Picking Our Enemies
US Doesn't Mind Terrorists in Colombia
Resist newsletter, May 2002
There's a new group on the State Department's official list
of terrorist organizations. But unlike the ones calling for an
Islamic jihad against the United States, this group says it supports
US goals. And it works closely with the government that is the
Western Hemisphere's largest recipient of US military aid.
The rightwing paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia
(AUC) also happens to be responsible for the bulk of massacres,
assassinations and threats that have forced more than two million
rural Colombians to flee their homes since the late 1980s. Secretary
of State Colin Powell said September 10 that designating the AUC
as terrorist should "leave no doubt that the United States
considers terrorism to be unacceptable, regardless of the political
or ideological purpose." Two leftwing guerrilla groups, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National
Liberation Army (ELN), have been on the list since its 1997 creation.
US disapproval of rightwing terrorism may surprise AUC leaders,
who say they're a crucial part of Plan Colombia, the antiguerrilla,
antinarcotics military drive bankrolled by more than $ I billion
from US taxpayers. In the southern province of Putumayo, where
Plan Colombia is focused, an AUC chief known as "Commander
Wilson" told reporters in April that the initiative "would
be almost impossible" without paramilitary forces. Wilson,
a former army soldier, told the San Francisco Chronicle that AUC
leaders and military officials together mapped out Plan Colombia
strategies and that he reports daily to the military about his
The AUC's terrorist designation also will interest top Colombian
military commanders, taught by US advisors over the years that
paramilitary surrogates are highly effective against guerrillas.
A 1996 report by Human Rights Watch described Colombia's military-paramilitary
partnership as "a sophisticated mechanism, in part supported
by years of advice, training, weaponry and official silence by
the United States, that allows the Colombian military to fight
a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it."
The US role in that strategy dates back almost four decades.
The Human Rights Watch report quotes a 1962 US Army Special Warfare
School recommendation that Colombia "execute paramilitary,
sabotage and or terrorist activities against known communist proponents"
and that the partnership with paramilitary groups "be backed
by the United States."
In the 1980s the paramilitary groups forged tight alliances
with the heads of Colombia's burgeoning drug industry, who snapped
up huge rural tracts and joined cattle ranchers and other rural
entrepreneurs in Colombia's landholding elite. Leftwing guerrillas,
especially the FARC, waged kidnaping and extortion campaigns in
the same areas. Responding to this harassment, drug traffickers
such as Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha showered funds
on paramilitary networks. To enhance their firepower and skills,
paramilitary chiefs recruited Israeli and British mercenaries.
In 1990 a team of representatives from the US Embassy's Military
Group, the US Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency
and the CIA helped reorganize Colombia's "intelligence"
networks, according to the Human Rights Watch report. The DIA
attaché in Bogota at the time admitted US officials knew
from news accounts and military reports that Colombian military
members "were still working with paramilitaries." Based
on recommendations from the US team, according to Human Rights
Watch, the Colombian military ordered commanders to set up 41
secret networks and avoid leaving any paper trail.
In the 11 years since, paramilitary groups have grown to an
estimated 8,000 members from less than 1,000. They engage more
directly in battle with guerrillas for control of territory and
drug profits. They travel freely by helicopter and plane. They
have organized openly into a national association, complete with
a Web site, and are demanding the ability to run in local elections
and participate in national peace talks. In parts of Colombia,
they have built broad support for the antiguerrilla cause.
These paramilitary groups also routinely assassinate unionists,
campesino leaders, human rights activists, judges, progressive
politicians and journalists; attack residents of resource-rich
or strategic rural areas; and slaughter and displace entire communities
of unarmed civilians. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, paramilitaries
obliterated the leftwing Patriotic Union party, systematically
assassinating thousands of its candidates and members.
This year has been as bloody as ever. Paramilitary squads
killed an average of 132 people per month between January and
April, according to the Colombian government. Some of the worst
violence came Easter week, when paramilitary attacks killed 128
people. In one of those attacks, government forces failed to stop
400 chain-saw-wielding paramilitary members from butchering 40
campesinos and indigenous people near the southwestern hamlet
of Alto Naya. US and Colombian human rights groups have methodically
documented the massacres, and Colombian judicial investigations
have corroborated military complicity.
Yet US military aid to Colombia has ballooned from an average
of $60 million a year between 1992 and 1995 to the $567 million
President George W. Bush is requesting for 2002. That's on top
of the $ I.3 billion for Plan Colombia that President Bill Clinton
signed in 2000.
The US Congress did seek to pressure the Colombian military
to sever its paramilitary links and curb their attacks, hinging
the Plan Colombia aid on human rights protection. The Clinton
administration waived the human rights conditions and disbursed
the aid, citing US "national security" interests. Still,
Colombian President Andres Pastrana's administration has felt
compelled to take unprecedented steps against paramilitary networks.
In the past year, his government has dismissed hundreds of members
of security forces, arrested a retired general and lieutenant
colonel for allegedly organizing paramilitary militias, captured
dozens of paramilitary fighters and raided the offices and accounts
of some northern ranchers believed to fund them.
The State Department designation of the AUC as terrorist could
have pressured Colombia to go further, but we may never know.
The equation changed on September 11. Now the Bush administration
is pressing Congress to waive human rights restrictions on aid
to countries allied with the US war against terrorism. If history
is any guide, no matter how the State Department classifies the
AUC, the United States won't be forcing the Colombian government
to cut its bloody paramilitary ties anytime soon.
This article is reprinted from the Resource Center of the
Americas. For more information, contact them at 3019 Minnehaha
Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55406; www.americas.org.
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