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International Socialist Review Issue 23, May-June 2002

U.S. Escalates Colombia's Dirty War
by Tristan Adie

WHEN COLOMBIA’S president, Andres Pastrana, launched a major military offensive against left-wing rebels in late February, human rights groups issued dire warnings about the safety of civilians in a zone run by rebels in the southern part of the country. Liz Atherton, of the Colombia Peace Association wrote, "When the army enters the zone, so too will their paramilitary soulmates. Already hit lists are circulating among the civilian populations of the zone warning certain people to leave if they want to stay alive. One such list has the names of around 30 people, all accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. There is no doubt that we are about to be witnesses to a civilian bloodbath with government authorization."

Such warnings were not hyperbole. The Colombian military, working hand in hand with the right-wing paramilitaries, has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. They have been armed to the teeth through a massive infusion of military aid from the United States over the last several years. And if the billions that the U.S. has provided in helicopters, surveillance equipment, advisers, and artillery weren’t enough, Pastrana’s confidence to take on the rebels was boosted by the Bush administration’s vow after September 11 to lend its support to the "war on terror" in Colombia as well.

Pastrana sent 13,000 troops into the zone that he had granted to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1998 to entice them to enter peace negotiations. The zone is the size of Switzerland, and the rebels had governed it independently for the last three years. The decision to retake the zone came shortly after Pastrana cut off peace talks that had been foundering for some time. He announced the decision after the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, hand-delivered 14 new Black Hawk helicopters and gave her blessing to the army’s invasion of the zone in a private meeting with Pastrana.

In less than 24 hours, the military had dropped more than 200 250-kilogram bombs on 85 targets in the zone. Ground troops moved in to overtake towns and villages. Information about the impact of this campaign on civilians is virtually nonexistent, since the military has refused to allow the press into the zone or even into the regions surrounding it. Limited information has, however, gotten out from religious groups operating in towns south of the zone. Carlos Sanchez, U.S. coordinator of Catholic Relief Services in Solidarity with Colombia, detailed a report he received on March 22, 2002, from a priest in the Putumayo province:

[T]hings have become markedly dangerous since March 6th in all of Putumayo. In early March, the FARC abandoned the towns in the region and the people living there, as government troops, national police, and paramilitaries moved into the area in force.

Since then, 30 people have been disappeared and murdered, in the area. Three people that were particularly close to the parish were murdered in the last week.

An old man, that tended a small river launch and kiosk, was brutally tortured and murdered by paramilitaries who proceed to draw and quarter his remains. The paramilitaries claimed that the man had assisted the FARC, and that his murder was a sign to those that offer support to the FARC….

[The] Father mentioned that the paramilitaries’ ranks arrived with former members of the community and former FARC members that have joined the paramilitaries and are the ones that have been guiding the "cleansing" of the population.

The priest further reported that the entire region south of the zone had been cut off from the rest of the country thanks to military and rebel bombings of bridges and roads. Water, food, and electricity are in dangerously short supply.

To make matters worse, people in many of the areas coming under fire have already watched their crops wither and die after six months of military fumigation sprayings. Planned by the U.S. State Department and executed by American contractors such as DynCorp, the sprayings are supposed to wipe out coca crops. But because the fumigation planes blanket entire towns and agricultural areas, they have had the effect of destroying the food supply for thousands of civilians living in and around the zone. With supply routes to other cities and towns now wiped out, many rural Colombians face the prospect of starving to death as a result of the army offensive.

Bush administration’s green light

Just like the Israel Defense Forces’ invasion of the West Bank, Pastrana’s war on the formerly demilitarized zone has gotten a green light from the Bush administration. As part of a new drive to increase military support for Colombia’s war against the FARC, Bush recently asked congress to lift restrictions on the types of aid the U.S. provides to Colombia.

Throughout most of the 1990s, the Clinton administration was careful to cloak its support in terms of fighting the "war on drugs," even though it was clear that American aid was aimed at strengthening the Colombian military against the rebels. But Bush now seeks to lump Colombia’s war in with his far-reaching "war on terrorism" by casting the FARC and another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), as terrorist organizations. Buried within his emergency counter-terrorism aid package that was submitted to Congress in March is a call for all current and future aid to be "available to support a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to [Colombia’s] national security."

A request for $439 million to provide military intelligence and spare parts to the Colombian armed forces accompanied this shift in stated objectives. This would come on top of the $1.6 billion provided by the Clinton administration under Plan Colombia in 2000. It would also augment the $880 million Andean aid package aimed at strengthening the militaries of other countries in the region, which Bush won from Congress last year. To top it off, Bush has called for an additional Andean Regional Initiative that would provide $731 million in military aid to the region, 60 percent of which would go to Colombia.

Bush also requested $98 million in February to help U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum protect its Cano Limon oil pipeline in Colombia. Rebels bombed the pipeline 170 times. The pipeline was out of commission for 266 days in 2001. Providing weaponry and/or military personnel to protect oil operations in Colombia would be a significant and dangerous step toward deepening U.S. involvement in the war. But as Ambassador Patterson said of the plan, "The issue of oil security has become a priority for the United States…. After Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia is the most important oil country in the region."

The Bush administration has engaged in a carefully orchestrated campaign to paint the FARC as part of the "international terrorist threat." In mid-March, a U.S. federal grand jury charged three FARC members with conspiring to import cocaine–showcasing the idea that the FARC are "narcoterrorists." Last April, hearings were held in which some in congress alleged that FARC forces had received "terrorist training" from members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Testifying before the congressional committee on April 18, Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage even claimed, without citing any evidence, that al-Qaeda supporters have been active in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

In a report written by the House International Relations Committee, headed by Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the committee asserts ominously that "Colombia is a potential breeding ground for international terror equaled perhaps only by Afghanistan," and "must be addressed by changes in U.S. law that will permit American assistance for counterterrorism programs" there. Even General Fernando Tapias, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the Armed Forces of Colombia, had admitted at the April 25 congressional hearings that the Colombian government has no information linking the IRA and the FARC.

According to the assessment of one U.S. intelligence official, "[A]s for direct links between the FARC and al-Qaeda or Hezbollah, those kinds of groups, the experts just laugh." This hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from using these new "revelations": ‘‘In the past year, there’s a lot of fertilization taking place between different terrorist organizations and, with each passing day, you can begin to see different connections emerge that have to be pursued,’’ Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Appropriations Committee soon after the hearings.

In what is perhaps the most cynical maneuver, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment of six FARC members accused of murdering three indigenous rights workers who had been visiting Colombia’s U’wa Indians in 1999.

"Today," announced Ashcroft on April 30, "the United States strikes back at the FARC reign of terror against the United States and its citizens." Ashcroft commented that the State Department considers the FARC to be "the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western hemisphere."

"Just as we fight terrorism in the mountains of south Asia," he added, "we will fight terrorism in our own hemisphere." The next day Powell reported for the State Department that Colombia is making progress toward improving human rights, clearing the way for $62 million more in military aid.

There was one snag in Bush’s plans. The U.S. decided to suspend aid to Colombia’s antinarcotic unit in early May, alleging that some $2 million had been diverted from a bank account provided to cover the unit’s administrative expenses.

U.S. and Colombian officials and the media have especially focussed on a FARC-paramilitary battle in early May in which a FARC bomb reportedly killed sixty people inside a Church in Bellavista. According to reports, the bomb was aimed at paramilitaries–who had besieged the FARC-controlled town–entrenched all around the church.

Bush backs terrorism

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has had nothing to say about the main source of terrorism in Colombia: the military and its paramilitary cohorts. Human rights organizations calculate that the paramilitaries are responsible for 70—80 percent of all the human rights abuses that occur in Colombia each year–from massacres of civilians to kidnappings to political assassinations.

In 2001, paramilitaries committed more than 100 massacres. Together with the police and army, they have assassinated at least 48 trade unionists so far this year and killed more than 3,500 since 1986. They have conducted terror campaigns in the countryside that have given Colombia an internal refugee population of almost two million–the second largest in the world. And this is to say nothing of what they have done within the demilitarized zone, from which human rights monitors have been barred since army operations began.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2002 makes it clear that the military and paramilitary continue to work in close cooperation in Colombia:

[C]ertain military units and police detachments continued to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involved active coordination during military operations between government and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones, and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary fighters; coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass; and payments made from paramilitaries to military officers for their support.

Moreover, while the FARC collects a tax on coca growers in some areas, it is in fact the paramilitaries–and the drug barons they protect–who are responsible for both narcotrafficking and narcoterrorism. Writes Doug Stokes in "Colombia primer," which appeared on ZNet on April 16, 2002:

A report produced by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs found no evidence of the FARC’s export of drugs to the U.S. but did point to the extensive nature of drug smuggling to the U.S. by "right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy drug barons, the armed forces, key financial figures and senior government bureaucrats." James Milford, the former Deputy Administrator with the U.S.’s central drug eradication body the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), stated that Carlos Castano, the chief of the paramilitary AUC is a "major cocaine trafficker in his own right" and has close links to the North Valle drug syndicate which is "among the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Colombia."

The Bush administration has remained wholly passive in the face of the economic disaster that has been building in Colombia. As billions of dollars in U.S. military aid have been rolling into Colombia, from 1997 to 2000, the poverty rate there grew from 50.3 percent to 68 percent. The unemployment rate has nearly doubled over the last decade to more than 20 percent, and another 60 percent of adults are underemployed. Per capita income in Colombia has plunged from $2,716 in 1997 to $1,890 today.

Instead of economic assistance from either the Colombian state or the U.S., Colombians can expect only intensified war in the immediate future. Pastrana traveled to Washington on April 15 for a 4-day lobbying tour for yet more military aid. He wrote in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, "In the wake of Sept. 11, both Colombians and Americans more clearly understand what is at stake in helping us achieve peace and prosperity. With billions of dollars flowing into terrorist groups from the drug trade, Colombia has become the theater of operations in which the global campaign against terrorism is being waged in Latin America. Like the United States in the fight against al Qaeda, we are fighting a multinational terrorist network [against the FARC and ELN]."

In addition, the front-runner in presidential elections slated for May in Colombia, Álvaro Uribe Velez, has promised a no-holds-barred war against the rebels if elected. He is the favored candidate in Washington. While governor of the Antioquia province, Uribe encouraged the participation of known paramilitaries in Colombian military actions. He advocates the participation of "foreign military troops" (primarily American, we can assume) in fighting the rebels.

U.S. dollars are funding terrorist butchery in Colombia. It will only intensify as Bush brings his disastrous "war on terror" to Latin America. We can’t let him get away with it.

There has been one important victory in Colombia. At the beginning of May, multinational oil company Occidental Petroleum announced that they will end their search for oil in the tribal homelands of the U'wa people. This is a great step forward. But much more work needs to be done to drive U.S. imperialism from Colombia for good.

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