Tuesday 4 February 2003

To crush the poor

by George Monbiot

George Monbiot Last week, on the day George Bush delivered his state of the union address, the Pentagon received a visitor. A few hours before the president told the American people that "we will not permit the triumph of violence in the affairs of men", General Carlos Ospina, head of the Colombian army, was shaking hands with his American counterpart. He had come to discuss the latest instalment of US military aid.

General Ospina has done well. Just four years ago he was a lieutenant-colonel in command of the army's fourth brigade. He was promoted first to divisional commander, then, in August last year, to chief of the army. But let us dwell for a moment on his career as a brigadier, and his impressive contribution to the war against terror.

According to Human Rights Watch, the fourth brigade, under Ospina's command, worked alongside the death squads controlled by the paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. In a report published three years ago, it summarises the results of an investigation carried out by the attorney general's office in Colombia. On October 25 1997, a force composed of Ospina's regulars and Castaño's paramilitaries surrounded a village called El Aro, in a region considered sympathetic to the country's leftwing guerrillas. The soldiers cordoned off the village while Castaño's men moved in. They captured a shopkeeper, tied him to a tree, gouged out his eyes, cut off his tongue and castrated him. The other residents tried to flee, but were turned back by Ospina's troops. The paramilitaries then mutilated and beheaded 11 of the villagers, including three children, burned the church, the pharmacy and most of the houses and smashed the water pipes. When they left, they took 30 people with them, who are now listed among Colombia's disappeared.

This operation was unusual only in that it has been so well-documented: among other sources, the investigators interviewed one Francisco Enrique Villalba, who was a member of the death squad that carried out the massacre, and who had witnessed the prior co-ordination of the raid between the army and Castaño's lieutenants. The attack on El Aro was one of dozens of atrocities which Human Rights Watch alleges were assisted by the fourth brigade. Villalba testified that the brigade would "legalise" the killings his squad carried out: the paramilitaries would hand the corpses of the civilians they had murdered to the soldiers, and in return the soldiers would give them grenades and munitions. The brigade would then dress the corpses in army uniforms and claim them as the bodies of rebels it had shot.

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