- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia — The ouster of a Colombian army general — sacked in June partly because of secretly recorded conversations obtained by American agents — has apparently caused distrust between U.S. and Colombian officials and hindered cooperation in the war on drugs.

It has also prompted an investigation by the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office in Washington. The Pentagon has a major role in a joint $2.3 billion effort over the past three years to halt the production and export of cocaine and other drugs from Colombia to the United States.

The story centers on ousted Brig. Gen. Gabriel Diaz Ortiz, who was forced out by then-Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez. Miss Ramirez resigned from the government last week.

Gen. Diaz’s ouster came days before the publication of an account in Cambio magazine here linking him to the disappearance of cocaine intercepted by authorities in the northern city of Barranquilla last year.

Subsequent news accounts and a report by the Colombian attorney general’s office accused the police — not Gen. Diaz — of having seized at least one truck carrying 2 tons of cocaine. The accounts said it appeared Colombian police accepted a payment of $769,000 from the drug traffickers and returned the cocaine shipment to them.

That was in August 2002. Gen. Diaz, at the time commander of the Colombian army’s 2nd Brigade, based in Barranquilla, says he had introduced three informants to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration days before the cocaine was intercepted by police.

“That meeting with the DEA was the last time I had anything to do with the case,” he said in a recent interview.

According to Gen. Diaz, the three informants — two of whom were slain separately the following month — had information that would have enabled the DEA and police to intercept the cocaine shipment.

In Colombia, the DEA and police often work together.

“I collaborated [with the DEA] totally, providing them very important antinarcotics information, and look what happened,” Gen. Diaz said. “The fact is that of the three informants I handed over to the DEA, two are dead. And the cocaine passed through.”

Suspicious pattern

U.S. officials tell a different story. Speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, they say the U.S. suspicions of Gen. Diaz are based not only on the case of the missing cocaine, but also on three different cases. They involve:

• Human rights reports since 2000 about Gen. Diaz’s purported links to outlawed paramilitaries.

• A cocaine seizure by Gen. Diaz’s soldiers in June 2002.

• Operation Conquista — an October 2002 joint DEA-Colombian police sweep along Colombia’s northern coast, in Medellin, and on San Andres Island that led to the extradition in June of at least a dozen Colombians to the United States to face charges of money laundering.

Colombia’s largest magazine, Semana, says DEA evidence against Gen. Diaz includes tapes of 12 conversations between the general and a suspect in Operation Conquista, businessman Omar Ghassan Fakih.

Gen. Diaz and Mr. Ghassan say their conversations were innocent.

Regardless of which version of events one believes, some view Gen. Diaz’s ouster as evidence of confusion in the government of President Alvaro Uribe.

This month, Mr. Uribe’s government had a spate of high-level resignations or dismissals, including that of Justice Minister Fernando Londono on Nov. 6, Defense Minister Ramirez on Nov. 9, National Police commander Gen. Teodoro Campo on Nov. 11, armed forces commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora last Wednesday, and other senior officials.

The Associated Press ascribed some of the departures to an Oct. 25 referendum in which Colombians rejected cuts in government spending that were sought to free money for fighting Marxist rebels and strengthening Mr. Uribe’s battle against corruption.

Even before the resignations, the Pentagon’s inspector general had opened a probe into complaints of tension between U.S. and Colombian military and law enforcement personnel.

The United States has a cap of 400 military and 400 civilian contractors in Colombia to provide logistical, communications and technical intelligence support. They also train thousands of Colombian soldiers and police in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, antikidnapping and oil-pipeline protection.

The DEA’s mission is to assist Colombian law enforcement in counternarcotics efforts.

The Pentagon began its investigation in June at the urging of retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Gordon Sumner, who had just completed a weeklong fact-finding trip to Colombia.

Gen. Sumner, who was President Reagan’s ambassador-at-large to Latin America, said he has shared his observations with high-ranking officials in Washington.

Gen. Sumner noted that the Colombian military has recently scored high-profile battlefield successes in a 39-year-old war against Marxist guerrillas. But he added: “There seem to be some frictions on the ground between Colombians and U.S. Embassy personnel, and they appear to be hindering the ability to fight terrorism and drug trafficking in Colombia.”

The ouster of Gen. Diaz is one event cited by Gen. Sumner.


Supporters of Gen. Diaz are particularly upset at Col. William Graves, the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy, over Gen. Diaz’s ouster.

“Graves allowed me to be lynched,” Gen. Diaz said.

Mrs. Ramirez, the former defense minister, reportedly acknowledged that U.S. concerns and the U.S. surveillance tapes were factors in her dismissal of Gen. Diaz.

The U.S. State Department’s director for Andean affairs, Phil Chicola, has also told Colombian TV that Gen. Diaz was ousted over suspicions he had ties to outlawed paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

“This is outrageous. I am an innocent scapegoat,” said Gen. Diaz.

About three years ago, human rights activists began charging that Gen. Diaz had ties to paramilitary militias and that the general had turned a blind eye to abuses by these groups.

Like Marxist guerrilla forces, some paramilitary groups are funded by drug growers and traffickers who operate in regions they control.

U.S. officials reportedly say the surveillance tapes were part of Operation Conquista, an investigation of merchants and businessmen suspected of laundering drug money in Barranquilla and Maicao, a town near the Venezuelan border.

One of those extradited to the United States was Mr. Ghassan, described as a porcelain and appliance merchant of Lebanese descent, in his late 30s.

In one videotape, Gen. Diaz is reportedly seen entering and leaving Mr. Ghassan’s popular Sanyo Center store in Barranquilla.

According to Semana magazine, an anonymous agent who participated in Operation Conquista said:

“There are [recordings of] more than 12 conversations between the general and [Mr. Ghassan], in which they talk about personal favors, the purchase of firearms and permits to carry them, of permits to tint the windows of their friends’ cars, and of invitations to meetings and parties.”

Mr. Ghassan responded, according to the magazine: “The recordings that the DEA may have of my conversations with the general don’t have any relation with illicit business, for I have never had them with him, nor with anyone. The conversations make reference to a china set that the general bought in my store.”

Gen. Diaz said he never knew of any links to drug trafficking that involved Mr. Ghassan.

Gen. Diaz has taken his case to the press and the Colombian congress. He says anonymous news leaks against him were aimed at shifting attention away from corrupt police who used the Barranquilla bust to extort money.

On June 16, the Colombian attorney general’s antinarcotics and maritime interdiction unit (UNAIM) opened an investigation into the events.

UNAIM reviewed a statement from the surviving informant, secret police-counterintelligence reports, and testimony from police and a former paramilitary member.

They said that the cocaine had been seized by members of the police’s Judicial Investigation Section (SIJIN) and a separate antikidnapping unit and later returned to the drug traffickers for $769,000.

UNAIM identified the drug traffickers as belonging to the Northern Valle drug cartel, which is believed to work closely with paramilitaries.

Last September, prosecutors issued arrest warrants for some 16 policemen and 10 civilians in the Barranquilla area on drug-related charges.

UNAIM said in a statement that Gen. Diaz has not been, nor is he now under criminal investigation for drug trafficking, although a separate UNAIM report criticized him for not informing prosecutors promptly about the failed Barranquilla drug bust and of the informant’s account when they first came to him.

‘Falsely accused’

Gen. Diaz says he informed his army superiors and the provincial police chief, Col. Luis Enrique Estupinan, who was eventually transferred and ousted after the scandal broke.

At least seven police officers have since been arrested and jailed — two on charges related to killing the informants.

Gen. Diaz sees the UNAIM findings as vindication of his innocence. “But what about my reputation and the job I lost? Who is going to repair the damage I suffered after I was falsely accused?” he asked.

Gen. Diaz said he feels betrayed by the DEA and Col. Graves, the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy. He said he, Col. Graves and DEA agents met several times between March 2002 and April 2003.

But U.S. officials discount the value of that cooperation.

Colombian prosecutors say two of the three informants — brothers Angel Guillermo Leon Sanchez and Luis Alfonso Sanchez, the surviving informant — were “big fish” drug dealers a decade ago who had served jail time. The prosecutors say the informants had proven their credibility by supplying information leading to earlier cocaine seizures.

A Colombian judicial official in Barranquilla, who requested anonymity, said police who have admitted taking bribes to let the cocaine go have also accused DEA personnel of taking bribes. A policeman at the Atlantico province police headquarters in Barranquilla said separately, “Yes, some of the DEA received money.”

A U.S. Embassy spokesman denied the accusations, attributing it to unfounded rumors from dubious sources.

But a spokesman for the Colombian attorney general’s office said the investigation into the Barranquilla police scandal and into any DEA actions or omissions continues.

“Every officer I have talked to supports Gen. Diaz,” said Miguel Posada, director of the Center for Sociopolitical Analysis. “They see him as being scapegoated, and they are worried they could be next.”

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