U.S. Intervention
in Colombia and Ecuador

by Mark Cook

CovertAction Quarterly, Spring / Summer 2000


The effort to get $1.6 billion to expand the war in Colombia, announced by testy State Department officials at a January 11 press conference, represents the last, most palpable sign of the crisis of the New World Order's economic, political and military strategies in Latin America.

The proposed appropriation has been denounced by establishment human rights groups and even much of the corporate media. It would more than quintuple the total amount of money publicly acknowledged to be going for the war in Colombia, a country whose military has the most monstrous human rights record of any in Latin America-a record coincident with U.S. "training. "

Colombia has the largest number of graduates from the School of the Americas of any Latin American country, and Colombian military officers speak proudly of being not only students but instructors there. The chief bodyguard of Carlos Castaho, the most powerful paramilitary death squad commander, proudly points to his two stints at the School of the Americas.

The Clinton administration has attempted to pretend that the funding is to fight drugs, rather than escalate Colombia's 40-year-old civil war, indeed, to obstruct a peaceful settlement of the war. But its own allies-both the military and the death squads-are the biggest drug dealers in Colombia, and even the State Department officials present at the opening press conference had trouble keeping to the script.

The fivefold increase request comes on top of what was already a threefold increase in military funding to Colombia in late 1998, to $289 million. The speed of the U.S. buildup is reminiscent of the moves by the U.S. in Vietnam in 1964, aimed at preventing the collapse of the Saigon army Pointing to the Vietnam experience, Colombia's leading newsweekly, Semana, editorialized that the U.S. "aid" was a recipe for "destruction, indefinite war and indebtedness" and denounced the "frivolity and imbecility" of Colombian President Andres Pastrana in going along, after obvious pressure, with the "opportunism and hypocrisy" of U.S. officials. U.S. officials are reportedly bracing themselves for strong opposition within Colombia, and Pastrana's popularity has plummeted.

The Clinton administration is betting heavily on helicopters which the Colombian military cannot yet fly (more than 60 are being sent) and on "paramilitary" death squads which the U.S. began training during the Bush administration at the beginning of the 1990s and which, according to human rights groups and even State Department human rights reports, are responsible for the overwhelming majority of murders.

The paramilitary death squads are only used against unarmed civilians and their commanders are reported to sleep at night in military bases to protect them from rebel attacks.

"Each night they kill groups of five to six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being tortured," wrote Judge Leonardo Ivan Cortes to various regional officials in an effort to stop the July 15-20, 1997 massacre by right-wing "paramilitaries" who had seized the town of Mapiripan, Meta. "The screams of humble people are audible, begging for mercy and asking for help."

The Colombian army and police ignored the judge's pleas until after the departure from the town of the paramilitaries, who had arrived in the zone by chartered plane at an airport controlled by the Colombian army Then the judge's pleas got plenty of attention: He and his family were forced to flee Colombia.

Carlos Castaho publicly took responsibility for the massacre, and promised more operations of the same type. Castaho's claim of responsibility forced the Colombian judiciary to order his arrest and that of two of his aides. As usual, the arrest warrants were ignored by the U.S.-funded Colombian military and police.

But in mid-1999, the extent of U.S. military collaboration with Castaho became clear when high-technology U.S. aircraft reportedly intervened to protect Castaho from an attack on his mountain headquarters by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels. The rebels were driven back by the rapid arrival of the Colombian army to defend Castano's paramilitaries.

"The successful interceptions of FARC attacks-more than anything intelligence coups-were quite stunning for a military that is renowned for falling victim to FARC ambushes," Stratfor Global Intelligence Update reported. "Clearly, something was up." What was up, the Stratfor report stated, was an RC-7B U.S. intelligence-gathering aircraft. The aircraft soon went down, crashing in superficially explained circumstances and killing all seven aboard, five of them Americans.


The money the Clinton administration is seeking can buy more of the hugely expensive reconnaissance aircraft, along with others maintained by the Pentagon at airbases in neighboring Ecuador. But within less than a week of the State Departments Colombian announcement, events in Ecuador were to shake imperial Washington and threaten its virtual military occupation of that country Similar rumblings were heard in Paraguay

In Ecuador, a mass popular revolt which had been brewing for months toppled the government of President Jamil Mahuad. The Harvard-educated Mahuad, who in his short term of office had reduced Ecuadorian living standards fourfold and a]lowed the Pentagon to set up a string of military bases, had just announced plans to "dollarize" the economy, effectively abolishing the country's currency in favor of the U.S. dollar.

Controversial enough in ordinary times, such a move in economically prostrate Ecuador would be something akin to an attempt to establish gold and silver coin as the only legal tender in the United States. Only rich Ecuadorans have any significant holding in dollars, usually stashed abroad.

The announcement of the move, predictably plunged still further the value of the Ecuadoran currency the sucre, which lost 80 percent of its worth during Mahuad's term in office. Junior military officers, who had watched their monthly salaries drop from the equivalent of $1,100 to $300 during Mahuad's administration, joined the popular revolt led by Ecuador's indigenous community, labor unions, student groups, peasant organizations and left-wing opposition parties.


U.S. pressure on the Ecuadoran military high command resulted in the derailing, for now, of the revolt and the hand-over of power to Vice President Gustavo Naboa, a member of the Ecuadoran oligarchy, but nobody expects the hasty arrangement to last.

The leaders of the revolt had promised new elections and a lifting of the state of emergency and Naboa's constitutionally dubious takeover should certainly have meant new elections. But Naboa, all too aware of the probable results, announced that he would serve out the rest of Mahuad's term (in what amounts, in the view of the overwhelming majority of the Ecuadoran public, to an opportunity to clean out the till), and would continue the state of emergency imposed by Mahuad. The new president went on to announce ongoing efforts to dollarize, new plans to extract oil from the Ecuadoran Amazon, and more privatization" to attract "foreign investment.

Opponents charged that "foreign investment" in the current economic circumstances (where a foreigner in Ecuador can live like a prince on five dollars a week) would amount to allowing foreigners to buy the country's resources for practically nothing and loot them, as has occurred throughout Latin America.

Ecuadoran public opinion polls showed that 70 to 80 percent of the population dared-even after the defeat of the revolt and in the lace of widespread arrests and beatings of suspected participants-to express support for the revolts demands. These included amnesty for military officers and others who took part in the revolt, the reorganization of the country's supreme court and congress, and the extradition of officials from Mahuad's and previous governments who had looted the Treasury and left the country

More worrisome for Washington, the leaders of the protests are demanding the immediate departure of all U.S. troops. The Pentagon has set up a string of military bases, apparently expecting to take advantage of Ecuador's desperate economic straits, and are coordinating much of the war in Colombia from there.

Similar popular pressure in Paraguay caused a hurried trip to Asuncion by Curtis Struble, the U.S. State Department director of Brazilian and Southern Cone affairs, who said he hoped Paraguay would take a "different path than that of Ecuador." (Struble served as business charge d'affaires in Ecuador until August 1999.)

U.S. officials have had no qualms with ousters of elected presidents, from Ecuador to Brazil, whenever it suited their purposes, including one of Mahuad's immediate predecessors. But musical chairs in the political ruling classes is one thing: a popular movement demanding a halt to "privatization" of publicly owned enterprises and the ouster of U.S. troops who have been flooding the countries of South America is quite another.


Meanwhile, attempts to set up bases in Central America have run into considerable opposition. U.S. authorities got their foot in the door in Nicaragua after Hurricane Mitch in late 1998, when a 1,700-strong Marine detachment was dispatched to aid in repairs. Even while they were there, concern was expressed at the possibility that the U.S. would establish a permanent base, a possibility that Gen. Joaquin Cuadra, then head of the Nicaraguan army strongly rejected. The Nicaraguan constitution forbids foreign bases. Since then there has been criticism of the allegedly shoddy construction of the bridges built by the U.S. military contingent, many of which reportedly fell apart not long after the Marines departed.

In Honduras, meanwhile, human rights groups have only recently been discovering the remains of opposition figures who were "disappeared" and murdered by death squads during the U.S. military occupation in the 1980s and whose remains have been discovered buried on or near U.S. military bases.

The U.S. authorities have reportedly turned their base-building attention to Costa Rica, a country that has built an "environmentalist" tourist | trade on the pretense, already | ridiculed in the 1980s, that it is a country without an army (security forces use other names). Foreign military bases on the territory would make U.S.-train the image considerably harder to sell.

There was public revulsion expressed in Panama when it was revealed recently that U.S. military planes are being permitted to "refuel" in that country on their way to the war in Colombia. The U.S. authorities were forced to remove their military bases in Panama under the Panama Canal treaties, which went into effect at the beginning of this year. Washington had tried for years to revise, or abrogate, the treaties. Panamanian governments, even the one hand-picked by Washington and installed through the U.S. military invasion in 1990, had feared popular reaction to such a move.


The resistance to U.S. military bombing operations in Vieques, Puerto Rico mobilized such support from the people of Puerto Rico that it united Puerto Rican political parties for the first time in memory and enlisted active campaigns by pop megastars (who usually fear the repercussions from imperial recording companies).

In a clear sign of how bad things are for the U.S. empire in Puerto Rico, at least one U.S. senator began to denounce Puerto Ricans for their "ingratitude." That is a term frequently used by imperial rulers faced with colonial revolts; it was last used by the Indonesian authorities in referring to the people of East Timor. As Benedict Anderson of the Cornell Modern Indonesia Project has noted, the use of the word "ingratitude" rather than "betrayal" in such circumstances is an admission even by the oppressor that it is a colonial relationship rather than a community of equals, freely joined.


Latin Americans frequently point out that the U.S. empire has never invaded a country south of Panama. The speed with which the U.S. is escalating the war in Colombia represents a sharp departure from that tradition, as does the establishment of military bases throughout the continent.

The worldwide deployment of U. S. troops, including to previously neutral or Soviet-allied countries, began in 1991 under a law, Section 2011 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, allowing the U.S. military to train foreign troops with no regard for human rights restrictions and little or no oversight from U.S. civilian authorities.

The only condition imposed on the deployments is that the primary purpose is to train U.S. soldiers. That is a license to do practically anything, but even that restriction is regularly flouted, according to a three-part Washington Post series.

The troops involved are Green Berets, Rangers, Navy SEALs and other special operations units. While Washington officially wrings its hands over the murderous war in Congo, and op-ed newspaper pieces piously call for a U.S. military "humanitarian" intervention, most of the media ignored the role of the U.S. special forces in training and urging into battle the Rwandan military, which started both of the last two wars in the neighboring Congo, in league with the Ugandan government, where troops have been trained in the same manner.

"Without firing a shot in anger," the Post reported, the special operations forces "are revising the rules of U.S. engagement with scores of foreign countries," and added that they "have become a leading force in exerting U.S. influence abroad."

For decades, the Organization of African Unity was generally successful in preventing wars aimed at redrawing the map of Africa. The end of that era began with the surrender of the Soviet Union and the arrival of U.S. special operations forces in countries across Africa.

The Post quoted U.S. officials as saying that the special operations forces "also pass on their values of respect for human rights, civilian leadership and the need for a nations military to maintain a professional, apolitical role in society''

It is unclear what civilian leadership values the troops are passing on. As the Post pointed out, civilian leadership, or even oversight of these special forces operations is "minimal to nonexistent," and not by accident-in the law as written or in the behavior of the senior military officers involved.

The Post noted one 1994 incident when Gen. Barry McCaffrey, then head of the U.S. Southern Command in Latin America, "circulated a letter asserting his authority over the troops, infuriating the regions ambassadors. Ambassador Charles

Bowers in Bolivia was so angry he threatened to expel U.S. troops from Bolivia.'' McCaffrey moved from his Southern Command position in March 1996 to be the White House drug czar and the main public relations spokesperson for the escalation of the war in Colombia.

The Pentagon's attempts to block congressional oversight came to light with the downfall of the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia and revelations by investigative reporter Allan Nairn and others of the U.S. special operations forces role in training the Indonesian army, despite a congressional ban on training Indonesian military officers in the United States because of extreme human rights abuses. Special operations forces have conducted 41 training exercises with the Indonesian army since the law was adopted in 1991. Most of the Indonesian exercises involved the notorious Kopassus troops, accused by U.S. officials of involvement in kidnappings and torture of anti-government activists, the Post noted.

The Pentagon is required by the law to provide accounts of the missions to Congress, but Pentagon officials acknowledged that the annual reports, declassified for the first time in 1998, were "vague and difficult to decipher," the Post noted. Even that was too much for the Defense Department, which attempted, just before the Indonesia scandal broke in early 1998, to eliminate the reporting altogether as "unduly burdensome.,

Special operations forces, which engage in what are called "Joint Combined Exchange Training" or "JCETs," are not required to abide by congressional or administration restrictions on aid to military units because of human rights violations, drug trafficking or, apparently, anything. That alone explains the ongoing Pentagon work with the Colombian military even during the years of the government of President Ernesto Samper, when Colombia was "decertified" for drug reasons and Pentagon involvement climbed exponentially

The U.S. role in organizing the death squads began with the Special Operations forces in 1991, when they set up "intelligence networks" under a secret Colombian military high command order, number 200-05/91.

The new tactic is to claim that increased U.S. military involvement will actually improve the human rights record of the Colombian military although all evidence suggests the exact opposite, and not by accident.

This is a new stratagem that was developed by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Up to that time, the Congress would cut off military assistance to governments with particularly appalling human rights records-as the U.S. did with Batista in Cuba, Somoza in Nicaragua and the series of military dictators in Guatemala-although the appropriation was often simply hidden in the Pentagon budget.

The new line was to call for increased U.S. military aid, with the line that it was needed to train the Latin militaries in respect for human rights.

When the training had exactly the opposite effect, as with alumni from the School of the Americas, the U.S. authorities and the semi-official U.S. media made a show of hand wringing, suggesting that these Latin American military officers sank back into their brutal ways once returned to their natural milieu, and to attempt to shift the debate to focus on whether the SOA had done enough to instill respect for human rights, or whether it needed to do more.

When military units specially formed and trained from the start by the U.S. authorities committed the worst atrocities of the Central American war, the U.S. government and media suppressed the details, and forced out any reporters who had mentioned it.

When revelations such as the 1970 Daniel Mitrione affair in Uruguay showed that the U.S. authorities, far from training Latin American military and police to respect human rights, were in fact forming and training torture squads and death squads, U.S. officials again did their best to suppress the story.

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