The Colombian Purge

The forced resignation two weeks ago under pressure from President Alvaro Uribe of three prominent officers accused of drug trafficking is not likely to end the shakeup in Colombia’s army and navy. More heads will roll in a long overdue purge of corruption in the military. The credit has to go to the left-wing members of Congress who have taken over the Colombian account on Capitol Hill since the Democratic victory in the 2006 elections.

A conservative American with close, longtime ties to Colombia put it to me bluntly: "The firing of these officers is seen as President Uribe’s way of clearing the decks to make the Democrats in Congress happy, in order to secure the free trade agreement. There are plenty more generals and admirals to get the heave-ho."

Thus, this development must be credited to congressional Democrats, typified by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who have been hostile to the Uribe regime’s fight against leftist narco-guerrillas. Pressure on Uribe to clean up the Colombian officer corps should have come from the U.S. embassy in Bogota, but the head rolling did not begin until the Democrats took over on Capitol Hill.

The 2006 election outcome jeopardized U.S. funding for Plan Colombia to fight the guerrillas. A greater immediate menace was the shelving of the negotiated U.S.-Colombian free trade agreement. While House Democrats put on hold similar agreements with Peru and Panama, they refused even to consider the Colombian agreement because of unhappiness with the Uribe regime.

Consequently, the Colombians reached out to the new congressional majority. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a sharp critic in the past of U.S. anti-guerrilla operations, lately has been in frequent contact with the Colombian embassy.

In the first week of August, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos confirmed what I reported from Bogota a year earlier: the army’s notorious 3rd Brigade, headquartered in Cali, was infiltrated by drug cartels (providing intelligence to fugitive drug kingpin Diego Montoya, alias "Don Diego"). Two colonels, three majors and two noncommissioned officers in the 3rd Brigade were arrested.

More important uniformed figures were soon to fall. On Aug. 10, Gen. Hernando Perez Molina was replaced as commander of the Cali-based 3rd Division because of narco infiltration. On Aug. 13, Rear Adm. Gabriel Arango Bassi (who had been senior military aide to President Andres Pastrana) was cashiered because of links to narco-traffickers. On Aug. 17, Gen. Leonardo Gomez Vergara resigned as 3rd Brigade commander.

The slow-moving trial of Col. Bayron Carvajal, commander of the 3rd Brigade’s Mountain Division, surely will end with a conviction. Officers and men commanded by Carvajal are accused of slaughtering 10 anti-narcotics policemen last year. The trial is currently in a procedural lapse, but Attorney General Mario Iguaran has declared the evidence is there. A conviction would mean the former corrupt relationship between Colombia’s judiciary and military is over.

None of this is enough to satisfy the international left in its vendetta against Uribe, as indicated by the left-wing School of the Americas Watch. On Aug. 17, this human rights organization noted that Col. Carvajal, along with other officers accused of a conspiracy with the drug interests, was trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the former School of the Americas) — an institution that over the years has been a frequent target of Rep. McGovern and his predecessors,

McGovern follows a tradition of Massachusetts Democrats who have harassed anti-communist efforts in Latin America. Speaker Tip O’Neill based his positions on leftist views of the Maryknoll nuns. O’Neill’s roommate, Rep. Ed Boland, became famous for restricting U.S. aid to Contra fighters in Nicaragua. McGovern’s boss, Rep. Joe Moakley, pushed against anti-guerrilla aid for El Salvador. McGovern has picked up Moakley’s torch to oppose help for Colombia’s anti-guerrilla efforts.

Now McGovern has accomplished what the State Department should have done in forcing the purge of dirty warriors. Will Democrats now relent on aid to Colombia and approve the free trade agreement? At stake are not only the fortunes of Colombia, the best U.S. friend in South America, but also efforts to slow the torrent of narcotics into the United States.