24 dead, but alliance endures clash in Colombia

SEGOVIA, Colombia (Washington Post) – On a cool evening last month, 45 soldiers belonging to Colombia’s privately funded paramilitary force piled into the back of a cattle truck for a ride from their mountain camp, past this town’s cemetery where more than half of them would be buried two days later, and through the main square.

A half-mile ahead, an army patrol positioned on a lush slope above the road with assault rifles and an M-60 machine gun hailed the truck to stop. What happened next is the subject of a criminal investigation, but the results are not in dispute: When the dust cleared, 24 paramilitary troops lay dead in the largest army strike against the group since it emerged from these hills two decades ago.

The head of the Colombian armed forces, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, declared Operation Storm a signal success against the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and proof of the army’s commitment to fighting its traditional paramilitary allies. But paramilitary commanders interviewed here and senior leaders at a meeting in northern Colombia earlier this month called the attack a “war crime,” accusing the army of tricking them into an ambush.

Operation Storm came two days after the inauguration of President Alvaro Uribe, who was elected on a pledge to intensify military operations against the country’s two Marxist guerrilla movements in hopes of forcing them to accept a negotiated peace. His commitment to fighting the guerrillas raised concerns in Washington that he would refuse to confront Colombia’s pro-government paramilitary force. Operation Storm seemed to dispel those concerns.

But a closer look at the operation suggests the fight on the edge of this mining town was not a breach of the long-standing relationship between the army and the paramilitary forces, but a temporary aberration.

In the days since the operation, according to paramilitary leaders, low-ranking army officers and paramilitary troops who do the fighting in this long conflict have attempted to repair their alliance, the most effective military partnership in the war.