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 units' movements.

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.

War on Terrorism page

South America watch

Index of Website

Home Page