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America’s Other War

Terrorizing Colombia

Latin America and the Caribbean

Throughout the Cold War, Colombia was one of the largest recipients of U.S. counter-insurgency military aid and training. Counter-insurgency–CI for short–was designed to reorient recipient militaries away from a posture of external defence, toward one of “internal defence” against allegedly Soviet-aligned guerrillas. States that received U.S. CI military aid were told to police their own populations to make sure that “subversion” did not grow. Interestingly, when we examine the manuals used by U.S. military trainers to find out what they mean by subversion, we find some interesting clues as to why so many civilians died at the hands of Latin American “internal security states.”

Here is one example. A manual used to train Colombia CI forces tells them to ask: “Are there any legal political organizations which may be a front for insurgent activities? Is the public education system vulnerable to infiltration by insurgent agents? What is the influence of politics on teachers, textbooks, and students, conversely, what influence does the education system exercise on politics?” They are then told to ask “what is the nature of the labor organizations; what relationship exists between these organizations, the government, and the insurgents?” In outlining targets for CI intelligence operations, the manual identifies a number of different occupational categories and generic social identities. These include “merchants” and “bar owners and bar girls” and “ordinary citizens who are typical members of organizations or associations which play an important role in the local society.”

In particular, U.S.-backed CI forces are told to concentrate specifically on “[l]eaders of dissident groups (minorities, religious sects, labor unions, political factions) who may be able to identify insurgent personnel, their methods of operation, and local agencies the insurgents hope to exploit.” The manual also states that insurgent forces typically try to work with labour unions and union leaders to determine “the principal causes of discontent which can best be exploited to overthrow the established government [and] recruit loyal supporters.” It suggests that organizations that stress “immediate social, political, or economic reform may be an indication that the insurgents have gained a significant degree of control.” Here is the manual’s list of Insurgent Activity Indicators:

Refusal of peasants to pay rent, taxes, or loan payments. Increase in the number of entertainers with a political message. Discrediting the judicial system and police organizations. Characterization of the armed forces as the enemy of the people. Appearance of questionable doctrine in the educational system. Appearance of many new members in established organizations like labour organizations. Increased unrest among labourers. Increased student activity against the government and its police, or against minority groups, foreigners and the like. An increased number of articles or advertisements in newspapers criticizing the government. Strikes or work stoppages called to protest government actions. Increase of petitions demanding government redress of grievances. Proliferation of slogans pinpointing specific grievances. Initiation of letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and government officials deploring undesirable conditions and blaming individuals in power.

U.S. CI strategy can be seen to be directly at odds with broad swathes of democratic activity and serves to entrench and reproduce a particular kind of political stability in Colombia. Central to this security posture is the secret advocacy of state terrorism and the development of covert paramilitary networks. In 1962, General William Yarborough, head of a U.S. Army Special Warfare team that provided the initial blueprint for the reorientation of the Colombian military toward CI, stated that:

“It is the considered opinion of the survey team that a concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view toward development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event that the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States. The apparatus should be charged with clandestine execution of plans developed by the United States Government toward defined objectives in the political, economic and military fields. This would permit passing to the offensive in all fields of endeavor rather than depending on the Colombians to find their own solution.”

Today, Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid and training in the world; it has more U.S.-trained security personnel than any other country. Under both Clinton’s “Plan Colombia” and Bush’s “Andean Regional Initiative,” billions of dollars have been sent to Colombia allegedly for a war on drugs and terror against Colombia’s indigenous guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The U.S. argues that the FARC are “narco- guerrillas” and post-9/11 “narco-terrorists.”

This is grossly disingenuous. James Milford, former deputy administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has acknowledged that, while the FARC “generate revenue by ‘taxing’ local drug-related activities” in those regions it controls, “there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves, either by producing cocaine … and selling it to Mexican syndicates, or by establishing their own distribution networks in the United States.” On the other hand, he points out that Carlos Castaño, who headed the paramilitary umbrella group United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), is a “major cocaine trafficker in his own right” and has close links to the North Valley drug syndicate, “among the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Colombia.” Former DEA administrator Donnie Marshall also confirmed that right-wing paramilitary groups “raise funds through extortion, or by protecting laboratory operations in northern and central Colombia. The Carlos Castano organization and possibly other paramilitary groups appear to be directly involved in processing cocaine. At least one of these paramilitary groups appears to be involved in exporting cocaine from Colombia.” Marshall concluded in 2001, a year after “Plan Colombia” began, that “at present, there is no corroborated information that the FARC is involved directly in the shipment of drugs from Colombia to international markets.”

Klaus Nyholm, director of the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), has pointed out that the “guerrillas are something different than the traffickers, the local fronts are quite autonomous. But in some areas, they’re not involved at all. And in others, they actively tell the farmers not to grow coca.” In the rebels’ former Demilitarized Zone, Nyholm stated, “drug cultivation has not increased or decreased” once the “FARC took control.” Indeed, Nyholm noted in 1999 that the FARC were cooperating with a $6 million UN project to replace coca crops with new forms of legal alternative development. In 2003 he reiterated this point, and argued that, “the paramilitary relation with drug trafficking undoubtedly is much more intimate [than the FARC’s]. Many of the paramilitary bands started as the drug traffickers’ hired guns. They are more autonomous now, but have maintained their close relations with the drug traffickers. In some of the coastal towns it can, in fact, sometimes be hard to tell whether a man is a paramilitary chief, a big coca planter, a cocaine lab owner, a rancher, or a local politician. He may be all five things at a time.”

Clearly the FARC are bit players in comparison to the paramilitary networks and the cocaine barons that these paramilitaries protect. So, with both the U.S. and the UN anti-drug agencies consistently reporting over a number of years that the paramilitaries are far more heavily involved than the FARC in drug cultivation, refinement and transhipment to the U.S., why has Plan Colombia emphasised the FARC’s alleged links to international drug trafficking?

The reason is quite simply that paramilitaries have long been central to the operation of U.S.-backed Colombian counterinsurgency and state terror. Going all the way back to 1962 and Yarborough’s call for an integrated paramilitary network, the U.S. has been instrumental in setting up and perpetuating covert paramilitary networks with intimate connections with the Colombian military. These paramilitaries carry out a “dirty war” against “subversion” and are responsible for the vast majority of human-rights abuses committed in Colombia today. For example, in 2002 over 8,000 political assassinations were committed in Colombia, 80 per cent of them perpetrated by paramilitary groups. Three out of four trade-union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries, while 2.7 million civilians have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UN, lecturers and teachers are “among the workers most often affected by killings, threats and violence-related displacement.” Paramilitary groups also regularly target human-rights activists, indigenous leaders and community activists.

Why does the U.S. support Colombian state terror? There are two main reasons: capital stability and oil. By attempting to destroy the FARC and Colombia’s progressive civil society, both the Colombian and U.S. elites hope to create stability for continued inward investment and resource extraction. General Peter Pace, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) under the Clinton Administration and the man responsible for implementing U.S. security-assistance programs throughout Latin America, argues that vital U.S. national interests, which he defines as “those of broad, over-riding importance to the survival, safety and vitality of our nation,” include the maintenance of stability and unhindered access to Latin American markets by U.S. transnationals in the post-Cold War period. Noting that, “our trade within the Americas represents approximately 46 per cent of all U.S. exports, and we expect this percentage to increase in the future,” Pace goes on to explain that beneath the U.S. military’s role in Colombia is the need to maintain a “continued stability required for access to market … which is critical to the continued economic expansion and prosperity of the United States.” U.S. security assistance to the Colombian military is necessary because any “loss of our Caribbean and Latin American markets would seriously damage the health of the U.S. economy.” Similarly, Marc Grossman, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, underscores the crucial role that oil interests play in driving U.S. intervention in Colombia:

“[Colombian insurgents] represent a danger to the $4.3 billion in direct U.S. investment in Colombia. They regularly attack U.S. interests, including the railway used by the Drummond Coal Mining facility and Occidental Petroleum’s stake in the Cano Limon oil pipeline. Terrorist attacks on the Cano Limon pipeline also pose a threat to U.S. energy security. Colombia supplied three per cent of U.S. oil imports in 2001, and possesses substantial potential oil and natural gas reserves.”

The Colombian state remains firmly wedded to the implementation of neo-liberal reforms, as well as the increasing militarization of social life under the pretext of a “war on terror.” The reforms are pushing more of Colombia’s people into poverty. In 1999, at the inception of Plan Colombia, the World Bank noted that “more than half of Colombians [were] living in poverty: the proportion of poor [has] returned to its 1988 level, after having declined by 20 percentage points between 1978 and 1995.” The mid-1990s recession added to Colombia’s woes and contributed to “a rise in inequality, a decline in macroeconomic performance, and a doubling in unemployment.” The picture is less bleak for Colombia’s elites. In 1990, the ratio of income between the poorest and richest 10 per cent was 40-to-one. Following a decade of economic restructuring, this ratio had climbed to 80-to-one in the year 2000.

Under the current hardline Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, Colombia is undergoing further IMF structural adjustment to benefit transnational corporations. In the oil industry, for example, Uribe is lowering the royalties paid to Colombia by foreign oil companies and has effectively privatized the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol. Uribe argues that this is necessary to make Colombia internationally “competitive” and to prevent it becoming a net importer of oil. Meanwhile, Colombia’s oil regions are becoming fully militarized, with the paramilitaries effectively running a number of towns. This model of what Uribe euphemistically terms “Democratic Security” is being rolled out across Colombia as an integral part of the joint U.S.-Colombia militarization program.

In preventing this ongoing human tragedy, activists must do everything they can to prevent U.S. military aid to Colombia and to raise awareness of the awful consequences of this so-called “security assistance.” Those living in Canada can start by asking why their government sold helicopters to the U.S. in 1999, helicopters that were then sent to Colombia to be used for “counter-drug” missions. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade argued that the sale of these combat helicopters was necessary as the impact of not selling the helicopters would “be a loss of jobs for Canadians with no benefit to global peace and security.” But is the price of 40 second-hand combat helicopters really worth the bloodof the thousands murdered each year in Colombia’s brutal U.S.-supported war?

Doug Stokes’ new book, America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia, will be published this year by Zed Books in New York City.

This article appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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