Documents recently declassified by the U.S. provide further evidence against former Colombian army General Rito Alejo del Rio, who is standing trial on charges of murder and collaborating with paramilitary death squads.
The documents were released Thursday by the U.S. government after a request made under the Freedom of Information Act by NGO the National Security Archive. The documents contain various communications between U.S. officials, including two former U.S. ambassadors to Colombia and a human rights official with the State Department, expressing concern over the tactics used by Del Rio.
The former general commanded the 17th Brigade in the region of Uraba from December 1995 until December 1997. During this time, he was accused of ordering the murder of Marino Lopez on February 27, 1997, as a part of “Operation Genesis,” which was allegedly a joint operation between military and paramilitary
Del Rio graduated in 1967 from The School of Americas, a military training facility in the U.S. that has trained over 60,000 Latin American military officers, and has been heavily criticized for producing some of the region’s most infamous dictators and human rights violators.
Michael Evans, director of the Colombia Documentation Project with the National Security Archive, said Del Rio had been widely under suspicion for his actions since the 1990s. Evans told Colombia Reports that even at that time the general “was on everybody’s radar screen.”
Evans said the first documented questioning of Del Rio’s methods was in 1996. An internal report written by Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velasquez, who was under the general’s command, asked the Colombian army to investigate the unit’s paramilitary ties. The army did nothing to investigate Del Rio at that time, and forced Velasquez to retire for insubordination.
In an interview with the U.S. Embassy in 1997, Velasquez said that military links with the paramilitaries were not a new phenomenon, but that collaboration “had gotten much worse under Del Rio.” This information was used by then-U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette as an example of the Colombian army’s questionable human rights record.
The former colonel gave the same testimony in Del Rio’s trial, which began September 2010.
Del Rio left his brigade in Uraba at the end of 1997 to take command of the nearby 13th Brigade, and in 1998, documents from the embassy note that “an unprecedented string of attacks” against paramilitaries in his former area of command took place a week after he was transferred, suggesting his brigade had not been fully targeting the illegal groups. He was noted as being “widely believed to have contributed to a command climate conducive to turning a blind eye to paramilitaries, or worse.”
A report in 1998 noted that Del Rio was “alleged to have ties not only to paramilitary elements on the north coast and in the Uraba region … but also in the conflictive ‘Magdalena Medio’ region before that.”
Later that year, Colombian officials opened a preliminary investigation into Del Rio’s possible collaboration with paramilitary groups. Around the same time, in August 1998, then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Curtis Kamman sent a cable to Washington, noting the open investigation against Del Rio by the Colombian prosecutor general. He said in the cable that the investigation “will serve as a marker to officers who continue to assist paramilitary groups.”
In the same cable, Kamman went on to say that brigade commanders are typically rotated each year, but that Del Rio was allowed to remain in command of the 17th Brigade in Uraba for two years because of his success against the FARC. “His systematic arming and and equipping of aggressive regional paramilitaries was pivotal to his military success at the time,” according to Kamman’s cable. The former ambassador also noted previous investigations into Del Rio’s conduct as a general.
This report was released amidst negotiations for the future Plan Colombia, an extensive U.S. military and anti-drug aid package. It caused further questioning of the South American country’s human rights record, although then-U.S. President Clinton went on to waive the human rights conditions of the aid.
Del Rio was fired from the Colombian army in 1999, and Evans said it is clear that U.S. pressure played a part.
“The thing about Del Rio was he was starting to attract attention around the time Plan Colombia was starting to attract attention,” Evans said. At that time “one of the things that the United States was trying to do … was to force Colombia as a condition for receiving the aid … to break ties with paramilitary groups, ties that people knew about, credible ties to paramilitary groups, and one of the people whose names kept coming up was Del Rio.”
He added that it is likely that the US government took Del Rio’s dismissal from the army as a step in the right direction in terms of eliminating military ties with paramilitaries. Evans also said the U.S. was clearly unhappy that Del Rio was still in the military despite evidence, like the report from Velasquez, that he had collaborated with illegal groups.
“In April  when he was fired, that was probably determined [by the U.S.] that that was some progress,” Evans said. “The whole thing with Colombia was this is going to be a slow process.”
In 2001, Colombia’s then-Prosecutor General Luis Camilo Osorio dropped all charges against Del Rio. According to the newly released U.S. documents, this caused “concern in [U.S.] Congress” that Colombia wasn’t fully committed to punishing those that collaborated with paramilitaries. Evans said that Del Rio was a known ally of former President Alvaro Uribe, and that “perhaps it’s not that surprising that nothing happened” after Uribe took office. Evans added that the Colombia Documentation Project is currently trying to obtain more information about Osorio’s dismissal of Del Rio’s case.
A recently released U.S. document dating from 2005 again expressed dismay that no action against Del Rio had been taken.
The Supreme Court reopened Del Rio’s case in 2009, but in March 2010 the court delegated the case to a specialist judge. The former general’s trial is currently underway, and Evans said he expects some of the released documents to be used as evidence against the former general.