Colombia: Half Century of US Military
by Javier Darío Restrepo
www.ipsnews.net/, August 11, 2009
In the 1960s, it went by the name of Latin
American Security Operation, or Plan LASO; today it is known as
Plan Colombia. Back then, the aim was to weed out communism; now
it is to combat drug trafficking, while at the same time dealing
a blow to the guerrillas.
But at that time or today, the interests
of the United States are at stake, although the killing takes
place in Colombia - whether in the fight against communists, guerrillas,
drug traffickers, or all of them together.
In May 1964, the teletype machines were
clicking as a United Press International (UPI) cable arrived from
Washington about "a group of special forces technicians of
the United States Armysent to Colombia with (the) purpose of instructing
soldiers and police in counter-guerrilla tactics."
The advisers formed part of a campaign
started by President Alberto Lleras (1945-1946 and 1958-1962)
and continued by his successor Guillermo León Valencia
The UPI cable goes on to say that "one
of the principal tactics employed in the counter-guerrilla operations
was the implementation of psycho-warfare which brought about the
cooperation and trust of the indigenous population."
The tactics used in the June 1964 attack
on Marquetalia, a remote mountainous region in central Colombia,
left no doubt as to who provided the advisers and training for
the Colombian troops that, commanded by Colonel José Joaquín
Matallana, started their offensive by dropping leaflets from the
air urging local peasant farmers not to support the guerrillas.
At the same time, loudspeakers from helicopters
blasted messages calling on local residents to support the army,
and announcing the imminent fall of the communist leaders operating
in the region, who founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) - the main rebel group today - that year.
A few days later, the bombing and machinegun
fire began in areas where the communists were reportedly hiding.
Shortly afterwards the helicopters brought in troops. As FARC
founder Jacobo Arenas later recalled, 800 airborne troops were
flown in and began to take control of the highland area, in combination
with troops who were advancing on the ground.
The tactics, similar to those used in
the Vietnam war (1964-1975), were coordinated from Neiva, the
nearest large town, by U.S. military advisers.
According to then president Lleras, the
country needed the help, due to the inadequate training of Colombian
troops and the magnitude of the communist threat.
Today, Colombia is the third-largest recipient
of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt.
That was then, this is now
Trying to play down the significance of
the Colombian government's decision to give the U.S. Department
of Defence access to between three and five military bases - the
number is not yet clear - government spokespersons have said in
the last few weeks that it is merely an extension of Plan Colombia,
the anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy financed by Washington
since 2000 - which is partially true.
Over the last 50 years, the U.S. military
presence in Colombia has taken on different shapes and gone through
different phases, but it has remained steady.
After a Colombian Battalion took part
in the Korean War (1950-1953), this country's commitment to the
fight against communism became irreversible. Successive governments
and the army were involved in the U.S.-led defence of the continent
against the "communist threat" until a new danger emerged:
drug trafficking. With the same enthusiasm, they aligned themselves
with the U.S. in the fight against the drug traffickers.
Colombia became a U.S. military objective
after several developments coincided.
One was a confidential memo from Peter
Bourne, special adviser on drug abuse to President Jimmy Carter
(1977-1981), which charged that prominent politicians, including
Liberal Party President-elect Julio César Turbay (1978-1982),
had connections to the drug trade.
The left-wing Colombian magazine Alternativa
went even further, portraying Turbay on its cover as a Mafia boss.
The influential U.S. magazine Esquire
reported that even high-level Colombian officials were involved
in the trafficking of marijuana.
It was also reported that thanks to surveillance
flights by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), under Operation
Stopgap, the U.S. Coast Guard was intercepting Colombian shipments
of marijuana at sea.
To that was added pressure from Carter
and then DEA Administrator Peter Bensinger, who in the name of
Colombia's "national security" raised the need for counter-drug
The U.S. military or police presence has
been a constant factor in the Colombian army's involvement in
the fight against drugs.
It has also been a factor in the campaigns
for the eradication of coca and poppy crops by aerial spraying
of herbicides, and in the fight against nationalistic opposition
to the extradition of Colombians to be tried on drug charges in
the United States. A record number of 800 people were extradited
during the two terms of current right-wing President Álvaro
At other times, the U.S. military presence
had to do with the installation of radars, nominally to carry
out surveillance of drug flights, but actually to gain effective
control over the airspace from strategic points.
To these forms of influence are added
different operations, like naval manoeuvres with which the U.S.
navy and air force make their presence felt around the world.
President Virgilio Barco (1986-1990) complained
about anti-drug manoeuvres in Colombian waters by the nuclear
cruiser USS Virginia and the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy,
which caused tension with the administration of George Bush (1989-1993).
Shortly before that incident, then Defence
Secretary Richard Cheney (1989-1993) declared the war on drugs
a "high-priority national security mission."
Then Attorney General Dick Thornburgh
said at the time that the United States was prepared to send troops
to Colombia, if the Barco administration requested it.
The Colombian newspaper El Espectador
reported on Feb. 10, 1989 that the Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) would create specialised anti-drug commandos.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney
Vincent Bugliosi went so far as to write that invasion was not
only a right, but a duty because of the threat that the drug trade
posed to U.S. sovereignty.
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich seconded
the idea of invading countries with serious drug trafficking problems.
At a congressional hearing in October 2000, Republican Congressman
Dan Burton of Indiana said "Colombia's fate is a national
security threat to the United States." Against that backdrop,
the scandal that broke out in 1994 when U.S. marines disembarked
and built a school in Juanchaco, a fishing village on Colombia's
southwest Pacific coast, was at the very least overblown.
When U.S. resources and advisers shifted
their focus and instead of going after drug traffickers began
to pursue guerrillas, the U.S. military presence in Colombia took
on new connotations.
As clearly stated by former Colombian
Foreign Minister Alfredo Vásquez in 1991: "The military
assistance is aimed at fighting the guerrillas."
More dramatic evidence of that was when
FARC insurgents shot down a small plane in February 2003 transporting
U.S military contractors who were carrying out surveillance in
a rebel-controlled area. The three were held hostage in the jungle
until their rescue in a July 2008 army operation.
U.S. military action in Colombia has gone
beyond more limits than are readily apparent. The United States
government has demanded legal immunity for U.S. military personnel,
obtained information that it has not shared, caused mistakes like
a bombing of civilians in Candelaria in the north of the country,
and is now jeopardising this country's relations with the governments
of neighbouring countries.
The negative reaction by Venezuelan President
Hugo Chávez and others to the announcement that the U.S.
would be given access to Colombian military bases did not receive
any reassuring response, but only a vague promise by Uribe that
they would only be used to go after "drug traffickers"
In his report to Congress, the Colombian
president tried to calm worries over the decision. But neighbouring
countries and Colombians who have followed with concern the foreign
armed presence in their national territory for half a century
are anything but calm. (END/2009)