Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

August 2, 2001

Blueprints For Colombian War

As we all know, the war in Colombia isn't about drugs. It's about the annihilation of popular uprisings by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army), guerilla groups or Indian peasants fending off the ravages of oil companies, cattle barons and mining firms. A good old-fashioned counterinsurgency war, designed to clear the way for American corporations to set up shop in Colombia, with cocaine as the scare tactic. Two recent Defense Department-commissioned reports outline in chilling terms the same strategy of ongoing military intervention under the cover of the drug war. Both urge the Bush administration to drop the pretext of counter-narcotics and get on with the business of wiping out the insurgents.

Last year the US Air Force commissioned the RAND Corporation to prepare a review of the situation in Colombia. In early June the Santa Monica-based RAND think tank (progenitor of many a blood-sodden scenario in the Vietnam era) submitted its 130-page report, called "The Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability." The other report is a paper written by Gabriel Marcella, titled "Plan Colombia: the Strategic and Operational Imperatives." Marcella is a former chief adviser to the Commander-in-Chief of the US Southern Command who now teaches on national security matters at the US Army War College.

Together, the two reports reach the same conclusion: the US needs to step up its military involvement in Colombia and quit forfeiting options by limiting its operations to counter-narcotics raids. Along the way, both reports make a number of astonishing admissions about the paramilitaries and their links to the drug trade, about human rights abuses by the US-trained Colombian military and about the irrationality of crop fumigation.

RAND argues that the drug war approach is on the brink of not only failing, but of prompting a wider conflict that might require the insertion of US troops. "If the Pastrana administration falters, either in its counter-narcotics or counterinsurgency approach, the US would be confronted with an unpalatable choice. It could escalate its commitment to include perhaps an operational role for US forces in Colombia, or scale it down, which would involve some significant costs, including a serious loss of credibility and degradation of the US's ability to muster regional support for its counter-narcotics and political objectives."

The RAND study draws heavily from a December 2000 report by the World Bank, titled Violence in Colombia: Building Sustainable Peace and Social Capital, which concluded that the quid pro quo for Colombia getting any future large infusions of international financial aid will depend on their successful suppression of the FARC and other rebel groups. Another World Bank memo describes the FARC's fundraising strategy as a "loot-seeking" assault on "primary commodities": cattle ranches on the eastern plains, commercial agriculture in Urabá, oil in Magaldena, gold mines in Antioquia and the coca fields of Putumayo. RAND cites a former CIA analyst as saying that the FARC has invested its "taxes" on these industries into "a strategic financial reserve," which will enable them to "sustain an escalation of the conflict." While the FARC peasant army has doubled over the past decade, it still only numbers about 7,000 fighters – 2,000 fewer than the paramilitary death squads.

Both RAND and the World Bank point to the horrifying level of "social intolerance killings," which for men aged 14-44 reached a level of 394 deaths per 100,000 last year. In all, Colombia endures 30,000 annual murders, double the number for the entire United States in 1998. Slightly more than 23,000 murders have been linked to "illegal armed organizations" since 1988. The implication is that the FARC is responsible for these killings and one has to dig deep into the RAND analysis to discover otherwise. In fact, according to statistics compiled by the Colombian government, about 3,500 people were killed by the guerrillas and 19,652 by paramilitaries and "private justice" groups.

The leader of the AUC (United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), the central command for the 19 paramilitary "fronts," is a sadistic scoundrel named Carlos Castaño, who supervises a killing program right off the pages of the CIA's Phoenix Program's operations manual. The RAND report details how Castaño's AUC routinely executes "suspected guerrilla sympathizers" in order "to instill fear and compel support among the local population." When that strategy fails to deliver, the AUC simply launches an all-out attack on the villages and slaughters the inhabitants. RAND dispassionately notes that the AUC justifies these atrocities, in language that even Bob Kerrey might admire, as a legitimate way to "remove the guerrillas' supply network."

The robust ties between the paramilitaries and the Colombian military (not to mention the CIA and the Pentagon) are cursorily dispensed with by RAND in a brisk few sentences, concluding that, given the circumstances, such relations are only natural. RAND fails to note that many of the leaders of paramilitary groups were once officers in the Colombian military, some of them trained at the School of the Americas. Although there are nearly as many paramilitary fighters as there are guerrillas, there is a gross and telling disparity between the numbers of paramilitaries (76) versus guerrillas (2,677) killed by the Colombian military.

The RAND study makes a great effort to legitimize the role of the paramilitaries, remarking that "the term paramilitaries is an unsatisfactory rubric to describe the autodefensas, although it has gained widespread currency [so widespread, in fact, that it is used throughout the RAND report].... It has no particular descriptive value in referring to the autodefensas and (perhaps intentionally) might convey the implication of quasi-political status." With such sinister nonsense, and despite the murders and the drug trafficking, RAND attempts to portray many of the paramilitaries as performing necessary self-policing functions in the absence of strong state authority, a kind of benign civic group "based on the neighborhood watch concept."

Although 20 pages are devoted to discussion of the FARC's ties to the drug trade, the RAND report spends only a single paragraph on the links of the paramilitaries and the narco-traffickers. But this paragraph is as damning as it is brief. RAND grudgingly admits that Castaño's group derives "a considerable extent" of its income from the drug trade and notes that eight of the AUC's 19 death squads also serve as protection gangs for the cocaine industry.

Castaño himself has boasted to CNN's International Division of his relationship with the drug lords. He said that 70 percent of the funds for the AUC come from the drug trade, with the remaining 30 percent, the RAND report notes in a stark parenthesis, "coming largely from extortion."

The Colombian government under Pastrana (though not the Colombian generals) takes the public position that the paramilitaries are at least as big of a threat as the FARC and the ELN, and is moving, rhetorically, at least, to suppress them. RAND condemns this approach as "unwise and shortsighted." Better, RAND concludes, to mimic the Peruvian or Guatemalan counterinsurgency models and fashion the death squads into "a supervised network of self-defense organizations."

This "Peruvian model" was created by Vladimir Montesinos, the head of Peruvian intelligence, recently extradited from Venezuela to Peru and imprisoned in a high security prison he himself had helped to design. Montesinos, a longtime CIA asset, won his spurs with his bloody tactics against the Shining Path rebels but fell from grace when it came to light that he had organized a shipment of arms from Jordan to the FARC. The CIA was so enraged that it engineered his downfall.

According to Peruvian sources, the shipment of guns was originally intended for the paramilitaries in Colombia (arranged with full CIA approval) which the wily Montesinos sold for a higher price to the FARC. This story rings true – Jordan is essentially a US colony, so it's likely that a weapons shipment from there would have to be for a US-approved customer.

Even more menacingly, RAND suggests that the Colombians could reconfigure the paramilitaries into roving National Guard units that will hunt-and-kill guerrillas. RAND hints that this may already be under way with US help. There's no question that the Colombian military, under the eye of US advisers, is taking a more aggressive tactic, employing hunt-and-kill squads supervised by School of America-trained officers. The RAND analysts were particularly excited with the results of Operation Annihilator II, a bloody raid on FARC strongholds in Sumapaz. RAND notes approvingly that the body count from Colombian military strikes rose from 364 in 1999 to 506 in 2000.

Plan Colombia is inadequate to the task of eradicating cocaine or the FARC, RAND warns. Moreover, RAND advises that the US contribution to the effort – $862.3 million a year – is too paltry to make much of a difference.

RAND calmly ridicules the requirement for human rights training and monitoring, which is attached to the US aid package. "There is a question of the practical limitations on the Colombian government's ability to prevent human rights violations in the context of an armed insurrection," the RAND analysts comfortably contend. To buttress this assessment, RAND points to the US experience in Vietnam, arguing that the slaughter of civilians is simply a cost of doing business during wartime and that "even with disciplined troops, the chain of command will ultimately break down at times under the stress of combat."

Of course, most of the US massacres in Vietnam were the result of troops carrying out official policy, such as the Phoenix missions, and not the actions of crazed grunts going on killing sprees. The same is true in Colombia, where in the past two years alone where 477 police and military officers have been found guilty of human rights abuses by civilian courts.

The thrust of Plan Colombia's cocaine suppression campaign – and the bulk of US aid – is aimed at Colombian troops seizing coca fields under FARC control in the Putumayo district. This "southern strategy," RAND admits, is a thinly veiled effort to re-channel anti-drug efforts into a full-blown assault on a major FARC stronghold, with US helicopters doing the brunt of the air assaults and US advisors providing aid to the fledgling Colombian military in this riverine region and "for improved radar, airfields and intelligence collection."

But RAND warns that by targeting coca production, particularly with the widespread use of toxic fumigants, the Colombian military, and its US advisors, may actually end up bolstering the FARC's public standing in the region. "According to the governor of Putumayo, about 135,000 of the district's 314,000 inhabitants depend directly on the coca crop for their livelihood. Intensified coca eradication would probably be resisted by the local population...."

RAND rightly notes that the aerial fumigation of coca crops is backfiring politically. "Absent viable economic alternatives [such as crop substitution and infrastructure development], fumigation may simply displace growers to other regions and increase support for the guerrillas."

RAND concludes that the only solution is the elimination of the threat to the "stability" of the region posed by the FARC and the ELN. It also advises the Pentagon that "the Colombian government, left to its own devices, does not have the institutional or material resources to reverse unfavorable trends." One of those trends is the resurrection of the domino theory, called here the "spillover effect." RAND suggests that if the US doesn't intervene, the Colombian situation "will metastasize into a wider regional upheaval." It is up to the US to act as the "deus ex machina" in this conflict.

Aside from stepping up direct military aid to Colombia, RAND urges the Pentagon to expand the US military presence in the bordering nations, including "helping Panama fill the security vacuum in its southern provinces."

The Marcella paper is a more distilled version of the RAND report. Marcella, a specialist in South American matters at the Defense War College, suggests that the future US role in Colombia become more like US operations in El Salvador than Vietnam – which, we surmise, means the deployment of death-squads-by-proxy. Remember that the firm of Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld has lately reassembled the old gang that directed such mayhem and misery in Latin America during the 1980s: John Negroponte, Otto Reich and Elliott Abrams. Marcella approvingly invokes the Thatcherite English theorist John Dunn: "there cannot be political control without the capacity to coerce."

Copyright © 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His exclusive column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

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