During the course of the West’s Gulf War assault on Iraq, then US President George Bush heralded a ‘new world order’ characterised by global peace led by the benevolence of the United States. Mainstream academic and media minions dutifully adopted the term and elaborated on the theme, positing that the demise of the Cold War superpower confrontation marked the onset of a harmonious era in international relations. These pundits asserted that US support for murderous militaries in the Third World, particularly Latin America, would cease upon the disappearance of the Soviet scourge.
A decade later, US government intervention in Colombian internal affairs has escalated to an unprecedented level. In July, former US President Bill Clinton signed into law a massive two-year aid package for the Colombian government. Eighty per cent of the US$860 million has been allocated to Colombia’s security forces in the form of equipment and training, reinforcing Colombia’s status as the third in US military assistance after Israel and Egypt.
President Clinton had earlier criticised the Senate for jeopardising ‘national interests’ by delaying passage of the aid, but following its authorisation he lauded Congress for collaborating in the ‘war on drugs’.
Prior to the ratification by Clinton, a joint House-Senate committee reconciled the discrepancies in the packages approved by the two houses of Congress. The final aid legislation virtually abrogated the human rights stipulations included in the Senate version since the president was permitted to override these provisions on ‘national security’ grounds. Given the US government’s Orwellian definition of ‘national security’, its operative meaning referring to investment security for US corporations, Clinton was afforded ample discretion in heightening US support for Colombia’s terror state, and in August he predictably issued the waiver. In one of its final official acts prior to relinquishing power in January, the administration resorted to a dubious interpretation of the legislation in order to release the second portion of assistance without either certifying or again waiving the human rights conditions.
The legislation includes dozens of helicopters for US-trained army battalions, and although the number of US troops and civilian contractors allowed in Colombia at the same time are limited, the president can veto this restriction for ninety days if there is ‘imminent involvement’ of US personnel in conflict. In addition, according to the legislation, ‘tested, environmentally-safe myco-herbicides’ may be applied to eradicate coca fields. Despite research suggesting its capacity for destroying food crops and damaging ecosystems, US officials are seeking to experiment with the fungus fusarium oxysporum, a variant of which is classified as a biological warfare agent.
Both international and local human rights monitors have documented the involvement of the Colombian military in widespread atrocities perpetrated by paramilitary associates against noncombatants. According to a February publication from Human Rights Watch, half of the army’s brigade-level units are complicit in egregious paramilitary violence. Another recent HRW report revealed that the 1991 US-supervised restructuring of Colombia’s military intelligence incorporated the paramilitary apparatus to form ‘killer networks.’
Paramilitaries have murdered some twenty-five thousand Colombians since 1990, accounting for 75 per cent of politically motivated killings compared to 20 per cent attributed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Peasants in particular have been selected for savage torture and murder by death squads but other victims include scores of trade unionists, human rights monitors, Church and indigenous activists, leftist politicians, university professors and independent journalists. Colombia’s largest labour confederation has documented the assassination of forty-five union leaders in the first nine months of 2000, confirming that Colombia is indisputably the world’s most hazardous country for unionists.
This military-paramilitary model is analogous to the approach employed in East Timor last year by the Indonesian army, which organised and then managed ‘pro-Jakarta militias’. The similarity is attributable to the US advisors who instructed both the Colombian and Indonesian armed forces in counter-insurgency strategies. An academy renowned for its alumni of Latin American dictators and brutal human rights violators, the US army’s infamous School of the Americas, has trained more officers from Colombia than any other country.
Scores of media commentators have entered into the debate on US military aid to Colombia. While many of the op-eds and editorials have expressed scepticism about assistance for the Colombian military, most of the apprehension is driven by concern over a Vietnam Syndrome recurrence featuring militant domestic and international popular opposition.
Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland illustrated this logic:
Humanitarian restrictions on US aid have to be designed and implemented to protect Americans, not Colombians or other potential targets of abuse … Americans need to be protected against the folly of unsustainable commitments abroad, which drain national treasure and credibility.
Once the aid bill was passed by Congress, the New York Times finally printed a piece regarding the military–paramilitary alliance. The article reported on the collaboration of a Colombian army unit in a massacre committed by paramilitary groups six months earlier.
US government and military spokespersons and the establishment media have deliberately misrepresented the crisis in Colombia as an armed conflict between drug-trafficking guerrillas — the so-called ‘narcoguerrillas’ — and a besieged yet incorruptible military. To the extent that the existence of paramilitaries is acknowledged, they are generally portrayed as an autonomous force attacking the civilian base of the guerrillas while the state struggles to protect innocent Colombians. Twenty years ago, US officials and the major media depicted Central America’s wars in the same duplicitous fashion.
Although the FARC and ELN finance insurgency through taxes collected on drug production in territories under their control, the paramilitary groups are ideologically and politically aligned with the narco-traffickers. They are united in defending the neo-liberal order from even minimal reform. The landowner–narco-trafficker–paramilitary nexus has resorted to unmitigated violence to preserve this ‘democratic’ system. Such repression is essential for the ruling class to maintain social control in a country where 40 per cent are indigent and a land-owning oligarchy monopolises the arable land.
Washington’s justification for the material backing is to combat the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia to the United States, but Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency and popular movement are the obvious targets. US policy may actually undermine the official counter-narcotics objective. US-devised ‘anti-drug’ operations are concentrated in areas of intense guerrilla activity in southern Colombia, while the paramilitaries are granted freedom of action in coca-producing regions.
Paramilitary leader Carlos Castano has publicly admitted that 70 per cent of the organisation’s funds are derived from drug trafficking. Several Colombian military officers have been implicated in drug smuggling and through military–paramilitary ties. Some of the US assistance may be diverted to fortifying rather than incapacitating the narcotics trade. Nor has the US government sought prosecution of the banking institutions mired in the laundering of drug money and the companies exporting the chemicals utilised in the production of cocaine.
To evaluate the international drug war, US policy toward Colombia must be considered in a regional context. US officials have expressed concern that the Colombian war could transcend national borders and destabilise the entire Andean region.
Colombia itself is a major ‘national security’ dilemma for US policymakers. Colombia’s guerrilla war has imperilled the considerable Colombian investments of US-based transnational corporations, notably oil companies whose pipelines and other facilities are routinely bombed by the armed rebels. A 1997 White House report indicated Washington’s intention to reduce reliance on Middle East petroleum by shifting to imports from Colombia and other nations in the Western Hemisphere.
The US aid package is one component of Plan Colombia, a US$7.5 million strategy designed by the Colombian and US governments. Colombian President Pastrana has pledged US$4 million from his government and requested the US$3.5 million balance from foreign sources. The European Union (EU) and its member states, however, have rejected the plan’s military emphasis and the US agenda of bolstering Colombia’s counter-insurgency forces. In late October the EU and European donor governments announced a commitment of approximately US$400 million, only a fraction of the amount the Colombian government had intended to procure from the EU. The European Commission also determined that most assistance would be channelled to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), bypassing the Colombian government.
Plan Colombia’s economic policies represent an entrenching of the neo-liberal model imposed by the US government and US-dominated global financial institutions, namely the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The authors of the plan maintain that the measures will foster development and prosperity, providing the social conditions to facilitate the peace process. In reality, these policy prescriptions exacerbated poverty and inequality in both urban and rural Colombia throughout the 1990s, and an intensification of neo-liberalism will occasion the conditions for the guerrillas to recruit more members and a subsequent increase in the repression of the broad-based popular movement.
For Washington, the ‘democratically elected’ Pastrana is playing a similar role as José Napoleon Duarte in El Salvador and Vinicio Cerezo in Guatemala during the 1980s. In both these cases, the civilian presidents were victorious in aptly labelled ‘demonstration elections’ — borrowing a term from US foreign policy critic Edward Herman. After Duarte and Cerezo took office their respective militaries retained all de facto power and continued to rule, assassinating and massacring with impunity while the civilian heads-of-state loyally obeyed prescribed parameters which strictly circumscribed their actions. This democratic facade served a legitimising function for US policy and the Central American military forces. In contemporary Colombia, US foreign policymakers have pursued this arrangement in conjunction with Colombian authorities.
A key advisor to George W. Bush has publicly intimated that his incoming administration intends at minimum to maintain the counter-insurgency-oriented strategy for Colombia.
The architects and endorsers of the Colombia military package are on the verge of sponsoring state terrorism to a degree exceeding US support for El Salvador’s death-squad regime. If US-backed state terrorism in Central America and elsewhere is any indication, this US wherewithal will translate into more death and devastation for Colombians.
The pretext for US intervention in Latin America has shifted from Soviet-exported communism to narco-trafficking in accord with international political reconfigurations, but the motivations remain unaltered. Only an expanded and vibrant US-centred mobilisation in solidarity with the popular struggle in Colombia, rooted in the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980s, will deter US imperialism from further contributing to the ‘Central Americanision’ of Colombia.
Joseph Raso is a PhD candidate in Politics at Macquarie University in Sydney