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 the area.

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.


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 considerably.


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.


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 but counter-guerrilla.

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. intelligence reports.


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 recruited.

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 U.S. officials.

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 Bulletin reported.

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 to survive.

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 peace initiative.

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.

South America watch