by David Pallister, Sibylla Brodzinksy in Bogotá and Owen Bowcott *
Continuing human rights abuses have not hindered flow of equipment and advice to Bogotá. Britain is secretly stepping up military assistance to Colombia as the war on drug trafficking becomes increasingly entangled in the effort to defeat leftwing guerrillas and drive them back to the negotiating table.
Despite continuing reports of serious abuses by the security forces and the concerns of human rights groups about President Alvaro Uribe's tactics, Tony Blair has encouraged the Foreign Office to hold an international conference on support for Colombia, beginning today.
Whitehall refuses to disclose the extent of British military involvement on the grounds of national security. "We provide some military aid but we don't talk about the details," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
But a Guardian investigation can identify a number of key areas of UK support.
· SAS training of the narcotics police, the Fuerza Jungla.
The UK is now the second biggest donor of military aid to Colombia, a security analyst with close ties to the Colombian defence ministry has suggested. "The British like to keep a low profile here," he said.
The US defence department website openly gives details of the $2bn aid given under Plan Colombia to fight what the administration calls "narco-terrorists".
It includes training and equipping three military brigades and providing 60 Black Hawk helicopters and Huey-2 gunships to eradicate coca crops.
Unusually, the Foreign Office confirmed four years ago that Britain had given training and advice on urban warfare techniques, counter-guerrilla strategy and "psychiatry".
Since then ministers have admitted training the Colombian narcotics police but declined to elaborate on grounds of "national security". One of the reasons for their reticence is the role of the SAS, whose activities are never formally acknowledged. Sent by Mrs Thatcher in 1989 to fight the drug cartels, they are believed to have extended their role to counter-insurgency training.
The new intelligence assistance builds on work begun in the early 1990s when an M16 station head was sent to Bogota to start an anti-narcotic operation. After Labour came to power it was considerably expanded and coordinated in London by an M16 officer whose name is known to the Guardian.
British customs officers working with SAS and SBS soldiers have arranged the interception of the fast boats the cocaine barons use to send the drug for shipment through the Caribbean.
The additional military equipment has been substantial, particularly for the navy and the army helicopter fleet. Foreign Office licences for exporting military items rose by 50% between 2001 and 2002. Last year's items included cryptography material, missile technology, components for combat helicopters, explosives, airborne refuelling equipment and technology for submarines.
Before this week's conference Amnesty International called on western governments to stop giving military aid, because of the increasing human rights abuses by the security forces. It said: "The Colombian government has not implemented the UN human rights recommendations and military assistance only gives a green light to the army to carry on as before."
But Mr Blair has made the country, blighted by 40 years of civil war, a significant foreign priority, sending ministers, retired generals and security advisers to Bogota. When Mo Mowlam was in the Cabinet Office in charge of drugs policy she went three times.
Sir John Steele, head of security at the Northern Ireland Office, General Sir Michael Rose, a former SAS commander, and General Sir Roger Wheeler, former chief of the army general staff, were all sent to Bogota to give advice during failed peace negotiations with the main rebel group, Farc.
At least one Colombian general has been received in Belfast. The intention of the exchanges was partially to improve the Colombian security forces' respect for democratic government and human rights.
This week's conference, involving the EU, the US, several Latin American countries and the IMF, is the second Britain has held in two years. Asked why, the Foreign Office said the country had been "identified by the PM as a priority".
The scale of human distress in Colombia is described by aid agencies as the worst in the western hemisphere: 2.5 million people displaced and political murders at the rate of 20 a day.
Human rights organisations have long accused the Colombian security forces of backing the rightwing militias responsible for murders, massacres and drug smuggling. Many military intelligence files are said to wrongly describe civil activists as subversives or terrorist sympathisers. The police are routinely accused by rights organisations, and the US state department, of taking part in or colluding in massacres.
Critics say the war on drugs – involving aerial spraying with defoliants to kill the coca bushes from which cocaine is made – is merely displacing the trade and the accompanying corruption and political destabilisation to neighbouring countries and remoter parts of the Colombian jungle.
Peace talks with Farc collapsed last year and President Uribe took office last August with a mandate for a strong military offensive. Most Colombians believe the Marxist rebels exploited the talks for drug trafficking and hiding hostages.
President Uribe's latest policy document promises to defeat the rebels and bring them to the negotiating table within two years. He is creating peasant militias to support the army in the hope of returning civil government to areas from which it has long been absent.
Although Britain has environmental reservations about aerial spraying it allows the American technicians and pilots involved to be employed through a British-registered company, DynCorp Aerospace Operations (UK) Ltd, a subsidiary of DynCorp International, one of the US government's biggest military contractors. It has a two-storey office block in Aldershot, the home of the British army.
Mr Uribe's election seems to have strengthened relations with Britain. The son of a wealthy Colombian landowner who was killed by Farc in the early 1980s, he recently spent a year lecturing in Latin American studies at St Antony's College, Oxford. Concerns have been voiced about his political past and the company he keeps. He dismisses them as smears. "I have been honourable and accountable," he told Newsweek last year.
As head of the civil aviation authority in the early 1980s he was accused of offences in connection with granting air strip and pilots' licences. He was cleared but later his deputy was jailed for five years for accepting campaign money from the Cali cocaine cartel. Then, as mayor of Medellin, the drug barons' "sanctuary", he allegedly accepted funds from the notorious trafficker Pablo Escobar for two urban regeneration schemes.
In the late 1990s Mr Uribe became governor of Antioquia province and was instrumental in raising militias to help the counter-insurgency drive. The plan badly backfired. Some of the groups committed serious human rights violations and, when banned in 1997, many joined the death-squad paramilitaries.
His security advisers General Rito Alejo De Rio, dismissed from the army in 1999, and Pedro Juan Moreno, his former chief of staff in Antioquia, have been accused of connections with the paramilitaries.
In 1997 and 1998 the US customs seized three shipments of potassium permanganate, essential in the manufacture of cocaine, bought by Mr Moreno's company GMP Productos Quimicos. The Colombian police and the US drug enforcement administration believed that many of GMP's sales invoices were fraudulent.
In 2000 the DEA confirmed the seizures and concluded that there was "ample evidence" that the chemical might be diverted for illicit use. Mr Moreno insisted that it was for innocent purposes.
Despite these difficulties Mr Uribe won the election with a 53% landslide. He won the confidence of Mr Blair when he visited London as president-elect last July.
The Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell, who visited Colombia in May, said yesterday: "There's terrorism and political insurgency, and the drugs: they have both become inextricably linked. The drugs – not ideology – are driving the conflict now and we take a strong view that we all have a shared responsibility to tackle the problem.
"We are supporting what the Uribe government is doing in terms of trying to professionalise its security forces and to reform institutions, but that has to go hand in hand with respect for human rights and the role of NGOs. We will will be advising the Colombian government to move forward to a negotiated settlement. We don't believe there can be a fundamental military solution."
*reprinted with permisssion from The Guardian, Wednesday 9th July, 2003