(Pictured: Major General Mario Montoya.)
We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-fifth in the series.
When Major General Mario Montoya Uribe was appointed commander of the Colombian army in March of 2006, the US embassy in Bogota was largely unaware of his background and bona fides. The American ambassador to Colombia at the time, William Wood, reported in a cable WikiLeaked on Friday, that relatively little was known about Montoya aside from his many decorations as a career military man, his close personal relationship with then-president Alvaro Uribe, and persistent but as yet unsubstantiated rumors that the commander was corrupt and tied to conservative paramilitary forces throughout the country.
Little was Wood aware that Montoya’s corruption and paramilitary ties would prove to be the least of his offenses. By the time he was relieved of his command eighteen months later, Montoya was widely perceived to be a driving force behind the breathtakingly horrific dealings of military personnel in the fight against drug- and guerilla-related internal disturbances.
As I reported in 2009 when UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution Philip Alston arrived in Bogota to investigate the so-called “false positives” case, over one thousand members of the Colombian armed forces were ultimately implicated in the murders of countless innocent civilians. The details are appalling. In many cases, victims were recruited from poor neighborhoods and villages throughout the country, promised work opportunities elsewhere, then drugged and sold to military agents who arranged for their executions. The bodies were then dressed up in army fatigues, planted with weapons purchased on the black market, and claimed as successfully eliminated guerrilla combatants by military personnel.
The evidence of false positive extrajudicial killings suggests their systemic nature, a conclusion corroborated by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which noted that
What is apparently new about the recent cases is that they have been motivated primarily by internal military incentive structures, rather than political motives…They were killed so that army units and their commanders could demonstrate “results” to their superiors, and thereby win both financial rewards and promotions. In this war, progress has long been measured by the number of “enemy combatants” immobilized, preferably killed, and career prospects often depend on demonstrating such “results”…Investigations have revealed an extensive web of recruiter networks penetrating poor neighborhoods across the country, operating in a shadowy underworld in collusion with army contract agents. …For dispatching these apparent “positives”…the assassins could count on receiving benefits such as paid holidays, special courses abroad, promotions and pay raises.
While the leaked cable suggests that the embassy was unaware of Montoya’s connection to these abuses, the phenomenon of false positives was hardly unknown to American intelligence officers and Colombian officials, which had been tracking these developments for at least fifteen years—this according to recently released documents obtained by the National Security Archive. And though the incidence of extrajudicial killings increased during Uribe’s term in office, few accuse Uribe himself of any firsthand knowledge concerning these cases.
Which makes the second cable from Bogota that came to light the same day so interesting. In November 2008, right after Montoya resigned his post amidst a story of accusations and investigations, recently arrived Ambassador William Brownfield banged out a report noting that
Montoya stepped down less than a week after President Uribe’s dismissal of 27 military officers–including two division and three brigade commanders–for their roles in the disappearance and subsequent murders of young men from Soacha and Antioquia. Montoya had been the subject of multiple human rights complaints during his tenure, including alleged abuses committed in Medellin’s poorer neighborhoods during Operation Orion, collusion with paramilitaries, and demanding “body count” as a measure of operational success.
Colombian press reported statements by Senator Patrick Leahy calling Montoya’s departure a “long overdue and positive step.” Leahy said Montoya “shares responsibility for widespread and systematic abuses by the Colombian military.” Montoya’s recent military successes include the rescue of hostages in Operation Jaque. Some believed he would be a likely successor to Armed Forces Commander General Freddy Padilla de Leon.
According to the cable, instead of sending a message that Montoya’s human rights abuses would not be tolerated by his administration, Uribe appointed the commander’s protégé—himself no darling of the human rights community—to the post.
Later on November 4, President Uribe announced at a press conference with General Freddy Padilla and Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos that Major General Oscar Enrique Gonzalez Pena, current commander of the Caribbean Joint Command, would replace Montoya as Commanding General of the Colombian Army. Uribe said Gonzalez’ appointment leaves the Army in “good hands,” highlighting his significant operational successes. Gonzalez Pena followed Montoya as commander of the 4th Brigade from December 2003 to July 2005, and then became commander of the 7th Division in 2005.
The cable notes that
Gonzalez was responsible for the operation that led to the death of “Martin Caballero,” the former head of the FARC’s 37th Front, in September of last year. Human rights groups publicly criticized Gonzalez’ appointment for his close association with Montoya, and voiced concerns regarding 45 alleged extrajudicial killings committed by the 4th Brigade during his command.
Chillingly, it reports that “Montoya selected Gonzalez as ‘best commander in the country’ during his tenure as 4th Brigade commander because his unit reported the most combat kills—857.”
The cable closes with the juicy detail that then-defense minister and current president Juan Manuel Santos told embassy officials
that Montoya—who has a close relationship with Uribe—persuaded the President to appoint Gonzalez as his replacement. Santos pushed back, but Uribe decided to proceed with the appointment.
So the question remains: given the 2007 CIA report linking Montoya to the false positives scandal, and revelations of the commander’s ongoing closeness with and influence over Uribe, how long will the former Colombian president be able to continue denying any connection with the legacy of human rights abuses that pockmark his presidency?