Fidel on Trujillo; honesty in journalism; and the release of Ingrid Betancourt

The true story and the challenge of the Cuban journalists

* * *

Excerpt: ``Out of a basically humanist sentiment, we rejoiced at the news that Ingrid Betancourt, three US citizens and other captives had been released. The civilians should have never been kidnapped, nor should they have been kept prisoners in the conditions of the jungle. These were objectively cruel actions. No revolutionary purpose could justify it. The time will come when the subjective factors should be analysed in depth.''

* * * 

By Fidel Castro Ruz

July 3, 2008 -- Seven days ago I wrote about one of the great men in history: Salvador Allende, a man the world remembered with deep emotion and respect on his first centennial. However, no one quivered or even recalled the date of October 24, 1891, when the Dominica Republic's despot Rafael Leonidas Trujillo was born, eighteen years before our admired Chilean brother.

Both countries, one in the Caribbean and the other in the extreme south of Latin America, suffered the consequences of the danger that Jose Marti foresaw and tried to avert. As he indicated in his celebrated posthumous letter to his Mexican friend who had fought with Juarez -- and this is an idea I never tire of repeating: “Now, I am everyday in danger of giving my life ... to timely prevent with the independence of Cuba that the United States expand over the Antilles and that, with that additional force, they may come against our American lands. Everything I've done until today, and everything I'll do, is for that purpose.”

Our victorious revolution was a friend of Allende, at the same time it hated Trujillo. This was an uncouth Pinochet begotten by the United States in the Caribbean. The despot had been the result of one of the Yankees' military interventions in the island that country shares with Haiti, a country which was the first Spanish colony.

The US Navy infantry had invaded that sister republic to secure its country's economic and strategic interests. Of course, there was not even a Platt Amendment there to cover up the action with a legal mantle.

In 1918, the US recruited, among others, the adventurous and greedy native Dominican, the son of a small merchant, who was then trained and admitted, as a 27-year old, to the National Army. In 1921, he went on to another training course with the Military Academy established by the country's occupiers. After he finished there, he was appointed unit chief and promoted to the rank of captain for the services paid to the interventionist forces, although he was not previously a lieutenant.

At the end of the Yankee occupation in 1924, Trujillo was ready to act as an instrument of the United States in high posts in the military, which he would use to deal the classic coup d’etat and the typical “democratic elections” leading him to the presidency of the republic in 1930. The beginning of his term coincided with the years of the Great Depression that hit the US economy so badly.

Cuba, the country most dependent and shackled by the trade agreements, stood to suffer the most severe consequences of that crisis. On the other hand, the naval base and the humiliating and unwarranted Platt Amendment would give the US constitutional rights to intervene in our nation and to tear to pieces it glorious history.

In the neighbouring country, with less direct economic dependence, the shrewd and voracious Trujillo handled whimsically the properties of the Dominican middle class and the oligarchy. The major sugar mills and many other branches of industry became his private property. That cult to private appropriation did not offend the capitalist concepts of the empire. Many neon signs claimed everywhere ``God and Trujillo''. Many cities, avenues, roads and buildings were named after him or his relatives. The same year he became president, a hurricane hit hard on Santo Domingo, the country's capital. After the city recovered from the damage, he renamed it Trujillo City. Never before had the world known such a personality cult.

In the year 1937, he carried out along the border a huge massacre of Haitian workers. This was his reserve labour force in agriculture and construction.

He was a steady US ally. He was involved in the inception of both the United Nations and the OAS in 1948. On December 15, 1952, he travelled to Washington in his other capacity as plenipotentiary ambassador to the Organisation of American States and stayed in that country for three and a half months. On July 2, 1954, he travelled to Spain on board a transatlantic ship which took him to Vigo. Franco, who was already an ally of the empire, welcomed him at the Madrid North Station accompanied by all members of the diplomatic corp.

My relationship with the Dominican Republic dates back to my days at the university. I had been honoured with an appointment to president of the Committee for Dominican Democracy. It did not sound as a very important position, but since I was kind of rebellious, I took it seriously. The time to do something came up unexpectedly. The Dominican exiled fostered in Cuba the creation of an expeditionary force. I enlisted with it when I had not yet completed my sophomore. I was 21 years old.

I have told the story before of what happened then. After the frustrated Cayo Confites expedition, I was not among the over 1000 prisoners taken to the Columbia military camp, where Juan Bosch went on a hunger strike. These men had been incarcerated by the head of the army in Cuba, General Perez Dameras, who had received money from Trujillo to intercept the expedition. The general did this when the expeditionary were close to the Wind Passage.

A Cuban Navy frigate, aiming with its bow cannons at our leading boat, ordered us to return and to dock at the Antilla's port. I then jumped into the water of the Nipe Bay together with three other expeditionaries. We were four armed men.

I had met Juan Bosch, an outstanding Dominican leader, in Cayo Confites, where we trained, and we talked at length. He was not the chief of the expedition but he was certainly the most prestigious personality among the Dominicans, even if he was ignored by some of the main leaders of that movement and by the Cuban chieftains who had rather important and well paid official relations. I was then very far from even imagining this that I’m writing today!

Eleven years later, when our fight in the Sierra Maestra Mountains was about to successfully conclude, Trujillo granted a credit to Batista to buy weapons and ammunition, which were brought by plane in the second quarter of 1958. He also volunteered to fly in 3000 Dominican troops, and later another force that would land in Oriente.

Batista's tyranny was defeated on January 1, 1959, thanks to the hard blows dealt by the Rebel Army and the revolutionary general strike. The repressive state came crumbling down all throughout the island and Batista left for the Dominican Republic. He travelled there in the company of other sinister characters of that regime, such as the well-known thug Lutgardo Martin Perez, his 25-year-old son Roberto Martin Perez Rodriguez and a group of the top military chiefs of his defeated army.

Trujillo offered Batista a warm welcome and accommodated him at an official residence for distinguished guests, although he later sent him to a luxurious hotel. He was concerned over the example of the Cuban Revolution, therefore, he counted on the top chiefs of Batista's former army and the likely support of the tens of thousands of members of the three army branches and the police to organise a counterrevolution and support it with the Caribbean Legion, which might have had about 25,000 soldiers from the Dominican Army.

The US administration, being aware of these plans, sent a CIA officer to Santo Domingo to talk with Trujillo and assess his plans against Cuba. By midst February 1959, this man met with John Abbes Garcia, head of the Dominican intelligence services to whom he recommended to send agents to recruit hostile elements in the ranks of the victorious revolution. He did not say that the US government already had William Alexander Morgan Ruderth, a US citizen and CIA agent, who had infiltrated the second front in the Escambray, a man they had promoted to the rank of commander and who was one of the main chiefs there.

The development of these events, which make for a fascinating story, can be found in the books of senior Cuban intelligence and security officers, in the testimonies of leaders of military units of the Rebel Army who were directly involved, in autobiographies, official statements made in those days and reports by national and foreign journalists, all of whom it would be impossible to mention in this reflection.

There is another book in the process of publication written by a comrade who joined the militias when he was 17, and who for his good conduct and sharp mind was then transferred to the prime minister's and commander in chief's security detail, where he studied to become a stenographer, then took notes of the conversations and collected the testimony of hundreds of participants in the events he narrates. This chapter of the history of our revolution has yet to be recounted.

As is understood, the top revolutionary leaders were constantly informed of the news about the enemy's plans. We then conceived the idea of dealing the Yankees', Batista's and Trujillo's counterrevolution a hard blow.

When the weapons sent by sea from Florida to carry out the first actions and the chiefs and plotters were all under strict control, we simulated a successful counterrevolution in the mountainous Escambray zone, and in Trinidad, which had an airstrip. We then proceeded to isolate the municipality of that small and friendly town where revolutionary political work was intensified.

Trujillo was full of enthusiasm. A company of our soldiers disguised as peasants shouted at the airstrip: “Long live Trujillo! Down with Fidel!” which was reported to headquarters in the Dominican Republic. They had dropped plenty of ammunition from planes. Everything was unfolding according to plan.

On August 13, a plane came in with a special envoy from Trujillo. It was Luis del Pozo Jimenez, the son of a former mayor and Batista follower in the capital and a prominent figure with the regime. He pointed out on a map the positions that would be bombed by the Dominican Air Force and inquired about the number of legionnaires necessary in the first stage.

Another notable envoy came with him. It was Roberto Martin Perez Rodriguez who, as we have already indicated, had travelled with his father and Batista as they escaped to the Dominican Republic that January 1. He was accompanied by several mercenary leaders who would stay behind. The plane had to go back. Its crew was the same that had carried Batista when he ran away.

I was in proximity of the airstrip with Camilo Cienfuegos and other military chiefs.The head of the Cuban military personnel who had to unload the weapons and communication equipment had understood that they should arrest the aircraft crew. At this point, a co-pilot realised that something was wrong and a shootout ensued. Trujillo's envoys and the other mercenary chiefs were then arrested. There were casualties.

That same night I visited the wounded from both sides. We couldn't go ahead with the plan. Up until then, communications between Trujillo and the counterrevolution in the Escambray had taken place through short wave. Trujillos's official radio station broadcast triumphant military reports similar to those we would hear from Radio Swan and Miami in the days of Giron. We never used Cuba's public stations to spread false official reports.

It would have been possible to continue with the game even after the plane had been seized and Luis del Pozo Jimenez and Roberto Martin Perez Rodriguez were arrested. We could have faked a mechanical failure of the plane that should have returned there, but that would have misled and confused our people, which were by then restless over the news about the alleged counterrevolutionary victories in Escambray publicly spread from Trujillo City.

That August 13, 1959, was my 33rd birthday. I was in my prime, physically and mentally strong.

It was a major revolutionary victory, but at the same time a signal about the times that would come and a sad gift from Rafael Leonidas Trujillo on my anniversary. Twenty months later we would be fighting at Giron [Bay of Pigs]; there would be violence and bloodshed in the Escambray, by the sea shore, in towns and all over the country. It was the counterrevolution organised by the United States.

In that country they would have executed Roberto Martin Perez Rodriguez and Luis del Pozo Jimenez, as mercenaries in the service of an enemy power. The Revolutionary Courts sentenced them to prison, and they were not mistreated. What was the final destiny of Martin Perez? He migrated to the United States, legally, and he is today a standard bearer of the Cuban American terrorist mafia which supports Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

A distinguished Canadian journalist and researcher, Jean-Guy Allard, describes the terrorist life of Roberto Martin Perez Rodriguez as follows:

“…in fact, since early in his life, ‘Macho’ [his nickname] Martin Perez joined the Batista police and, for his special merits, that is, his beating of the prisoners in the last months of the bloody regime, he earned the rank of Sergeant.

“Both, the father and son were so close to Batista that, on January 1st, 1959, instead of running away to Miami, they followed the dictator to his sanctuary in the Dominican Republic.

“…released on May 29, 1987…in 1989 he joined the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) established by the CIA under Ronald Reagan.

“He would very soon be leading the paramilitary committee created by this organization which ensures the financing, among others, of the terrorist group Alpha 66 and other extremist groups acting against Cuba.

“…Martin Perez Rodriguez took part in the arrangement of a series of failed attempts on the life the President of Cuba during various Ibero American Summits.

“In 1994, on the occasion of Fidel’s attendance to the 4th Summit, in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia… he purchased a 50mm Barret gun and explosives which were transferred to Colombia from Miami … by plane!

“…he plotted with Jimenez Escobedo and Eugenio LLameras with a view to the 5th Ibero American Summit in 1995. That year, he revived the same plan for the Non Aligned Movement Summit, also in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

“In 1997, at Margarita Island, Venezuela, on the occasion of the 7th Ibero American Summit of Heads of Sate and Government, Posada mounted another conspiracy with direct support from Martin Perez Rodriguez and other leaders of CANF…

“…he signed the Declaration of support for terrorism against Cuba published by the Foundation on August 11th…Roberto Martin Perez, Feliciano Foyo and Horacio Garcia are some of the people Posada publicly named as the ‘financiers’ of his terrorist actions during his interview with the New York Times in 1997.

“…he sponsored in Miami an exhibition of paintings by [Orlando] Bosch and Posada [Carriles], the two masterminds of the sabotage against the Cuban civilian plane, in 1976, where 73 people were killed.

“In 1998, the great advocate of the ‘political prisoner’ carried out one of his dirtiest deeds: with other Miami Mafia ringleaders…he led the new FBI chief, the very corruptible Hector Pesquera, to the arrest of five Cubans who had infiltrated the ranks of the terrorist organizations.

“…his unfailing friendship with Guillermo Novo Sampol, the murderer of Chilean leader Orlando Letelier is well known…

“The Republican candidate should know that his 73-year-old protégé was the first to assert that on the day of his longed for victory over the Cuban Revolution he would drive a bulldozer from the Cabo San Antonio to the Punta de Maisicrushing the island population guilty of any links with the Revolution.

“…on another occasion, asked about the risk of killing innocents in an attempt on Cuban leaders he said that he didn’t care if ‘the Pope died’.”

The historical truth tells us that John McCain's father commandeered the amphibious attack, the invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965 against the nationalist forces led by Francisco Caamaño, another great hero of that nation whom I knew very well and who always had confidence in Cuba.

Dedication to Cuban journalists and honesty

I dedicate this reflection on historical events to our dear journalists, since it coincides with the 8th Congress of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC, by its Spanish acronym), whom I consider like family. How I would have liked to study the techniques of their trade!

The UPEC has been very generous in publishing a book under the title Fidel, the journalist, which will be presented tomorrow afternoon. They sent me a copy with several articles published in clandestine or legal newspapers over five decades ago, with a prologue by Guillermo Cabrera Alvarez and the selection, introduction and notes by Ana Nuñez Machin.

I gave Guillermo Cabrera the nickname of “the genius” since I first met him. It was the impression I received from that great man who unfortunately passed away last year. He had had a heart surgery some time ago at the prestigious Cardiovascular Center established by our revolution in Santa Clara City.

I reread some of the articles published in Alerta, Bohemia and La Calle, and I relived those years.

I wrote those articles when I felt the need to convey certain ideas. I did it out of pure revolutionary instinct. I always applied the principle that words should be simple and the concepts understandable to the masses. Today I have more experience, but I'm not as strong; it's harder for me to do it. Our people's educational level is higher with the revolution, thus the task is more difficult.

From the revolutionary point of view, discrepancies are not important; it is the honesty of the opinion that counts. And, it is from the contradictions that the truth will emerge. Perhaps, it would be worthwhile some other time to make an effort to make some observations on this issue.

Ingrid Betancourt's release in Colombia

Yesterday, an important event took place, which will be an issue the following days. This is the release of Ingrid Betancourt and a group of people held by the FARC, that is, the Revolutionary Armed Forces from Colombia.

On January 10 this year, our ambassador to Venezuela, German Sanchez, following a request of the Venezuelan and Colombian governments, took part in the release of Clara Rojas to the International Red Cross. She had been a candidate for vice-president of Colombia when Ingrid Betancourt was running for president and was kidnapped on February 23, 2002. Consuelo Gonzalez, a member of the House of Representatives, kidnapped on September 10, 2001, was released with her.

An era of peace was opening for Colombia. This is a process Cuba has been supporting for over two decades, as it is most convenient for the unity and peace of the peoples of our America, using new ways in the special and complex circumstances prevailing after the demise of the USSR in the early 1990s -- which I won't try to analyse here -- very different from those existing in Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The bombing of a camp in Ecuadorian soil in the early hours of March 1 -- while Colombian guerrillas and young visitors from different nationalities were sleeping -- using Yankee technology; the occupation of the territory, the coup de grace on the wounded and the kidnapping of corpses as part of the terrorist plan from the United States government was repudiated the world over.

A Rio Group meeting was then held in the Dominican Republic on March 7. There the events were strongly condemned while the US administration applauded.

Manuel Marulanda, a peasant and communist militant, the main leader of that guerrilla group founded almost half a century ago was still alive. He passed away on the 26th of that same month.

Ingrid Betancourt, feeble and sick, as well as other captives with a serious health condition could hardly resist any longer.

Out of a basically humanist sentiment, we rejoiced at the news that Ingrid Betancourt, three US citizens and other captives had been released. The civilians should have never been kidnapped, nor should they have been kept prisoners in the conditions of the jungle. These were objectively cruel actions. No revolutionary purpose could justify it. The time will come when the subjective factors should be analysed in depth.

We won our revolutionary war in Cuba by immediately releasing every prisoner absolutely unconditionally. The soldiers and officers captured in battle were released to the International Red Cross; we only kept their weapons. No soldier will ever surrender if he thinks he will be killed or subjected to cruel treatment.

We are watching with concern how the imperialists try to capitalise on what happened in Colombia in order to hide and justify their heinous crimes of genocide against other peoples. They want to deflect international attention from their interventionist plans in Venezuela and Bolivia and from the presence of the 4th Fleet in support of the political line that intends to obliterate the independence of the countries located south of the United States while taking possession of their natural resources.

These should be illustrative examples for all of our journalists. In our times, truth is navigating rough seas, where the mass media are in the hands of those threatening human survival with their immense economic, technologic and military resources. That's the challenge faced by the Cuban journalists!

Fidel Castro Ruz, July 3, 2008, 4.26pm.


Cuba: Thumbs Up for Release of Ingrid Betancourt

HAVANA, Cuba, July 4 (acn) Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque
spoke Friday positively of the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a former
Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped on February 23, 2002, by the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

"It is a positive fact that should contribute to the peace process in
Colombia, which Cuba fully supports," said the Cuban top diplomat before
joining the 29th annual summit of Heads of Government of the Caribbean
Community (CARICOM) concluding Friday in Antigua and Barbuda.

According to Perez Roque, the conflict in Colombia delays and makes the
integration of Latin American countries more difficult. Peace must be
attained at the negotiation table, he added.

On a news article by Cuban Revolution Leader Fidel Castro published
today, he writes that "Out of a basically humanist sentiment, we
rejoiced at the news that Ingrid Betancourt, three American citizens and
other captives had been released."

"The civilians should have never been kidnapped neither should the
militaries have been kept prisoners in jungle conditions. No
revolutionary purpose could justify it," writes Fidel.

Ingrid Betancourt was reunited Thursday with her children who arrived
from Paris hours after the military operation that freed their mother
and 14 other hostages.


Trujillo Declassified
Documenting Colombia's 'tragedy without end'

Documents Detail U.S. Concerns about Impunity in Major Human Rights Case

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 259

Posted - October 5, 2008

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

Colombia Documentation Project home



"Trujillo desclasificado: documentando una tragedia que no cesa"
Por Michael Evans
Semana (Colombia)
4 Octubre 2008

"Trujillo Declassified: Documenting a 'tragedy without end'"
By Michael Evans
Semana International
October 1, 2008

Trujillo: Una tragedia que no cesa [Trujillo: A tragedy without end]
Report of the Historical Memory Group of the National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation (CNRR)


"Justice, Reparation, Memory, Truth": Stones at the entrance to the memorial for the victims of the Trujillo massacre. (Michael Evans)

Washington D.C., October 5, 2008 - As Colombian prosecutors begin to reopen investigations against individuals connected to one of the worst massacres in the country’s modern history, the National Security Archive today publishes on the Web a collection of declassified documents detailing U.S. concerns about the wall of impunity that has long surrounded the case. These documents are central to an article published this weekend in Spanish on the Web site of Semana magazine, Colombia’s largest newsweekly. An English version of the article is available below and on the Web site of the new Semana International.

The new movement on the Trujillo massacre follows closely the release of a major new report on the case, the first issued by the Historical Memory Group (GMH) of the National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation (CNRR). Led by a distinguished group of researchers, the GMH is charged with writing a comprehensive history of the Colombian conflict focusing on the country’s illegal armed groups.

The Archive’s Colombia Documentation Project is proud to be assisting the GMH and other researchers with investigations of the major human rights cases over the last four decades of violence in Colombia.


Trujillo Declassified: Documenting a 'tragedy without end'
By Michael Evans

[NOTE: Click on the highlighted links to read the source documents in PDF.]

With a number of recent arrests connected to the infamous Trujillo massacres of 1988-1994, Colombia reopens one of the most enduring cases of impunity in its modern history. The investigation of these drug traffickers, assassins and paramilitaries, along with at least 12 retired members of the Colombian security forces, is another hopeful sign that Colombia will finally come to grips with a case that has long foundered on the rocky shoals of Colombian justice. But it also raises an uncomfortable question: Will the investigations pursue senior military officials responsible for the pattern of impunity that has perpetuated the suffering over these many years? And what, if any, responsibility does the United States bear for having supported the institutions behind this wall of silence?

To truly understand the Trujillo case, it is important to recognize the pervasive climate of impunity that lies at the core of the tragedy. Thirteen years after President Ernesto Samper accepted responsibility for the state’s role in the Trujillo killings, and 18 years after the murders themselves, not a single perpetrator has been sentenced in connection to the case.

Earlier this month, a special report on the Trujillo killings assembled by the Historical Memory Group (GMH) established under the “Justice and Peace” law found that impunity in the Trujillo case was not simply a symptom of state impotence or a lack of resources.“To the contrary,” writes Gonzalo Sánchez, the group’s director,

“it is part of the logic that surrounds and/or causes these crimes. It is precisely this impunity that guarantees that the crimes can continue being committed, that the perpetrators can continue committing them, and that those responsible are not punished.”

As Colombia revisits this “tragedy without end,” the country is faced with the possibility that yet another investigation will end without convictions.

Inscription at a special memorial for Father Tiberio Fernandez, one of some 342 victims of violence in Trujillo. (Michael Evans)

The ongoing political violence and the history of impunity that surrounds this case make it all the more important that groups investigating human rights crimes have access to a broad array of data from international organizations, courts and advocacy groups. One particularly rich source on Colombia’s impunity problem turns out to be one of its closest friends: the United States government. Colombia’s human rights record has been on the radar of American diplomats and intelligence officials for over 30 years, particularly those cases tied to the U.S. through training or other support. Thanks to hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests by the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., many of these formerly secret documents have now been declassified. These records tell us what U.S. officials said behind the scenes about their top Andean ally, and whether they believed that Colombia’s senior military and civilian leaders were serious about pursuing justice in Trujillo and other cases.

By the mid-1990s, increasing international outcry over the human rights situation in Colombia meant that the U.S. had to be much more careful about which units and officers of the Colombian armed forces it could support. Credible reports focused specifically on the abuses of U.S.-supported military units and officers complicated the U.S.-Colombia security relationship, particularly when meaningful prosecutions were practically non-existent.

For the U.S., Trujillo would be an important test of President Samper’s stated commitment to improve Colombia’s human rights record and his pledge to break the military’s ties to paramilitaries. The mere admission of state responsibility would not be enough. Clinton administration officials wanted to see real progress on the case, including the prosecution of military officials connected to the killings.

Chief among these was Maj. Alirio Uruena, a Third Brigade officer who, in addition to his association with the paramilitaries and drug traffickers behind Trujillo, had an uncomfortably close connection to the U.S. One Embassy cable noted that Uruena had “received USG [U.S. Government]-sponsored training on two occasions”: in 1976, at a “cadet orientation at the School of the Americas,” and at a “DIA-sponsored intelligence officer course” in December 1988 and January 1989, just a year or so before the killings in which he was specifically implicated. [19950207.pdf]

The sheer brutality of the killings made Uruena’s connection to the U.S. especially worrisome. Uruena had “personally directed the torture of 11 detainees and their subsequent execution,” according to one cable. The key witness in the case, a civilian army informant who participated in the murders, said that the killings “were carried out by cutting off the limbs and heads of the still living victims with a chain saw.” His testimony, according to the Embassy, was corroborated by “more than a dozen witnesses.” [19900727.pdf] Perhaps even more troubling, the case also tied Maj. Uruena to a narco-paramilitary group led by infamous paramilitary chiefs Diego Montoya and Henry Loaiza (both of whom are now under investigation for the Trujillo killings).

The U.S. connection to Trujillo, and the U.S. desire to continue supporting the strategically-located Third Brigade, made it all the more important that Samper back up his historic acceptance of state responsibility with punitive action against the perpetrators. The State Department’s top human rights official, John Shattuck, told Samper in one 1995 meeting that “rhetorical advances” needed to be followed by “evidence that the Colombian state can and will attack the underlying cause of its high levels of human rights violations and general violence: impunity.”Referring to Trujillo and two other cases, Shattuck said that “until the Colombian military and/or civilian justice systems are capable of investigating, trying, convicting, and sentencing those responsible for the massacres, the institutional reforms would be empty gestures.” What mattered, Shattuck said, was that Colombia begin to “show results … in instances of human rights violations attributed to the state security forces.” [19950327.pdf]

U.S. intelligence was also skeptical that Colombia was serious about its promise to break ties with paramilitary groups. The CIA reported in March 1995 that Samper had “yet to demonstrate resolve in addressing abuses by paramilitary groups that operate with the tacit approval of the military.” Samper had also “failed to arrest and prosecute [notorious paramilitary chief] Fidel Castano” and had “endorsed [Minister of Defense] Botero’s proposal to create rural security cooperatives,” many of which operated alongside illegal paramilitary groups, according to the CIA.[19950322.pdf]

Neither did Samper’s admission of state responsibility in the Trujillo case atone for the Colombian Army’s failure to bring charges against personnel involved in other serious abuses. Army commander Gen. Harold Bedoya’s response, in December 1996, to an Embassy request for information on 18 human rights cases tied to the military by Amnesty International was a “de facto admission of institutional culpability,” according to one cable. But rather than embarrass Bedoya by publicly challenging his shameful” response, the cable suggested that it be used “to pressure him into beginning to genuinely clean up the [Colombian Army’s] sordid performance on human rights, particularly the pattern of quasi-impunity posing as military justice.” “We should not shirk at some gentlemanly blackmail,” the Embassy added, “if that is what it takes to get our human rights agenda moving forward.” [19961227.pdf]

One year later, things had only gotten worse.  The CIA’s December 1997 “Update on Links Between Military, Paramilitary Forces” grimly predicted 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.” The new Armed Forces commander, Gen. Manuel Bonett, “like his predecessor Harold Bedoya,” showed “little inclination to combat paramilitary groups.” [19971202.pdf]

Despite overwhelming evidence, Uruena was never convicted for his role in Trujillo, and his eventual dismissal from the Army was openly opposed by senior military officers. Even firing Uruena came at great political cost for Samper, who was subsequently unwilling to push for the actual prosecution of the perpetrators—most especially Uruena, but also those that the Embassy said had “whitewashed” and “perverted” the initial investigations, including Gen. Bonett, who had served as the first instance military judge in the case. [19980306.pdf]

Nevertheless, the reopening of the Trujillo case in the immediate wake of the GMH report is a hopeful sign that the recovery of historical memory in Colombia may finally be helping to lift the veil of impunity. It is perhaps too early to know whether these latest developments are signs of real progress or merely “empty gestures” without tangible legal consequences, but they are clearly part of a trend that has seen a number of high-profile military officers put under investigation in recent months.

Given Colombia’s recent history, it is perhaps not surprising that the U.S. may now hold the evidence that could make or break these cases. Fourteen top Colombian paramilitary commanders await prosecution in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. It is not yet clear whether Colombian investigators will have the opportunity to question these men, who are responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, or if the memories of their crimes, their victims, and their collaborators in the Colombian security forces, will remain locked inside the U.S. prison system.

Either way, as Colombians boldly press forward with these investigations, declassified U.S. documents could prove to be a valuable source of evidence otherwise unavailable to prosecutors on Colombia’s conflict and, above all, the system of unchecked impunity that lies at its core.

Michael Evans is director of the Colombia Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.