Killings of labor leaders by army underscores human rights concerns
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Three labor leaders killed in what an army commander claimed was a gunbattle were instead murdered by soldiers, Colombian prosecutors said in a case highlighting U.S. concerns over Colombia's human rights record.
Jorge Prieto, Leonel Goyeneche and Hector Alirio Martinez were shot down in northeast Colombia's Arauca region on August 5.
Afterward, the acting commander of the army's U.S.-trained 18th Brigade, Col. Jairo Roman Mejia, said the three were Marxist guerrillas who died in a shootout with the military.
Late Monday, the attorney general's office disputed Mejia's version and issued arrest warrants for three 18th Brigade soldiers for homicide.
"There was no gunfight," Deputy Attorney General Alberto Santana said Tuesday.
Vice President Francisco Santos, President Alvaro Uribe's point man for human rights issues, suggested after the killings that the three union leaders were involved in rebel activity. On Tuesday, he acknowledged his error.
"Yes, we were wrong," Santos told reporters. "When these incidents happen, you call the commanders to find out what happened, you listen to what the people on the ground are saying ... and I, as vice president, have to pass this on to the public."
The case came days after Secretary of State Colin Powell warned the hard-line Uribe that he must crack down on abuses committed by troops and police, or Colombia would risk losing part of Washington's huge aid package.
U.S. Special Forces trained the 18th Brigade in counterinsurgency tactics to protect an oil pipeline and an oil field owned by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum from rebel attacks.
It was not immediately clear if the three accused soldiers were among those who received the training.
At stake for Colombia is about $32 million, or 12 percent of U.S. aid to Colombia's armed forces for 2005.
Each year, the U.S. State Department releases this money only after certifying the government has met human rights criteria.
In all, Washington planned to provide Colombia with $573 million in 2005, about half of that for the armed forces, which are fighting a leftist insurgency fueled by drug trafficking.
The Colombian prosecutors' response could help keep the pipeline flowing, showing they were bent on resolving the case and bringing the killers to justice, one expert said.
"It was a rapid response by the prosecutor's office, and it's good that they moved on it," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the Center for International Policy in Washington.
How the case is handled from this point on could prove critical.
The three accused soldiers, including a second lieutenant, were still free Tuesday afternoon because 18th Brigade commanders have not received the arrest orders, an army official at brigade headquarters said in a telephone interview.
Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe and Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, chief of the Colombian armed forces, both underscored Tuesday that the three accused soldiers are considered innocent until proven guilty.
Meanwhile, the Uribe administration is trying to push through an antiterrorism bill that would give the military and police sweeping powers to search homes, tap phones and detain suspected terrorists without a warrant for up to 36 hours. Critics charge it will open the door to more abuses.