Experienced Israeli instructors trained private paramilitary units whose members included a leader of the Medellin drug cartel's death squads, blamed in the killings this month of four judges and nine court workers, according to a videotape prepared by the Israelis themselves.
The 48-minute color videotape clearly showed former Israeli army Col. Yair Klein running military and assassination training exercises for about 50 men, including one known as Vladimir. Other foreigners speaking Hebrew were shown and heard on the videotape.
Vladimir, whose real name is Alfredo Vaquero, is identified by Colombian authorities as the leader of the Medellin cartel's paramilitary organization. He was arrested 10 days ago and charged with murder in the slayings of the judges and court workers.
In addition to Vladimir, the security authorities identified at least four key figures in Colombia's massive drug trade as attending a graduation ceremony at the end of the training program.
A secret report prepared for a government security agent also disclosed that the trainees in the film had been recruited at the behest of Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, two leaders of the Medellin cartel.
The video was prepared by Klein as a promotion for a company, The Spear of Glory, that he had established to train paramilitary groups, according to Gen. Miguel A. Maza Marquez, head of the Administrative Security Department, Colombia's equivalent of the FBI.
Maza said in an interview with two American reporters that the film, captured in a raid on the house of an alleged recruiter for the death squads, Henry Perez, "is undeniable evidence" that the Israelis have trained the drug cartels' forces.
And, according to Maza, Vladimir has told interrogators that "his instructors were Israelis."
At one point in the interview, the general declared that "I know we can make the connection" between the Israeli-trained drug forces and the murder Aug. 18 of Luis Carlos Galan, the leading candidate in the country's upcoming presidential election. It was Galan's murder that initiated the current drug crackdown in Colombia.
Maza said a witness to the assassination, himself a former member of a drug-sponsored paramilitary group, asserted that three suspects now under arrest in the killing of Galan had trained with him under Israeli instructors.
'I Don't Discount It'
However, when asked for clarification, Maza said that "in a couple of days we can prove that" connection, but for now "we still don't know." Nonetheless, he said, "I don't discount it."
He said that at least 11 British instructors also had trained paramilitary units for the Cali drug cartel, but he made clear that the Israeli trainers were his targets. "With this (videotape), everything is proved, and in this country everything has to be proved," he said.
Klein, a former commander of an Israeli anti-terrorist unit, returned to Israel last year. He told Israel television that he had worked in Colombia for six months, from December, 1987, to May, 1988. The group he trained "included only farmers who have been physically injured by guerrilla bullets and survived or had their families killed," he said. "Nobody else was accepted into this organization."
Klein also said the Colombian government knew of his activities and that the training was carried out in full view of an army camp.
Maza, whose car was blown up last week in an apparent attempt by the drug dealers to kill him, said the Israelis had now left his country. The secret report asserted that Klein had told his employers that he and his men were going to Costa Rica and Honduras to train Nicaraguan rebels.
But Maza said some British mercenaries remain in Colombia and that there are several "schools" operated by the cartels to train their private armies.
He said he did not know if the government was aware of the Israeli training mission and that "it would be very grave if it is true that they trained near a military base."
However, there was nothing in the tape, which was unedited, that indicated any military facility in the area, which is located near the town of Cimitarra in the province of Santander--the heart of the cartels' cocaine production region.
U.S., Soviet Weapons
The training itself was impressive: Armed with American-made AR-15 assault rifles, Soviet-designed AK-47 rifles and Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns and automatic pistols, the trainees were shown in mass charges of enemy positions.
Assaults on a town were simulated, including house-to-house fighting, and exercises in ambushes of automobiles--and countering such ambushes--were conducted.
In addition to these traditional military and anti-terrorist activities, the film also showed maneuvers that Maza characterized as terrorist tactics. These involved drive-by attacks in cars during which men inside the vehicles suddenly leaned from the windows, firing at other cars, passers-by and nearby buildings.
There were exercises in setting off bombs as well as ordinary physical training and practice in climbing obstacle courses and rappelling down hillsides.
Often, the video had a surrealistic quality. A sign at the entrance of the camp read: "Welcome. One Enters Here, but One Doesn't Leave."
As townspeople watched from nearby streets, trainees fired using both live and blank ammunition, accompanied by Colombian folk music played over radios, the crowing of roosters and the singing of birds.
As the men went through their training, they shouted in unison: "I want vengeance, much vengeance! I want blood, much blood!"
But what was striking--and evidently intended as part of the campaign to sell the training program--was the presence on the videotape of the trainers, all young men except for the 44-year-old Klein.
One tall, fair-skinned and blonde man wearing anti-noise earmuffs appeared during the heaviest of firing and also drove the vehicle used to practice the assassination drive-bys. He was heard speaking Hebrew to colleagues, including one session when unit members practiced firing AR-15s equipped with telescopic sights.
Charging Up a Hill
At another point, the same man was seen conferring with Vladimir, as were other foreigners at various times in the tape.
Then, in the concluding exercise of the video, Klein and other Israelis were seen leading all the men, including Vladimir, in a mass charge up a steep hill. After firing thousands of rounds of ammunition and setting off bombs, the trainees took the top.
At the end, with drug lord Rodriguez Gacha and his lieutenants looking on, Klein assessed the operation:
"The mission is complete," he said in Hebrew as an Israeli identified only as Teddy translated in heavily accented Spanish. "The exercise was good, but there were some things to improve."
After showing the video, Maza said that the paramilitary forces, when founded by ranchers and farmers, had started out by fighting the leftist guerrilla groups that have plagued rural Colombia for decades.
But as the drug traffickers began buying land in the Medellin and Cali areas, they quickly took over the groups, using them at first to also fend off the guerrillas, Maza said.
Now, he concluded, "They are used to protect their (coca) growing areas against the government, to attack enemies inside (the drug business) and the government. They are used against any obstacle."
Freed, who covers Central America from San Salvador, is on assignment in Bogota.