Colombia is one of the largest recipients of US aid in the world ($2 billion in military and police aid, third behind Israel and Egypt; $1 billion in economic and social aid; plus $1 billion in arms sales over the last six years).
But it’s not really on the radar in the United States.
I think there’s a reason for that beyond the US distraction with the Global War on Terror/Iraq/Afghanistan/Iran. It’s because some of the nastiest, unreconstructed Cold War counterinsurgency operations in the world are conducted in Colombia under the U.S. aegis. Death squads and the largest number of IDPs (Internally Displaced Population) in the world (5 million! Five times the number in Sudan or the DR Congo!) matter less to the US government than preventing the strategic and diplomatic embarrassment of Colombia joining Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in the ranks of left-dominated anti-US regimes in Latin America.
Confronting the excesses of South American counterinsurgency exemplified by Colombia is apparently a third rail that President Obama is also unwilling to touch. Instead, the campaign of vilification against Venezuela seems to have picked up pretty much as it left off in the George W. Bush administration and the Colombian Free Trade Agreement—once stalled by the seemingly unquenchable Colombian enthusiasm for murdering labor leaders and thereby making a mockery of the “even playing field” principle beloved by US unions—has been pushed through the Congress.
I recently wrote an article on Colombia—specifically, the issue of whether Chiquita Brands was playing footsie with right-wing death squads in order to keep its Colombian operations going smoothly—for the CounterPunch monthly. Subscribe! And ask them to e-mail you my article.
So I was interested to read the Washington Post’s take on the role of US special operations in Colombia, Covert Action in Colombia.
The article is a remarkably uncritical piece of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) fist-pumping that manages to leave out a lot of significant context.
The tenor of the piece is that JSOC special ops starting in 2003 and targeted assassinations of FARC leaders beginning in 2006 (FARC being the leftist guerilla menace) had contributed mightily to the destabilization of the organization and its rapidly declining insurrectionary fortunes.
By 2003, U.S. involvement in Colombia encompassed 40 U.S. agencies and 4,500 people, including contractors, all working out of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, then the largest U.S. embassy in the world. It stayed that way until mid-2004, when it was surpassed by Afghanistan.
“There is no country, including Afghanistan, where we had more going on,” said William Wood, who was U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 2003 to 2007 before holding the same post in war-torn Afghanistan for two years after that.
Particular mention is made of the assassination of Raul Reyes, a key FARC leader, in Ecuador, in 2008. There is, by the way, a lot of heavy breathing about the wondrous GPS-guided smart bombs that took out Reyes; this is also the somewhat pedestrian weapon that “accidentally” took out the intelligence directorate in the People’s Republic of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999, for those of you keeping score.
First off: from 1998 to 2003, FARC was weakened by a ferocious campaign of white terror by the Colombian Self-Defense Forces or AUC. Conventional Colombian forces were hopelessly outmatched and understandably risk-averse, so in the late 1990s the government encouraged the formation of AUC units—actually well funded and well equipped narco-affiliated paramilitaries covertly supported by Colombian security forces-- which fought FARC according to their own rules. The AUC saw the folly of trying to track FARC into their jungle hideouts; instead the AUC, in counterinsurgency-speak, decided to “drain the swamp” i.e. remove FARC’s rural support infrastructure.
“Draining the swamp” in Colombia did not involve the beau ideal of "civilized" counterinsurgency, “hearts and minds” outreach to convince the peasants of the political, moral, and economic folly of supporting FARC. Nor did it involve a Colombian iteration of the “strategic hamlet” program, where the peasants were relocated to newly-constructed villages outside of FARC’s clutches.
Instead, the AUC would go into a village and torture and murder suspected FARC supporters or sympathizers in the most brutal and public manner imaginable. Individuals fled the AUC’s fury; sometimes whole villages decamped. Pathetically, some villages announced that they were “Peace Villages”, eschewing all contact with FARC and the AUC; at least one Peace Village was butchered by the AUC regardless.
All this happened under the eyes of the US government, local embassy, and CIA/DEA. Ever since the Clinton administration, US governments had poured money into Colombian security initiatives under the heading of “Plan Colombia”. Plan Colombia started out as a drug interdiction program meant to wean Colombia’s farmers from coca production and deny the countryside to narcos and FARC. It became progressively militarized and flourished even as the United States ostentatiously condemned the brutality of the AUC (placing it on a list of terrorist organizations in 2001).
According to the Colombian government’s own calculations, the AUC murdered at least 25,000 people and possibly twice that many during the campaign.
The AUC white terror was successful, albeit in a textbook Pyrrhic victory sort of way. FARC was driven from the Colombian heartland, but replaced by local rightwing militias that seized land and engaged in the usual drug trafficking, extortion, and so on beyond the government’s reach. Even as the AUC militias are gingerly demobilized, new militarized gangs have replaced them in the same region.
In 2003, when Alvaro Uribe (whose father had been murdered by FARC, and whose enthusiasm for autodefense forces and tolerance of narcos was widely rumored while governor of Antioquia province) took office as President of Colombia, FARC was already significantly weakened by the AUC terror campaign. In fact, Uribe was able to focus on the politically dicey work of demobilizing the AUC leadership through a carrot-and-stick campaign of threats of prosecution and promises of amnesty (and, rather unsuccessfully, trying to keep the AUC baddies from advertising their close links to the highest levels of Colombia’s government, security, and legal apparatus).
This is the point at which JSOC apparently stepped up. Not quite a mopping up, but it is unlikely that targeted killings of FARC leaders would have made as big a dent in FARC if they had not been preceded by five years of AUC terror. A rather amusing passage in the WaPo story depicts leadership decapitation as a brainwave that suddenly inspired the U.S. team after previous initiatives to rescue three U.S. hostages held by FARC proved ineffective.
Despite all the effort, the hostages’ location proved elusive. Looking for something else to do with the new intelligence equipment and personnel, the Bunker manager and his military deputy from the U.S. Special Operations Command gave their people a second mission: Target the FARC leadership. This was exactly what the CIA and JSOC had been doing against al-Qaeda on the other side of the world. The methodology was familiar.
“There was cross-pollination both ways,” said one senior official with access to the Bunker at the time. “We didn’t need to invent a new wheel.”
It should be pointed out, however, that the US government, even JSOC, had already been intimately involved in Colombian security operations—including decapitation strikes and extrajudicial killings-- for over a decade. One of the most interesting takeaways from Mark Bowden’s book, Killing Pablo, is the almost comically massive intrusion of US spooks into Colombia as part of the manhunt to track down Pablo Escobar in 1991-92.
Over a dozen U.S. agencies desperate for a post-Cold War mission descended on Medellin to offer training and sigint in the effort to locate, isolate, and ultimately kill Escobar. JSOC was there, Delta Force was there (led at one point by legendary “My God is bigger than your god” hyperenthusiast Jerry Boykin). The US determined that conventional sigint wouldn’t make a dent in Escobar’s organization if it was simply handed off to Colombia’s corrupt and incompetent security forces; instead, it turned a blind eye as its sigint was turned over to a special Medellin death squad of rival narcos (and direct precursors of the AUC!) for liquidation of Escobar’s key allies.
One of the rumors surrounding the extrajudicial execution of Escobar (there apparently was no consideration of arresting him, given the rickety nature of Colombian justice; he was shot as he clambered unarmed across a rooftop) was that a Delta Force sniper took him down.
If the US team in Colombia in 2006 had to rediscover the idea of extrajudicial murder in Iraq, they were poor students of US and local Colombian history.
As to the targeted killing of Raul Reyes, I happened to write extensively on this subject in 2009. Killing Reyes was something more than taking out a nettlesome insurgent otherwise beyond the reach of Colombian justice. Raul Reyes was the designated FARC moderate leader; he was deep in negotiations with a European team concerning the imminent release of Ingrid Betancourt, the famous hostage held together with the three Americans whose coca-surveillance plane had been shot down.
A negotiated release would have brought considerable luster to four of President Uribe’s most detested adversaries: the meddling French, the Colombian left wing, his archenemy Hugo Chavez, and FARC itself, which would have been legitimated as a constructive negotiating partner. Instead, the Colombian government located Reyes at his camp in Ecuador just across the border by monitoring his satellite phone communications. It was rumored at the time that US signals intelligence, relying on phone calls between Reyes and the European negotiating team or with Hugo Chavez, pinpointed the camp so it could be plastered by the Colombian air force with JSOC support.
In my 2009 piece I speculated that Uribe played this risky gambit (according to the European negotiators, the Betancourt release was a done deal and would have been completed in a few days; indeed, they were on their way to Reyes’ camp in Ecuador to wrap things up and they suspected that the raid was timed to kill Reyes before they showed up) because Colombia saw the prospect of striking a deal with Betancourt’s local captors and Uribe infinitely preferred the optics of a daring rescue to the humiliation of a negotiated release mediated by his political enemies.
The Betancourt “rescue” occurred four months after the Reyes raid. It was supposedly a blindingly clever ruse that convinced the local FARC commanders to load their hostages on a fake Red Cross helicopter loaded with Colombian security personnel. The operation was conducted in a rather ludicrous fashion. The hostages themselves immediately realized that the International Red Cross would not dispatch an unmarked helicopter to ferry them to FARC headquarters and, for that matter, that the IRC was unlikely to dispatch representatives wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and delivering a case of beer to the rebels, strongly implying that the complicity of the FARC commanders in this clumsy charade was virtually mandatory.
Although the US media was, in large part, unfailingly generous in crediting President Uribe with a brilliant and bloodless covert rescue, FARC claimed the hostages had been sold, and the European negotiators also pitched in with their suspicions. It was subsequently reported that the local FARC commanders had been trying to shop the hostages to the United States. And their lawyers confirmed in 2013 that the local commanders had also approached the Catholic Church as an intermediary to strike a deal. Uribe was perhaps unwilling to reveal the actual backstory of the release in order to celebrate Colombian special forces prowess and also dodge embarrassing questions concerning the contradictions between his sub rosa non-negotiation strategy and its seemingly necessary corollary, the sabotaging of negotiations (which, in addition to the killing of Reyes apparently included stunts like holding up proof of life videos so talks would collapse), thereby prolonging the hostages’ detention, peril, and intense misery.
The United States under President George W. Bush was an enthusiastic backer of President Uribe and his FARC strategy. US Southern Command provided immense logistical support to the hunt for Betancourt and the three US hostages, and no aid and comfort for a negotiated release. Before the liberation of the hostages, the US commitment was not publicized; afterwards it was no secret. USSC’s Admiral Stavridis claimed on his blog at the time that his command had expended $250 million dollars on the operation. Even when allowing for the creativity of military bookkeeping, it is clear that impressive resources were applied to the effort.
U.S. almost certainly provided key operational assistance—the girlfriend of one of the local hostage-minding FARC commanders had been arrested in the US and the US government brought in the Colombian authorities to jointly exploit this vital leverage—and perhaps also dovetailed extradition and incarceration strategies. Incarceration in a US federal prison is a trump card for Colombia in dealing with FARC guerillas and also with AUC paramilitaries. Prisoners in Colombia always have a chance of emerging from detention thanks to amnesty; but prisoners in the United States stay put. With remarkable even-handedness, the United States has indicted pretty much everybody in the FARC and AUC high commands for drug trafficking. Most recently, the Colombian government took advantage of these indictments to whisk away a clutch of AUC commanders who were apparently insufficiently cooperative in fulfilling the terms of their amnesty agreement. As for the Betancourt kidnappers, they and their stories were extradited to the United States and they haven’t been heard from since.
In summary, it seems likely the JSOC-assisted hit on Raul Reyes was more of a political favor to President Uribe to avoid an anticlimactic negotiated release of Betancourt and the hostages, rather than a vital piece of anti-terrorist derring-do.
Which makes this statement kinda dicey:
Would [the Reyes operation] constitute an assassination, which is prohibited by U.S. law? And, “could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?” said one lawyer involved.
The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel and others finally decided that the same legal analysis they had applied to al-Qaeda could be applied to the FARC. Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia. Also, none of the FARC commanders could be expected to surrender.
The Washington Post article rather uncritically reports on how great things are in Colombia thanks to JSOC:
Today, a comparison between Colombia, with its vibrant economy and swanky Bogota social scene, and Afghanistan might seem absurd. But a little more than a decade ago, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world…
It’s perhaps unkind to point out that urban Colombia has consistently enjoyed “a vibrant economy and swanky Bogota social scene” for the last twenty years, thanks to the eager collusion of much of Colombia’s upper class in the nation’s narcodollar frenzy.
Certainly, thanks to the weakening of FARC, security is better for the WaPo’s key demographic: middle class urban dwellers loath to be kidnapped or blown up by insurgents. But for everybody else, Colombia still has the same problems of grinding poverty that fueled the struggle.
40% of Colombians live below the poverty line. In this case, it should be noted that the poverty line is monthly income of $100 i.e. daily income of about $3.20. 10% of Colombia’s population (the extremely poor) makes do on $1/day. 5 million in Colombia suffered from malnutrition in 2012. Colombia’s Gini index has worsened to 0.87 (1.0 being perfection in inequality), the second highest in Latin America after Brazil. 80% of land is owned by the top 14%, ranking Colombia 11th worst in the world and triggering a widespread agricultural strike this summer. According to Oxfam, a half century of civil war has alienated over 6 million hectares of land from the hands of farmers and have fallen under the sway of big Colombian landowners, the right wing paramilitaries, and their gangster heirs. Thanks to the civil war, Colombia is No. 1 in the world in Internally Displaced Population: 5.5 million (about 11% of Colombia’s population and almost 20% of the world’s population of IDPs).
In case you are interested, Venezuela, socialist hellhole, toilet paper denier to its desperate citizens, and the focus of US fears in Latin America, has a Gini index of 39, a poverty rate of 31.6%, and has redistributed over 4 million hectares of farmland (perhaps 17% of the national total) from latifundias to peasants since 2005, thereby arousing the ire of Venezuela’s entrenched middle and upper classes (who have somehow managed to wriggle from beneath the boot of Chavista tyranny to murder 300 agrarian reformers over the last decade) and alienating friends of property rights everywhere. Venezuela was recently recognized by the UN for cutting its malnutrition rate in half. Child malnutrition in Venezuela is about 3%. It’s 12% in Colombia.
Given these numbers, it is understandable that the United States is not all that eager to advertise Plan Colombia and, when it does, it concentrates on the mad skillz of JSOC in killing insurgents than it does in the ability of America’s devoted allies in the Colombian government to deliver a decent existence to millions of its citizens.
There is hope that Colombia will grow out of its problems and leftist insurgency, either by FARC or its successors, will wither. But the AUC and JSOC may simply have sown the seeds for a new generation of massacre.