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Company's Paramilitary Payoffs made through Military's 'Convivir'

U.S. Embassy told of "potential" for groups "to devolve into full-fledged paramilitaries"

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 217
Edited by Michael Evans

For more information contact:
Michael Evans - 202/994-7029

U.S. intelligence assessments like this 1997 CIA report were consistently pessimistic about the prospects that the Colombian military would take on illegal paramilitary groups.

Read the article

"'Para-Politics' Goes Bananas"
By Michael Evans
The Nation
March 29, 2007

More news

"Más sospechas de nexos entre 'paras' y militares revelan reportes de la CIA y Embajada de E.U."
By Sergio Gomez
El Tiempo (Colombia)
March 31, 2007

"Destapan informes secretos de E.U. sobre de autodefensas y Convivir"
El Tiempo (Colombia)
March 31, 2007

Washington D.C., March 29, 2007 - New documents published today by the National Security Archive shed light on recent revelations about the links between bananas and terror in Colombia and the Colombian government's own ties to the country's illegal paramilitary forces.

The scandal is further detailed in an article by National Security Archive Colombia analyst Michael Evans published today on the Web site of The Nation magazine.

The March 9, 2007, indictment against Chiquita Brands International sheds light on both corporate and state ties to Colombia's illegal paramilitary forces.

Earlier this month, Chiquita, the international fruit corporation, admitted to funding a Colombian terrorist group and agreed to pay a $25 million fine. The Justice Department indictment, filed March 13 in D.C. Federal Court, states that Chiquita gave more than $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), an illegal right-wing anti-guerrilla group tied to many of the country's most notorious civilian massacres.

Key documents from the Chiquita case, along with a collection of newly-available declassified documents, are posted here today.

The payments were made over seven years from 1997-2004. At least $825,000 in payments came after the AUC was designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department in 2001.

Many of these payments were made through "intermediaries" in a Colombian government-sponsored program known as Convivir, a network of rural security cooperatives established by the military to police rural areas and provide intelligence on leftist insurgents. Declassified documents suggest that Convivir members often collaborated with paramilitary operations.

The Convivir connection is especially important now, as current President Álvaro Uribe was a key sponsor of the program while governor of Anitoquia department. Antioquia's banana-growing Urabá region is also the locus of Chiquita's Colombia operations. As president, Uribe has implemented similar programs involving the use of civilian informants and soldiers.

The article published today, along with additional documents included here, describes a pattern of increasingly-strong links between military and paramilitary forces in Urabá over the period of Chiquita's payments to the AUC. Chiquita's relationship with the group coincided with a massive projection of paramilitary power thoughout Colombia. U.S. officials strongly suspected that these operations were at least tolerated by--and at times coordinated with--Colombian security forces.

The Chiquita-Convivir scandal comes as the Los Angeles Times has published a report that the CIA has new information connecting Colombia's Army chief, Gen. Mario Montoya, one of President Uribe's top advisers, to a paramilitary group. The new allegation adds fuel to the "para-politics" scandal, which has already taken down several top government officials and implicated many others in connection to the AUC.

Today's posting is the first in a series of new Archive postings on the U.S. government's perception of Colombia's paramiltary movement and its links to Colombian security forces. Under a program developed by the Uribe government to disarm and demobilize the AUC, paramilitary leaders are eligible for reduced prison sentences in exchange for voluntary confessions and the payment of reparations to their victims. However, the commission established to adjudicate this process is not authorized to investigate state crimes or the history of the government's links to paramilitary forces.

Documents made available on the Archive Web site today include:

  • the Justice Department's indictment in the Chiquita case, detailing the company's relationship with AUC chief Carlos Castaño, the fugitive (and now deceased) paramilitary leader;
  • a U.S. Embassy cable in which Colombia's police intelligence chief "sheepishly" admitted that his forces "do not act" in parts of the country under AUC control;
  • another Embassy cable in which Ambassador Myles Frechette warned that the government's Convivir program was liable to "degenerate into uncontrolled paramilitary groups";
  • a U.S. military intelligence report on a Colombian Army colonel who told of the "potential" for the Convivir "to devolve into full-fledged paramilitaries";
  • and CIA reports on the Colombian Army's paramilitary ties, one of which found that armed forces commanders had "little inclination to combat paramilitary groups."

The full article is available on the Web site of The Nation.

The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

NOTE: With the exception of the Justice Department indictment, all documents published here were obtained by the Archive's Colombia Documentation Project through Freedom of Information Act requests.


United States of America v. Chiquita Brands International, Inc., Defendant, March 13, 2007

The indictment details Chiquita's seven-year relationship with Carlos Castaño's AUC. The paramilitary chief arranged the payments in 1997 with Banadex, a wholly-owned Chiquita subsidiary. Castaño "informed the [Banadex] General Manager that the AUC was about to drive the FARC [guerrillas] out of Urabá," and also that "failure to make the payments could result in physical harm to Banadex personnel and property."

The company was to "make payments to an intermediary known as a 'convivir,'" groups used by the AUC "as fronts to collect money from businesses for use to support its illegal activities." The Convivir were rural security cooperatives established by the military to police rural areas and provide intelligence on leftist insurgents.

The Justice Department lists some 50 payments made by Chiquita after the State Deparment designated the AUC a terrorist organization in September 2001. The company made at least 19 of these payments after the company voluntarily disclosed the payments to the Justice Department in April 2003, and despite strong warnings from its lawyers to terminate the relationship.

"Must stop payments," read one note quoted in the indictment.

"General Rule: Cannot do indirectly what you cannot do directly."

"You voluntarily put yourself in this position. Duress defense can wear out through repetition. Buz [business] decision to stay in harm's way. Chiquita should leave Colombia."


Document 1: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, Botero Human Rights Letter to A/S Shattuck, December 9, 1994

The U.S. Embassy was skeptical when first confronted with the Colombian defense ministry's plan to create the network of "rural security cooperatives" that would ultimately come to be known as Convivir. In a cable that covered an array of human rights issues, Ambassador Myles Frechette was emphatic about the proposal's inherent dangers:

"We believe that the point that needs to be made to the minister is that Colombia's protracted, vaguely ideological internal conflict is quite sui generis and that there has never been an example in Colombia of a para-statal security group that has not ultimately operated with wanton disregard for human rights or been corrupted by local economic interests."

Document 2: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Colar 17th Brigade Responsible for the Uraba Antioquia Region, April 29, 1996

This report from the U.S. military attaché in Colombia describes the security situation in Urabá, the region where much of Chiquita's operations are located. The document describes a tense situation involving ongoing struggles between EPL and FARC guerrillas, "fighting each other for control of unions and politics in the banana area." According to the indictment, from 1989 until the AUC payments began in 1997, Chiquita had been making similar payments to Colombian guerilla groups. The commander of the Army's local 17th Brigade, Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, told the attaché "that paramilitaries are the only individuals that subversive elements fear."

Document 3: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, Samper Hosts Governors' Meeting on Crime, October 9, 1996

Following a meeting with Colombian President Ernesto Samper and other government officials, the U.S. Embassy reported that Antioquia Governor Álvaro Uribe (the current president of Colombia) had called for "the proliferation of the controversial civilian rural security cooperatives known collectively as 'Convivir.'" Uribe said that the Convivir had "led to the capture of guerrilla leaders in the region," and called on the government to arm some of the groups. The Embassy adds the comment that "most human rights observers believe the Convivir groups pose a serious danger of becoming little more that vigilante organizations." The government's human rights ombudsman had "begun to receive complaints against these groups for exceeding their mandate," according to the Embassy report.

Document 4: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, 40,000 Colombians March to Protest Wave of Kidnappings; Paramilitary Group Releases Two Guerrilla Relatives, December 2, 1996

In a testament to the AUC's growing influence among Colombian security forces, Colombia's police intelligence chief "sheepishly" told U.S. Embassy officers that "the police 'do not act' in the part of Urabá under [Carlos] Castano's control." The statement came in response to an Embassy query as to why Colombian police had not arrested Castaño, "who had openly admitted to kidnapping guerrilla relatives."

Document 5: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Colombian Prosecutor Comments on Paramilitaries in Uraba, December 7, 1996

Paramilitaries had become "a law unto themselves" in Urabá constituting "a potentially greater threat to the government than ... the guerrillas," according to this military intelligence report, based on comments from a Colombian prosecutor. The document describes the violence there as "basically a turf war to determine which group [paramilitaries or guerrillas] will control the rich banana-growing region (and the lucrative illicit narcotics operations within it)." The report adds that, "The military's influence and control over paramilitaries that we so often logically assume to exist may, in fact, be tenuous at best and non-existent in some cases."

Document 6: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, Retired Army Colonel Lambastes Military for Inaction Against Paramilitaries, January 11, 1997

In January 1997, retired Army Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velásquez publicly criticized the Colombian Army, particularly 17th Brigade Commander Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, for tolerance of paramilitary forces in Urabá. In this cable, the U.S. Embassy characterizes Velásquez as a man of "unquestionable integrity," adding that his statements "bring extra pressure to bear on the Colombian military" and "add credibility" to the State Department's critical human rights report on Colombia.

Document 7: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Guerrillas Launch New Wave of Bombings in Uraba and Cordoba -- Paramilitaries Respond with Murder and Kidnappings (Laser Strike), March 14, 1997

U.S. military intelligence reports ongoing violence in Urabá, noting that, "Recent events contrast sharply with earlier 17th Brigade reports claiming that Uraba had largely been pacified." The report says it remains unclear whether a recent shift by FARC guerillas to "terrorist-style bombings" represents "a long-term FARC strategy, or a temporary tactic for retaliating against the paramilitaries for driving them out of certain conflictive zones and discouraging the civilian population from assisting paramilitary organizations." The document adds that the Colombian government had only recently "acknowledged that paramilitaries are a valid threat to public order that requires attention."

Document 8: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, The Convivir in Antioquia -- Becoming Institutionalized and Spreading Its Reach, April 7, 1997

In this document, an undisclosed source describes how the Convivir operate in Antioquia. The interlocutor was "insistent that there are striking differences between the legal ... sanctioned Convivirs and the illegal paramilitaries that are declared enemies of the state." The Convivir are merely "one more 'legal tool' for integrating counterguerrilla-oriented elements into society."

Document 9: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, MoD Alleged to have Authorized Illegal Arms Sales to Convivirs and Narcotraffickers, April 9, 1997

In April 1997, a Colombian magazine published allegations that officials in Colombia's Ministry of Defense had illegally sold weapons to Convivir linked to narcotraffickers and paramilitaries. This highly-excised document indicates that U.S. Embassy military and diplomatic contacts had "lent a significant degree of credibility to the allegations."

Document 10: U.S. State Department, cable, Bedoya Call for Militia, April 11, 1997

In this cable, the State Department's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Peter Romero, criticizes a new plan by Gen. Harold Bedoya, the armed forces commander, to create "national militias." Romero mentions problems the government has had with the Convivir program, adding that "establishing yet another set of armed combatants would, if experience is any guide, bring a host of more flagrant human rights abuses."

Document 11: CIA, Intelligence Report, Colombia: Paramilitaries Gaining Strength, June 13, 1997

This CIA report finds "scant indication that the [Colombian] military leadership is making an effort to directly confront the paramilitary groups or to devote men or resources to stop their activities in an amount commensurate with the dimensions of the problem." Logistical problems and the "popular perception that the military is 'losing the war' against the guerrillas" has had a profound effect on military forces. As a result of these frustrations, "informational links and instances of active coordination between military and paramilitaries are likely to continue," according the the CIA.

The following month--in an operation that signalled the beginning of a major expansion of paramilitary power throughout Colombia--Urabá-based paramilitaries under the direction of Carlos Castaño would massacre some 30 civilians at Mapiripán, an act later shown to have been facilitated by local military forces.

Document 12: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Senior Colombian Army Officer Biding His Time During Remainder of Samper Regime, July 15, 1997

A "senior Colombian Army officer" told U.S. offiicials in July 1997 that there were "serious problems with the legal 'Convivir' movement," according to this military intelligence report. The unnamed officer compared the Convivir to the "Rondas Campesinas" in Peru, calling them "very difficult to control." According to the colonel, the Ministry of Defense was aware of the "potential for Convivir's to devolve into full-fledged paramilitaries," but was "reluctant to admit it publicly."

Document 13: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, Scandal Over Army Request to Convivir in Antioquia, October 8, 1997

This cable reports on the October 1997 revelation by Colombian Senator Fabio Valencia that a high-ranking Colombian Army officer had circulated a memo asking local Convivir organizations to "to send the Army lists of local candidates, including their political affiliations, degree of acceptance among the people, their sympathies toward democratic institutions, government and military forces, and what degree of local influence they wield."

Document 14: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, Paramilitary Massacres Leave 21 Dead, November 24, 1997

After Mapiripán, one of the next major projections of paramilitary power in Colombia was the November 21, 1997, La Horqueta massacre, in which paramilitaries killed 14 people in a village outside the Colombian capital. Eyewitnesses believed the attackers came from Colombia's northern coast, which the Embassy notes is "home of Carlos Castaño's paramilitary group." A prominent Colombian expert told the Embassy that the massacre "sent a message to the FARC that the paramilitaries can go anywhere and do anything." "The fact that no trace of the killers has turned up yet despite the presence of hundreds of police and soldiers in the wake of the killings is not encouraging," according to the cable.

Document 15: CIA, Intelligence Report, Colombia: Update on Links Between Military, Paramilitary Forces, December 2, 1997

This highly-excised CIA report states that "prospects for a concerted effort by the military high command to crack down on paramilitaries--and the officers that cooperate with them--appear dim." Both the current and former armed forces chiefs--Gens. Manuel Bonett and Harold Bedoya--had shown "little inclination to combat paramilitary groups." Tacit acceptance of paramilitary operations by some officers "are longstanding and will not be easily reversed," according to the report.

The CIA calls the recent paramilitary expansion into traditionally guerrilla-controlled territory "the most significant change we have seen in recent months and one which has further degraded Colombia's already poor security and human rights situation." The Mapiripán massacre was one notable example. One intelligence source told the CIA "that Castano would not have flown forces and weapons into a civilian airport known to have a large police presence if he had not received prior assurances that they would be allowed to pass through."

Document 16: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Cashiered Colonel Talks Freely about the Army He Left Behind (Laser Strike), December 24, 1997

There is a "body count syndrome" in the Colombian Army's counterinsurgency strategy that "tends to fuel human rights abuses by otherwise well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors," according to a recently-retired Colombian Army colonel whose comments form the basis of this intelligence report. According to the officer, the obsession with body counts is in part responsible for commanders "allowing the paramilitaries to serve as proxies for the [Colombian army] in contributing to the guerrilla body count." The 17th Brigade in Urabá had been cooperating with paramilitaries "for a number of years," he said, but it "had gotten much worse" under the command of Gen. Rito Alejo del Río. Gen. Del Río was later indicted but ultimately acquitted of collusion with paramilitaries by the Prosecutor General's office in May 2003.

The officer was critical of several other high-level military commanders, including Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, who would later serve as armed forces commander. Mora had a clean public reputation, according to the officer, but was "probably was one of those who looked the other way" with respect to collaboration with paramilitaries. Former armed forces commander Gen. Harold Bedoya "fell into the same category," in that both officers "never allowed themselves to become directly involved in encouraging or supporting paramilitary activities, but they turned their backs to what was happening and felt the [Colombian army] should in no way be blamed for any resulting human rights atrocities committed."

Document 17: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, Narcos Arrested for La Horqueta Paramilitary Massacre, January 28, 1998

One of the perpetrators of the November 1997 La Horqueta massacre (see Document 14) was identified as the president of an Urabá-based Convivir, according to this U.S. Embassy cable. The Convivir member was "imported to the region" by a "local landowner and presumed narcotrafficker who had hired ... Uraba-based paramilitaries to execute the massacre."

The local Army 13th Brigade was "strangely non-reactive" to the killings, according to the cable. The brigade, the Embassy adds, "recently came under the command of BG Rito Alejo del Rio, who earned considerable attention as the commander of the 17th Brigade covering the heartland of Carlos Castano's paramilitaries in Cordoba and Uraba."

Document 18: CIA, Intelligence Report, Colombia: Paramilitaries Assuming a Higher Profile, August 31, 1998

Similar to a previous document on the matter, this CIA report finds that "some senior military officers--already suspicious of the peace process and frustrated with the military's dismal performance on the battlefield--may increasingly view turning a blind eye--and perhaps even offering tacit support to--the paramilitaries as their best option for striking back at the guerrillas." Like the previous report, this one also predicts that "informational links and instances of active coordination between the military and the paramilitaries" were "likely to continue and perhaps even increase."

Document 19: U.S. Embassy Bogotá, cable, A Closer Look at Uribe's Auxiliary Forces, September 11, 2002

Soon after taking office in 2002, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced that a key aspect of his national security strategy would involve the use of civilian soldiers organized into local militias. Key portions of this U.S. Embassy cable on the use of "auxiliary forces" were deleted before release by the State Department, suggesting that the Embassy may have harbored reservations about the program based on the government's previous experience with the Convivir.

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