Colombia: The Politics of Escalation
by Mark Cook
CovertAction Quarterly, Fall / Winter 1999
The U.S. government is sabotaging the Colombian peace process
through the classic strategy of imperialist intervention and massive
escalation of that country's civil war. It is the same strategy
that was used in Vietnam and Central America.
The escalation can only be understood in a regional context.
The aggressive land takeovers in Colombia by transnational oil
and mining corporations and their use of paramilitary death squads
to expel the peasants has inevitably contributed to the rapid
growth of the insurgency More and more of the poor join the Fuerzas
Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejercito de
Liberacion Nacional (ELN).
The events in Colombia, largely produced by transnational
and Colombian big business, come on top of the overwhelming election
of Hugo Chavez as President of neighboring Venezuela and his commitment
to policies of national sovereignty Domestic developments in both
countries are seen as endangering U.S. imperial domination in
In an incident that suggests serious concern in U.S. business
and government circles about threats to corporate and military
control of the strategic and oil-rich Colombia-Venezuela sector,
the U.S. media blacked out coverage of a summit of 48 countries
of the European Union, Latin America, and the Caribbean, held
in Rio de Janeiro in late June. The meeting proclaimed a "new
era" in European-Latin American relations. The meeting of
so many heads of state and government, with potentially profound
consequences for U.S. corporate dominance in Latin America, was
completely censored from the New York Times and the Washington
Post, as well as the major television networks, although they
could not possibly have been ignorant of it. The Wall Street Journal
gave the story three paragraphs on page eight.
U.S. officials are responding by pressuring Ecuador, Argentina
and unnamed Central American countries to set up a string of new
U.S. military bases. They speak openly of attempting to "revise"
(that is, abrogate) the Panama Canal Treaty which requires the
abandonment of all U.S. bases in Panama But opposition to bases
is intense throughout the region, and U.S. officials acknowledge
that they dare not name the Central American states they are approaching
for fear of fomenting discontent in those countries.
In Colombia, Clinton administration officials c]aim to be
supporting President Andres Pastranas peace negotiations with
the country's left-wing insurgents, a process initiated a year
ago by Pastrana in fulfillment of an election campaign promise.
But Washington's multi-billion dollar arms shipments and troop
deployments strengthen the dreaded Colombian army, which has made
clear that it has no interest in peace.
Clinton policies bear a striking resemblance to the Reagan
administration tactic in the mid-1980s of professing support for
the Contadora Central American peace process as an excuse to escalate
the Central American wars. Now, Clinton administration officials
give perfunctory praise to Pastranas peace negotiations, while
joining the Colombian military in denouncing Pastrana for "giving
away the store" in the negotiations.
The decision by the Clinton administration to name General
Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Command, or
SouthCom, as the White House "drug czar" was interpreted
at the time as a way of escalating Colombia's almost unbelievably
bloody civil war by dressing it up as a war on drugs. His replacement
at SouthCom was Gen. Charles Wilhelm, who immediately began to
speak of direct counterinsurgency assistance for the Colombian
military Wilhelm declared that criticism of military abuses of
human rights was "unfair" and said that guerrillas abused
human rights more often than Colombian security forces or paramilitary
death squads. This was wildly false, even contradicting the State
Department's own annual report.
NO MENTION OF DEATH SQUADS
Few of the reports in a massive U.S. media campaign supporting
increased aid to Colombia even mention the existence of "paramilitary"
death squads trained by U.S. Special Forces and closely tied to
the Colombian military
Presented instead is the new line, as summed up by Investors
Business Daily: that Colombia's insurgencies control "40
to 60 percent of the countryside"; that they "lack popular
support" but are awash in drug money, some $600 to $800 million;
that the U.S. has spent years trying to "fight the drug war
but not Colombia's guerrilla insurgency," but that "this
month, U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey finally admitted that's
no longer possible.
Selling such a story is hard. Even official and semi-official
agencies of the Empire have conceded that the bulk of the killing
and the drug-dealing is being done by their own allies. The U.S.
State Department, as well as establishment human rights groups,
blame the government-connected paramilitaries for the overwhelming
majority of all political killings in 1998. And as the Economist
of London has written, "the right-wing paramilitary groups
and the traffickers they protect are far deeper into drugs-and
the DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] knows it."
lt is an open secret that the military | units sponsored by
SouthCom are among I the largest drug traffickers, as are the
right-wing paramilitary death squads formed by U.S. trainers years
ago. They also hold a northern fiefdom from which they control
"land, people, drug laboratories, and shipping routes for
drugs and arms to and from the Caribbean and Central America."
The Colombian air
force is widely reputed to be a major drug cartel itself.
In November 1998, a half ton of cocaine was found on board the
airplane of the chief of the Colombian Military Air Transport
Command when it landed in Miami.
U.S. officials publicly denounced the government of Pastrana's
predecessor, President Ernesto Samper, for his alleged receipt
of millions in campaign contributions from drug dealers. Colombia
was "decertified" for its failure to collaborate with
Washington in the "drug war," and cut off from a wide
range of aid and trade deals. But at the same time, the U.S. was
sharply increasing aid and arms sales to Colombia's military,
while loudly and repeatedly "decertifying" the government
the military was sworn to support. For the last two years of Samper's
government, when he was publicly declared "persona non grata"
by Washington, U.S. ties to Colombia's military grew exponentially,
Pastrana assumed office in 1998.
President Pastrana has said he would comply with the insurgents'
key demand, to stop the paramilitaries, but seems unwilling or
unable to do so. Leaders of paramilitary organizations operate
with impunity, giving press interviews and even walking in and
out of Colombian military bases.
In the same fashion, the real history of the paramilitaries
is studiously ignored by the U.S. media. The FARC negotiated a
settlement at the beginning of the decade, formed the UP, an electoral
political party, and won a stunning series of victories in local
and regional elections. Almost all of the thousands elected have
since been systematically murdered.
When complaints were recently raised about the U.S. government
and media failing to mention the paramilitaries, Gen. McCaffrey
changed his tune slightly and asserted that the U.S. military
aid plan was to help the Colombian military fight the "narco-guerrillas"
and the paramilitaries. The Washington Post and the Miami Herald
followed suit with stories claiming that U.S. military personnel
were training the Colombian military to respect human rights.
Big business interests, both Colombian and transnational,
also have regularly joined forces with paramilitaries to terrorize
poor farmers off their land. If the peasants do not leave, they
are killed by the death squads. Either way, the corporation can
then seize the land or buy it for practically nothing.
Beyond Washington's other concerns, demands put forth by Colombian
insurgents for curing the cocaine plague with agricultural subsidies
for alternative crops would contradict and endanger New World
Order economic policies for Latin America.
President Pastrana is no progressive-minded pacifist, and
the Colombian government is suspected by many of using negotiations
with Colombia's rebels to buy time while the U.S. increases the
military buildup. The U.S. escalation appears to have been what
provoked the FARC's offensive in July.
The previous March, U.S. intelligence dramatically increased
its collaboration with the Colombian military, particularly through
the use of spy planes to aid in attacks on the rebels. The "sharing
of intelligence" from the spy planes was lauded by U.S. Southern
Command officials as having had devastating effect on the rebels
in military engagements. A spy plane crashed in the midst of a
rebel offensive in late July, reportedly setting back U. S. efforts
Meanwhile, U.S. officials began pressuring Brazil, Ecuador,
Panama, Peru, and Venezuela to cooperate with U.S. intelligence
and the Colombian military to fight Colombia's insurgency U.S.
officials pushed those countries and Argentina to form a multinational
military force to intervene in Colombia, according to reports
from semi-official media outlets in Peru and elsewhere.
The proposal for a multinational military force to intervene
in Colombia was rejected by the governments involved, and Washington
hastily denied that anything of the sort had been mentioned.
But only a month before, Washington publicly proposed exactly
such a force to the General Assembly of the Organization of American
States (OAS). U.S. diplomats called for a "group of friendly
countries" (linked economically or politically) to intervene
in internal conflicts that are judged to threaten "democracy"
in any country in Latin America.
That goes far beyond a 1991 OAS provision, also pushed through
at U.S. insistence, that would allow intervention in the case
of an extreme and immediate threat, such as a coup d'etat. Acting
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero called the new
proposal "preventative diplomacy" "This is a way
to make sure a potentially manageable brush fire does not burn
down the forest," Romero said.
Jamaica called the measure "paternalistic" and the
Peruvian foreign minister declared that "all actions of the
OAS should be directed so each country is responsible for dealing
with its own problems, maintaining always its sovereignty "
Objections centered on who would determine if a crisis was
serious enough to warrant intervention, as well as the form and
degree of intervention necessary.
Although the proposal was repudiated by Bolivia, Chile, Colombia,
Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, it will be returned to committee
and U.S. authorities believe they can push it through next year.
"We never hoped that the proposal would be approved at this
session, we just wanted to put the matter on the table for discussion,"
U.S. representative to the OAS Victor Marrero remarked.
FLOUTING LEAHY AMENDMENT
Meanwhile, as Washington has been engaged in a massive escalation
of the war, it has been flouting both the spirit and the letter
of the Leahy Amendment (introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy [Dem.Vt.]),
which forbids aid administered by the State Department to Colombian
military units where personnel have engaged in gross human rights
abuses. That amounts to the overwhelming majority of the units
of the Colombian army.
Although the Leahy Amendment specifically includes aid to
counter narcotics efforts, the Pentagon and the CIA feel themselves
under no obligation to comply, since their programs are not counter-narcotic
The small group of Republicans who have led the campaign on
Colombia bitterly attacked the Leahy Amendment and tried unsuccessfully
to have it removed from the 1998 foreign operations bill, saying
that human rights concerns hampered the "drug war."
The group is led by Republican Representatives Dan Burton
of Indiana and Benjamin Gilman of New York, whose collaboration
with the Colombian military is so extreme that they have practically
been made honorary members. (Both have had helicopters named after
them. "Big Ben" is still flying; Burton's has crashed.)
They are the source of the allegation that the guerrillas in Colombia
are earning $600 to $800 million a year in the drug trade and
using the money to buy weapons, figures ridiculed even by U.S.
Gen. McCaffrey's televised House committee appearances are
carefully stage-managed affairs, aimed at depicting the Colombian
security forces as helpless against unpopular but drug-rich and
heavily armed guerrillas. House members plead for more helicopters
to interdict the drugs. Following the script, McCaffrey agrees
that this is urgently necessary but points out that the Colombians
lack enough trained helicopter pilots, implying that the Colombians
should use U.S. personnel, either current or "retired"
military who would be hired as soldiers of fortune. In fact, as
Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News has reported, large numbers
of such "ex-military" mercenaries already have been
At present, Colombia is the fourth largest recipient of U.S.
aid-after Israel, Egypt, and Jordan-with most of the aid in the
form of arms. U.S. officials have ceased even to pretend seriously
that the aid is to combat cocaine trafficking.
Washington's orchestrated attack on President Pastrana seems
ironic. The Harvard graduate from Colombia's ruling elite was
perceived by ordinary Colombians as having been hand-picked by
As part of the attack on Pastrana, the media blitz has begun
highlighting Colombia's desperate economic straits, including
the worst depression in decades, a growing debt burden and a 20
percent unemployment rate. That unemployment rate compares favorably
with a number of Latin American governments considered "friendly"
to Washington and much-praised in the U.S. corporate media. The
fact that the media are showing such unusual concern for Colombia's
unemployed adds to the feeling in Bogota that U.S. authorities
are setting Pastrana up for the chopping block.
The same news reports credulously pass along intelligence
agency claims that Colombia has managed to develop a new super-strain
of coca leaf, making it unnecessary for drug dealers to import
the material from Peru and Bolivia, as in the past, and asserting
that Colombian "narco-guerrillas" are earning fantastic
revenues as a result.
No effort is made to explain the obvious discrepancy between
Colombia's undoubted economic straits and the fantastic new wealth
supposedly pouring into the country because of the "super-strain"
of drugs. If the claim that at least $5 billion in drug profits
flow into Colombia annually is accurate, that amounts to $125
per year for every adult and child in Colombia. (A subsequent
AP report on a mass arrest of alleged Colombian drug dealers claimed
that the gang was earning $5 billion a month).
Undeterred, the media also continue to cite a CIA report that
coca crops increased 28% in Colombia last year. That report was
rejected by Colombian National Police Chief Rosso Jose Serrano,
who, the Colombia Bulletin reports, showed his own aerial photographs
and satellite images obtained from the French space agency to
counter the CIA assertions.
"The worldwide chief of the U.N. Drug Control Program,
Pino Arlacchi, said CIA methods fall short because the agency
relies almost exclusively on satellites, rarely checking on the
ground to see if the coca plants are, indeed, dead," the
While there may not be an "explosion" of coca leaf
cultivation, it is probably true that it has increased as transnational
corporations (mostly oil and mining) and landlords use paramilitary
death squads. Many of the displaced-who now number between a million
and a million and a half people-have gone to the edge of the rain
forest where they usually clear between three and five hectares
of land and grow coca leaf, the only crop that will allow them
As Colombia's insurgent groups have pointed out, if the U.S.
Empire wants to end the cultivation of coca leaves, the only way
is to provide these marginalized peasants with a crop and a market
which will enable them to feed their families.
That requires either: (1) agricultural subsidies of the kind
that have existed in the United States and Western Europe for
decades but which are forbidden to the poorer nations of the world
under the New World Order; or (2) the indexation of commodity
prices, a demand made by the Non-Aligned Movement for years.
If the claims of economic collapse are greatly exaggerated,
at least by current Latin American standards, and the claims of
a dramatic increase in coca leaf production are also greatly inflated,
if not simply false, that would answer the assertion that a country
is sinking into economic destitution at the same time that a principal
export crop is off the charts.
But it does not explain why the U.S. media have picked up
on this line now. Usually, these stories of economic distress
are the standard media fare for countries whose governments the
U.S. is seeking to overthrow, such as Cuba, Sandinista Nicaragua,
or Popular Unity Chile.
Is the U.S. preparing to overthrow Pastrana or make him, Central
American style, into a useless decoration on a military-death
squad regime? What is certain is that the insistence by the U.S.
government and imperial media on calling the FARC and ELN "narco-guerrillas"
and "narco-terrorists" completely invalidates Pastrana's
Pastrana has insisted that the guerrillas are nothing of the
sort. The common agenda for peace talks, which he signed with
the guerrillas last May "implicitly recognizes that the revolutionaries
took up arms in a just cause and commits both parties to negotiate
profound economic and social reforms through political compromise,"
wrote former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White recently.
They include land reform, especially through confiscation and
redistribution of huge land holdings obtained through drug profits,
an end to the cultivation of illicit drugs, and a crackdown by
the Colombian army on the paramilitary death squads.
But U.S. officials have been heavily involved with forming
the death squads since the beginning. Until Pastrana is able to
make good on these last commitments, it is absurd to demand, as
Washington has, that the rebels abandon their commitment to the
peasants and labor organizers who depend on them, and leave them
at the mercy of the paramilitary death squads.