Colombia: Massacre at El Salado – Conspiracy of Silence?

National Security Archive – The United States harbored serious concerns about the potential involvement of Colombian security forces in the February 2000 massacre at El Salado, an attack that occurred while the two countries were hammering out the final details of the massive military aid package known as Plan Colombia, according to declassified documents posted today on the National Security Archive Web site.

Orchestrated and carried out by paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an illegal paramilitary army, there have long been allegations that Colombian security forces, including those from the Colombian Navy’s 1st Marine Infantry Brigade, facilitated the massacre by vacating the town before the carnage began and constructing roadblocks to delay the arrival of humanitarian aid. U.S. assistance under Plan Colombia required the Colombian military to demonstrate progress in breaking ties with paramilitary forces.

The documents described in the article below—and in Spanish on the Web site of Semana (Colombia’s leading news magazine)—show that U.S. officials had significant doubts about the credibility of their Colombian military counterparts and were well aware, even before El Salado, of the propensity of the Colombian military to act in concert with illegal paramilitary forces, whether through omission or commission.

These findings also complement those of Memoria Histórica, an independent group charged by Colombia’s National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation with investigating the history of the country’s armed conflict. Its report on El Salado, La Masacre de El Salado: Esa Guerra No Era Nuestra (The El Salado Massacre: That Was Not Our War), was released this week before audiences in El Salado and Bogotá.

Highlights from the documents include:

  • The U.S. Embassy’s record of a January 1999 meeting in which Colombia’s deputy army commander said that the Army “had no business pursuing paramilitaries” as they were “apolitical common criminals” that “did not threaten constitutional order through subversive activities.”
  • Another 1999 report from U.S. military sources found that the Colombian armed forces had “not actively persecuted paramilitary group members because they see them as allies in the fight against the guerrillas, their common enemy.”
  • A U.S. military source who opined that evidence indicating some of the paramilitary members were wearing Colombian Army uniforms suggested “that many of the paramilitaries are ex-military members, or that they obtain the uniforms from military or ex-military members.”
  • State Department talking points that pointed to the capture of a mere 11 of the 450 perpetrators of the massacre as evidence that the military had actively pursued the perpetrators and was improving its record against paramilitaries.
  • A U.S. Embassy cable based on a conversation with a source apparently close to the investigation who strongly suggested that the Colombian military knew about the massacre ahead of time, cleared out of the town before the killing began and “had been lucky in capturing the eleven paramilitary members.”
  • A document casting doubt on the military’s explanation of its role in El Salado, including the U.S. Embassy’s view that it was “difficult to believe that the town of El Salado had not been subject to threats of an attack prior to the massacre, considering the town is situated in a high conflict area.”
  • A U.S. Embassy report on Admiral Rodrigo Quiñones, one of the military members alleged to have facilitated the massacre, noting that “an unmistakable pattern of similar allegations has followed him almost everywhere he has held field command.”

Conspiracy of Silence?
Colombia, the United States and the Massacre at El Salado

By Michael Evans

The question of the exact role played by Colombian security forces in the February 2000 El Salado massacre occupies a small but crucial part of the new report issued this week by Memoria Histórica (Historical Memory), the independent group charged by Colombia’s National Commission on Reparation and Reconciliation with writing the history of Colombia’s internal conflict. A long overdue account of one of the most horrific and indiscriminate paramilitary atrocities in Colombian history, the report is also a stinging indictment of the culture of impunity that has long shielded members of the Colombian security forces from justice.

The killings unfolded over five fateful days during which time hundreds of paramilitaries, mostly from the Bloque Norte (Northern Bloc), descended upon El Salado and other towns in the region, leaving behind a trail of torture, mayhem and murder that left 60 people dead and forced thousands from their homes, most of whom have never returned.

But while the paramilitary authors of the El Salado massacre were identified long ago, the exact role of the Colombian military has never been definitively established. Nevertheless, and despite very limited access to military records on the case, the report is adamant about the responsibility of the Colombian state.

The El Salado massacre raises not only the question of omission but also the action of the [Colombian] State. Omission in the development of the acts because it is not understandable how the security forces were neither able to prevent nor neutralize the paramilitary action. A massacre that lasted five days and that involved 450 paramilitaries, of which only 15 were captured a week after the massacre ended.*

For the United States, the potential involvement of the Colombian security forces in paramilitary crimes was the crux of the matter. The killings came as the development of Plan Colombia was in its final stages—a package that called for massive increases in aid for the Colombian military, but would also require the Colombian government to show that the military was severing longstanding ties with paramilitary forces.

Declassified records from the era show just how low the bar had been set for the Colombian military. In the view of the U.S. Embassy, the fact that Colombian security forces had captured a mere 11 of the 450 paramilitaries involved in what it characterized “an indiscriminate orgy of drunken violence” was actually reassuring. In its first report on El Salado, sent to Washington just days after the killings, the Embassy, under Ambassador Curtis Kamman, said it was “the first time Post can recall that the military, in this case the Marines, pursued paramilitaries in the wake of atrocities in the region with some vigor.” El Salado, it seemed, was a military success story, and the Embassy had little else to say about El Salado for nearly five months.

The United States should not have been too surprised by the allegations that security forces were involved at El Salado. During the previous year, U.S. officials had frequently expressed doubts about the willingness of the military to combat paramilitary forces.

  • During a January 1999 meeting with NGO representatives organized by the Colombian armed forces and attended by U.S. Embassy staff, Deputy Army Commander General Nestor Ramirez said that the Army “had no business pursuing paramilitaries” as they were “apolitical common criminals” that “did not threaten constitutional order through subversive activities.”
  • Another 1999 report from U.S. military sources found that the Colombian armed forces had “not actively persecuted paramilitary group members because they see them as allies in the fight against the guerrillas, their common enemy.”
  • The United States was also well aware of the “body count syndrome” that fueled human rights abuses in the Colombian security forces. Intelligence reports from throughout the 1990s described “death squad activity” among the armed forces. A Colombian Army colonel told the U.S. that the emphasis on body counts “tends to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors” and that it led to a “cavalier, or at least passive, approach when it comes to allowing the paramilitaries to serve as proxies … for the [Colombian Army] in contributing to the guerrilla body count.”
  • Evidence of military participation in the 1999 La Gabarra massacres left little doubt that there were military officers who viewed paramilitary forces as allies in the fight against guerrillas. Army Col. Victor Hugo Matamoros, with responsibility for the region around La Gabarra, told Embassy staff that he did not pursue paramilitaries in his area of operations. Separately, the Vice President’s office told the Embassy that Colombian Army troops had “donned AUC armbands” and participated in one of the massacres.

Eerily similar patterns emerged just a few weeks after El Salado. In March, U.S. military sources reported on the movements of Colombian security forces in the days around the killings. Buried beneath the details in one Intelligence Information Report is a short paragraph, based on an unidentified source, indicating that “many of the captured paramilitaries were wearing Colombian military uniforms.” This, the source said, suggested “that many of the paramilitaries are ex-military members, or that they obtain the uniforms from military or ex-military members.”

Even so, it was apparently not until July, when the New York Times published a detailed investigation of the alleged military complicity in the massacre, that the Embassy began to take the allegations seriously. Among other things, the Times article found that Colombian police and marine forces had vacated the town before the killings began, set up roadblocks to prevent humanitarian aid to reach the town, and otherwise did nothing to stop the paramilitary carnage. Still, State Department talking points drawn up to respond to press inquiries about the case again pointed to the capture of 11 of the paramilitaries as evidence that security forces had actively pursued the perpetrators.

Days after the New York Times story, the Embassy sent a cable to Washington summarizing what it knew about El Salado and the status of the investigation. Repeated requests by the National Security Archive have now produced two very different versions of this cable, telling two very different stories. A copy of the cable declassified in 2002 omits several paragraphs that were later declassified in a version released in December 2008. These portions of the document, based on a conversation with a source apparently close to the investigation, strongly suggest that the Colombian Army knew about the massacre ahead of time and cleared out of the town before the killing began.

[Source] believes that the Army likely knew from intelligence reports that the paramilitaries were in the area, but left prior to the massacre. The paramilitaries then entered in trucks from Magdalena, went to Ovejas first and then onto El Salado…

The source also believed that the military “had been lucky in capturing the eleven paramilitary members,” adding that “the military was attacked at La Esmerelda ranch and then proceeded to detain eleven paramilitary members after successfully overtaking them.” The new information seemed to change the conversation. For the Embassy, the question now was not whether the military had been involved, but rather, to what “degree.”

U.S. Embassy suspicions about the military’s role in El Salado are also evident in an August 2000 cable on a briefing given the Embassy by Colonel Carlos Sánchez García of the Navy’s 1st Marine Infantry Brigade. Sánchez defended the actions of his unit, saying, among other things, that military resources were stretched thin and that they “did not receive any prior knowledge of an attack in or around the area of El Salado.”

A version of this cable declassified in 2001 lets Col. Sánchez’s explanation stand on its own, omitting any further analysis. However, a more complete version of this same document, declassified in 2008, includes portions of the document not previously released that question the credibility of Col. Sánchez.

Comment: Colonel Sanchez stated that his purpose was to present the Embassy with the Brigade’s version of events surrounding El Salado and dispute allegations made in the July 14 New York Times article. Because Colonel Sanchez was dispatched for this purpose, his report should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Embassy also doubted Sánchez’s assertion that his unit had no prior knowledge of the paramilitary incursion.

It is difficult to believe that the town of El Salado had not been subject to threats of an attack prior to the massacre, considering the town is situated in a high conflict area.

Ultimately, the question of military culpability in El Salado came to revolve around Sánchez’s commander, Admiral Rodrigo Quiñones Cárdenas, an officer dogged throughout his career by allegations of human rights abuses, assassinations, drug trafficking and complicity with paramilitaries.

In 1994, Quiñones was investigated for the murders of more than 50 unionists, journalists, politicians, human rights workers and other individuals in Barrancabermeja, then considered a guerrilla stronghold. His ultimate exoneration by a military tribunal did little to quell suspicions about his links to death squads and paramilitaries. Despite a reprimanded issued in October 1998 by the Colombian Attorney General’s office for the Barrancabermeja killings, Quiñones was promoted to the rank of rear admiral that same year.

Quiñones was certainly no stranger to the United States. As Director of Naval Intelligence in the early 1990s, he was in frequent contact with his U.S. counterparts, including a meeting with the U.S. Director of Naval Intelligence in 1993. A U.S. military biographic sketch of Quiñones from 1992 listed numerous details about his personal habits (“Enjoys reading,” “Teeth – Yes/Natural”) and noted that he participated in “unknown training” at the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia.

With respect to El Salado, Quiñones has long maintained that he was in Bogotá during the killings, and thus not responsible for the actions of the brigade at that time. A strong alibi in place, Quiñones was also sanctioned for El Salado, leading Memoria Histórica to lament that certain lines of investigation were not followed. Why, the report asks, did the Procuraduría not look at the information available to the Brigade in the months before the attack?

If it is indeed certain that [Quiñones] was in Bogotá when the paramilitary incursion began, beginning on February 15, and in this sense the operational decisions on the ground were the responsibility of Colonel Sánchez García, it is also certain that as Commander of the First Brigade of the Marine Infantry, Rear Admiral Quiñones Cárdenas should have known of information that, according to the Inspector General of Colombia, the First Brigade received in the preceding months about the Self-Defense Forces and about the risk to the population living in the Montes de María. Information that, in accordance with the evaluation of the Inspector General, should have served to prevent the paramilitary incursion, and not only to counteract it when it was already happening.

Why too did the Procuraduría’s inquiry not scrutinize the actions of Quiñones after his return from Bogotá on February 18?

Then-Colonel Quiñones Cárdenas returned from Bogotá to his base on February 18, and for this reason it would have been reasonable to investigate not only his actions before and during the paramilitary incursion, but also his actions after the incursion.

In any case, Quiñones was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the wake of El Salado, and it was not until 2001, after allegations that he was involved in yet another paramilitary attack, that the Embassy finally turned up the pressure on Quiñones. U.S. documents on the August 2001 Chengue massacre are few and highly excised, but the existing record leaves little doubt that by 2002 the Embassy had had enough of Quiñones and was ready to cut him loose. In April 2002, the Embassy requested the revocation of his visa, but not for his involvement in assassinations or paramilitary massacres. Rather, the State Department used the only evidence it was willing to bring to bear: “information indicating that he had received payments from narcotraffickers”—adding yet another serious crime to the increasingly long list of allegations against Quiñones.

The cancellation of his visa effectively ended the Quiñones’s career, a fact confirmed by Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez during the announcement of his “voluntary” resignation. And while he has never truly faced justice for the killings in Barrancabermeja, or his supposed role in El Salado and Chengue, it seems clear that the sheer number of denunciations leveled against him throughout his career finally forced his removal. Reporting his resignation to Washington, the Embassy noted that although “establishing Quiñones’s guilt in any particular case is problematic, an unmistakable pattern of similar allegations has followed him almost everywhere he has held field command.”

The real debate about El Salado is not about its authors or its magnitude, but about the culture of impunity that has prevented an honest investigation of security force members tied to the killings. As important as the new report is to the preservation of historical memory, the story will remain incomplete as long as the military continues to deny the group meaningful access to its records on the case. So too has the U.S. been unwilling to declassify many of its key records on the El Salado case. Repeated requests for reports specifically cited in the documents described above have been stonewalled by the Pentagon and other agencies.

Without access to these records, we may never know exactly what the United States knew about military complicity in El Salado or whether the massacre had any impact at all on the development of the aid package then being prepared for Colombian security forces, nor will we know whether the U.S. government’s tepid response to the case was due to simple negligence, poor analysis, or an active effort to assist in the cover-up of the military’s role in El Salado.

Michael Evans is director of the Colombia Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. The Colombia Project would like to thank the Fund for Constitutional Government for its generous support of this investigation and the John Merck Fund for its continuing support of the Colombia Project.

* All translations by Michael Evans

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