe manner than a direct military defeat. It is that escalating loss of trust and confidence that I recently witnessed in Colombia -- as a result of criminal actions, not battlefield defeats -- that is threatening the Army. If there is not some immediate and serious action taken to restore trust and confidence that is more than just a sound bite, then the Colombian Army will enter a flat spin right into the ground." That requires, as a start, U.S. recognition of the elephant in the room.