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News Report

Pentagon Trained Troops
Led by Officer Accused
In Colombian Massacre

By Frank Smyth and Maud S. Beelman
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists,
The Center for Public Integrity

(Washington, March 30) Pentagon officials, under pressure to investigate alleged links between elite U.S. military trainers and Colombian forces implicated in a 1997 civilian massacre, have confirmed that they trained soldiers commanded by the officer accused of masterminding the attack.

With a $1.6 billion counternarcotics aid package for Colombia making its way through the U.S. Congress, there is increased scrutiny over whether U.S. military assistance has been or could be turned against Colombian civilians in that country's decades-long civil war.

In November 1997, Congress enacted the �Leahy amendment,� prohibiting assistance to any foreign military unit if there is �credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.� 

Four months earlier, 49 residents of Mapirip�n, a village in the coca-growing region of southeastern Colombia, were killed over a five-day period by suspected paramilitary forces allegedly operating under the direction of Colombian Army Col. Lino s'nchez and Carlos Casta�o, leader of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary forces. Colombian prosecutors have formally accused s'nchez and Casta�o of being the �intellectual authors' of the massacre.
Related Links

- Fax from Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense to Senator Leahy
- Letter from United States Department of State to Senator Leahy
- Download printable map of the Guaviare region in Colombia

(Above files require Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Read the report
- The Risks of U.S. Aid: U.S. Special Forces trained human rights violators in Colombia (El Espectador, Colombia)

s'nchez and two other Colombian army officers are in prison, awaiting trial on charges in connection with the massacre. Casta�o, Colombia's most notorious rightist paramilitary leader accused of numerous civilian atrocities and drug trafficking, remains at large.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, confirmed that s'nchez was commander of the 2nd Mobile Brigade, which received training by U.S. Special Forces at a river base about 80 kilometers from Mapirip�n. The Defense Department has said it is investigating further to determine whether s'nchez himself was trained by U.S. Special Forces.

The Bogot� daily El Espectador reported on Feb. 27 that s'nchez's 2nd Mobile Brigade received U.S. Special Forces training in June 1997 while he was planning the Mapirip�n massacre. The newspaper said the goal of the attack was to turn over control of the guerrilla-held Mapirip�n, in a region that produces about 30 percent of the world's coca, to paramilitary forces, which have ties to the Colombian army. 

A report by Colombia's Counternarcotics Police Intelligence Office, cited by the newspaper, said s'nchez first engineered a plan on June 21 to introduce paramilitary forces into the region, using U.S. spraying of coca crops as a cover, in order to �teach the guerrillas a lesson.�

The El Espectador investigation was based on a review of 4,500 pages of Colombian government documents on the Mapirip�n massacre by reporter Ignacio G�mez, who is also a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It has prompted inquiries on Capitol Hill, where Congress is debating an aid package that would train and equip Colombian army counternarcotics battalions and provide money for more than 60 helicopters for army and police forces. 

Human rights groups are worried that the military aid might be used against Colombian civilians. Robert E. White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay and president of the Center for International Policy, warned in a Feb. 8 commentary in The Washington Post that the aid package �puts us in league with a Colombian military that has longstanding ties to the drug-dealing, barbaric paramilitaries that commit more than 75 percent of the human rights violations' in Colombia.

�Obviously our people do not teach torture. They do not teach massacres. They teach human rights in every single class,� Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations Brian Sheridan told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations two days after the El Espectador report. �As to the massacre, or alleged massacre and its proximity to or juxtapositioning to the training activity, that is something that we will have to look at very carefully.�

In a Dec. 22, 1999, letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Senate's Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and author of the Leahy amendment, Sheridan listed nine training exercises between U.S. and Colombian soldiers between June and August 1997. Specifically, he said, U.S. soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., trained Colombian troops at the Barranc�n river base from May 14 to June 23, 1997. Barranc�n, an island in the Guaviare River, is a U.S. Special Forces training site that is a 10-minute drive from a Colombian army base and airfield at San Jos' del Guaviare, from which U.S. government and contract personnel conduct counternarcotics operations. According to El Espectador, the paramilitaries were allowed to land at that airbase in mid-July en route to Mapirip�n. 

Sheridan said the �Green Berets' finished their training of Colombian troops at �the Barranc�n Special Forces School� on June 23, 1997. Pentagon officials say they do not know whether s'nchez's 2nd Mobile Brigade participated in that training, and Clyde Howard, an official in Sheridan's office, said the Pentagon was under no obligation to investigate because the Leahy amendment was not law at the time of the massacre.

Sheridan confirmed that s'nchez's 2nd Mobile Brigade received �riverine interdiction and land warfare� training one month after the massacre � from Aug. 18 to Sept. 18, 1997.

U.S. Special Forces from Fort Bragg were in Colombia from May 22 to July 22, 1997, according to a 1998 Defense Department report. But Sheridan's office said only the two exercises specified in the Leahy letter involved training at Barranc�n.

�There are discrepancies about what our military trainers were doing at Barranc�n, and whether they were there at the time of the Mapirip�n massacre nearby. These discrepancies need to be clarified,� Leahy said in a statement to G�mez.

Documents reviewed by El Espectador indicate that American military personnel were at Barranc�n for a graduation ceremony for U.S.-trained Colombian forces on July 20-22, 1997. A prosecutor from Colombia's Attorney General's office, who investigated the Mapirip�n massacre two days after it ended, was denied a helicopter to reach the village on July 22 because it was being used to transport military personnel based at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, the documents show.

U.S. officials have acknowledged seeing unusual military activity in and around the San Jos' airfield near Barranc�n before the massacre. Barbara Larkin, the State Department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said in a March 30, 1998, letter to Leahy that Colombian army troops from the 2nd Mobile Brigade and the 7th Brigade were present in the area at the time. The State Department told Leahy �that U.S. personnel involved in counternarcotics programs at San Jose [del Guaviare] remember seeing an unusual number of Army personnel at the airport on the day in question.�

Map of Guaviare Region in Colombia.  Click here for a printable pdf version of the map.

The investigation by the Colombian federal prosecutor's office showed that on July 12, two civilian airplanes, an Antonov and a DC-3, landed at the San Jos' del Guaviare airfield near Barranc�n, where s'nchez had an office, El Espectador reported. The planes carried 15 paramilitary operatives loyal to Casta�o, armed with machetes and knives, several tons of supplies, and leaflets addressed �To the People of the Guaviare,� warning them to cease their cooperation with the guerrillas. 

The Casta�o paramilitaries were joined by others, and the force totaled about 100 men by the time it reached Mapirip�n, about a two-hour drive to the northeast. El Espectador, citing the prosecutor's report, said two paramilitary soldiers also crossed the Guaviare River in stolen boats past a Colombian marine infantry base checkpoint attached to the Barranc�n facility. U.S. Navy Seabees built the marine base in 1994, and the U.S. Navy continues to train Colombian forces there. The boats then met up with the rest of the paramilitary force across the river from Mapirip�n. At no time did Colombian civilian or military authorities challenge the paramilitary forces, the newspaper said, even though such groups are illegal in Colombia.

At dawn on July 15, 1997, the paramilitary forces surrounded Mapirip�n, and their siege of terror and torture lasted until July 20, when the International Committee of the Red Cross dispatched a plane to the village. 

Today, Mapirip�n is a virtual ghost town.

ICIJ researcher Rupa Patel contributed to this report.

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