U.S. military equipment intended for anti-drug operations in Colombia has been diverted to counterinsurgency units responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, Amnesty International USA said Tuesday.
The human rights group called for an immediate suspension of $40 million in U.S. military aid for Colombia until the United States comes up with a plan to end current abuses and fully accounts for past use of American assistance. The existing program includes a shipment of Blackhawk helicopters.
The Colombian embassy in Washington said it “deplored” the call for a suspension of U.S. military assistance.
“Assistance provided and promised by the United States is used primarily in support of anti-narcotics operations for transporting troops, protecting fumigation aircraft and providing humanitarian aid,” said an embassy statement.
And in Bogota, a spokesman for President Ernesto Samper read a statement defending Colombia’s human rights record and accusing drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas of committing rights violations.
Amnesty’s claim of misuse of military aid was based on three documents obtained from a U.S. official said to be disturbed by American policy in Colombia. The official had given the documents to a Washington-based investigative reporter, Frank Smyth, who relayed them to Amnesty.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said he had no details of Amnesty’s allegations but promised to follow up on them.
Besides helicopters, the U.S. aid program includes C-26 observation aircraft, flight support equipment, field equipment, communications gear and river patrol boats.
The group’s executive director, William F. Schulz, told a news conference that the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary units linked to the military establishment were responsible for the deaths of some 20,000 suspected leftists since 1986.
These included labor leaders, human rights activists and others who were operating within legal institutions in Colombia, he said.
Schulz said the U.S. government had offered repeated assurances that U.S. assistance had been used for counternarcotics purposes exclusively.
Assuming the leaked documents are valid, Schulz said that they offer “proof that U.S. tax dollars have indeed been used to supply the Colombian military with equipment which may well have been used to kill innocent civilians.”