Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Colombia: Colombian Paramilitaries and the United States:"Unraveling the Pepes Tangled Web"

U.S. espionage operations targeting top Colombian government officials in 1993 provided key evidence linking the U.S.-Colombia task force charged with tracking down fugitive drug lord Pablo Escobar to one of Colombia's most notorious paramilitary chiefs, according to a new collection of declassified documents published by the National Security Archive. The affair sparked a special CIA investigation into whether U.S. intelligence was shared with Colombian terrorists and narcotraffickers every bit as dangerous as Escobar himself.

The new documents, released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, are the most definitive declassified evidence to date linking the U.S. to a Colombian paramilitary group and are the subject of an investigation published in Colombia's Semana magazine.

The documents reveal that the U.S.-Colombia Medellin Task Force, known in Spanish as the Bloque de Búsqueda or 'Search Block,' was sharing intelligence information with Fidel Castaño, paramilitary leader of Los Pepes (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar or 'People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar'), a clandestine terrorist organization that waged a bloody campaign against people and property associated with the reputed narcotics kingpin. One cable describes a key meeting from April 1993 where, according to sensitive US intelligence sources, Colombian National Police director General Miguel Antonio Gómez Padilla said "that he had directed a senior CNP intelligence officer to maintain contact with Fidel Castano, paramilitary leader of Los Pepes, for the purposes of intelligence collection."

The no-holds-barred search for Escobar began in July 1992 after his escape from a luxury prison where he had been confined since surrendering under a special plea agreement with Colombian authorities. U.S. anti-narcotics strategy in Colombia was intensely focused on Escobar, the legendary Medellín Cartel kingpin who for years had waged a violent campaign of bombings and assassinations against Colombian law enforcement. This gloves-off strategy forged alliances between Colombian intelligence agencies, rival drug traffickers and disaffected former Escobar associates like Castaño, the godfather of a new generation of narcotics-fueled paramilitary forces that still plagues Colombia today.

The new collection also sheds light on the role of U.S. intelligence agencies in Colombia's conflict—both the close cooperation with Colombian security forces evident in the Task Force as well as the highly-sensitive U.S. intelligence operations that targeted the Colombian government itself. Key information about links between the Task Force and the Pepes was derived from U.S. intelligence sources that closely monitored meetings between the Colombian president and his top security officials.

The documents can be accessed here

Edited by Michael Evans