Washington, D.C., September 29, 2010 – The U.S. ambassador to Colombia reported in 1998 that the “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries” was “pivotal” to the military success of Gen. Rito Alejo del Río Rojas, now on trial for murder and collaboration with paramilitary death squads while commander of a key army unit in northern Colombia.
The Secret “Biographic Note” from Ambassador Curtis Kamman is one of several documents published today by the National Security Archive pertaining to Del Río, whose trial resumes this month after years of impunity and delay. The documents are also the subject of an article published today in Spanish at VerdadAbierta.com, the leading online gateway for information on paramilitarism in Colombia. The article was also published in English today on the Web site of the National Security Archive.
“The collection is a unique and potentially valuable source of evidence in the case against Del Río, reflecting years of reports linking the senior army commander to paramilitarism,” said Michael Evans, director of the Archive’s Colombia Documentation Project. “As Del Río’s trial resumes, the court should examine the contemporaneous accounts of U.S. officials who were required by law to monitor and certify Colombia’s human rights performance.”
Other revelations include:
- The U.S. embassy takes a favorable view of Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, who called for an investigation of Del Río’s ties to paramilitary groups, noting that his statements “add credibility to our human rights report.”
- A report on a conversation with Col. Velásquez, who told U.S. military officials that cooperation with paramilitaries “had gotten much worse under Del Río.”
- Documents reporting conspicuous increases in anti-paramilitary operations after Del Río’s transfer out of northern Colombia. The embassy said it was “more than coincidental that the recent anti-paramilitary actions have all taken place since the departure from northern Colombia of military personnel believed to favor paramilitaries.”
- The embassy notes a disturbing instance of possible military-paramilitary complicity in a paramilitary attack outside Bogotá just weeks after Del Río took command of the nearby military brigade.
- The shifting U.S. opinion about Del Río is clearly evident in two U.S. military reports from early 1998. In the first, Del Río, who attended the U.S. Army School of the Americas, is lauded as a U.S. military training “success story.” But a second, corrected, report from March 1998 lists Del Río instead as a “not-so-success” story, citing his alleged paramilitary ties.
The United States vs. Rito Alejo del Río
By Michael Evans
Curtis Kamman will not be called to testify in the trial of Rito Alejo del Río, the former Colombian Army general on trial for murder and collaboration with paramilitary death squads, but we do have some idea what the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia might have said, thanks to declassified documents published today on the Web site of the National Security Archive.
In a Secret “Biographic Note” attached to an August 1998 cable to Washington, Kamman asserted that the former 17th Brigade commander’s “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success” in northern Colombia.
Obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, these documents are a unique and potentially valuable source of evidence in the case against Del Río, reflecting years of reports linking the senior army commander to paramilitarism. As Del Río’s trial resumes, the court would do well to examine the contemporaneous accounts of U.S. officials who were required by law to monitor and certify Colombia’s human rights performance.
Once lauded as a staunch anti-guerrilla fighter, Del Río first came under scrutiny in 1996 after his deputy at the Urabá-based 17th Brigade, Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, wrote an internal report (published last week by VerdadAbierta) calling on the Army to investigate the unit’s paramilitary ties and accusing Del Río of turning a blind eye to paramilitary activity. Rather than heed his warning, the Army fired Velásquez, forcing him into early retirement for insubordination. Velásquez offered similar testimony last week as a key witness in the case.
Interviewed by the embassy in December 1997, Velásquez directly implicated his former commander, lamenting the “body count syndrome” that “fueled human rights abuses” and stressing that 17th Brigade collaboration with paramilitaries “had gotten much worse under Del Río.” Another embassy report on the Velásquez episode testifies to the colonel’s integrity, noting that Velásquez was an “admired and much-decorated” military officer who had helped bring down the Cali drug mafia and had once gone public about an extramarital affair rather than submit to a cartel blackmail attempt.
His statements “bring extra pressure to bear on the Colombian military,” noted U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette, who was then involved in tense negotiations with the army over its rights record. “They will add credibility to our human rights report.”
By then the embassy had begun to notice that paramilitary activity tended to flourish in areas where Del Río commanded troops and that anti-paramilitary operations seemed to increase in those same zones after he left. In January 1998, the embassy noted that an unprecedented string of 17th Brigade actions against paramilitaries “took place only about a week after the departure of the Brigade’s commander, Brig. Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was long-alleged to be not unfriendly toward paramilitaries.” A February report called it “more than coincidental” that a recent series of military blows against paramilitaries had “all taken place since the departure from northern Colombia of former First Brigade commander MG Iván Ramírez and his 17th Brigade commander BG Rito Alejo Del Río, who were widely believed to have contributed to a command climate conducive to turning a blind eye to paramilitaries, or worse.”
At the same time, the embassy noted a disturbing instance of possible military-paramilitary complicity in a paramilitary attack in La Horqueta, outside Bogotá, just weeks after Del Río left Urabá to take command of the nearby military brigade. “Why was it necessary,” the embassy asked in a January 1998 cable, “for another army unit to travel all the way from Bogotá in order to intervene?”
Del Río’s 13th Brigade was “strangely non-reactive” to the killing, notable as the first paramilitary massacre to occur so close to the Colombian capital. Also implicating Del Río was the discovery that the paramilitary who led the attack was the president of a legal Convivir militia group from Urabá, Del Río’s former area of operations, “who had been imported to the region to strike back against the FARC.”
The general’s star was falling so fast in 1998 that U.S. reporting could barely keep up. The shifting opinion about Del Río is clearly evident in two U.S. military reports from early 1998. In the first, Del Río, a 1967 graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, is lauded as a U.S. military training “success story.” But a second, corrected, report from March 1998 lists Del Río instead as a “not-so-success” story, noting that he was “alleged to have ties not only to paramilitary elements on the north coast and in the Urabá region…but also in the conflictive ‘Magdalena Medio’ region before that” and was also”implicated in the 1985 theft of a [Colombian Army] weapons shipment destined for Magdalena Medio paramilitaries.”
By August 1998, Colombian prosecutors had opened a preliminary investigation of the general’s ties to paramilitaries, a development Kamman said would “serve as a marker to those army officers who continue to assist or otherwise work with paramilitary groups.” Del Río had been “very successful” against FARC guerrillas, the ambassador said in his Secret “Biographic Note,” and his “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success at the time.”
The ambassador’s reports had an impact in Washington, where human rights figured prominently in negotiations over the nascent Plan Colombia aid package. In January 1999, two senior State Department officials wrote to Kamman to express their dissatisfaction with Colombia’s progress on human rights, noting in particular the “appointment to key positions of several generals credibly alleged to have ties to paramilitaries” including Del Río, who had recently been named the army’s operations director.
Frustrated and essentially out of options, the State Department took the unusual step of cancelling Del Río’s visa for “drug trafficking and terrorist activities” precipitating his forced retirement and the end of his military career in April 1999.
As years went on, the United States became increasingly concerned about official impunity in Colombia, especially for senior military officers like Del Río, prompting sharp discussions after Prosecutor General Luis Camilo Osorio dropped all charges against the former general in 2001. A briefing paper for the State Department’s top human rights official, Lorne Craner, notes “concern in Congress” that Osorio’s dismissal of the case showed that he was “less focused on prosecuting paramilitaries and military personnel accused of colluding with paramilitary.” A 2005 State Department memorandum found it “troubling” that the government had not yet sent “a clear message” regarding impunity for Del Río.
More than five years later, the case has finally come to trial, and the court will hear the testimony of many important witnesses, each of whom brings a unique perspective to the proceedings. And while no U.S. officials will appear, the court should consider the declassified perspective of the U.S. government and the formerly secret files on one of its “not-so-success” stories.
Read the Documents
1998 August 13
General Ramirez Lashes Out at State Department; Two More Generals Under Investigation for Paramilitary Links
U.S. Embassy Colombia cable, 1998 Bogota 9345
This U.S. Embassy cable from August 13, 1998, reports, among other things, that Gen. Del Río was under investigation for links to illegal paramilitary groups. In a “Biographic Note,” the Embassy says that Del Río’s “systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success at the time.”
Biographic Note: Although brigade commands are generally rotated every year, General Del Rio was allowed to remain in command of the 17th Brigade in highly-conflictive Uraba region for two years, apparently because he had been very successful in bloodying the FARC’s nose during the period of his command. His systematic arming and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success at the time.
1997 January 11
Retired Army Colonel Lambastes Military for Inaction against Paramilitaries
U.S. Embassy Colombia cable, 1997 Bogota 274
In this cable, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia reports the public statements of former Colombian Army colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez that his commanding officer at the 17th Brigade, Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, had been negligent in not combating paramilitary groups in Urabá. In its analysis of the information, the Embassy takes a favorable view of Velásquez:
[Embassy officers] who know Velasquez speak highly of his performance as head of the anti-narcotics special joint command’s Army component in Cali. When the cartel tried to blackmail him, then Minister of Defense Botero saved him from dismissal. Botero characterized him as clean, among the best, and of unquestionable integrity. [Several lines deleted] Velasquez’s statements bring extra pressure to bear on the Colombian military as they prepare for a new defense minister. They will add credibility to our human rights report.
1997 December 24
Retired Army Colonel Talks Freely About the Army He Left Behind
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report
In this document, a U.S. military attaché reports his conversation with a retired Colombian Army colonel (almost certainly Carlos Alfonso Velásquez) about his time at the 17th Brigade in Urabá. The report notes that the colonel “seems to know a lot about paramilitaries and their links to drug traffickers and the Army.” The colonel says that there is a “body count syndrome” in the Colombian Army “when it comes to pursuing the guerrillas.” This way of thinking “tends to fuel human rights abuses by otherwise well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors.” The colonel said he had served under one commander he respected, as well as Rito Alejo del Río, “about whom he had fewer nice things to say.”
[Name deleted] was asked if the paramilitary wave of violence in the Uraba region and related military collusion were recent phenomena. [Deleted] replied in the negative, saying that military cooperation with the paramilitaries had been occurring for a number of years, but that it had gotten much worse under Del Río.”
1998 January 09
Colombians Strike Two Blows Against the Paras
U.S. Embassy Colombia cable, 1998 Bogota 120
The U.S. Embassy noted with interest the sudden surge of anti-paramilitary activity by the 17th Brigade immediately after the departure of Del Río as brigade commander.
It is interesting to note that the 17th Brigade confrontation took place only about a week after the departure of the brigade’s commander, Brig. Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was long-alleged to by not unfriendly toward paramilitaries. His own former deputy, Col. Carlos Alfonso Velasquez, was retired from the Army under a cloud in January 1997 for privately criticizing Del Río’s refusal to combat the paramilitaries headquartered in the region. Although the Army has claimed for some time that the 17th Brigade has moved against the paramilitaries, we are unaware of any other such encounters that have been publicly confirmed.
1998 January 28
Narcos Arrested for La Horqueta Paramilitary Massacre
U.S. Embassy Colombia cable
The U.S. Embassy questions why it was another military unit, and not the Army’s 13th Brigade, under the command of Gen. Del Río, that finally responded to the January 1998 La Horqueta paramilitary massacre.
If the Army was immediately in the area in the immediate aftermath of the killings, however, as the priest asserts, why was it necessary for another Army unit to travel all the way from Bogotá in order to intervene? That is precisely the question prosecutors are now asking. Finally, the strangely non-reactive 13th Brigade recently came under the command of BG Rito Alejo Del Rio, who earned considerable attention as commander of the 17th Brigade covering the heartland of Carlos Castaño’s paramilitaries in Cordoba and Uraba.
1998 February 09
Colombian Army Reportedly Captures 23 Paramilitaries
U.S. Embassy cable, 1998 Bogota 1249
The Embassy speculates that a recent surge in 17th Brigade anti-paramilitary activity in Urabá may be related to the departure of Gen. Rito Alejo del Río as commander.
We are encouraged by this development but we are not yet sure how to interpret it. Until recently, the military has had little success in capturing paramilitaries… The 17th Brigade has a new commander, which may also have contributed to an increased surge in anti-paramilitary activity. The previous commander, Brigadier General Rito Alejo Del Rio, now the head of the 13th Brigade in Bogota, was rumored to have been quite tolerant of paramilitary activity in Uraba.
1998 February 25
U.S. Army School of the Americas Success Stories
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report
A U.S. military intelligence report, subsequently revised (see Document 9), lists Gen. Del Río among U.S. military training “success stories.”
1998 February 26
Military and Police Begin Clearly Cracking Down on Paramilitaries Around Carlos Castano
U.S. Embassy Colombia cable, 1998 Bogota 2097
The U.S. Embassy says that it “seems more than coincidental” that recent anti-paramilitary operations by the military “have all taken place since the departure from northern Colombia” of First Division commander Gen. Iván Ramírez and 17th Brigade commander Gen. Rito Alejo del Río.
We note that these latest anti-paramilitary incidents have all taken place since the departure from northern Colombia of former first division commander MG Ivan Ramirez and his 17th Brigade commander BG Rio [sic] Alejo Del Rio, who were widely believed to have contributed to a command climate conducive to turning a blind eye to paramilitaries, or worse. Nothing is irreversible, but at long last those days appear to be over.
We note that this new-found effectiveness in curbing the paramilitaries correlates closely with the recent change of command in several key military positions in northern Colombia, including the First Division in Santa Marta (formerly headed by Major General Ivan Ramirez), the 17th Brigade in Uraba, and the 11th Brigade in Monteria… It seems more than coincidental that the recent anti-paramilitary actions have all taken place since the departure from northern Colombia of military personnel believed to favor paramilitaries.
1998 March 31
U.S. Army School of the Americas Not-So-Success Stories – Digging Back into History (Corrected Report)
U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report
The U.S. military attaché in Colombia corrects an earlier report on Colombian military graduates from the U.S. Army School of the Americas, noting that Gen. Rito Alejo del Río was alleged to have ties to paramilitaries in Urabá as well as the Magdalena Medio, where “he was implicated in the 1985 theft of a [Colombian Army] weapons shipment destined for Magdalena Medio paramilitaries.”
Report follows up earlier detailed IIR on high-ranking/high-visibility Colombian military/national police graduates of the School of the Americas. Since then, additional—mostly derogatory—info on some of the older, mostly now retired, officers has come to light.
Brigadier General Rito Alejo ((Del Rio)) Rojas—Alleged to have ties not only to paramilitary elements on the north coast and in the Uraba region (adjacent to the Darien region of Panama), but also in the conflictive “Magdalena Medio” region before that. For example, he was implicated in the 1985 theft of a [Colombian Army] weapons shipment destined for Magdalena Medio paramilitaries. The case came to light only because the overloaded airplane crashed. BG Del Rio is currently serving as commander of the 13th Brigade in Bogota.
1998 May 14
Army/Fiscalia Raid on a Church Based NGO Viewed as a Major Blunder
U.S. Embassy Colombia cable, 1998 Bogota 5554
The U.S. Embassy asserts that a raid by the Army’s 13th Brigade on the offices of the Comisión Interclesial de Justicia y Paz might be “related to long-standing friction between the Jesuit director of the NGO and the commander of the Army’s 13th Brigade.
Comment. [Two lines deleted] Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo worked in Uraba during the time period in which General Rito Alejo Del Rio was commanding the 17th Brigade there. [Two lines deleted] Recently, General Del Rio was reassigned to his new, more responsible position commanding the 13th Brigade; the brigade which participated in the raid on Justicia y Paz.
1999 January 25
Official Informal for Ambassador Kamman from WHA/AND Director Chicola and DRL DAS Gerson
U.S. State Department cable, 1999 State 13985
Two senior U.S. officials register their dissatisfaction with Colombia’s progress on human rights during the first six months of the Pastrana government, noting the “appointment to key positions of several generals credibly alleged to have ties to paramilitaries. These include Generals Fernando Millan Perez, Rito Aleto Del Rio Rojas, and Rafael Hernandez Lopez.”
2001 December 13
Your Meeting with Fiscal General Luis Camilo Osorio
U.S. State Department briefing memorandum
A briefing paper for the State Department’s top human rights official, Lorne Craner, notes “concern in the US Congress” that Osorio is “less focused on prosecuting paramilitaries and military personnel accused of colluding with paramilitary,” citing his dismissal of charges against Rito Alejo del Río.
Memorandum of Justification Concerning Human Rights Conditions with Respect to Assistance for Colombian Armed Forces
U.S. State Department memorandum
A U.S. State Department review of Colombia’s human rights performance finds it “troubling” that the government had not yet sent “a clear message” regarding impunity for Del Río.