in Colombia and Ecuador
by Mark Cook
CovertAction Quarterly, Spring / Summer 2000
The effort to get $1.6 billion to expand the war in Colombia,
announced by testy State Department officials at a January 11
press conference, represents the last, most palpable sign of the
crisis of the New World Order's economic, political and military
strategies in Latin America.
The proposed appropriation has been denounced by establishment
human rights groups and even much of the corporate media. It would
more than quintuple the total amount of money publicly acknowledged
to be going for the war in Colombia, a country whose military
has the most monstrous human rights record of any in Latin America-a
record coincident with U.S. "training. "
Colombia has the largest number of graduates from the School
of the Americas of any Latin American country, and Colombian military
officers speak proudly of being not only students but instructors
there. The chief bodyguard of Carlos Castaho, the most powerful
paramilitary death squad commander, proudly points to his two
stints at the School of the Americas.
The Clinton administration has attempted to pretend that the
funding is to fight drugs, rather than escalate Colombia's 40-year-old
civil war, indeed, to obstruct a peaceful settlement of the war.
But its own allies-both the military and the death squads-are
the biggest drug dealers in Colombia, and even the State Department
officials present at the opening press conference had trouble
keeping to the script.
The fivefold increase request comes on top of what was already
a threefold increase in military funding to Colombia in late 1998,
to $289 million. The speed of the U.S. buildup is reminiscent
of the moves by the U.S. in Vietnam in 1964, aimed at preventing
the collapse of the Saigon army Pointing to the Vietnam experience,
Colombia's leading newsweekly, Semana, editorialized that the
U.S. "aid" was a recipe for "destruction, indefinite
war and indebtedness" and denounced the "frivolity and
imbecility" of Colombian President Andres Pastrana in going
along, after obvious pressure, with the "opportunism and
hypocrisy" of U.S. officials. U.S. officials are reportedly
bracing themselves for strong opposition within Colombia, and
Pastrana's popularity has plummeted.
The Clinton administration is betting heavily on helicopters
which the Colombian military cannot yet fly (more than 60 are
being sent) and on "paramilitary" death squads which
the U.S. began training during the Bush administration at the
beginning of the 1990s and which, according to human rights groups
and even State Department human rights reports, are responsible
for the overwhelming majority of murders.
The paramilitary death squads are only used against unarmed
civilians and their commanders are reported to sleep at night
in military bases to protect them from rebel attacks.
"Each night they kill groups of five to six defenseless
people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being
tortured," wrote Judge Leonardo Ivan Cortes to various regional
officials in an effort to stop the July 15-20, 1997 massacre by
right-wing "paramilitaries" who had seized the town
of Mapiripan, Meta. "The screams of humble people are audible,
begging for mercy and asking for help."
The Colombian army and police ignored the judge's pleas until
after the departure from the town of the paramilitaries, who had
arrived in the zone by chartered plane at an airport controlled
by the Colombian army Then the judge's pleas got plenty of attention:
He and his family were forced to flee Colombia.
Carlos Castaho publicly took responsibility for the massacre,
and promised more operations of the same type. Castaho's claim
of responsibility forced the Colombian judiciary to order his
arrest and that of two of his aides. As usual, the arrest warrants
were ignored by the U.S.-funded Colombian military and police.
But in mid-1999, the extent of U.S. military collaboration
with Castaho became clear when high-technology U.S. aircraft reportedly
intervened to protect Castaho from an attack on his mountain headquarters
by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels.
The rebels were driven back by the rapid arrival of the Colombian
army to defend Castano's paramilitaries.
"The successful interceptions of FARC attacks-more than
anything intelligence coups-were quite stunning for a military
that is renowned for falling victim to FARC ambushes," Stratfor
Global Intelligence Update reported. "Clearly, something
was up." What was up, the Stratfor report stated, was an
RC-7B U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft. The aircraft soon
went down, crashing in superficially explained circumstances and
killing all seven aboard, five of them Americans.
The money the Clinton administration is seeking can buy more
of the hugely expensive reconnaissance aircraft, along with others
maintained by the Pentagon at airbases in neighboring Ecuador.
But within less than a week of the State Departments Colombian
announcement, events in Ecuador were to shake imperial Washington
and threaten its virtual military occupation of that country Similar
rumblings were heard in Paraguay
In Ecuador, a mass popular revolt which had been brewing for
months toppled the government of President Jamil Mahuad. The Harvard-educated
Mahuad, who in his short term of office had reduced Ecuadorian
living standards fourfold and a]lowed the Pentagon to set up a
string of military bases, had just announced plans to "dollarize"
the economy, effectively abolishing the country's currency in
favor of the U.S. dollar.
Controversial enough in ordinary times, such a move in economically
prostrate Ecuador would be something akin to an attempt to establish
gold and silver coin as the only legal tender in the United States.
Only rich Ecuadorans have any significant holding in dollars,
usually stashed abroad.
The announcement of the move, predictably plunged still further
the value of the Ecuadoran currency the sucre, which lost 80 percent
of its worth during Mahuad's term in office. Junior military officers,
who had watched their monthly salaries drop from the equivalent
of $1,100 to $300 during Mahuad's administration, joined the popular
revolt led by Ecuador's indigenous community, labor unions, student
groups, peasant organizations and left-wing opposition parties.
U.S. pressure on the Ecuadoran military high command resulted
in the derailing, for now, of the revolt and the hand-over of
power to Vice President Gustavo Naboa, a member of the Ecuadoran
oligarchy, but nobody expects the hasty arrangement to last.
The leaders of the revolt had promised new elections and a
lifting of the state of emergency and Naboa's constitutionally
dubious takeover should certainly have meant new elections. But
Naboa, all too aware of the probable results, announced that he
would serve out the rest of Mahuad's term (in what amounts, in
the view of the overwhelming majority of the Ecuadoran public,
to an opportunity to clean out the till), and would continue the
state of emergency imposed by Mahuad. The new president went on
to announce ongoing efforts to dollarize, new plans to extract
oil from the Ecuadoran Amazon, and more privatization" to
attract "foreign investment.
Opponents charged that "foreign investment" in the
current economic circumstances (where a foreigner in Ecuador can
live like a prince on five dollars a week) would amount to allowing
foreigners to buy the country's resources for practically nothing
and loot them, as has occurred throughout Latin America.
Ecuadoran public opinion polls showed that 70 to 80 percent
of the population dared-even after the defeat of the revolt and
in the lace of widespread arrests and beatings of suspected participants-to
express support for the revolts demands. These included amnesty
for military officers and others who took part in the revolt,
the reorganization of the country's supreme court and congress,
and the extradition of officials from Mahuad's and previous governments
who had looted the Treasury and left the country
More worrisome for Washington, the leaders of the protests
are demanding the immediate departure of all U.S. troops. The
Pentagon has set up a string of military bases, apparently expecting
to take advantage of Ecuador's desperate economic straits, and
are coordinating much of the war in Colombia from there.
Similar popular pressure in Paraguay caused a hurried trip
to Asuncion by Curtis Struble, the U.S. State Department director
of Brazilian and Southern Cone affairs, who said he hoped Paraguay
would take a "different path than that of Ecuador."
(Struble served as business charge d'affaires in Ecuador until
U.S. officials have had no qualms with ousters of elected
presidents, from Ecuador to Brazil, whenever it suited their purposes,
including one of Mahuad's immediate predecessors. But musical
chairs in the political ruling classes is one thing: a popular
movement demanding a halt to "privatization" of publicly
owned enterprises and the ouster of U.S. troops who have been
flooding the countries of South America is quite another.
U.S. MILITARY BASES
Meanwhile, attempts to set up bases in Central America have
run into considerable opposition. U.S. authorities got their foot
in the door in Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch in late 1998, when
a 1,700-strong Marine detachment was dispatched to aid in repairs.
Even while they were there, concern was expressed at the possibility
that the U.S. would establish a permanent base, a possibility
that Gen. Joaquin Cuadra, then head of the Nicaraguan army strongly
rejected. The Nicaraguan constitution forbids foreign bases. Since
then there has been criticism of the allegedly shoddy construction
of the bridges built by the U.S. military contingent, many of
which reportedly fell apart not long after the Marines departed.
In Honduras, meanwhile, human rights groups have only recently
been discovering the remains of opposition figures who were "disappeared"
and murdered by death squads during the U.S. military occupation
in the 1980s and whose remains have been discovered buried on
or near U.S. military bases.
The U.S. authorities have reportedly turned their base-building
attention to Costa Rica, a country that has built an "environmentalist"
tourist | trade on the pretense, already | ridiculed in the 1980s,
that it is a country without an army (security forces use other
names). Foreign military bases on the territory would make U.S.-train
the image considerably harder to sell.
There was public revulsion expressed in Panama when it was
revealed recently that U.S. military planes are being permitted
to "refuel" in that country on their way to the war
in Colombia. The U.S. authorities were forced to remove their
military bases in Panama under the Panama Canal treaties, which
went into effect at the beginning of this year. Washington had
tried for years to revise, or abrogate, the treaties. Panamanian
governments, even the one hand-picked by Washington and installed
through the U.S. military invasion in 1990, had feared popular
reaction to such a move.
RESISTANCE IN PUERTO RICO
The resistance to U.S. military bombing operations in Vieques,
Puerto Rico mobilized such support from the people of Puerto Rico
that it united Puerto Rican political parties for the first time
in memory and enlisted active campaigns by pop megastars (who
usually fear the repercussions from imperial recording companies).
In a clear sign of how bad things are for the U.S. empire
in Puerto Rico, at least one U.S. senator began to denounce Puerto
Ricans for their "ingratitude." That is a term frequently
used by imperial rulers faced with colonial revolts; it was last
used by the Indonesian authorities in referring to the people
of East Timor. As Benedict Anderson of the Cornell Modern Indonesia
Project has noted, the use of the word "ingratitude"
rather than "betrayal" in such circumstances is an admission
even by the oppressor that it is a colonial relationship rather
than a community of equals, freely joined.
Latin Americans frequently point out that the U.S. empire
has never invaded a country south of Panama. The speed with which
the U.S. is escalating the war in Colombia represents a sharp
departure from that tradition, as does the establishment of military
bases throughout the continent.
The worldwide deployment of U. S. troops, including to previously
neutral or Soviet-allied countries, began in 1991 under a law,
Section 2011 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, allowing the U.S. military
to train foreign troops with no regard for human rights restrictions
and little or no oversight from U.S. civilian authorities.
The only condition imposed on the deployments is that the
primary purpose is to train U.S. soldiers. That is a license to
do practically anything, but even that restriction is regularly
flouted, according to a three-part Washington Post series.
The troops involved are Green Berets, Rangers, Navy SEALs
and other special operations units. While Washington officially
wrings its hands over the murderous war in Congo, and op-ed newspaper
pieces piously call for a U.S. military "humanitarian"
intervention, most of the media ignored the role of the U.S. special
forces in training and urging into battle the Rwandan military,
which started both of the last two wars in the neighboring Congo,
in league with the Ugandan government, where troops have been
trained in the same manner.
"Without firing a shot in anger," the Post reported,
the special operations forces "are revising the rules of
U.S. engagement with scores of foreign countries," and added
that they "have become a leading force in exerting U.S. influence
For decades, the Organization of African Unity was generally
successful in preventing wars aimed at redrawing the map of Africa.
The end of that era began with the surrender of the Soviet Union
and the arrival of U.S. special operations forces in countries
The Post quoted U.S. officials as saying that the special
operations forces "also pass on their values of respect for
human rights, civilian leadership and the need for a nations military
to maintain a professional, apolitical role in society''
It is unclear what civilian leadership values the troops are
passing on. As the Post pointed out, civilian leadership, or even
oversight of these special forces operations is "minimal
to nonexistent," and not by accident-in the law as written
or in the behavior of the senior military officers involved.
The Post noted one 1994 incident when Gen. Barry McCaffrey,
then head of the U.S. Southern Command in Latin America, "circulated
a letter asserting his authority over the troops, infuriating
the regions ambassadors. Ambassador Charles
Bowers in Bolivia was so angry he threatened to expel U.S.
troops from Bolivia.'' McCaffrey moved from his Southern Command
position in March 1996 to be the White House drug czar and the
main public relations spokesperson for the escalation of the war
The Pentagon's attempts to block congressional oversight came
to light with the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia
and revelations by investigative reporter Allan Nairn and others
of the U.S. special operations forces role in training the Indonesian
army, despite a congressional ban on training Indonesian military
officers in the United States because of extreme human rights
abuses. Special operations forces have conducted 41 training exercises
with the Indonesian army since the law was adopted in 1991. Most
of the Indonesian exercises involved the notorious Kopassus troops,
accused by U.S. officials of involvement in kidnappings and torture
of anti-government activists, the Post noted.
The Pentagon is required by the law to provide accounts of
the missions to Congress, but Pentagon officials acknowledged
that the annual reports, declassified for the first time in 1998,
were "vague and difficult to decipher," the Post noted.
Even that was too much for the Defense Department, which attempted,
just before the Indonesia scandal broke in early 1998, to eliminate
the reporting altogether as "unduly burdensome.,
Special operations forces, which engage in what are called
"Joint Combined Exchange Training" or "JCETs,"
are not required to abide by congressional or administration restrictions
on aid to military units because of human rights violations, drug
trafficking or, apparently, anything. That alone explains the
ongoing Pentagon work with the Colombian military even during
the years of the government of President Ernesto Samper, when
Colombia was "decertified" for drug reasons and Pentagon
involvement climbed exponentially
The U.S. role in organizing the death squads began with the
Special Operations forces in 1991, when they set up "intelligence
networks" under a secret Colombian military high command
order, number 200-05/91.
The new tactic is to claim that increased U.S. military involvement
will actually improve the human rights record of the Colombian
military although all evidence suggests the exact opposite, and
not by accident.
This is a new stratagem that was developed by the Reagan administration
in the 1980s. Up to that time, the Congress would cut off military
assistance to governments with particularly appalling human rights
records-as the U.S. did with Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua
and the series of military dictators in Guatemala-although the
appropriation was often simply hidden in the Pentagon budget.
The new line was to call for increased U.S. military aid,
with the line that it was needed to train the Latin militaries
in respect for human rights.
When the training had exactly the opposite effect, as with
alumni from the School of the Americas, the U.S. authorities and
the semi-official U.S. media made a show of hand wringing, suggesting
that these Latin American military officers sank back into their
brutal ways once returned to their natural milieu, and to attempt
to shift the debate to focus on whether the SOA had done enough
to instill respect for human rights, or whether it needed to do
When military units specially formed and trained from the
start by the U.S. authorities committed the worst atrocities of
the Central American war, the U.S. government and media suppressed
the details, and forced out any reporters who had mentioned it.
When revelations such as the 1970 Daniel Mitrione affair in
Uruguay showed that the U.S. authorities, far from training Latin
American military and police to respect human rights, were in
fact forming and training torture squads and death squads, U.S.
officials again did their best to suppress the story.