Miami South Com

by Nikolas Kozloff

Z magazine, December 1999


Slowly but surely, the U. S. presence is escalating in Colombia's counterinsurgency war against left wing rebels. Currently there are 1,000 U.S. marines stationed at a military base on the Colombian Pacific coast at Bahia Malaga, dispatched in support of the army. Patience seems to be wearing out in Washington for a peaceful settlement, as evidenced by a recent report by the French news agency Agence France Presse stating that U. S. Ieaders have been actively courting Latin

leaders to organize a military intervention force to pacify Colombia. Such a multinational force would intervene in early 2000 acting on a request by Colombian president, Andres Pastrana. According to the report, Pastrana would try to reach an agreement with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's leading rebel group. If peace were not reached by January, Pastrana would declare a state of internal war in Colombia and call on regional aid to help pacify his country. An intervention force of Peruvian, Ecuadoran, and Brazilian soldiers would join forces with the Colombian army, currently being trained by U.S. advisers to fight the rebels. In an ominous recap of the Kosovo war, U. S. warships off Colombia's Caribbean and Pacific coasts would then support the allied intervention with missile attacks and air strikes.

Moves towards greater U.S. involvement have been directed and coordinated out of a rather nondescript looking building located at 3511 NW 91 Avenue in Miami. This is the site of the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for all U. S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1998, Miami South Com had a budget of $566 million. According to Charles Wilhelm, South Com's commander, the center is "the most technologically advanced military intelligence facility in the world. "

Wilhelm, a Vietnam veteran who was disappointed by the onslaught of negativism surrounding that war, and who remarked to the Miami Herald that he "would have gone back for a third tour, a fourth," now would like to roll back the guerrillas in Colombia. In order to do this, however, Wilhelm has collaborated with top Colombian brass, some of which have alleged connections to right-wing paramilitary death squads. Reportedly, Wilhelm met with former Colombian Defense Minister Harold Bedoya Nava back in 1997 to discuss the need for growing U.S. military involvement in Colombia. Bedoya Nava was reportedly one of the worst human rights offenders in the military. Bedoya Nava studied military intelligence at the U. S. Army's School of the Americas in 1965 and was invited back to teach it as a guest professor in 1978 and 1979. According to School of the Americas Watch, Bedoya was believed to be the founder and chief of the paramilitary death squad known as "AAA" (American Anti-Communist Alliance). In 1997, the Colombian government forced General Bedoya's retirement. His hostility to human rights and career-long association with the dramatic increase in joint army-paramilitary operations was notorious. "We took Bedoya out because of human rights," former President Ernesto Samper told Human Rights Watch in an interview.

More recently, Wilhelm has met with Colombian General Fernando Tapias, who has done his best to obstruct human rights in his country, by preventing prosecutors from questioning fellow Colombian officers allegedly implicated in killings and death threats. Tapias argued that such cases involved official acts and should be tried before a military tribunal. Yet another associate of Wilhelm's is General Jose Manuel Bonett, until recently the commander of the Colombian armed forces. Wilhelm has spent considerable time with General Bonett, touring recent areas of conflict in Colombia, surveying coca production in southern Colombian departments, and discussing planned operations and the intelligence training and equipment support needs of the armed forces.

Last April Wilhelm sent a letter to Bonett, which read, "At this time the Colombian armed forces are not up to the task of confronting and defeating the insurgents.... Colombia is the most threatened in the area under the Southern Command's responsibility, and it is in urgent need of our support." Bonett, who made the letter public, agreed, saying the Colombian armed forces are in "a position of inferiority" to the rebels and adding that he would gladly accept U.S. military aid, even "atomic bombs." Bonett, it turns out, was a protégé of General Harold Bedoya, and got his start in the Middle Magdalena region, where he served as Second Division Commander. In a 1995 memo addressing army strategy, Bonett instructed his troops to focus intelligence gathering on towns and strike civilian "support networks" since guerrillas "reclaim their sick and wounded there, their weapons caches, their tailors, their bank accounts, their businesses, and other types of logistical activities essential to subversive combat." Targeting civilians, Bonett stressed, would " noticeably weaken [the guerrillas'] capability." Later, when Bonett went up in rank, he was influential in clearing his fellow officers of rampant human rights abuses, and has been photographed candidly talking with right-wing paramilitary death squad assassins.

Unlike the School of the Americas, where activists exposed the links between the U.S. and Latin American military establishments, there has not been a similar grass roots movement against Miami South Com. Miami's press has not sought to analyze the activities of the center or its champion Charles Wilhelm, who has been portrayed as a great patriot. Similarly, Miami's religious and labor leaders have yet to come out publicly against Miami South Com. If there is further U.S. involvement in Colombia, however, residents might be forced to reexamine the nondescript building, located at 3511 NW 91 Avenue.

South America watch