Rewriting the History of Plan Colombia

A five-star General's specious narrative about the program’s success ignores the crimes and impunity of the Colombian military, and lets the U.S. off the hook for fostering systemic human rights violations.

July 17, 2015

Colombian soldiers march through the streets of Pasto, the Andean city in the volatile southern border region with Ecuador, in a holiday parade celebrating the military. (Miguel Winograd)


It's probably a good thing that United States Army General John F. Kelly's May op-ed in the Miami Herald went largely unperceived, but recent developments have rendered the cynicism that informed it too blaring to ignore.


Ostensibly, General Kelly’s editorial seeks to extrapolate salient lessons from the Colombian government's military campaign against the country’s leftist guerrilla insurgency. Specifically, Kelly contends that Plan Colombia, the $9 billion U.S. military aid package passed in 2000, has “shown us the way” to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), which he claims poses a similarly “daunting challenge for the United States and its allies.”


On first read, the article is a relatively straightforward parade of banality and adulation, remarkable only because the individual leading it is the commander of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom). Sure, the content consists almost entirely of lies, half-truths, and meaningless platitudes, but nothing that ventures too far from the official Washington line.


Alex Lee, the deputy assistant secretary of state for South America and Cuba, and Bernie Aronson, the U.S. special envoy to Colombia's ongoing peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), gave similarly glowing appraisals to the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee just last month. And the Obama administration in general has not been adverse to overlooking human rights issues and overstating economic progress in Colombia--especially when it comes to the increasingly awful U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Mr. Obama strongly opposed in his 2008 campaign but has supported as president.


The United States’ relationship with Colombia is, as Kelly says, a “special” one. Outside the so-called Greater Middle East, no country has received more U.S. military aid and training in the past three decades. So while most Colombians wouldn’t be as quick describe theirs as "a strong, accountable government that protects its citizens, upholds the rule of law, combats corruption, and expands economic opportunity for all," a certain amount of favorable PR spin is to be expected. Kelly’s editorial is neither the first nor the most egregious example. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez has been credibly accused of everything from crimes against humanity to dishing out piloting licenses to the Medellín Cartel. And in 2008, George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Kelly never gets around to backing up his opening premise, but that's not surprising, either. If we do indeed "know how to win" the fight against the Islamic State--and anyone who's listened to the clown car of neo-cons and geopolitical fantasists that is the Republican presidential primary field would be hard-pressed to say "we" do--we definitely didn't figure it out studying a conflict that's dragged on for more than half a century in the jungles of South America. The article's very headline, "Colombia's resolve merits support," seems like a concession that Kelly is interested in carrying water for one of our "strongest friends and most steadfast allies," not sharing tactical insights with the American public.  


That brings us to Kelly’s real mission, which the general lets slip following a run of particularly tired cliches. Colombia, he writes, has "taught us that the battle for the narrative is perhaps the most important fight of all." It's the closest he comes to acknowledging his editorial for the ceaseless barrage of willful misinformation it is.


Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published "On their Watch," a 95-page report that should eliminate any doubt as to the maliciousness of Kelly's intentions. Having reviewed months of in-depth interviews and research, the report's authors concluded, "There is abundant evidence indicating that numerous senior army officers bear responsibility" for the widespread Colombian military practice known as "false positives."


False positives is a euphemism, an innocuous technical-sounding shield for a phenomenon HRW Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco has characterized as "one of the worst episodes of mass atrocity in the Western Hemisphere in recent years." That it has stuck, and that even people who understand what it means still use it, is just one testament to the extent to which Kelly and company have been able to dictate the terms of the narrative "battle."


What false positives actually entails is the systematic cold-blooded murder of civilians for profit and political gamesmanship, a coherent military strategy to inflate statistics by passing off executed civilians as rebels killed in combat. Often, units involved in the practice--and virtually every brigade in the Colombian Army has been--targeted the most vulnerable elements of society: the poor, drug-addicted, and mentally handicapped. In some cases, soldiers received fresh corpses from right-wing death squads and dressed them in rebel fatigues. This barbaric enterprise was, at the very least, condoned by the highest levels of the military and executive office and explicitly incentivized with bonuses, paid vacations, and promotions.


No one has ever accused Colombian justice of being among the "strong institutions" Kelly claims to admire, and false positives offers a fairly representative case study. According to HRW, prosecutors are assessing some 3,000 alleged false positive extrajudicial executions committed between 2002 and 2008. (In 2014, an authoritative report from the Fellowship of Reconciliation recorded 5,763 alleged cases between 2000 and 2010.) Of the roughly 800 soldiers thus far convicted, none rise above the rank of colonel. The Colombian Attorney General recently announced that 22 generals are under investigation for their role in the killings, but no general has been so much as indicted to date, and there is little reason to expect one will be soon.


This skepticism stems partly from the fact that three of the five brigade commanders who oversaw the largest numbers of false positives have gone on to become commander general of the Colombian Army, including General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar, who quietly retired last month. Alvaro Uribe, the hardline former president who formalized the false positive incentive structure and lit the political flame under the Army's results-based offensive, is now a sitting senator and the leader of a prominent opposition party that has likened the investigation of military war crimes to political terrorism. Juan Manuel Santos, whose term as defense minister coincided with the most dramatic spike in incidents, is now the president of the country.


Undermanned and overworked, the Attorney General's Office has mismanaged its resources and failed to coordinate its false positives investigations. Prosecutors contend with the obstruction of a recalcitrant military, which believes itself to be the victim of “judicial warfare,” a vast conspiracy of rebel-infiltrators and terrorist-sympathizing NGOs and journalists working to undo the laudable achievements of the Uribe years. And soldiers who do speak out face threats and violent reprisals--presumably from those isolated, rogue elements within the military that have not, as Kelly puts it, "embraced human-rights training." The Santos administration has dealt with these impediments by repeatedly pushing "reforms" that would cede jurisdiction over false positives to the military court system, where they have been met with utter impunity.


The only conclusion to be drawn from this sad state of affairs is that the Colombian government lacks the ability or political will to reign in the fanatical criminality the United States has spent the last several decades empowering. Following the transparent sham of the demobilization they negotiated with the Uribe government in 2006, Colombia’s paramilitaries have reformed into splinter groups that continue to terrorize labor organizers, journalists, and community leaders in much of the country. The “para-political” nexus of moneyed interests, mafiosos, and reactionary extremists that backed Mr. Uribe’s militant rise to the presidency remains largely in-tact. And Mr. Santos’ Victim’s Law has done more to legitimize the largest land grab in Colombian history than it has to repair Colombia’s more than six million internal victims of forced displacement, the second largest such population in the world.


Much of the evidence presented by HRW was previously unpublished, but the broad strokes detailed in the report have been apparent for years now. Which means that, unless this all fits Kelly's definition of a "professional military that is committed to protecting human rights and supporting a just and equal peace," the U.S. commander immediately responsible for Latin America is functioning as a propaganda mouthpiece for some of the most heinous war criminals in the region.


Plan Colombia, of course, has been a protracted exercise in just this sort of complicity and deliberate falseness. Originally sold, in 2000, as an anti-drug initiative and later re-branded as the western front in the Bush administration’s global war on terror, the $9 billion-plus military aid package has been counterinsurgency from start to drawn-out finish, a cheap excuse to pump new life into an expensive and lethal vestige of the Cold War. It's failed predictably at each of its stated goals--Plan Colombia has not, for instance, affected the price or availability of cocaine in the United States--but that hasn't stopped US officials from clinging to all its worst elements or touting the operation on the whole as a great regional success story. (“Miracle” was the word Kelly used in an interview last year.)


To hear Kelly and company tell it, you'd think the sole aim from the get-go was to "force a committed adversary to the negotiating table." That committed adversary, Kelly said in the 2014 interview, has been “the biggest human rights violators on the planet” for “the last 25 years.”


Lost somewhere in the narrative battle is the fact that, during the last 25 years, the FARC has not even been the biggest human rights violator in Colombia. Moreover, the consensus among serious analysts is that Plan Colombia was one of the major factors in the breakdown of the government's previous negotiations with the rebels. If Kelly understood his mission as "charting the path to peace," he wouldn't have published his incendiary op-ed when he did: at a moment when the two-and-a-half-year peace process was faltering and talks were preparing to broach the subject of transitional justice, for FARC rebels who “displaced innocents and destroyed livelihoods across Colombia” and for members of the Colombian military who did the same, only on a larger scale.


Essential to this final re-casting of Plan Colombia as a beacon of peace is the depiction of false positives--when they’re mentioned at all--as an aberration, rather than a centralized military tactic indicative of a far more pervasive total war logic. But embassy cables reveal that U.S. officials were aware of the Colombian military's "body count mentalities" as early as 1994, long before the massive surge in aid and training that came with Plan Colombia. Within a limited but revealing sample, commanders who spent time at the U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas (SOA, now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation--WHINSEC) have been shown to be significantly more likely to preside over multiple false positives killings.


At any rate, the first major revelations of false positives were not enough to bring the State Department to freeze aid to the Colombian military on human rights grounds. Neither were the persistent and well-documented reports of collaboration between the military and right-wing death squads, an alliance that might as well have been official policy throughout most of Plan Colombia’s originally prescribed lifespan.


According to an earlier HRW report, it was the CIA's 1991 reorganization of Colombian intelligence that "resulted in the creation of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas." Over the next 15 years, these state-sanctioned paramilitary groups would murder, rape, torture, and disappear tens of thousands and forcibly displace hundreds of thousands more. By the time Plan Colombia was being put into effect, they were so thoroughly integrated into Colombia’s military apparatus, they effectively constituted a sixth division of the Army, to borrow a phrase from yet another HRW report. According to the School of the Americas Watch, that Army included more SOA graduates than any in Latin America.


This is all highly reminiscent of the United States’ role in fostering Operation Condor, the secret cross-border rendition, torture, and assassination program implemented among the Southern Cone military dictatorships of the 1970s. And no one familiar with the Reagan administration's cocaine adventures in Central America will be shocked to learn that these same Colombian paramilitary groups assumed control over key facets of the Colombian drug trade, after helping the United States track and kill Pablo Escobar.


"Narcoterrorism," Plan Colombia's casus belli, was itself a product of the Reagan messaging machine, a secret and dubiously-legal public-private alliance to manipulate U.S. public opinion. As Greg Grandin explains in Empire’s Workshop, the New American Right sought the “reduction of foreign policy to a series of emotionally laden talking points,” the likes of which are strewn across General Kelly’s op-ed like leftovers at a Heritage Foundation fundraiser. Toward this end, the Reagan administration enlisted a network of fundamentalist Christians, economic charlatans, and conservative policy chop shops into a coordinated campaign of psychological warfare against the American citizenry, starting with its media.


In 1944, in his regular column for London's Tribune, George Orwell wrote that "history is written by the winners," a now-banal adage saved by the witty assertion that "our only claim to victory is that if we win the war we shall tell less lies about it than our adversaries." As Grandin has convincingly argued, Ronald Reagan's most enduring contribution to US foreign policy, and conservative politics in general, has been the codification of the opposite principle.


The Reagan administration understood, as the Bush administration did in the buildup to the invasion of Iraq and as General Kelly does now, that history is not a prize hanging amorphously over the battlefield. It is its own arena of conflict, tied to but not wholly determined by the bloody realities of war. Losing the military struggle does not necessarily entail surrendering the intellectual territory it was fought over. (Just ask the Sons of Confederate Veterans.) Often, the outcome of a given war is decided by which adversary can tell more lies about it, more consistently.


The Colombian narrative matters not simply because the United States has a moral obligation to rectify, as much as possible, the damage it has wrought on the country. It matters because the facts never have, because Colombia is just another stepping stone on the road to empire, and the groundwork that has been laid there is already leading the way to new conquest.


Anyone hoping to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement on the basis of human rights or environmental provisions should have to explain why the Labor Action Plan was all-but discarded as soon as the Colombian Free Trade Agreement came into effect. But they won’t. And they won’t for the same reasons that narcoterrorism, a term coined by a government that that sold missiles to Iranian mullahs and ran cocaine for the Nicaraguan “freedom fighters,” could be used a decade later as a serious justification for major US military intervention abroad. For the same reasons that Plan Colombia has since been held up as a model for the disastrous privatized drug war in Afghanistan and the disastrous proxy drug war in Mexico and Central America.


This is what happens when truth loses out in the “battle for the narrative.” You get the United States paying for Colombian troops to serve as surrogate trainers to corrupt and abusive forces in Latin America and elsewhere. You get a situation in which a military that has always been better at murdering peasants than defeating enemies on the battlefield now harbors the realistic expectation of a broader role in "international peacekeeping" going forward, as General Kelly says.

The U.S. military mission in Colombia has been winding down for some years now, but the war for the narrative has never been more vital. And if history is any indicator, the truth won't survive on its own.

Steven Cohen is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. A former freelance journalist and editor at Colombia Reports, his work on Colombia has appeared in ThinkProgress, The Nation, The New Republic, Vice, and others. You can follow him on twitter @SD_Cohen.

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