A retired Colombian army general was arrested Monday on charges of helping create right-wing paramilitary groups, the first time such a high-ranking official has faced the possibility of civilian justice.
Retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio was arrested and taken to a military base in Bogota, the capital. He is accused of working with paramilitary groups while head of an army brigade in northern Colombia in 1996.
Human rights groups pointed to the arrest as a hopeful sign that at least some elements of the government are serious about battling paramilitaries, which have been responsible for the majority of massacres in Colombia's bloody internal conflict with leftist rebels.
"This case has been years and years in the making. It shows a tremendous amount of preparation and bravery," said Robin Kirk, who follows Colombia for Human Rights Watch.
Del Rio's arrest comes as the U.S. Congress is considering the size and nature of next year's aid package to combat drugs in Colombia and adjacent Andean nations.
Much of the debate over this year's $882-million proposal has centered on the controversial practice of aerial fumigation of cocaine crops and the role of private contractors in carrying out the fumigation.
But the military's close ties to paramilitaries is a continuing concern, because Congress must annually certify that Colombia is complying with international human rights law in order for aid to continue flowing.
The United Nations and human rights groups have long demanded more civilian trials of military figures as proof of the government's commitment to human rights. In February, a military court did convict a general of failing to stop a massacre committed by right-wing militias, but such courts have traditionally exonerated officers accused of working with paramilitary groups.
Some human rights workers, while acknowledging the arrest as a positive sign, were cautious about whether it signaled a permanent change or merely a public relations coup.
"It's a good first step, but there can be obstacles along the way," said a U.S.-based human rights worker familiar with Del Rio's record in the region, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic. "We'll break out the champagne when he's behind bars."
Del Rio allegedly was instrumental in the formation of several paramilitary groups in the Uraba region of northwestern Colombia, a banana-growing area that has been the scene of some of the worst violence in Colombia's four-decade guerrilla war.
He became a hero to some local people for effectively clearing the region of guerrillas during his time as head of the army's 17th brigade from 1995 to 1997. His command coincided with the beginning of the paramilitaries' explosive growth, an increase that saw their ranks leap from a few hundred men in the early 1990s to more than 10,000 today.
Del Rio could not be reached for comment. His lawyer declared Del Rio innocent in brief remarks to local media.
But Kirk, the Human Rights Watch expert on Colombia, said there is ample documentation that Del Rio's men actively aided the paramilitaries, either by providing intelligence information or by setting up roadblocks during massacres to prevent the entry of anyone who could stop them.
Despite complaints from underlings, Del Rio was promoted to director of operations for the army. His downfall came after the U.S. yanked his visa in 1998 over his alleged involvement in terrorism and drug trafficking, Kirk said.
"The information that we have is that he was very much involved with coordinating" with the paramilitaries, Kirk said. "In case after case, there was not just omission, but there was active tolerance and coordination with the paramilitaries."