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Colombian army commander steps down amid scandal

Kraul is a Times staff writer.

Army commander Gen. Mario Montoya resigned Tuesday amid a widening scandal surrounding the Colombian armed forces’ alleged practice of inflating body counts by shooting innocent civilians and claiming them as guerrillas killed in combat.

Montoya is the highest-ranking official to lose his job over the “false positives” controversy, which last week forced President Alvaro Uribe to dismiss 20 officers from the army’s leadership corps.

After months of denials, Uribe was forced to act after a Defense Ministry commission reported findings of “negligence” and “possible collusion” of officers in connection with its investigation of macabre deaths of a dozen young men from the poor Bogota suburb of Soacha.

Family members said the men were lured by “recruiters” to the northern border state of North Santander with promises of high-paying jobs, then killed by the army and buried as anonymous guerrilla casualties.

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Montoya acknowledged to reporters later that Uribe had not informed him before last week’s purge.

His absence at the announcement of the firings by Uribe and joint chiefs of staff commander Gen. Freddy Padilla seemed to cast doubt on his command.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Uribe said he was naming Gen. Oscar Gonzalez, commander of the army’s northern command, as chief. In accepting Montoya’s resignation, Uribe said Montoya was an “exemplary general in operations, efficiency and transparency” and that he had tried to dissuade him from quitting.

The resignation comes as Uribe faces increased criticism over Colombia’s human rights record from international civil society groups and from Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, which since 2000 has approved $5 billion in Plan Colombia aid to fight the drug trade and terrorism.

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U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay said at a news conference Saturday that extrajudicial killings were “widespread and systematic” and that international courts should investigate the slayings if Uribe failed to prosecute wrongdoers.

In October 2007, an assemblage of human rights groups issued a report alleging that extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military had risen sharply over the previous five years.

Montoya received much of the credit in July for helping direct the dramatic rescue of three U.S. hostages, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 others from leftist rebels who had held them for more than five years.

Appointed army head in February 2006, Montoya led the Colombian army to significant gains in its fight against the country’s largest rebel group, known by its Spanish initials FARC, regaining chunks of territory that had been under guerrilla control.

But Montoya also engaged in questionable practices. Intelligence reports, for example, indicated that he cooperated with paramilitary forces in a security sweep of a poor Medellin barrio in 2002 that left 14 people dead. Montoya has denied the charges.

In a letter Tuesday, Montoya thanked Uribe for making him chief of “our army, one of the best in the world.”

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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