A Permanent Yanqui War Against the Colombian
Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S.
by Jordan Green
Z magazine, January 2002
The two major leftist guerrilla groups in Colombia, the FARC
and the ELN, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia and
Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, are not very much discussed in
the apprehensive ranks of the American left. The left has decried
the escalating American military intervention in Colombia with
its discredited pretext of the "war on drugs," and has
appropriately drawn attention to the corporate interests in the
exploitation of the country's oil resources, but by and large
has shrunk from contending with the armed groups contesting the
U.S. neoliberal agenda.
These two groups are the FARC, a resilient quasi-government
whose communist roots half a century ago were in urgent need to
create a safe haven for the rural campesinos against the depredations
of partisan warfare in the period known as la violencia; and the
ELN, a charismatic guerrilla army inspired by the Cuban Revolution
and Che Guevara's dream of a Latin American socialism united against
The FARC and the ELN should be in the minds of the citizens
of the United States, particularly those who have struggled against
corporate domination in the domestic arena. After all, the U.
S. Special Forces have been in Colombia, on and off, since
1964. The Vietnamization of American military operations in
the 1960s ratcheted up the level of repression in the U.S. training
of its Colombian enforcers. Today, Colombia is the third largest
recipient of U.S. military aid, after Egypt and Israel.
In at least some basic ways, the FARC and the ELN have been
true to their mandates. The FARC, befitting a force that controls
nearly a quarter of the countryside, taxes all exported goods,
including coca. The more insurrectionary ELN regularly blows up
the pipelines that funnel petroleum from the countryside into
the tankers of Los Angeles-based multinational oil company Occidental
Petroleum. They destroy power lines to protest the privatization
of the country's energy sector. The ELN poses a significant obstacle
to the one-sided compact the political and economic ruling class
in the United States has arranged with its accommodating local
elite clients in the region: unimpeded corporate access with no
accountability to the indigenous population.
The oil in Colombia is not the vast reserve that might allow
the United States to continue its gross consumption of fossil
fuels and maintain its global dominance. But it is the example
that the FARC and the ELN set in actively defying corporate domination
that make them a threat to the U.S. ruling class and subject to
The FARC and the ELN have been reviled by liberal non-governmental
organizations and mass media across the political spectrum for
profiting from the international drug trade, in addition to extortion,
kidnapping, and-most disturbingly-for the murder of civilians
who attempt neutrality in the escalating conflict with paramilitaries.
Hardly anyone suggests that the guerrilla forces' transgressions
and human rights abuses are as egregious as those of the Autodefensas
Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, a paramilitary group that massacred
at least 37 campesinos in the second week of October in the departments
of Valle de Cauca and Magdalena-a group that is, by its own admission,
heavily involved in cocaine trafficking.
War, even guerrilla war, is an unsavory enterprise and its
violence debases all parties-even in the struggle to wrest a new
social order from an old, oppressive system. In Colombia, there
is not a revolutionary movement that animates the latent social-democratic
yearnings of the North American and European left in the way the
Sandinista revolution of Nicaragua did in the 1980s. Even so,
it doesn't take a painstaking study of social history to comprehend
that the FARC and the ELN are qualitatively different from the
repressive thugs who defend private interests, that is the paramilitaries,
in Colombia. But in the affluent American capitols of the Imperium,
the armed combatants on the left are considered in moral equivalence
with the paramilitaries. They are effectively isolated from international
An Impatient State Department
The U.S. State Department, on October 15, essentially signed
a death warrant for the FARC and the ELN. Ambassador Francis X.
Taylor, coordinator of the state's Counterterrorism Office, announced
that the FARC and the ELN would be given the same treatment as
the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon
on September 11. Taylor all but announced a direct American military
intervention when he said the United States would use all means,
including "where appropriate-as we are doing in Afghanistan-the
use of military power."
Taylor, along with Rep. Cass Ballenger, a North Carolina Republican
who has long kept a paranoid eye on Latin America, has been drumming
up an ominous rattle of permanent and expanded conflict. On October
10, before separate committees in the House of Representatives,
the two remarked ominously and portentously on the existence of
agents of the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatist
group ETA training the FARC in tactics of urban guerrilla warfare;
of Hamas and Hezbollah training in the remote border region between
Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Rep. Ballenger suggested that
the FARC-controlled area of Colombia "is being used as a
safe haven to train and harbor terrorists."
In other words, the die has been cast. Just at the moment
the drug war began to lose its sheen, a new pretext for aggressive
American militarism has been conveniently supplied.
All this is good news for Bell Helicopter Textron, the Fort
Worth, Texas-based defense contractor turning out Huey II helicopters
to escort the aerial fumigation planes in the department of Putumayo,
along with their Connecticut partners Sikorsky Corporation who
produce the Black Hawk helicopter. Bell Helicopter and Sikorsky
have together received $328 million over the past year for their
contribution to the Colombian war effort.
The inclusion of the AUC in the State Department's rogue's
gallery of "foreign terrorist organizations" gives the
appearance that the anti-terrorism war applied to Latin America
is an impartial, non-ideological exercise. However, long-time
observers of military conflict in the region express doubts that
the AUC will be significantly hobbled by its new "terrorist"
status. One skeptic is Stan Goff, a retired Special Forces operative
who trained the Colombian armed forces in the early l990s.
"It defies credibility that the Colombian military will
attack the AUC," says Goff. "It's about as likely as
one squad of the Los Angeles Police Department attacking another."
Goff attests to the Colombian paramilitaries' role as an irregular
division of the official armed forces who carry out its more brutal
repressions-in active collaboration that supplies the all-important
escape hatch of deniability. This is a well-worn path in Latin
America-familiar to observers of Haiti, Guatemala and El Salvador-of
state-sponsored fascism and privately-funded vigilantism.
In a report issued in early October, New York-based Human
Rights Watch (HRW) charged that the Colombian Army's U.S.-trained
24th Brigade, stationed in Putumayo, works with and receives money
from the AUC.
In 1996, HRW exposed a 1991 order to integrate the paramilitaries
into the Colombian Armed Forces intelligence operations: Directive
200-05/91. The report suggests that this order was made at the
instigation of the U.S. military.
Despite Colombia's disastrous human rights record, a U.S.
Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) team
worked with Colombian military officers on the 1991 intelligence
reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer networks
that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas.
Eyewitnesses have linked the new network run by the Colombian
navy to the murders of at least 57 people in and around the city
of Barrancabermeja in 1992 and 1993, in incidents documented here.
Since then, there has been no effort to reform the Colombian
military and, in fact, President Andres Pastrana signed a bill
last August to relax government oversight.
"The point is," says Goff, "if we give money
to the Colombian military, it ends up in, the hands of the paramilitaries."
Goff, an organizer with the North Carolina Network for Popular
Democracy, has written poignantly of this slippery arrangement
in his memoir, Hideous Dream-published earlier this year by Soft
Skull Press-a denouement of a 24-year career in the U.S. military
concluded bitterly in the 1994 invasion of Haiti as he came to
terms with himself as a self-described "budding Red."
Whether to wage a war on all the forces of destabilization
or to war against the challengers of the neoliberal system is
the question for the designers of U.S. foreign policy. The State
Department would like to market its escalation under the ideologically-neutral
rubric of "counterterrorism," but Ambassador Taylor
tipped his hand in an October 15 address to the Organization of
American States in which he announced, "We date the advent
of modern terrorism from 1968...when revolutionary movements began
forming throughout the Americas."
The liberal-left addresses the situation in Colombia by highlighting
the displacement of indigenous people and Afro-Colombian communities
by U.S. multinational oil companies, avoiding identification or
sympathy with the guerrilla forces who offer the most serious
challenge to the rapacious greed of the parties of corporate domination.
A case in point is Witness For Peace. An ecumenical Christian
organization monitoring human rights abuses in Colombia, Witness
For Peace provides a reliable marker of the shift of strategic
loyalties on the left. In the 1980s, the group made a significant
impact against the human rights abuses of the Nicaraguan Contras.
Observing that the Contras were loath to turn their guns on American
citizens for fear of displeasing their sponsors in the Reagan
administration, the group effectively placed themselves in the
countryside to minimize atrocities. For the North American left
in the 1980s, the socialist project of the Sandinistas was something
clearly worth defending against the U.S.-sponsored Contra bid
for elite counterrevolution.
Ten years after the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas and
the triumph of the United States in the Cold War, Witness For
Peace is ambivalent on the merits of socialist revolution in Colombia.
The situation there, according to the organization's website,
bears only a superficial comparison to earlier struggles between
leftist guerrilla movements and right-wing paramilitaries in Guatemala
and El Salvador. In contrast to those conflicts, according to
Witness For Peace, FARC and ELN operate without significant popular
support and the paramilitaries are only somewhat tied to the regular
In March, a Witness For Peace delegation took pains to emphasize
to U.S. embassy officials in Bogota that they did not support
the guerrilla insurrection in Colombia, but they were not naive
about the negative effects of U.S. policy in Latin America. Witness
For Peace's approach to solidarity emphasizes meeting with community
leaders and human rights workers, though not with the armed actors
in the guerrilla struggle who are directly contesting the power
relations of the country's economic system. Their protest against
U.S. military intervention comes out of their conviction that
justice comes with peace or at the very least becomes more possible
with peace, in contrast to the premise that struggle is necessary
to achieve a just peace.
Some North American leftists have stepped out firmly in support
of the guerrillas. Jessica Sundin of Colombia Action Network traveled
directly to the FARC-controlled area in the south of the country,
to find out for herself the reality of the insurgency. Relating
her impressions in the journal of Freedom Road, a Marxist-Leninist
organization based in Chicago, Sundin said, "The FARC is
made up mostly of campesinos and poor peasants, the most exploited
people in Colombia. They say that the FARC is the only way to
make a better life for themselves, their families, and for all
Offering an analysis that is hard to dispute, she insisted,
"History shows that there are no open legal doors to social
change in their country. The traditional parties make decisions
that serve the interests of a handful of rich that rule the country.
The members of the FARC want to turn that around, to have a new
Colombia that is run by the majority."
Against the prevailing view that the FARC is part of the endemic
cycle of social violence in Colombia, Sundin attested, "Since
the area has been under FARC control, it is without a doubt the
safest place in the country."
Not all North American groups on the left ascribe such socially
progressive attributes to the insurgents. The Friends Peace Team
Project, a Quaker group in San Antonio, estimated last year that
guerrilla groups were responsible for around 50 percent of the
forced relocations in Colombia. In March 1999, the murder of Ingrid
Washinowatok, a Menonminee Indian from Minnesota, along with two
companions was widely attributed to the FARC. Washinowatok had
recently arrived in Colombia to help establish an U'wa language
school to help the indigenous group build a cultural resistance
to the occupation of tribal lands by Occidental Petroleum. The
death of the three activists prompted a campaign by the American
Indian Movement to pressure the FARC to accountability.
Aggressions Toward the Rich
Alma Guillermoprieto, who has covered Latin America with perceptive
insight and no small amount of compassion for the New Yorker,
casts an impassive gaze on the FARC and the ELN. But writing from
an essentially bourgeois standpoint, Guillermoprieto recounts
how a group of upper-class friends agonized over a trip to the
beach under the threat of kidnapping by the ELN. The kidnappings
are a thorn in the side for the wealthy since the ELN sets up
roadblocks where travelers are sometimes forced to wait for hours
unless a quick computer database search reveals that they have
insufficient income to qualify for abduction.
Recently, these episodes have reached an outrageous level
of disregard. On September 30, former Culture Minister Consuelo
Araujo was found shot to death after being held by the FARC for
less than a week. Araujo's death, along with the polarizing events
of September 11 in the United States, has strained peace talks
between the government and the rebels practically to the breaking
In fact, on all sides of the conflict, violence has escalated
precipitously, with police and peasants being targeted and with
children dying as an unintended result of FARC's explosion of
an oil pipeline in the northern department of La Guajira, as reported
by the Washington Post.
On October 24, Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Colombia,
announced that the United States would seek to extradite the FARC,
the ELN, and the AUC. Colombian generals and right-wing paramilitary
leaders now speak of the zona de despejada as "the Afghanistan
within Colombia." Conservative editorialists in Bogota thunder
that Colombia needs to follow the United States' example and take
harsh measures against the leftist "terrorists."
Clearly, Colombian elites and their U.S. sponsors see the
opportunity to wipe out the guerrilla movement for good and end
the 37-year civil war. No doubt, the insurgents also see this
as a critical time to push forward. This is the shape of the permanent
war to come: an escalating spiral of retaliatory violence with
each side invested so deeply that surrender becomes unfathomable.
Perhaps for the United States, the war in Colombia will become
a nightmarish entanglement in which we will wonder at what point
we might have had a chance to extricate ourselves. For the displaced
majority of Colombia whose economic survival has become increasingly
tenuous, the time when popular struggle might have loosened the
grip of the elites must nearly seem to have receded into the dusk.
The signs are ominous that the FARC and the ELN have been
marked by the U.S. State Department for destruction. In that confrontation,
all sectors of Colombian society will be submerged in a bloodbath.
Opponents of the U.S. "anti-terror" war in the United
States must know that this aggression also will be committed in
the name of American patriotism. The Colombian revolution and
perhaps the viability of a left-wing opposition in North America
hang in the balance.
Jordan Green is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North
Carolina, currently working as an editorial and research associate
at the Institute for Southern Studies.