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Terrorizing Colombia: Obama Continues Bush Administration’s Militarism

Garry Leech
Date Published: 
June 1, 2010

Many Colombia observers hoped that the arrival of President Barack Obama in the White House would bring about a significant shift in US policy toward that troubled South American nation. The hope was that the new president would reduce aid to the military with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere and prioritize social and economic issues. That major shift did not occur during Obama’s first year in office. And to the degree that a shift in policy did occur, it constituted an increased militarization of US intervention in Colombia.

In October 2009 the Obama administration signed a ten-year security cooperation agreement with the government of President Alvaro Uribe that provides the US military with access to seven Colombian military bases. According to the agreement, its objective is “the deepened cooperation in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism, among other things.” The base agreement constitutes a continuation, even intensification, of the Bush administration’s war on terror in Colombia. While the United States has been waging a war on drugs in one form or another in Colombia for three decades, its war on terror was only formally initiated following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Following 9/11, it quickly became clear who the principal non-Islamic target would be in the Bush administration’s new global war on terror: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish), a leftist insurgency that has been waging war against the Colombian state for more than 40 years.

Less than three weeks after 9/11, Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, launched a campaign to portray the FARC as a major international terrorist threat: “The FARC are doing the same thing as global level terrorists, that is organizing in small cells that don’t have contact with each other and depend on a central command to organize attacks, in terms of logistics and finance. It is the same style of operation as Bin Laden.”

In October 2001, the State Department’s top counter-terrorism official, Francis X. Taylor, declared that Washington’s strategy for fighting terrorism in the Western Hemisphere would include, “where appropriate, as we are doing in Afghanistan, the use of military power.” Taylor left little doubt about the “appropriate” target when he stated that the FARC “is the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere.” Meanwhile Taylor’s boss, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the FARC belonged in the same category as Al-Qaeda: “There is no difficulty in identifying [Osama bin Laden] as a terrorist and getting everybody to rally against him. Now, there are other organizations that probably meet a similar standard. The FARC in Colombia comes to mind.”

The last week of that month, Senator Graham ramped up his accusations, declaring that Colombia should be the principal battlefield in the global war on terror. According to the Florida senator, there were almost 500 incidents of terrorism committed worldwide against US citizens and interests in the year 2000, and “of those almost 500 incidents, 44 percent were in one country. Was that country Egypt? No. Israel? No. Afghanistan? Hardly a tick. Forty-four percent were in Colombia. That’s where the terrorist war has been raging.”

Oil war

What Graham failed to mention was that a huge majority of so-called terrorist attacks against the US by Colombian guerrillas consisted of bombing oil pipelines used by US companies. In other words, they were designed to hurt corporate profit margins, not US civilians. In fact, the Florida senator neglected to point out that these attacks did not kill a single US citizen in 2000, the year to which Graham was referring. Nevertheless, the propaganda campaign vilifying the FARC successfully laid the groundwork for US Ambassador Anne Patterson’s announcement at the end of October that the United States would provide counter-terrorism aid to Colombia as part of Washington’s new global war on terror.

Given the widespread public support in the United States for a global war on terror, it was no surprise that Congress approved a $28 billion counter-terrorism bill in July 2002 that included $35 million in supplemental aid for Colombia. More important than the additional funds, however, was the fact that the new bill also eliminated the conditions restricting US drug war funding for Colombia to counter-narcotics programs. The Bush Administration worked hard to merge the war on drugs with the war on terror by trying to convince the US public and Congress that the habits of illegal drug users were bankrolling terrorist groups. In June 2003, the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign made the ultimate claim linking the illegal drug trade to terrorism when General James Hill, commander of the US Army’s Southern Command, told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that drugs were a “weapon of mass destruction.”

In 2003, the Bush administration provided Colombia with $439 million in drug war funding and an additional $93 million in counter-terrorism aid. It also deployed US Army Special Forces troops to provide counter-terrorism training to the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade. Seventy US soldiers were deployed to the oil-rich province of Arauca in eastern Colombia, long under the influence of the FARC and a smaller guerrilla group. In 2001, guerrillas demanding that the government fully nationalize the oil industry bombed the Caño Limón oil pipeline a record 170 times, shutting it down for 240 days during the year and costing the corporation Occidental Petroleum $100 million in lost earnings. The $93 million in terrorism aid for the protection of the pipeline meant that US taxpayers began paying $3.55 in security costs for every barrel of Occidental oil that flowed through the pipeline. This figure contrasted sharply with the 50 cents per barrel that the company was contributing to its own security costs. With a war in Iraq looming on the horizon and instability in Venezuela, Colombia had become an important alternative source of oil. “Colombia has the potential to export more oil to the United States, and now more than ever, it’s important for us to diversify our sources of oil,” said Ambassador Patterson. 

Fanning the violence

Meanwhile, the new US counter-terrorism role in Arauca meant that US soldiers were working with Colombian troops from the 18th Brigade who were closely allied with right-wing paramilitary death squads responsible for gross violations of human rights. Amnesty International claimed to have “received information indicating strong collusion between units of the 18th Brigade of the Colombian Army and paramilitaries, including reports of joint military-paramilitary operations or army units wearing paramilitary armbands and identifying themselves as paramilitaries.”

During the 18 months that US soldiers were based in Arauca, there was a significant drop in the number of rebel attacks against Occidental’s Caño Limon oil pipeline. At the same time, however, the 18th Brigade was not only using its newly acquired counter-insurgency skills against the guerrillas, it was also targeting civilians. In May 2003, paramilitaries and soldiers from the 18th Brigade entered the Betoyes indigenous reserve where they raped and killed a pregnant 16-year-old indigenous girl and then cut the fetus out of her stomach before disposing of her body in a river. Two other indigenous people were also killed and more than 800 forcibly displaced. Only three months earlier I had asked one of the US Army Special Forces soldiers based in Arauca what he thought about paramilitaries entering villages and massacring suspected guerrilla sympathizers. “Sometimes that’s what you have to do, I guess,” he said without hesitating and shrugging nonchalantly.

On August 21 of that year, soldiers from 18th Brigade raided homes and arrested 42 trade unionists, social activists and human rights defenders who were accused of being terrorists. Several months later, soldiers rounded up more than 25 opposition politicians in Arauca less than a week before local elections. Among those arrested for suspected ties to guerrillas were the mayor of Arauca City, the president of the regional assembly, a candidate for governor, and five mayoral candidates. Amnesty International accused the Uribe administration of politicizing human rights, claiming, “A lot of it has to do with silencing those who campaign for human and socio-economic rights.” The timing of the arrests, only days before local elections, also led an Amnesty spokesperson to declare, “It is part of a strategy to undermine the opposition’s credibility.”

In August 2004, Colombian soldiers from the same base housing the US military advisers ventured out into the barrios of the town of Saravena. The soldiers dragged three union leaders out of their beds in the middle of the night and executed them in cold blood. The Colombian army initially claimed that the three unionists were armed guerrillas killed in battle, but an investigation conducted by local and international human rights groups ultimately pressured Colombia’s attorney general’s office into launching its own probe. Deputy Attorney General Luis Alberto Santana later announced, “The evidence shows that a homicide was committed. We have ruled out that there was combat.” In a rare case of justice being carried out in Colombia’s dirty war, one army officer and two Colombian soldiers were arrested and charged with the murder of the three union leaders.

“Terrorists” and Refugees

In the ensuing years, the United States expanded its war on terror in Colombia by supporting the Colombian military’s counter-terrorism operations throughout the country. However, as had occurred in Arauca, those military operations were not solely aimed at the guerrillas—they also increasingly targeted the civilian population. According to the Bogotá-based Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP, in Spanish), a leading think tank that monitors Colombia’s conflict and political violence, the State was directly responsible for 17 percent of all human rights violations when President Uribe assumed office in 2002. Four years later, at the end of Uribe’s first term, the State was directly responsible for 56 percent of the country’s human rights abuses. 

There has been a dramatic escalation in the number of extra-judicial executions perpetrated by the Colombian military since Uribe assumed office. Investigators are currently looking into almost 2,000 cases of extra-judicial executions that occurred between 2002 and 2008. In a process known as “false positives,” soldiers execute civilians and then dress the corpses in camouflage fatigues and pass them off as guerrillas killed in combat. In some instances, young men from poor neighborhoods in Colombia’s cities were recruited with promises of jobs in distant rural regions. But when they arrived at their destination they were handed over to the army and executed. Some of the killings were motivated by a military incentive program that rewarded soldiers who killed “terrorists” with financial bonuses and extra leave.

Perhaps the most serious human rights issue in Colombia today is the worsening crisis of forced displacement in the country’s rural regions. According to the Bogotá-based Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES, in Spanish), more than 380,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced by violence in 2008—a 24 percent increase over the previous year—making it one of the worst years for displacement in the past two decades. With more than four million internally displaced persons, Colombia ranks second in the world after the Sudan. The Colombian military’s aggressive “counter-terrorism” operations have been a major cause of the escalating refugee crisis as soldiers forcibly displace entire communities in guerrilla-controlled zones. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, “The government’s military strategy, which was intended to be preventive, is instead resulting in an increased displacement of people.”

Regional menace Despite the atrocious human rights record of the US-backed Colombian military, a change in government in Washington did not result in a significant shift in US policy. In a country where more than 80 percent of the rural population lives in poverty, the Obama administration has failed to increase social and economic aid to help those most in need. And with the signing of the base agreement with the Uribe government, the United States has not only intensified its military presence in Colombia, it is also threatening neighboring countries in South America.

The Obama administration repeatedly rejected claims made by South American leaders, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales in particular, that the base agreement poses a threat to them.

“This is about the bilateral cooperation between the United States and Colombia regarding security matters within Colombia,” explained US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Colombia’s Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez declared: “Some third countries have expressed some concern regarding the agreement. We have always said that this agreement applies exclusively to Colombia.”

Nowhere in the text of the agreement, however, does it actually state that US military operations launched from the Colombian bases are to be restricted to Colombian territory. This subtle omission in the agreement is particularly troubling when taken in conjunction with separate US military documents. In its Fiscal Year 2010 Military Construction Program budget estimate, submitted to Congress in May 2009, the US Air Force requested $46 million in funding to upgrade Colombia’s Palenquero Air Base, the largest base covered under the cooperation agreement. This document makes clear that US military objectives related to the use of the Colombian bases extend far beyond Colombia’s borders to those South American countries viewed as posing threats to US interests.

According to the US Air Force, the Palenquero base “provides a unique opportunity for full-spectrum operations in a critical subregion of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics-funded insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.” The term “full spectrum operations” means that the Colombian base can be used as a launching pad for not only counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations, but any military venture anywhere in South America. And while US officials claim that the new deal with Colombia simply replaces the recently-expired agreement with Ecuador that provided it with access to the Manta Air Base, the Ecuadorian agreement specifically restricted the US military to counter-narcotics operations.

Under the Bush administration, the US war on terror in Latin America focused primarily on the FARC in Colombia. But with the arrival of President Obama in the White House, the United States has ensured that it now has the capacity to expand US military intervention throughout South America, in part to address the “threat” posed by “anti-US governments.” But in light of Washington’s military track record in Colombia, South American nations, particularly Venezuela and Bolivia, have ample reason to be concerned about the threat posed by the Obama administration’s expansion of US militarism in the region.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009) and Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006). He is also co-author of The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Colombia and Beyond (Cape Breton University Press, 2009). Garry’s articles have appeared in publications in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Latin America.