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Outcry grows after Pentagon hires Colombian lecturer accused of running death squad

CAQUETA, COLOMBIA - JULY 31:  Colombian soldiers patrol the highway that leads to San Vicente del Caguan from their base in Caqueta, Colombia on July 31, 2002. Despite a strong military presence in the former demilitarized zone, FARC guerrillas still maintain their control over the territories. (Photo by Carlos Villalon/Getty Images.)

CAQUETA, COLOMBIA - JULY 31: Colombian soldiers patrol the highway that leads to San Vicente del Caguan from their base in Caqueta, Colombia on July 31, 2002. Despite a strong military presence in the former demilitarized zone, FARC guerrillas still maintain their control over the territories. (Photo by Carlos Villalon/Getty Images.)  (2002 Getty Images)

Today, Carlos Ospina Ovalle lectures at the National Defense University, which is chartered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At the school, Ospina is deemed an expert in counterterrorism and for his leadership role in directing an attack in Colombia against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the United States classified as a terrorist group.

But there are allegations that Ospina’s Fourth Brigade allowed a pro-government group to wreak havoc in a village in northern Colombia, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity that was printed in the Daily Beast. The militia’s assault on the village included the killing of residents, including children, and the disappearance of many others, the report says.

“One shopkeeper was tied to a tree and had his eyes gouged out and his tongue removed,” says the report by the Center for Public Integrity. “Dozens of homes were destroyed, and more than a thousand cattle were stolen.”

The report says that details about brutal attacks by the militia that appears linked to Ospina’s brigade are drawing attention and raising questions about his role at the elite military school.

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It is also raising the broader question, the report adds, about whether “the nation’s premier joint military educational institution adequately vets its hires from foreign forces for potential involvement in human rights abuses.”

“Reports that NDU hired foreign military officers with histories of involvement in human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings of civilians, are stunning, and they are repulsive,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, in a statement quoted by the Center for Public Integrity.

“I have sought, and have yet to receive, an explanation from the Defense Department,” said Leahy, according to the report. “We need to know whether any such individuals remain at NDU or in the United States, and what guidance is in place to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Ospina, who told the Center for Public Integrity that he intends to retire from NDU at the end of this semester and return to Colombia, denied that the Fourth Brigade had any link to the massacre in the Colombian village, saying “we’ve been cleared.”

Colombia’s attorney general said he could not find evidence about the army-militia link in the village massacres. But several world human rights groups have said the killings and theft of cattle involved the “the participation and acquiescence” of the Colombian army.

The Center for Public Integrity report says that the Foreign Assistance Act, passed in 2008, includes an amendment by Leady that calls for people who receive training or assistance from the U.S. State Department to be vetted for any sign of “gross violation of human rights.”

But, the report notes, NDU had not seen it as applying to its hires and therefore did not submit them to the State Department for vetting. Citing unnamed “government officials,” the report said that Pentagon is reviewing that policy.

Another former lecturer at a school affiliated with NDU who drew concern is Jaime Garcia Covarrubias, a member of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s violent secret police who was charged in criminal court in Santiago with spearheading execution-style slayings in 1973, according to McClatchy reports.

“Despite knowing of the allegations, State and Defense department officials allowed Garcia Covarrubias to retain his visa and continue working at a school affiliated with the National Defense University until last year,” McClatchy reported.

“His hiring undermines our moral authority on both human rights and in the war on terror,” said Chris Simmons, a former Defense Intelligence Agency and Army intelligence officer from 1982 to 2010 who specializes in Latin America, according to McClatchy. “If he is in fact guilty of what he is accused of, he is a terrorist. Then who are we to tell other countries how they should be fighting terrorism?”

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