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Colombia: US aid may have sparked civilian killings

Colombian army accused of killing civilians and labeling them guerrillas.

Meta's economy used to revolve around cocoa cultivation, which has fallen dramatically in the area with eradication efforts. The U.S. government has invested tens of millions of dollars in pilot projects in the region — to mixed reviews — aimed at fostering social and economic development while improving security.

Behind her home, Beatriz Villegas, 31, tells her story in a hushed voice. In 2006, neighbors went looking for her brother, a farmer living in a different settlement. But army soldiers who had landed by helicopter didn’t allow them onto her brother’s farm. Once the military left, neighbors found his ID card on the counter of his ransacked home and a pair of bloody gloves and his rubber boots strewn on the ground next to the house.

Villegas and her mother traveled to La Macarena to look for his body. The local Rapid Deployment Force units — who witnesses said carried away her brother's body — have all been vetted to receive U.S. assistance since 2005, according to the report.

There, in the local office of the attorney general, Villegas leafed through photos of her brother splayed on the ground, his leg destroyed with a bullet wound. She was told he had been brought in by the military, recorded as an unidentified guerrilla killed in combat and buried in the local cemetery.

But Villegas says her brother was not a member of the militia. There has been no investigation into her brother’s death and Villegas is confounded by it. “Because he was a good guy, very hard-working … a clean guy,” she said. “Those who are guilty should be punished, because he didn’t have anything to do with the war they are fighting.”

It appears Villegas’ brother is but one false-positive in the region. Since 2002, there have been 256 civilian killings reported in southern Meta and neighboring Guaviare department, according to the report. The report found that following a rise in U.S. assistance in 2005-2006 to the Seventh Brigade in charge of that area, the number of reported army killing of civilians swelled by more than 600 percent.

John Lindsay-Poland, research and advocacy director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said there could be a host of factors behind the surges in army killings, including the general levels of violence in certain regions or stepped-up military activity. “We can’t say there is a cause -and-effect relationship,” said Lindsay-Poland.

The report's authors argue that their findings demonstrate a violation of the Leahy Law, which requires the U.S. government to vet foreign forces before receiving aid to ensure they are not guilty of severe human rights abuses.

Lindsay-Poland said a stricter implementation of the law would "require suspension of assistance to virtually all military brigades and most mobile brigades."