“There is Future if There is Truth” : Colombia’s Truth Commission Launches Final Report
In Fusagasugá, the mural "The Embrace of Truth" memorializes those killed during the conflict. (Source: Colombia Truth Commission)
Declassified U.S. Evidence Fortifies Truth Commission’s Findings and Recommendations
Published: Jun 28, 2022
Briefing Book #
Edited by Michael Evans
For more information, contact : 202-994-7000 or nsarchiv
Presentación informe final de la Comisión de la Verdad
(Presentation of the final report of the Truth Commission)
28 Jun, 2022
Bogotá, 28 June 2022 – Today, Colombia’s Truth Commission wraps up three-and-a-half years of work with the launch of its report on the causes and consequences of Colombia’s conflict. The publication of the Commission’s findings and recommendations is an important step forward in guaranteeing the rights of victims and of Colombian society to know the truth about what happened, to build a foundation for coexistence among Colombians, and to ensure that such a conflict is never repeated.
The Commission for Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (CEV) was established as a direct result of the 2016 peace accords reached between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group.
The Commission’s report makes sweeping recommendations about the role of Colombia’s security forces, denouncing the concept of the “internal enemy” and the systematic victimization of Colombia’s political left. The report also condemns decades of punitive counternarcotics programs pushed and backed by the U.S. and that the Commission says aggravated the conflict. The report is especially critical of Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package that radically transformed the U.S. role in the conflict from one nominally limited to counternarcotics activities to one in which U.S. assistance and personnel were involved in a wide array of sensitive counterinsurgency missions. These included the protection of Colombia’s energy sector, the training and equipping of specialized military and police units, and highly sensitive operations to capture and kill leaders of insurgent, paramilitary and narcotrafficking groups.
Records consulted by the Commission illustrate how the Plan Colombia period corresponded with a general escalation in Colombia’s internal conflict, the weakening of the FARC’s position on the battlefield, the demobilization of thousands of paramilitary members, and the extradition of hundreds of alleged narcotraffickers under President Álvaro Uribe. These outcomes coincided with an escalation in human rights violations and abuses of power, including the murder by the Colombian Armed Forces of some 6,400 civilians from 2002-2008, during the height of the so-called “false positives” scandal, and the illegal surveillance of perceived political enemies by the DAS civilian intelligence service.
Among the many sources consulted by the Commission in reaching its conclusions were thousands of declassified U.S. documents gathered and organized by the National Security Archive, a Washington-based non-governmental organization. The Archive has long specialized in supporting post-conflict truth commissions with declassified evidence obtained through the U.S. access law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A comprehensive digital library consisting of thousands of declassified records and other sources consulted by the Commission is set for launch in August 2022.
Today’s posting focuses on six documents that provide insight into the kinds of sources the Commission consulted in reaching its findings and in making its recommendations.
Among the most impactful records are U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reports evaluating the nature and extent of ties between anti-guerrilla “paramilitary” death squads and the Colombian state. Of special interest are a handful of CIA operational reports—documents normally outside the purview of FOIA—that reveal contemporaneous U.S. knowledge that the Colombian military was engaged in a persistent pattern of collaboration with paramilitary operations.
One CIA report from May 1988 said that Colombian Army intelligence and brigade commanders were behind “a wave of assassinations against suspected leftists and communists” during 1987, including the killings of several members of the leftist Patriotic Union political party, victims of a state-sponsored “genocide” according to the Truth Commission.
The 1988 CIA report also said that the intelligence section of the Army’s 10th Brigade had supplied target lists and other support to the paramilitaries who murdered 20 workers in the infamous March 1988 massacres at the Honduras and La Negra banana plantations. The CIA said that the names of all the victims, most of whom were members of the Sintagro agricultural workers union, had “appeared on the B-2’s [Colombian Army intelligence section’s] interrogation reports” and “were accurately identified by their attackers from a list which the attackers possessed.”
U.S. links to Colombian narcotraffickers and paramilitary groups are detailed in DEA records from 1992-1993, the period when U.S. Embassy personnel and their Colombian counterparts were engaged in a massive manhunt for fugitive narcotics kingpin Pablo Escobar. One report recounts how Colombia-based DEA personnel maintained regular communication with the leaders of the feared paramilitaries of the Magdalena Medio, Henry de Jésus Pérez and his successor Luis Meneses (“Ariel Otero”), who helped to establish and train paramilitaries for the Medellín Cartel. Contacts with the paramilitary chiefs “seemed logical,” according to the report, “since the AUTODEFENSAS,” as the paramilitaries were called, “were dedicated to the fight against the MEDELLIN CARTEL.”
Other records show how the U.S. frequently used the leverage provided by security crises in Colombia to press for more aggressive counternarcotics operations, especially the aerial fumigation of narcotics crops. A May 1984 U.S. Embassy cable written shortly after the assassination of Colombian Justice Minster Rodrigo Lara Bonilla by the Medellín Cartel recommended that the U.S. “strike while the iron is hot” and promote the adoption of more aggressive counternarcotics policies while the political environment was favorable in Colombia. The Embassy said the U.S. should take advantage of the “window of opportunity” provided by the state of siege decree imposed by President Belisario Betancur after the Lara assassination to give security forces a free hand to deal with narcotraffickers.
Intelligence reports show how the U.S. interest in promoting the exploration and extraction of oil and gas reserves in some of the most contested areas of the country complicated Colombia’s security situation and led to reliance on unaccountable private security companies. A 1998 CIA report said it was “unlikely that the Colombian security services will be able to significantly improve the overall security situation in the foreseeable future,” something that it said was “a prerequisite for the country to meet its immense oil-producing goal.” Some petroleum companies “pay the armed forces directly for protection,” according to the CIA, “a practice many firms want to phase out to avoid being linked to human rights abuses committed by some military groups.”
One multinational company was “actively providing intelligence on guerrilla activities directly to the Army,” according to the CIA, “using an airborne surveillance system along the pipeline to expose guerrilla encampments and intercept guerrilla communications.” The Colombian Army “successfully exploited this information and inflicted an estimated 100 casualties during an operation against the guerrillas in Arauca in mid-1997,” according to the report. The CIA said that they were likely to see “more private initiatives by domestic and foreign energy-related companies to combat guerrilla activities, including the deployment of high-technology security devices, the formation of vigilante groups, and the hiring of paramilitary groups.”
High-level Defense Department records, such as a July 2003 memo to Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, show how the Pentagon’s metrics for success against Colombian insurgents may have contributed to the "false positives" phenomenon, whereby Colombian Army officers seeking performance bonuses murdered civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat. Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace has documented 6,402 cases of civilians killed by the Colombian Armed Forces in this manner.
The July 2003 memo to Rumsfeld from the top Pentagon deputy for military special operations touted the sharp rise in guerrilla casualties since President Uribe took office and since the U.S. made supporting counterinsurgency one of its top priorities in Colombia. Of special interest were sensitive, U.S.-supported military operations against so-called High Value Targets (HVT), a category that included the senior leaders of the FARC.
Another set of documents shared with the Truth Commission illustrates the important role played by U.S. military services contractor DynCorp both in the aerial fumigation program and later in supporting HVT and other Colombian operations against the FARC. The State Department’s evaluation of DynCorp’s performance for February 2004, for example, lauds DynCorp’s support to multiple HVT operations during the month, including Operation Dignity (Dignidad), in Miraflores, and the Colombian Army operation that resulted in the capture of the FARC leader known as “Sonia” (“Omaira Rojas Cabrera”).
"The Commission has worked diligently and tirelessly to clarify the truth about the conflict so that Colombia can begin to chart a course toward a lasting peace," said Michael Evans, director of the National Security Archive’s Colombia Documentation Project. "In doing so, the Truth Commission has assembled an archive of primary sources on the Colombian conflict that is unprecedented in size and scope and that will continue to inform investigations of the conflict for years to come."
May 14, 1984
The Embassy says the U.S. should “strike while the iron is hot” and use the period of heightened public outrage after the assassination of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla to pressure Colombia to adopt more aggressive anti-narcotics policies.
Summary: The emotional response of the Colombian government and people to the murder of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla has been intense and has resulted in an entirely new attitude toward drug traffickers in Colombia. The high level of emotion cannot continue indefinitely, however, and there are signs that unqualified support for the government’s war on narcotraffickers is beginning to erode. The window of opportunity to press for stronger GOC [Government of Colombia] action against drug production and trafficking is beginning to close. USG [U.S. government] efforts to help the GOC take positive action must be quick and decisive, before public support for a strong anti-narcotics program erodes further.
Embassy’s Colombian interlocutors are unanimous in saying that the GOC has only a limited time frame in which to wage its war on druggers with popular support…
Thus, as we have suggested from the outset of this crisis, it is essential that USG assistance—including helicopters, as well as extradition requests—be provided as forthcomingly and quickly as possible in order to encourage President Betancur to proceed with his campaign vigorously. Additional USG support will enable the GOC to institutionalize long-range anti-narcotics operations which will continue after the immediate turmoil subsides.
Cooperation Between the Intelligence Chief of the Colombian Army Fourth Brigade and the Medellin Cartel; Tenth Brigade Intelligence Unit Provision of Names to Unidentified Rightwing Paramilitary Group
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Information Report, Secret/Wnintel/Noforn, 3 pp.
Apr 16, 1988
A CIA report finds that much of the recent violence against “suspected leftists and communists” in Medellín and Urabá was the result of Colombian Army intelligence “B-2” detachments from the 4th and 10th brigades working in coordination with narcotraffickers and paramilitary groups. The reporting officer said it was “unlikely” such coordination took place “without the knowledge of the Fourth Brigade commander.” In a separate section, the report indicates that the Honduras and La Negra killings were the result of coordination between the B-2 intelligence unit of the 10th Brigade and “an unidentified private right-wing paramilitary group.”
A wave of assassinations against suspected leftists and communists in Medellin throughout 1987 were the result of a joint effort between the intelligence chief (B-2) of the Colombian Army Fourth Brigade in Medellin, Ltc. Plinio ((Correa)), and unidentified members of the Medellin narcotics trafficking cartel. ([Deleted] Comment: The deaths include the killing of several Patriotic Union (UP) members. It is unlikely that any cooperation between the B-2 and Medellin Cartel in carrying out assassinations of suspected leftists and communists could have taken place without the knowledge of the Fourth Brigade commander.) …
The individuals who executed 20 banana plantation workers on 4 March 1988 obtained the names of their intended targets from the Colombian Army’s Tenth Brigade intelligence unit (B-2). The B-2 obtained the names in January 1988 during the interrogation of a Popular Liberation Army (EPL) member, alias “Augusto.” “Augusto” and two other EPL members, all belonging to an EPL unit led by alias “Rambo” were captured by the Colombian Army at the town of El Totumo near the eastern shore of the Gulf of Uraba. During his interrogation by the B-2, “Augusto” provided the names of various EPL members and sympathizers, many of whom belonged to the banana workers union “Sintagro” in Uraba. The information from “Augusto” was provided to members of an unidentified private right-wing paramilitary group. ([Deleted] Comment: The victims of the 4 March killings were EPL and ‘Popular Front’ sympathizers and members of Sintagro, all of whose names appeared on the B-2’s interrogation reports. Prior to the killings, they were accurately identified by their attackers from a list which the attackers possessed.)
([Deleted] Comment: While it is possible that some of the individuals who conducted the killings are active members of the Tenth Brigade’s B-2, it is more likely that the intelligence information was shared with a private paramilitary group in order to provide a cutout to avoid blame on the Colombian military. Although the Colombian military prefers to blame the killings on rivalry between the EPL and the [FARC], the killers’ modus operandi showed a lack of knowledge of guerrilla ideology, disproving FARC involvement.)
Feb 4, 1992
Mark Bowden Collection
The DEA mission in Bogotá reports potential threats against its personnel related to their relationship with Luis Meneses (“Ariel Otero”), the recently assassinated paramilitary leader in the Magdalena Medio. DEA and Colombian National Police officials met face-to-face with Meneses on at least six occasions, according to this DEA teletype obtained by journalist Mark Bowden for his book Killing Pablo. DEA agents also had three phone conversations with Meneses and received five fax messages from him. Prior to Meneses, DEA had maintained contact with his predecessor, Henry de Jesus Pérez, who was assassinated in July 1991. Contacts with Pérez “seemed logical,” according to the report, “since the AUTODEFENSAS were dedicated to the fight against the MEDELLIN CARTEL.”
BACKGROUND OF THE POTENTIAL THREAT
The relationship between MENESES and the targets of the potential threats is as follows. Approximately one (1) year ago, S/A [DEA Special Agent] [Javier] Pena and RAC Sheridan, who was then assigned as a S/A in Bogota, made contact with Henry de Jesus PEREZ, who was the leader of the AUTODEFENSAS. This introduction was made by members of the CNP/Medellin Task Force and seemed logical since the AUTODEFENSAS were dedicated to the fight against the MEDELLIN CARTEL and the AUTODEFENSAS had been supplying information to the CNP regarding the MEDELLIN CARTEL. PEREZ was a very influential and charismatic person with a great amount of influence in the Magdalena Medio area. PEREZ enjoyed total loyalty from his followers. At that time, MENESES was one of PEREZ’ subordinates and was present at this initial meeting. When PEREZ was assassinated on July 20, 1991 by members of the ESCOBAR-Gaviria organization, MENESES took over as the AUTODEFENSAS leader. However, it is important to note that MENESES did not have the same trust and loyalty of his followers as did PEREZ.
Since that initial meeting, S/A’s Pena and Sheridan have met with MENESES one (1) other time in Puerto Boyaca and approximately four (4) times in Bogota. All of these meetings were conducted in the presence of the CNP and the meetings in Bogota were conducted with Colonel Gallegos, in locations which did not compromise the identity of the S/As. G/S Prieto was only present at the last physical meeting during August, 1991, and no meetings have occurred since that time.
In addition to the above, S/A’s Pena and Sheridan telephonically spoke with MENESES approximately three (3) times, from the BCO, and received approximately five (5) facsimile messages, also in the BCO. At no time did MENESES, PEREZ, nor any other member of the AUTODEFENSAS have the telephone number or address of either of the S/A’s. All contact was made through the BCO or the CNP/Medellin Task Force.
NATURE OF POTENTIAL THREAT
MENESES was tortured prior to his murder and it is possible that MENESES may have admitted to supplying the DEA with information. It is also possible that MENESES would have given the names of his contacts in the DEA. Currently, there is no indication of a real threat and the enclosed security measures are being taken solely as a precaution to ensure the safety of the S/As.
Jan 9, 1998
This report from the CIA’s Office of Asian Pacific and Latin American Analysis assesses the impact for U.S. interests of increasing guerrilla attacks on petroleum industry infrastructure, finding overall that they “deprive Bogota of important tax and foreign exchange revenues, expose US investors to increased risks, reduce demand for US capital equipment exports, and damage fragile ecosystems.”
The report also points to the important role of non-state actors in the conflict, revealing, for example, that “at least one multinational company” working in the oil sector was “actively providing intelligence on guerrilla activities directly to the [Colombian] Army.” The report said that some multinational firms paid the Colombian military for protection, “a practice many firms want to phase out to avoid being linked to human rights abuses committed by some military groups.”
Despite the high costs for security and the repair of damaged infrastructure, most firms appear committed to riding out spikes in guerrilla violence, but few are taking steps to discover or develop new fields. [Bold in original] Multinational companies spend eight to ten times as much on security in Colombia as they do elsewhere in the region, and exploration is at its lowest level since 1978, [deleted.]
Bogota is attempting to reassure investors by beefing up military protection for the sector and by allowing them to keep a greater share of new oil discoveries. While such measures may help somewhat, it seems unlikely that the Colombian security services will be able to significantly improve the overall security situation in the foreseeable future—a prerequisite for the country to meet its immense oil-producing potential.
[T]he presence of foreign firms has come to represent an important source of revenue for the ELN and one they would probably be reluctant to lose. These firms are a particularly attractive extortion target because they have considerable fixed investments at stake and the resources to meet guerrilla extortion demands, according to a defense attaché source. The companies deny paying such extortion fees, locally known as vacuna, but acknowledge that their subcontractors and workers may do so without their knowledge or approval, [deleted.]
Not surprisingly, multinational firms spend eight to ten times as much on security in Colombia as they do elsewhere in the region. Most of these firms keep large security staffs and, in some cases, pay the armed forces directly for protection—a practice many firms want to phase out to avoid being linked to human rights abuses committed by some military groups—[deleted] Several firms are currently negotiating with Bogota to establish terms for a joint security fund to be administered by Ecopetrol.
Despite the increasing security problems, the vast majority of oil companies seem intent on maintaining their existing operations. Oil sector investments in Colombia generally entail multibillion dollar setup costs but relatively low operating expenses. This gives existing producers a significant incentive to remain rather than divest, which would require selling fixed assets at a steep discount or a complete loss if plant and equipment were abandoned entirely, [deleted.] Multinationals at Cuisana, Cupiagua, and elsewhere, however, are responding to the deteriorating security situation by extracting oil at a much faster pace than would be optimal in order to maximize their long-term output [deleted.]
Bogota Struggling to Improve Security
Goaded by calls from multinational investors and concerns over the growing assault on the country’s primary export, Bogota is beefing up its already substantial commitment of military resources to protect oil production and transport infrastructure. Most notable, it is adding a new military unit to the effort—the 18th Brigade and its 2,000-3,000 troops—bringing to five the number of Army brigades that are heavily involved in energy sector production. The new brigade is headquartered in Arauca Department, where Cano Limon fields are located and the guerrillas are well entrenched. Bogota granted the brigade tactical control of aviation assets presumably to enable it to better patrol the pipeline and respond to guerrilla attacks.
The military’s problems confronting the guerrillas in oil regions, however, transcend manpower issues. Units use the bulk of their time and troops guarding refineries and pumping stations rather than actively seeking out guerrillas and preempting attacks on the pipeline [deleted.] Moreover, the vast expanse of territory over which oil activities take place leaves open the possibility that guerrillas will always be able to strike at points that are unguarded or lightly defended. The Cano Limon system alone has 135 wells and 485 miles of pipeline in a remote region. Moreover, the Colombian government alleges the guerrillas have informants in the oil Workers Union—Union Sindical Obrera (USO)—who provide information about oil sector security to them to facilitate attacks against the pipeline.
At least one multinational company is actively providing intelligence on guerrilla activities directly to the Army. The firm operates an airborne surveillance system along the pipeline to expose guerrilla encampments and intercept guerrilla communications, information it regularly shares with local military units, according to the defense attaché. [Redacted text] the military successfully exploited this information and inflicted an estimated 100 casualties during an operation against the guerrillas in Arauca in mid-1997.
Nonetheless, this type of close cooperation between foreign oil firms and the armed forces has a potential downside. The guerrillas could respond with revenge attacks against the companies or firms’ reputations could be damaged if they are linked to human rights abuses committed by security services using company-supplied information.
[T[he recent actions taken by the military and multinational firms to improve security may impede the rebels’ ability to mount sustained attacks against oil sector infrastructure but will not prevent attacks altogether or significantly reduce the threat to oil sector employees. Indeed, in view of the expansive and difficult nature of the terrain, the longstanding shortcomings of the military, and the tenacity of the guerrillas it seems unlikely that Colombian security forces will be able to significantly improve the overall security situation in oil exploration and production areas in the foreseeable future. As a result, we are likely to see more private initiatives by domestic and foreign energy-related companies to combat guerrilla activities, including the deployment of high-technology security devices, the formation of vigilante groups, and the hiring of paramilitary groups.
Recent Successes against the Colombian FARC
U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (Marshall Billingslea), Information Memorandum for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secret/Noforn, 1 p.
Jul 10, 2003