Sun, Aug 19, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Cocaine cartel suspects allegedly trained by US

AP , BOGOTA

Seven Colombian officers accused of working for the country's biggest cocaine cartel were trained by the US military to help Colombia fight leftist rebels and its illegal drugs industry, a human rights group said on Friday.

The officers attended courses at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation -- formerly called the School of the Americas -- at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, said the School of the Americas Watch group, a leading critic of the institute.

Six are in jail on charges of conspiring with the Norte del Valle cartel, the largest and most violent cocaine-trafficking organization in Colombia, and another is on the run, the group said.

School of the Americas Watch said in a statement that it matched the names of those in the scandal with its database of attendees at the institute.

Calls to Colombia's Ministry of Defense were not returned and an e-mail to the school's public affairs office was not answered.

The group said Colonel Byron Carvajal, who is on trial for allegedly overseeing the killings of 10 investigators and an informant of an anti-drug unit as they were carrying out a raid last year, received combat weapons training at the institute in 1985.

Colonel Alvaro Quijano who led a special counterinsurgency unit in western Colombia -- a cartel stronghold -- taught classes on Peacekeeping Operations and Democratic Sustainment at the school from 2003 to 2004. Quijano and other soldiers were arrested Aug. 9 and are accused of helping train the armed wing of the cartel.

The soldiers are also alleged to have provided security for the Norte del Valle cartel's leader and most-wanted drug lord, Diego Montoya, who sits alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list. The prosecutor's office has said they hatched a plan to bust Montoya's brother from jail, where he is awaiting extradition to the US on drug trafficking charges.

The School of the Americas, founded in 1946, became known throughout Latin America for teaching students who went on to work in dictatorships across the region, and for appearing to advocate torture and extra-judicial executions in their training manuals. It was closed in 2001 and the institute opened shortly afterward in the building, providing many of the same courses.

The institute is the US Defense Department's largest training facility with classes in Spanish for Latin American military and law-enforcement officers.

Officers of Colombia's armed forces have long been accused of working with the country's far-right death squads, which continue to kill union members, leftist rebels and suspected collaborators.

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