U.S. Soldiers Accused of Selling Arms to Colombian Paramilitaries
Like the GIs Caught Smuggling Cocaine Last Month, They Won’t Face Trial or Investigation in Colombia
By Dan Feder
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
May 6, 2005
On Tuesday, Colombian authorities arrested Lieutenant Colonel Alan Norman Tanquary and Sergeant Jose Hernandez of the United States Army, for illegally trafficking weapons and ammunition. The arms – according to press reports more than 30,000 “projectiles” were found in the house where the two were arrested – were almost certainly meant for sale to paramilitary groups, the right-wing death squad militias that terrorize Colombia’s people.
The U.S. Embassy and its bosses back home have kicked into damage control, and are trying to sweep this one under the rug. And so far, the U.S. media aren’t doing much to stop them.
The U.S. soldiers deployed in Colombia supposedly have two goals – to combat the production of cocaine, and help end the 40-year-old civil war. Last month, five U.S. soldiers were caught smuggling cocaine back to the United States (see my post in the Narcosphere and Laura del Castillo’s recent column on the case), and now more soldiers, one of them a Lieutenant Colonel, no less, have been found helping and profiting off of the most brutal force in the hemisphere.
[UPDATE: Tanquary was reported to be a Lieutenant Colonel by Colombia’s RCN radio shortly after the arrest. U.S. media have since identified him as an army warrant officer.]
The U.S. often justifies its aid (nearly $800 million this year) to a military known to collaborate and work closely with paramilitary groups by saying that it is helping the Uribe government to clean up the army; that the U.S. presence there is some sort of magical cure for corruption and human rights abuses. Such fantasies may not survive many more incidents like this one.
The crimes these two men allegedly committed were first and foremost crimes against Colombia. They were arrested in Colombia by Colombian police, who stumbled upon the two while following up on a tip about an illegal weapons operation. Yet where will they face trial? Like the “narcosoldiers,” they are being rushed back to the U.S. to face an “investigation” there. The case raises huge questions that could affect the entire future of U.S. imperial adventures in Latin America, and the various foreign policy organs that keep those ventures going obviously does no want investigators from another country, outside of their control, finding those answers.
But the U.S. is overreaching in its frantic protection of these soldiers. After last month’s cocaine bust, Colombian lawmakers and law enforcers were furious that after hundreds of extraditions of Colombian prisoners to the U.S., they would not be allowed to investigate and prosecute the U.S. criminals they had captured themselves. And now the same thing has happened… but these soldiers were not just trying to sell cocaine to North American kids; they were, allegedly, selling weapons that would be used against Colombian citizens. A last-ditch effort to keep the men in Colombia seems to have failed and they are reported to be in the custody of the U.S. embassy already.
The State Department answers journalists’ questions every day at a briefing in Washington. Yesterday, a reporter did ask a question about the two men, receiving a total non-answer from spokesman Richard Boucher:
QUESTION: Yesterday, two U.S. military officers were arrested in Bogotá in what Colombian civilian authorities are describing as an attempt to arm illegal paramilitary groups. Human Rights Watch in the past has produced documentary evidence to show U.S. support for the Colombian military, to have illegal relationships with these paramilitaries. Can you tell us whether or not—and also these officers were arrested in a gated compound where many U.S. officers and contractors live—can you tell us whether or not any U.S. agencies may be involved in secretly arming Colombian paramilitaries?
MR. BOUCHER: First, this has—how can I say? This is a particular situation, a particular case. There is absolutely no U.S. policy and U.S. support or U.S. inclination or U.S. military operations involved in arming paramilitaries. We have declared these groups to be terrorist groups. We have supported President Uribe in his struggle against the terrorists from the left and from the right and we—our goal in Colombia, operating under very strict laws, is to support the assertion of the power of the civilian government throughout its territory in a democratic manner that respects the human rights of all its citizens. And that’s what the Secretary and President Uribe discussed just last week when she was down there.
Second, as far as this particular case, there were two U.S. soldiers who were detained by Colombian National Police on May 3rd in Melgar, Colombia. It’s approximately 25 miles from Bogotá. Colombian officials released them to U.S. custody yesterday. They’ll be transported to Bogotá today and we expect them to be taken on to the United States in the next few days.
Well, that was enough for the journalists in the room, who went on into another round of questions about North Korea and the Middle East. Some of the only meaningful questions on all this have been asked at the website of the Center for International Policy, where Adam Isacson writes:
“How did the American troops manage to strike these deals? It’s not as though U.S. soldiers in Colombia are being pursued by members of the paramilitaries pestering them to run drugs and arms for them. This money-making opportunity will only knock if someone else first makes the introduction. Who, then, is helping the corrupt Americans to link up with their paramilitary customers? What bridges the two degrees of separation?
“Obviously, the most likely “missing links” are the U.S. soldiers’ counterparts in the Colombian military, who are co-located with them on bases like Apiay and Tolemaida. Could it be that Colombian military personnel – members of U.S.-aided units that have supposedly severed their ties with the paramilitaries – helped facilitate contacts with “friends” among the local paramilitaries?”
Another question along the same lines: if the soldiers expected to make a lot of money off this deal, what were they going to do with the money? How would it be laundered and brought back to the U.S.? The implications of both questions go far beyond a single arms deal, and show how despite all their lip-service to fighting terrorism “from the left and from the right,” the mission of the U.S. military in Colombia is not at all working across purposes with the “terrorists” (and, much more often then their left-wing counterparts, drug traffickers) on the right.
As Isacson points out, Melgar, Tolima, is the home of one of the biggest U.S. bases in the country. Despite this, the paramilitaries operate ruthlessly throughout the department of Tolima, having killed 170 people since December 2002.
Had the paramilitaries already bought bullets from U.S. soldiers in the past? How many of those 170 deaths does the U.S. share responsibility for? At what level of the paramilitary umbrella organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which spreads terror throughout the country, were these deals being struck with?
A recent incident sheds light on how the U.S. imperial operation in Melgar regards its common subjects. In October 2004, U.S. soldiers and mercenaries coerced three minors from the Melgar into participating in a pornographic video, which was then distributed around town (by now it’s freely available in the streets of Bogotá). Likening the incident to the Abu Ghraib sexual abuse scandal, the Colombian newspaper El Espectador wrote in January:
“The three adolescents, from modest social backgrounds, seem to have been used in exchange for a sum of money and the promise of obtaining visas to enter the United States. In an interview with some of the inhabitants of Melgar and the local priest, they said that the marines recorded the videos to destroy the dignity of the young girls of the town, and to demonstrate ‘who is really in charge in this place.’ Exposed to public embarrassment, the girls and their families had to abandon the town.”
Others who have seen the tape have said calling it “consensual” would be a stretch. Though this incident was mentioned for context in several Colombian media reports, it was noticeably absent from U.S. reporting.
Today, meanwhile, President Bush continues to prattle on with his Big Lie, unsupported by any evidence, about Venezuela’s arms purchases and the fear that they could “end up in the hands of the FARC,” while his own soldiers are caught red-handed arming Colombia’s worst perpetrators of political violence.
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