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| 11/10/2008 12:00:00 AM

General Montoya’s replacement

Why the commander of the Colombia Army resigned in the midst of a historic crossroads to win the war. In the picture General Mario Montoya as he publicly announced his resignation.

General Montoya’s replacement General Montoya’s replacement
Just after the sun rose from behind the hills of Bogotá last Tuesday, General Mario Montoya called President Álvaro Uribe. It wasn’t an unusual call for two known early-risers. But, this time, unlike any other time during the past six years, the call didn’t have anything to do with the war. Montoya had prepared a letter with his resignation as general commander of the Army.

As Uribe let it be known, he told Montoya, “General, don’t resign.” He added, “You have done a very good, an excellent job. Let’s see how we can overcome these difficulties”.

But that letter wouldn’t be retracted. Montoya’s decision had been made for all intents and purposes the previous Wednesday. It was on that day when the President dismissed 27 military officials, including three generals, for lack of oversight in various battalions where soldiers allegedly murdered civilians and made them appear as guerrilla combat deaths. Uribe didn’t consult Montoya, the superior of those involved, on that important decision.

For the General, this amounted to two mixed messages. The generous words from that morning’s conversation contrasted with the message of discredit that arose from the decision of dismissal without consulting the general.

Montoya, who had become a war hero for being the leader of the rescue of Íngrid Betancourt along with 14 other hostages in one of the most spectacular operations in military history, was left without much room to maneuver.

It was not only the President who had turned against him. Differences with Minister of Defense Juan Manual Santos and with the commander of the Armed Forces, Freddy Padilla de Leon, seemed irreconcilable. In his resignation letter, Montoya did not mention Santos or Padilla, which in other circumstances would have been obvious, because with them he had turned the tide against the FARC. It was a very noteworthy omission.

In addition, newspaper columns and editorials from the long weekend agreed that Montoya had to respond for the scandal of extrajudicial executions. It was one of the most shameful episodes for the Armed Forces: 11 young men had disappeared from Soacha and later had appeared as fallen guerrillas in combat in Ocaña in the Norte de Santander department.

Montoya’s departure wasn’t unexpected. What was surprising was the name of his replacement: Major General Óscar González Peña. In some military and human rights sectors, it was like a bucket of cold water for two reasons.

The first reason was because there were other generals who because of their seniority were next in line for the job. General Gilberto Rocha, for example, has all the credentials to take over the position, as he has not only been a commander in the Omega task force, the war machine against the flank of the FARC, but he is also known as a good strategist. In addition to these selling points, in an army that has grown as much as the Colombian Army, said to have a lack of commanders, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to cast aside troop leaders such as General Rocha.

The second reason is a bit more sensitive. It was summed up by a high official of the United States government. “We are pleased with Montoya’s exit, but are very surprised that they named another general made from the same cloth as his predecessor”, he said.

He said that because of reservations that are held about Montoya, in terms of human rights, at the Department of State and in the U.S. Congress. Newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have accused him of working with paramilitaries in the retaking of the 13th Commune (neighborhood) of Medellín in April 2002. Additionally, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has called for investigations of those links.

Of course the presumed sins of Montoya cannot be inherited by the new commander of the Army and it would be unfair to condemn him before giving him the opportunity to prove his worth. In the corridors of the Army there is a conviction that General Montoya some generals were his protégées. The first of those was González, and the other, Rafael Pico, one of the three generals who fell in the shake-up.

There is a curious fact in the careers of Montoya and González that worry human rights specialists: the brigade or division that Montoya would leave would be taken over by González (and later by General Rafael Pico). That happened on December 15, 2003 when Montoya left the 4th Brigade headquartered in Medellín and was replaced by González. Afterwards it was the division of the Army that covered Antioquia (González took over its command in 2005) and later the Joint Command of the Caribbean, a position that Montoya left in March 2006 when he was named commander of the Army. It mortifies the human rights community because they believe that Antioquia has had a high percentage of the more than thousand cases of extrajudicial executions that are being investigated by the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, and the Procuraduría, the solicitor general’s office. In fact, the first warning of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations, referred to the cases from 2004 that tarnished the 4th Brigade when it was commanded by González.

It’s also noteworthy that in 2005, according to information by the Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, a respected security think tank, combat deaths in Antioquia increased dramatically. In that year, the department of Nariño reported 47 combat deaths; in Caquetá, 181; in Meta 233 but in Antioquia there were 668. That is significant if it is taken under consideration that in those other three departments there is a larger FARC presence than in Antioquia. González responds to these allegations saying that they were not only fighting the ELN, that had 800 men in the area, but also that many other brigades also were active in the department.

Why did Uribe choose González over the preferred candidates of Minister Santos and of General Padilla?

On the same Tuesday that Montoya turned in his resignation to the President, he had a card up his sleeve. He suggested to Uribe that he name as commander of the Army Óscar González Peña.

The President wasn’t willing to deliver the head of a general on a silver platter to his critics and thus destroy his reputation. If there is something to recognize in Uribe, it is that some acts of loyalty go further than political prudence, like it was in the case of retired general Rito Alejo del Rio, when the President offered to be a speaker at an event honoring him in Bogotá, knowing that the United States had requested his dismissal for human rights problems. In Montoya’s case, Uribe not only spoke very highly in his defense when he accepted his resignation, but also within 48 hours the government announced he would be appointed Colombian ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

At the core, there is a split in viewpoints about the war, which while not a deep institutional division, does go against the harmony that should prevail in the Armed Forces.

For some, the use of body counts to measure war success not only is inappropriate but when guerrilla forces are so reduced as they are today, it could stimulate criminal behavior among troops.

Human rights advances haven’t been to some in the military’s liking. Some still do not understand why the new director of military criminal justice- for the first time a civilian – has dared to voluntarily send 133 cases of false combat deaths to the prosecutor general’s office for further investigation.

Precisely 2008, which will go down in history as the most successful year in almost a half century of war against the FARC, is also a year in which there is a need to reconsider the military offensive. Without decreasing its resolve, the military must have a better grasp of human rights, the civilian population and the legitimacy of the military institution. That is the great challenge for General González.

He is a man who could go down in history as a short-lived transitional general or as a general who will be remembered for steering a new course towards legitimacy.



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