The Colombia Three Acquitted

Three Irish men arrested on leaving FARC territory in Colombia during august 2001 were acquitted of the most serious charge of providing training to FARC rebels yesterday in Bogotá. Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan were convicted on the less serious charge of traveling on false identification. For this charge they were sentenced to between 26 and 44 months each, though it is not yet clear whether the three will be released immediately having served that much time already since their capture.

The arrests came just a month before September 11th and threw the Irish peace process into something of a tail spin as both the British and Irish media went into paroxysms over the alleged duplicity and conspiratorial scheming of the IRA. Indeed it seemed at the time as if the provos had wandered into an exceedingly well laid trap, one sprung by shadowy renegades of British and American intelligence bent on undermining the peace process and dealing a coup de grace to the credibility of Sinn Fein. Similarly such a tidy narco-terrorist conspiracy found many backers in the Colombian establishment who at the time favored a military rather than diplomatic solution to Colombia’s own peace process. Within hours of the arrests in 2001 a senior British diplomat had denounced the three as IRA members when in fact only one of the three had ever been confirmed as such.

Their arrest and detention was botched from the get go. They were detained and searched by the Colombian army at Bogotá airport without the Colombian police ever becoming involved. Contents of their bags were tested positive for explosive residue inside the US embassy by a US agent, tests later revealed to be inaccurate, largely undocumented and sloppily executed. Further tests carried out by the Colombian Administrative Department of Security found no explosive traces. Throughout the legal process defense lawyers were routinely impeded and intimidated while the prosecution case floundered and revealed itself to be completely without substance. Prosecution witnesses failed to appear and the defense was instructed to proceed without having heard the prosecutions case.

Colombian Attorney-General Osorio said in an interview shortly after the arrests that ‘they [the three accused] have the right to admit to their crimes”, publicly announcing their presumed guilt. The former president of Colombia, Andres Pastrana, wrote in an article published on the 15th April, 2002 in the Washington Post, “Colombia has become the theatre of operations in which the global campaign against terrorism is being waged in Latin America. We are fighting a multi-national terrorist network. Some months ago, IRA members were captured in Colombia after training FARC guerillas in urban terrorism”.

It was also widely advertised that the CIA had photos of the three suspects detonating fuel air bombs along with FARC guerillas in the misty Colombian mountains. This particular story provides something of an archeologists introduction to spooky media manipulation. It was most sensationally reproduced by The London Times political editor David Cracknell. The Times, a notorious public relations outfit for the British Intelligence services, claimed that Ministry of Defense technicians had constructed and detonated such a device, designed from a blueprint passed on to them by the CIA. The CIA in turn had received the design from the three narco-terror IRA instructors then in Colombian custody. According to Cracknell, “A senior source in Special Branch, which works closely with MI5 and the Ministry of Defense in Northern Ireland, said: “It is a relatively simple bomb to construct because the ingredients are available in abundance and are not illegal or difficult to acquire.” The source claimed the recipe for the bomb was passed to IRA operatives by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in exchange for training in the construction and use of remote detonation mechanisms. Although the Colombian terrorists developed the bomb, they did not have the know-how to detonate it electronically from a distance or to employ it in a mortar.”

In fact the appalling concoction described by Cracknell sounds suspiciously like Napalm, the recipe for which is available on the internet.

Nevertheless it was necessary to remind his readers that “The combination of glue and petrol means that burning globules stick to victims. The intense explosion also has the effect of collapsing people’s lungs and inflicting damage to internal organs because it sucks up large amounts of air”. The story went the whole way upstairs to Bush himself who “warned Sinn Fein and the IRA that they will be held responsible if any US citizen is ever harmed by such a Colombian-made device”.

Bush was less concerned about the use of napalm by his forces as they entered Iraq last year. Australia’s The Age quoted a grunt who reflected on how “the generals love napalm”, for its devastating psychological effects. The generals at least were conscious of its inhumanity denying to the end that it had been deployed.

The CIA photos promised by the Colombian prosecution, like most of their case, never materialized. Nevertheless the New Scientist managed to thicken the pot with the introduction of the maximum shibboleth: Al Queda. “Designs for a fuel-air device were also acquired by the CIA from three alleged IRA members on trial in Colombia. The three are said to have been developing the bomb in conjunction with the country’s FARC guerrilla group. “Although an IRA/Al-Queda collaboration seems unlikely, the bottom line is that their respective manuals are probably in circulation,” says David Ritzel, an explosives expert. A heady mix indeed, and quite a propaganda coup for those intelligence elements intent on promoting this scenario: the IRA, rather than looking for a peaceful exit from the conflict in Ireland, were instead figuring out ways to collapse peoples lungs while supplying cocaine to US inner cities. Sinn Fein, on the defensive in the US, found themselves forced to hang their cadres out to dry. Quite a ‘black op’ altogether.

Meanwhile the proceedings limped along in Bogotá. While their comrades in Sinn Fein had abandoned the troika to their fate their families and supporters had harnessed support from some unlikely quarters. Several Irish parliamentarians attended the trial as well as prominent jurists from Europe and the US. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, not often given to helping out suspected provos, performed impressively and pressured the Colombians somewhat more than might have been expected. Ironically it was a senior Irish diplomatic secretary who provided an alibi for Connolly, placing him at dinner in Mexico City when a police witness for the prosecution had him palling about with guerillas in Farclandia.

The three defendants admitted to traveling on false passports. Connolly was resident in Cuba and was known as Sinn Fein’s fixer there. For this reason he claimed it would have been impossibly difficult for him to travel in Colombia legitimately. The other two defended their impersonation claiming that as known Irish republicans they would have difficulty traveling anywhere in Latin America as themselves. The reason for visiting the FARC zone was given as an interest in the Colombian peace process and an exchange of political strategies, an intercambio if you will, regarding the differing experiences of the Irish and Colombian efforts. Plus an abiding interest in Colombian nature and wildlife. How they thought they would slip into FARC controlled territory without coming to the attention of the CIA, busy spending some of the billions of dollars from Plan Colombia, was not explained.

Connolly had no criminal convictions against him and was not known as a militant. Jim Monaghan was convicted of IRA membership more than 15 years ago. He has stated that he is a supporter of the peace process in Ireland and in recent years has worked with an organisation involved in the education of former prisoners.

Martin McCauley was never convicted on IRA membership charges and is a victim of a British army and RUC `shoot to kill’ policy which resulted in his suffering serious and permanent injury after he was shot at the age of 17 years in 1982. Another teenager with him, Michael Tighe, was killed in that shooting.

Following the press coverage of the case the House International Relations Committee in DC decided to look into the alleged FARC/IRA contacts. Initially the committee staff prepared a report titled “International Global Terrorism: Its Links With Illicit Drugs as Illustrated by the IRA and Other Groups in Colombia.” The staff report was led by John P. Mackey, committee investigative counsel, and an important bureaucratic promoter of Plan Colombia. Mackey insisted that the US government was convinced of IRA involvement in Colombia and collaboration with the FARC. He furthermore claimed that various ordinance techniques used by the FARC had their roots in the IRA’s playbook. Neither the DEAs administrator Asa Hutchinson nor the deputy director of the State Department’s counter terrorism office supported Mackey’s conclusions, despite the title of his report. Pressed by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) another witness, Colombian Joint Chiefs of Staff Head Gen. Fernando Tapias, said he had no information about any organizational links between the IRA and the FARC. Nor had the Colombian government detected any terrorist assistance or training in his country by Iran or Cuba, another fantasy suggested by Mackey.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said he had asked Colombia, Britain and the U.S. intelligence community “if there is even one scintilla of evidence of connection between the IRA or Sinn Fein,” the IRA’s political arm, with the FARC, “and the answer is no.”

The prosecutions case amounted essentially to the press campaign carried out in Europe and in Colombia. Their star witness, beyond a couple of informers who were easily dispensed with by defense cross examination, was one Major Carlos Eduardo Matiz who identified himself as a senior officer with the Colombian Military Intelligence.

He identified two manuals–one in Spanish and one in English which were sent to him from “somebody in his superiors’ office” and which were allegedly found on FARC guerrillas. He did not know what the circumstances were but he stated that they described military mechanisms for bombs similar to those used by the Irish Republican Army. And that was it.

It remains to be seen whether the three will be forced to serve more time in Colombia’s notorious jails. The prosecution has requested their continued detention pending an appeal. Currently they are housed with 40 FARC prisoners among some 3000 right wing paramilitary prisoners. They take turns guarding their group from attacks which are not uncommon. Many FARC prisoners were killed in one such incident last year. While the international attention their case has attracted to the justice system is hardly welcomed by the Colombian state it may be difficult for the Colombians to climb down completely. It may be more difficult for Sinn Fein’s leadership to explain why, were it not for a grassroots family campaign, these three activists might be looking at a very long time away from home.

JAMES DAVIS is a documentary filmmaker. He can be reached at: