2000-2009 | Backing repressive regimes | Colombia

Minister in photo op with Colombian death squads general

General Mario Montoya in 2008 –
US Department of Defense via Wikimedia

11 February 2008

On 11 February 2008, the Guardian published a photo of a smiling Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, posing alongside General Mario Montoya, head of the Colombian Army, along with soldiers from the High Mountains Battalions (HMB). These were infamous elite units which had been associated with the disappearance and extra judicial executions of dozens of trade union activists and young homeless men. The photograph was intended to promote Britain’s role as the second largest donor of military aid to Colombia. The Foreign Office, not expecting that anyone might take exception to such a cosy relationship, had been displaying it proudly on its website.1

The previous year, the United States had frozen $50 million in military aid to the Colombian army after reports of a series of sickening human rights violations and murders.2 The HMB in particular was thought to have been responsible for the abduction in March 2005 of three trade unionists from the streets of Bogota to the city’s outskirts, where they were beaten, castrated and shot, and their corpses then dressed in the uniforms of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) so their deaths could be passed off as part of a successful military operation.3

Such murders were far from exceptional. A 2018 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report estimated that over 3,000 civilians had been slaughtered by the Colombian military between 2002 and 2008, with the number of extra judicial killings peaking between 2006 and 2008, when Montoya headed the army.  HRW discovered evidence that Montoya had tried to hush up such activities and he was forced to resign in November 2008 after a United Nations investigation determined that many of his soldiers had been involved in the abduction and murder of workers and left wing activists.4

Until his resignation, he was regarded as useful ally by the Foreign Office. The British government had flown him over to Northern Ireland for a seminar in counter narcotics strategy, a convenient pretext for counter-insurgency operations against left-wing guerrillas, which all too often descended to the level of terror operations against the population. Allegations against the Colombian military’s involvement and collaboration with drug traffickers also seems to have escaped the notice of British officials.  His elite soldiers did however succeed in keeping trade unions and other left wing activists quiet by simply murdering those who spoke out, enabling British Petroleum and other U.K. companies, like the major brewery SAB Miller, to take advantage of cheap labour and lax regulations.5


  1. Seamas Milne, Anger at minister’s photo with Colombian army unit linked to trade unionist killings, The Guardian, 11 February 2008 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/feb/11/colombia.humanrights and Daniel Read, Britain’s Secret War in Colombia, The London Progressive Journal, 3 July 2009 accessed online at url http://londonprogressivejournal.com/article/view/473
  2. Jeremy Dear, the Chair of Justice for Colombia (JFC), ‘Blood on Britain’s Hands,’ RedPepper.org 20 June 2008 accessed online at url https://www.redpepper.org.uk/Blood-on-Britain-s-hands/ See also Seamas Milne in The Guardian, op. cit.
  3. Daniel Read in The London Progressive Journal, op. cit.
  4. José Miguel Vivanco, ‘As his troops killed civilians, army chief tried to cover his trail,’ Human Rights Watch, 29 October 2018 accessed online at url https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/29/his-troops-killed-civilians-army-chief-tried-cover-his-trail See also ‘Colombian General Quits Amid Scandal,’ United Press International, 4 November 2008 accessed online at url https://www.upi.com/Colombian-general-quits-amid-scandal/44111225859327/ and Seamas Milne in The Guardian and Daniel Read in the London Progressive Journal, op. cit.
  5. Jeremy Dear in RedPepper.org and Daniel Read in The London Progressive Journal, op. cit.

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