U.S. escalates Colombia's dirty war
by Tristan Adie
International Socialist Review, May-June 2002
When Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, launched a major
military offensive against leftwing rebels in late February, human
rights groups issued dire warnings about the safety of civilians
in a zone run by rebels in the southern part of the country. Liz
Atherton, of the Colombia Peace Association wrote, "When
the army enters the zone, so too will their paramilitary soulmates.
Already hit lists are circulating among the civilian populations
of the zone warning certain people to leave if they want to stay
alive. One such list has the names of around 30 people, all accused
of collaborating with the guerrillas. There is no doubt that we
are about to be witnesses to a civilian bloodbath with government
Such warnings were not hyperbole. The Colombian military,
working hand in hand with the right-wing paramilitaries, has the
worst human rights record in the hemisphere. They have been armed
to the teeth through a massive infusion of military aid from the
United States over the last several years. And if the billions
that the U.S. has provided in helicopters, surveillance equipment,
advisers, and artillery weren't enough, Pastrana's confidence
to take on the rebels was boosted by the Bush administration's
vow after September 11 to lend its support to the "war on
terror" in Colombia as well.
Pastrana sent 13,000 troops into the zone that he had granted
to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1998 to
entice them to enter peace negotiations. The zone is the size
of Switzerland, and the rebels had governed it independently for
the last three years. The decision to retake the zone came shortly
after Pastrana cut off peace talks that had been foundering for
some time. He announced the decision after the U.S. ambassador
to Colombia, Anne Patterson, hand-delivered 14 new Black Hawk
helicopters and gave her blessing to the army's invasion of the
zone in a private meeting with Pastrana.
In less than 24 hours, the military had dropped more than
200 250-kilogram bombs on 85 targets in the zone. Ground troops
moved in to overtake towns and villages. Information about the
impact of this campaign on civilians is virtually nonexistent,
since the military has refused to allow the press into the zone
or even into the regions surrounding it. Limited information has,
however, gotten out from religious groups operating in towns south
of the zone. Carlos Sanchez, U.S. coordinator of Catholic Relief
Services in Solidarity with Colombia, detailed a report he received
on March 22, 2002, from a priest in the Putumayo province:
[T]hings have become markedly dangerous since March 6th in
all of Putumayo. In early March, the FARC abandoned the towns
in the region and the people living there, as government troops,
national police, and paramilitaries moved into the area in force.
Since then, 30 people have been disappeared and murdered,
in the area. Three people that were particularly dose to the parish
were murdered in the last week.
An old man, that tended a small river launch and kiosk, was
brutally tortured and murdered by paramilitaries who proceed to
draw and quarter his remains. The paramilitaries claimed that
the man had assisted the FARC, and that his murder was a sign
to those that offer support to the FARC....
[The] Father mentioned that the paramilitaries' ranks arrived
with former members of the community and former FARC members that
have joined the paramilitaries and are the ones that have been
guiding the "cleansing" of the population.
The priest further reported that the entire region south of
the zone had been cut off from the rest of the country thanks
to military and rebel bombings of bridges and roads. Water, food,
and electricity are in dangerously short supply.
To make matters worse, people in many of the areas coming
under fire have already watched their crops wither and die after
six months of military fumigation sprayings. Planned by the U.S.
State Department and executed by American contractors such as
DynCorp, the sprayings are supposed to wipe out coca crops. But
because the fumigation planes blanket entire towns and agricultural
areas, they have had the effect of destroying the food supply
for thousands of civilians living in and around the zone. With
supply routes to other cities and towns now wiped out, many rural
Colombians face the prospect of starving to death as a result
of the army offensive.
Bush administration's green light
Just like the Israel Defense Forces' invasion of the West
Bank, Pastrana's war on the formerly demilitarized zone has gotten
a green light from the Bush administration. As part of a new drive
to increase military support for Colombia's war against the FARC,
Bush recently asked congress to lift restrictions on the types
of aid the U.S. provides to Colombia.
Throughout most of the 1990s, the Clinton administration was
careful to cloak its support in terms of fighting the "war
on drugs," even though it was clear that American aid was
aimed at strengthening the Colombian military against the rebels.
But Bush now seeks to lump Colombia's war in with his far-reaching
"war on terrorism" by casting the FARC and another rebel
group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), as terrorist organizations.
Buried within his emergency counter-terrorism aid package that
was submitted to Congress in March is a call for all current and
future aid to be "available to support a unified campaign
against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other
threats to [Colombia's] national security."
A request for $439 million to provide military intelligence
and spare parts to the Colombian armed forces accompanied this
shift in stated objectives. This would come on top of the $1.6
billion provided by the Clinton administration under Plan Colombia
in 2000. It would also augment the $880 million Andean aid package
aimed at strengthening the militaries of other countries in the
region, which Bush won from Congress last year. To top it off,
Bush has called for an additional Andean Regional Initiative that
would provide $731 million in military aid to the region, 60 percent
of which would go to Colombia.
Bush also requested $98 million in February to help U.S.-based
Occidental Petroleum protect its Cano Limon oil pipeline in Colombia.
Rebels bombed the pipeline 170 times. The pipeline was out of
commission for 266 days in 2001. Providing weaponry and/or military
personnel to protect oil operations in Colombia would be a significant
and dangerous step toward deepening U.S. involvement in the war.
But as Ambassador Patterson said of the plan, "The issue
of oil security has become a priority for the United States....
After Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia is the most important oil
country in the region."
The Bush administration has engaged in a carefully orchestrated
campaign to paint the FARC as part of the "international
terrorist threat." In mid-March, a U.S. federal grand jury
charged three FARC members with conspiring to import cocaine-showcasing
the idea that the FARC are "narcoterrorists." Last April,
hearings were held in which some in congress alleged that FARC
forces had received "terrorist training" from members
of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Testifying before the congressional
committee on April 18, Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage
even claimed, without citing any evidence, that al-Qaeda supporters
have been active in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
In a report written by the House International Relations Committee,
headed by Representative Henry Hyde (R-III.), the committee asserts
ominously that "Colombia is a potential breeding ground for
international terror equaled perhaps only by Afghanistan,"
and "must be addressed by changes in U.S. Iaw that will permit
American assistance for counterterrorism programs" there.
Even General Fernando Tapias, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
for the Armed Forces of Colombia, had admitted at the April 25
congressional hearings that the Colombian government has no information
linking the IRA and the FARC.
According to the assessment of one U.S. intelligence official,
"[A]s for direct links between the FARC and al-Qaeda or Hezbollah,
those kinds of groups, the experts just laugh." This hasn't
stopped the Bush administration from using these new "revelations:
"In the past year, there's a lot of fertilization taking
place between different terrorist organizations and, with each
passing day, you can begin to see different connections emerge
that have to be pursued," Secretary of State Colin Powell
told the Senate Appropriations Committee soon after the hearings.
In what is perhaps the most cynical maneuver, Attorney General
John Ashcroft announced the indictment of six FARC members accused
of murdering three indigenous rights workers who had been visiting
Colombia's U'wa Indians in 1999.
"Today," announced Ashcroft on April 30, "the
United States strikes back at the FARC reign of terror against
the United States and its citizens." Ashcroft commented that
the State Department considers the FARC to be "the most dangerous
international terrorist group based in the Western hemisphere."
"Just as we fight terrorism in the mountains of south
Asia," he added, "we will fight terrorism in our own
hemisphere." The next day Powell reported for the State Department
that Colombia is making progress toward improving human rights,
clearing the way for $62 million more in military aid.
There was one snag in Bush's plans. The U.S. decided to suspend
aid to Colombia's antinarcotic unit in early May, alleging that
some $2 million had been diverted from a bank account provided
to cover the unit's administrative expenses.
U.S. and Colombian officials and the media have especially
focused on a FARC-paramilitary battle in early May in which a
FARC bomb reportedly killed sixty people inside a Church in Bellavista.
According to reports, the bomb was aimed at paramilitaries-who
had besieged the FARC-controlled town-entrenched all around the
Bush backs terrorism
Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has had nothing
to say about the main source of terrorism in Colombia: the military
and its paramilitary cohorts. Human rights organizations calculate
that the paramilitaries are responsible for 70-80 percent of all
the human rights abuses that occur in Colombia each year from
massacres of civilians to kidnappings to political assassinations.
In 2001, paramilitaries committed more than 100 massacres.
Together with the police and army, they have assassinated at least
48 trade unionists so far this year and killed more than 3,500
since 1986. They have conducted terror campaigns in the countryside
that have given Colombia an internal refugee population of almost
two million-the second largest in the world. And this is to say
nothing of what they have done within the demilitarized zone,
from which human rights monitors have been barred since army operations
Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 makes it dear that the
military and paramilitary continue to work in dose cooperation
[C]ertain military units and police detachments continued
to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary
groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with
their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involved
active coordination during military operations between government
and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones,
and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names
of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters,
including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and
paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing
of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary
fighters, coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let
heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass; and payments made from
paramilitaries to military officers for their support.
Moreover, while the FARC collects a tax on coca growers in
some areas, it is in fact the paramilitaries-and the drug barons
they protect-who are responsible for both narcotrafficking and
narcoterrorism. Writes Doug Stokes in "Colombia primer,"
which appeared on ZNet on April 16, 2002.
A report produced by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs found
no evidence of the FARC's export of drugs to the U.S. but did
point to the extensive nature of drug smuggling to the U.S. by
"right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy
drug barons, the armed forces, key financial figures and senior
government bureaucrats." James Milford, the former Deputy
Administrator with the U.S.'s central drug eradication body the
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), stated that Carlos Castano, the
chief of the paramilitary AUC is a "major cocaine trafficker
in his own right" and has close links to the North Valle
drug syndicate which is "among the most powerful drug trafficking
groups in Colombia."
The Bush administration has remained wholly passive in the
face of the economic disaster that has been building in Colombia.
As billions of dollars in U.S. military aid have been rolling
into Colombia, from 1997 to 2000, the poverty rate there grew
from 50.3 percent to 68 percent. The unemployment rate has nearly
doubled over the last decade to more than | 20 percent, and another
60 percent of adults are underemployed. Per capita income in Colombia
has plunged from $2,716 in 1997 to $1,890 today.
Instead of economic assistance from either the Colombian state
or the U.S., Colombians can expect only intensified war in the
immediate future. Pastrana traveled to Washington on April 15
for a 4-day lobbying tour for yet more military aid. He wrote
in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, "In the wake of
Sept. 11, both Colombians and Americans more dearly understand
what is at stake in helping us achieve peace and prosperity. With
billions of dollars flowing into terrorist groups from the drug
trade, Colombia has become the theater of operations in which
the global campaign against terrorism is being waged in Latin
America. Like the United States in the fight against al Qaeda,
we are fighting a multinational terrorist network [against the
FARC and ELN]."
In addition, the front-runner in presidential elections slated
for May in Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, has promised a no-holds-barred
war against the rebels if elected. He is the favored candidate
in Washington. While governor of the Antioquia province, Uribe
encouraged the participation of known paramilitaries in Colombian
military actions. He advocates the participation of "foreign
military troops" (primarily American, we can assume) in fighting
U.S. dollars are funding terrorist butchery in Colombia. It
will only intensify as Bush brings his disastrous "war on
terror" to Latin America. We can't let him get away with
There has been one important victory in Colombia. At the beginning
of May, multinational oil company Occidental Petroleum announced
that they will end their search for oil in the tribal homelands
of the U'wa people. This is a great step forward. But much more
work needs to be done to drive U.S. imperialism from Colombia
Tristin Adie is a frequent contributor to the International