IRA Suspects on Foreign Land
"IRA Suspects on Foreign Land"
By: Mervyn Jess
Date: October 4, 2002
Source: "IRA Suspects on Foreign Land," as written for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
About the Author: Mervyn Jess is a Northern Ireland correspondent for the BBC.
Founded in 1964 as the military wing of the Columbian Communist Party, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo ("Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army", or FARC) is Colombia's largest, most powerful, and best equipped paramilitary group. Although claiming to stand for an array of apparently legitimate causes including the rights of the country's rural poor and opposition to right-wing paramilitary violence, the organization funds itself through a variety of illegal activity, including kidnapping, extortion, and participation in the drug trade.
Controlling vast swathes of Colombian territory—up to two fifths of Colombia lies in FARC hands—and opposing a succession of governments and rival drug-trade interests, has brought FARC into perpetual conflict. A rising tide of violence in the mid-1990s culiminated on September 4, 1996 with a FARC attack on a military base in Guaviare. This precipitated three weeks of guerrilla warfare that claimed the lives of at least 130 Colombians and prompted further violence over following months.
With a view to negotiate a peace settlement, in November 1998 President Andrés Pastrana Arango granted FARC a vast safe haven, centered around the San Vicente del Caguan settlement. This was the FARC condition for beginning peace talks, discussions which subsequently lasted for three years.
FARC, however, used the safe haven to import arms, export drugs, and build their military operations. A series of high-profile actions, which included the kidnapping of a presidential candidate traveling in guerrilla territory, led to Arango calling a halt to the peace talks in February 2002. Arango also ordered the Colombian Army to retake the FARC safe haven.
In August 2001, with peace talks faltering and FARC apparently regrouping and rearming, three men with links to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), an Irish nationalist terrorist group, were captured in Colombia. The men vigorously denied the claims, saying they were eco-tourists (albeit travelling on fake passports).
British officials disclosed that two of the three men had well-documented IRA pasts, while the third was a senior member of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. Jim 'Mortar' Monaghan is credited with inventing the IRA's first homemade mortars and, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, was the IRA's head of engineering. Martin McAuley was assumed to be his deputy; and the third man, Niall Connolly, has served as Sinn Fein's official representative in Cuba since 1996.
The notion that the Irish Republican Army would be involved with South American guerillas was less surprising than it first seemed. The IRA has historically traded knowledge, weaponry, and money for laundering with an array of rogue states and extremist groups. During the First World War (1914–1918), it received arms shipments from Germany, with whom Britain (who at that time ruled Ireland) was at war. More recently, the IRA has had alleged links with regimes and terrorist groups in Libya, Cuba, and several Balkan states.
Friday, 4 October, 2002, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
BBC Northern Ireland reporter in Bogota
The teeming Latin American capital of Bogota is the last place on earth you would expect three Irishmen to appear in court accused of being IRA members who were training left-wing rebels.
In a unique hearing on Friday, the three men were scheduled to go before a judge for the first time since their arrest in Colombia in August of last year.
But in a surprise move the three refused to leave their cells when their armed escort arrived and the hearing was postponed until later in the month.
In court on Friday, the prosecution outlined the case against the three men.
Martin McCauley from Lurgan in County Armagh, James Monaghan from County Donegal and Niall Connolly from Dublin were detained at Bogota's El Dorado airport as they were about to board a flight out of the country.
They were found to have false passports and the Colombian security services accused them of having been to Farclandia—an area controlled by the left wing rebels, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
The Irishmen strenuously deny this, claiming they were in the area to monitor the fledgling peace process as well as being eco-tourists.
Their arrests made world headlines and sent a shock wave through the corridors of power in Washington.
The US had been ploughing millions of dollars in military aid into Colombia to back up the government's ongoing war against the drugs barons.
Narco-terrorism is the tag given to those groups who control and protect the remote jungle areas where the cocaine is manufactured.
The FARC is "numero uno" on the narco-terrorist list. For their trouble, it is estimated the FARC rakes in about $600m a year.
This enables the group to be one of the best-equipped terror organizations in the world.
The prosecutors allege this is where the IRA comes in.
Military commanders claim up to 15 Irish republicans have been to Colombia to help to train the rebels in the use of improvised urban weaponry such as mortar bombs and car bombs.
For its part, the IRA issued a statement saying its "army council sent no-one to Colombia to train or engage in any military co-operation with any group".
The three suspects have been held in a number of custody centers over the past 13 months.
Concerns for their safety while in jails housing right wing paramilitary prisoners were raised with the authorities and they are currently behind bars in La Picota prison.
It sits on the southernmost limits of Bogota, sandwiched between a military base, a school and breeze block homes for displaced people.
When the three men face their accusers for the first time in a court of law, a legal process will begin which is likely to last several months.
Already, the defense lawyers have been highlighting what they say is "a violation of their rights" after statements made by both Colombian and US politicians.
In the wake of 11 September, the American crackdown on world terrorism put the three IRA suspects right in the spotlight.
The Prosecutor General, Luis Osorio, has stated confidently that"there is sufficient evidence to put them on trial".
The defense lawyers stress that their clients have already been condemned guilty even before the trial gets under way.
In a news conference in Bogota on Thursday, they said the men were being used as "guinea pigs in a political experiment".
Colombia's long-running civil war had largely been played out away from its main cities, with left-wing guerillas and their right-wing paramilitary foes battling for control of territory and drug trafficking routes in the countryside.
When three years of peace talks broke down in February 2002, however, FARC started to bring its terrorist war into the cities with a wave of bombings and political kidnappings. This coincided with a Presidential election for which the favorite (and eventual winner), Alvaro Uribe, had promised tougher military action against the violence. The FARC response was intended to demonstrate to urban Colombians that their armed forces were unable to protect them. Indeed, while campaigning that April, Uribe was himself almost the victim of a FARC attack when a bomb damaged his armored jeep and killed three passers by.
After a single week of violence at the start of August claimed more than 100 lives, the country's senior prosecutor, General Luis Camilo Osorio, claimed that recent mortar bomb attacks had used technology developed by the Provisional IRA, a radical splinter group of the IRA. He also claimed that the Provisional IRA tested weapons while visiting rebels in the jungle. "The techniques that the FARC has developed in recent years show that it has had technical assistance and used technology similar to that used by the IRA," General Osorio said in an article with the British newspaper Guardian in 2002.
The revelation of the FARC links came as a deep embarrassment to the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, and particularly its leader Gerry Adams. Despite vigorously denying any links, the incident further tainted his organization's reputation among supporters in the United States, from where it received much of its funding and political support.
Connolly, Monaghan, and McAuley maintained their innocence, but were found guilty of training Marxist guerillas in December 2004 and sentenced to 17 years in jail. The sentence, however, was given in absentia, as the three men had absconded six months earlier.
Kline, Harvey F. Colombia: Democracy Under Assault. Boulder: Westview, 1995.
McKittrick, David., McVeigh, David. Making Sense of the Troubles. London: Penguin, 2003.