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Last Friday President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of 100 armed military advisers to central Africa to help regional forces fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan guerrilla group. This new intervention sheds some light into the spectrum of U.S. military involvement in a number of armed conflicts worldwide, which are ranging from open large-scale wars, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, to smaller wars such as the ones in Pakistan, Yemen, and now central Africa. Among the wide spectrum of U.S. international conflicts is the U.S. war in Colombia. This war has been often understated and almost forgotten, but thanks to recently-released documents the U.S. involvement in Colombia is increasingly coming to light.
Since the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia was introduced in 2000, the U.S. war in Colombia has intensified, altering the incentives for the battling factions, and changing the dynamics of the conflict. The Colombian state and the dominant classes—particularly the most reactionary cattle ranchers, large landowners, some agribusinesses, and their political allies—believed that the U.S. military assistance would allow them to win the war and thus had less of an incentive to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Now eleven years later, the U.S. has wasted more than $7 billion-mostly in military aid-, and supported the Colombian government with trainers, special operation forces, private contractors, and intelligence services. Yet the conflict continues unabated. There are no accurate estimates of the number of U.S. personnel and services deployed in the Colombian war. The little that is known, however, is filtering out, slowly painting us a picture of this secret U.S. war—longer than either Iraq and Afghanistan, and much more important that the latest central Africa adventure.
Excerpts from two recently-released WikiLeaks documents help to highlight the magnitude and scope of the U.S. involvement.
The first cable was written in 2006 by then U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William B. Wood. (GOC is an abbreviation for the Colombian government and USG is the abbreviation for the U.S. government.) The cable summary reads:
The GOC captured or killed 29 key midlevel operatives of the country's main guerilla insurgencies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), from September 2005 through April 2006. Takedowns were concentrated among three groups -- front commanders, finance officers, and explosives experts -- who are vital to guerilla activities and difficult to replace. The operations were guided by intelligence packages assembled with heavy USG support. Continued cooperation between USG and GOC intelligence units aims to chip away at the guerillas' middle management, as one element in a concerted set of strategies to weaken these organizations over time.
The cable continues and uncovers the level of cooperation between the Colombian and U.S. governments.
The USG has worked closely with GOC intelligence units in capacity building, and the two sides continue to cooperate in planning specific operations. Of the 29 cases discussed above, about 30% were carried out by the GOC independently, while 70% were conducted with USG assistance. Typically GOC entities in the field collect raw data, filtered and prioritized by the USG into operational packages, which the GOC in turn executes. This cooperation has yielded a quantum increase in the volume of actions undertaken, as well as higher-quality vetting of prospective actions and tighter operational planning. The main drawback is a perceived GOC dependency on U.S. support, no longer in terms of skills but rather in motivational drive and sense of urgency, which still derives from U.S. pushing. The appointment of Camilo Ospina as Minister of Defense earlier this year has been a positive development in this regard: he is a strong supporter of intelligence work and a catalyst for increasing the volume of intel-guided activity.
An earlier cable, from November 20, 2003, also shows the direct U.S. participation in the war. (NAS refers to the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. embassy in Colombia.)
In 2003 On November 20, NAS supported a Counter-narcotics Brigade mission in Meta Department in a successful combined-arms operation involving ground troops, intelligence, transport, and strike aircraft operating in concert. Four UH-60 Plan Colombia helicopters, escorted by four UH-1N Plan Colombia aircraft, transported the assault force to the target area. The UH-1N escorts destroyed two trucks transporting enemy reinforcements, resulting in an unknown number of enemy casualties. The Colombian Air Force supported the mission with preplanned fire from fixed-wing and helicopter gun ships. Ground forces seized or destroyed the following assets: estimated 16,000 gallons of liquid chemical precursors; 2.2 MT of solid precursors; three MT of ANFO explosives; 79 explosive cylinders of varying sizes (20, 40, and 100 pounds); 21 mortars; four trucks; three motorcycles; 40 mines; 500 meters of detonation cord; and 50 car alarms used in remote detonators. Four personnel were also captured. This successful action will serve as a model for future operations.
These two cables provide a glimpse of the ongoing U.S. war in Colombia that is largely outflanked by Afghanistan and Iraq, but of no less importance. Millions of Colombians are waiting for a peaceful resolution that will not come without a significant change in U.S. policy.
This is a good article which raises important questions about the role of the US in the Colombian civil conflict. An examination of the historical record shows that the US as the dominant force in the region, has been heavily involved in the violence in Colombia since the development of the National Security Doctrine and Plan Lazo in the 1960s.
Since the introduction of Plan Colombia the US has also had a heavy private security presence with mercenaries flying fumigation aircraft and numerous others providing training and advice to Colombian military units. Thus, the US is a major player in the Colombian conflict whether we like it or not. The comment posted below by Carlos is also interesting, less for what it says, and more for what it reveals about the attitudes of those few Colombians able to access the internet and learn near-perfect English. Less than half of Colombians have access to the internet, and virtually all of those that do live in urban areas. I suspect that the attitudes of Colombia’s poor and its rural population differ from those expressed in his comment, but since they don’t use the internet and don’t speak English their views go largely unheard.
For example, so far this year two major congresses calling for peace have been held with thousands of delegates from civil society organisations representing millions attending. These included organisations of afro-colombians (25% of the population) and indigenous as well as human rights organisations and trade unions. So I think it is actually fair to say that millions of people want peace in Colombia. Furthermore, to say that 98% of Colombians “want only one thing” is a massive assumption and oversimplification. Over 10% of Colombia’s population is internally displaced - over 5 million people. These people have been forced from their homes by the conflict, usually by paramilitary groups that work hand in hand with the military and police that the US claims to have “professionalised”. At least 60% of the population lives in poverty, and in rural areas this figure is even higher.
According to a recent article in El Tiempo 6 out of 10 Colombians that work still live in poverty and in complete insecurity. Millions of people labour in the informal sector where there is no social security or sick pay, where there is no limit to working hours. For these millions indigence is always an accident or a mere bout of flu away... Meanwhile government expenditure on the war is immense. More is spent on the military than is spent on education, and taking into account all expenditures related to the war at least a quarter of the budget goes on it. This is money wasted every year on destroying and killing rather than on development. I suspect therefore that many Colombians place the achievement of peace and more social justice higher on the agenda than the total destruction of the FARC. It is indicative that in recent months reports have indicated that the war is intensifying again, and that the level of combat activity is now the same as it was in 2002 when President Uribe took power.
One recent report by Arco Iris suggests that the armed forces are exhausted by the tempo of operations and the attrition on the reduced number of combat capable units. Hence an over-reliance on air power with its attendant effect on civilian lives and property. This is despite the billions of US dollars, the presence of foreign mercenaries and the widespread cooperation of security forces with the paramilitary death squads that exercise social control in vast swathes of Colombia. For any outside observer it is clear that the war in Colombia will not be won militarily for the decades have seen various Plans and Operations and each one is trumpeted as the last one needed to defeat the guerrillas.
It is patently obvious that the conflict has socio-economic roots, and that as time goes on the conflict is degenerating. It is also obvious that what is needed to bring this sorry situation to an end is a negotiation between the warring parties. Only then can the differences among Colombians be resolved by discussion, debate and dialogue and not through the barrel of a gun. The need for this is further underlined by the fact that many of the human rights abuses are committed in precisely those ‘Consolidated Zones’ where the military is in complete control and where there is a constant presence of the full spectrum of state institutions. The government investment in these areas has been heavily biased towards security, and there is little evidence of the social investment needed.
On one visit to Colombia a delegation of European politicians reported seeing empty school buildings with no desks and a few broken chairs, unpaved roads, villages without sewage systems... although there was a military landing strip, a large military base with several helicopter gunships, a second military base in the town, and troops posted on every corner. Yet in the same town a few weeks later, a human rights defender was gunned down in the street. It is also incredible that, for example, the department of Meta (pop.75,000) has 25,000 troops organised in 13 Brigades stationed in it - troops control the main towns and all the transport routes in the consolidated zones - and yet paramilitaries continue to enjoy complete freedom of movement, appearing in villages to register the inhabitants, set up roadblocks, as well as their usual noxious threats and acts of violence.
No doubt the libraries in Medellin and Bogota are world class, but these are Potemkin villages of social spending, mere drops in the ocean compared to the vast levels of investment the people of Colombia really need. To call them the “most ambitious urban renaissance projects ever undertaken in Latin America” is to demonstrate a wilful ignorance of what is going on in the rest of the continent where serious efforts are being made to deal with inequality and ill health. While it is true that Colombia’s judiciary has largely been courageous and conscientious in its chasing down of corrupt officials who were/are members or linked to paramilitary groups, it is currently threatened with being silenced by a judicial reform that would place them firmly under legislative and executive control, effectively ending the separation of powers envisioned in the 1991 Constitution. As Carlos comments, much more remains to be done.
Finally, it is highly unlikely that changing US drug policy will end the FARC. This is to over-emphasise the role of finances in a guerrilla war. The war existed long before the drug trade, and unless Colombia faces up to its social obligations, the war will continue even if the US miraculously declares drugs to be legal and ends the militarisation of drugs policy. The FARC no doubt fund themselves in the same ways as every guerrilla organisation historically has, using a variety of legal and illegal businesses and ‘taxing’ those with interests in areas they control.
In fact it is probable that the FARC is less vulnerable to changes in drugs policy than the paramilitaries simply because the FARC lacks the international connections needed to traffic drugs northwards. The only real way to end the conflict is by sitting down and talking to the FARC. This is how the UK finally resolved the problem of Northern Ireland. It is how the conflicts in Central America were solved, and it is how the Colombian war will be resolved. Once at peace effective and meaningful steps can be taken to remove the social causes of the violence, and Colombia will surely become the country it has the potential to become, one that all Colombians can be proud of and an example to the rest of Latin America.
I'd say this line is wholly inaccurate:
"Millions of Colombians are waiting for a peaceful resolution that will not come without a significant change in U.S. policy."
Overwhelmingly and across the political spectrum, most Colombians, well over 98 percent, want one thing and only one thing, the defeat of the FARC. I am certainly not waiting for the FARC to change its longstanding practices of terrorism. I want them destroyed and I'm certainly appreciative of the US role in the professionalization of the Colombia Armed Forces even if I remain a critic of the not insubstantial human rights abuses. Even so I have to laugh at your implied thesis that the FARC is interested in some sort of peaceful resolution. The Pastrana government tried negotiations and failed miserably. You seem willing to criticize the paramilitaries, and rightly so, but where is the simple recognition that the FARC is a terrorist organization with links to the drug trade?
The assertion that the US has wasted $7 billion USD is a blatant falsehood. I'm not going to say that every penny has seen a return on investment but whether you like it or not, Colombia in 2011 is a far safer, more prosperous for the overwhelmingly majority of its citizens than it was in 2000. Look at any indicator you want be it homicides, kidnapping, extortion, they are all down significantly. And while the reason for these successes are multiple, US assitance has been a critical component. Though far from defeated, the FARC has been marginalized and driven deeper into the jungle.
Colombian government presence has been expanded to include all 1,119 municipalities up from just 750 a decade ago. We're building schools, clinics, libraries and police buildings expanding state capacity. It is not just in outlying districts that this is being done but in major cities. Bogotá and Medellín have built world-class public libraries in the past decade in poorer marginal neighborhoods in the most ambitous urban renaissance projects ever undertaken in Latin America. I'm the first to admit that we have a long way to go, but discounting the concrete achievements of the Colombian state and its people, thanks in part to Plan Colombia, over the past decade only opens you up to mockery and disdain. You lose credibility in making such a sweeping statement that US has wasted $7 billion in aid to Colombia. The facts on the ground just simply contradict you.
One very disturbing trend of this prolonged conflict is the increased polarization of Colombia. We have seen in the last 15 years a rise of an extreme hard right, something that had been largely absent in Colombia since the death of Laureano Gómez Castro in 1965. With the polarization has come a Machiavellian view that the ends justify the means. I want the FARC defeated but I'm not willing to countenance human rights violations committed in my name. However, one added capacity has been the abilitiy of the Colombian judicial system to bring prominent officials to trial. Jorge Norguera, the head of DAS, is in jail. Scores of politicians are in jail on charges tied to corruption or paramilitarism. Do we need to do more? Yes but we have come a long way.
What worries me is that the Colombian conflict is interminable because try as we might the FARC can survive thanks to our rough Andean topography and the financial lifeline offered it by the drug trade. During the first half of 2011, there were 1,115 FARC attacks — that’s up 10 percent versus last year, according to Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think-tank here in Colombia.
The key to destroying the FARC isn't really a military solution but rather a financial one. They can be made irrelevant overnight if you in the US change your drug policy. The war on drugs is a 40 year failure and the cost for Colombia has been high. If not for the drug trade, the financial resources available to the FARC were be a fraction of their current levels. The drug trade out of Colombia is about $5 billion USD annually. That's not even 2 percent of Colombia's GDP. Still the FARC derives perhaps some $300 million to $500 million USD annually from it. This is about 60% to 70% of its operating budget. If we tackle the drug trade by legalizing it, you'll cut out the FARC's finances from underneath them. Same goes for the right-wing paramilitary groups. Every illicit group in the country has its hands in some way in the drug trade cookie jar because it is simply so lucrative.
Look at the Sendero Luminoso in Peru. They were defeated militarily by the Fujimori regime over a decade ago and yet they continue to hang on in remote Andean valleys. Earlier this year, they managed to knock down a Peruvian military helicopter in Pampas, Huancavelica. And the resurgeance of the Sendero Luminoso is highly correlated to the rise in Peruvian coca production since 2007. Given the topography of the Andean region, illicit groups can find sanctuary in remote valleys, rebuild and carry on their campaigns of terror. The FARC and the Sendero will survive as long as there is a drug trade from which to profit.
If you really want to help us end these conflicts, please work to change US government policy on drugs. That is the best way to help Colombia. Otherwise, these silly critiques in which you pretend to speak for millions of Colombians are just pointless and pathetic.