A Permanent Yanqui War Against the Colombian Insurgency

Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid

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.

The Insurgents

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 American imperialism.

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 military reprisal.

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 sympathy.

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."

Progressive Responses

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 army.

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 Colombians."

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 point.

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.

South America watch

Index of Website

Home Page