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Colombia: A Primer
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A Special Albion Monitor 404 Report

by Jeff Elliott

With every passing year, the U.S. deepens its involvement with Colombia, although parallels abound to the beginnings of our involvement in Southeast Asia. We are intervening in a long-running civil war; aerial spraying of defoliants is ravaging the countryside; terrorized peasants are being driven from their lands; and our involvement is spilling one country's problems over the borders of adjoining nations. Colombia is fast becoming the Vietnamese War that we can drive to.

The Century Long Civil War
Colombia Map Although the names of the players have slightly changed, the conflict in Colombia is a civil war that started more than a century ago.

The first phase was the 3-year "The War of a Thousand Days" that began in 1899. Fighting was between the nation's political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, which continue to dominate the political scene in Colombia today.

More than ideology, the civil war always has been about power, and in Colombia, that comes from control of the land. But Colombia has no easy terrain where armies can march into battle. More than half of the country is rugged mountain and dense forest, with unpaved roads -- sometimes just footpaths -- leading to remote villages. It is in these tiny communities that the horrors have played out.

A period known as "La Violencia" started in 1948 when the Liberals and Conservatives again began fighting for control of the nation. Mercenaries hired by one of the parties would attack villages thought to be sympathetic to the opposite side. It was a campaign of terror: a few victims might be singled out for execution (perhaps with their heads severed as a warning) or maybe all the villagers would be massacred. Once the survivors fled, a politician or mercenary would claim the villager's land. An estimated 300,000 died during this five-year period, with 2 million abandoning their homes.

A military coup ended La Violencia, but it also ended the Liberal and Conservative party control. Apparently realizing that half of the spoils are better than none at all, the two parties formed a "National Front" and had friendly forces in the military overthrow the junta. Since 1957 the parties have equally shared control of all political offices except for the presidency, which is elected.

The Guerillas
FARC troops
FARC troops move through the jungle
It should come as no surprise that leftist rebel groups emerged to fight such a corrupt government system.

Most well-known today is FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which the U.S. media calls a Communist or Marxist group (as part of its grades 6-12 classroom program, the New York Times even has a slanted lesson on Marxism using FARC as a supposed example). But this only underscores our shallow understanding of the guerilla movement; the BBC calls them "Marxist-inspired," which is certainly a more accurate description of their hybrid beliefs. Both FARC and the smaller ELN (National Liberation Army) draw on Marxist-Leninist ideology, but also share ideas with the revolutionary Christian movement and other South American liberation groups, such as Peru's MRTA.

A variety of rebel groups fought the Colombian army to a standstill for more than thirty years until 1984, when a cease-fire was negotiated. Some of the rebels greeted the news with optimism and tried to work within the system via new reform political parties. Over the next few years, hundreds of ex-guerillas were systematically killed by death squads, including their candidate for president. FARC called an end to the ceasefire ended in 1990.

Today FARC is a serious threat to the Colombian government. Rebel forces have become so strong that they are attacking Colombia army garrisons -- and winning. It's often quoted that the rebels control a sizeable portion of Colombia "about the size of Switzerland" in the southern region, but there are also many guerilla strongholds in the interior and near the border with Central America. The latter is critical because of plans to construct an east-west highway between the Caribbean and the Pacific that's dubbed the "dry canal"and will be used to transport goods much like the Panama Canal. Besides armed combat, FARC often has used industrial sabotage, such as the bombing of oil pipelines.

FARC has an estimated 15,000 members, but Human Rights Watch says the majority are teenagers, enlisted -- or drafted -- as young as 12 years old. The 1998 report from the watchdog group noted that it is not uncommon to see a unit with fifteen adult commanders leading up to 65 child soldiers. Punishment for desertion is death, sometimes extended to include family members.

Human rights groups have been highly critical of FARC for refusing to abandon land mines, which are banned by most nations (the U.S. is one of the few nations not to sign a treaty calling for worldwide ban). In an interview with Human Rights Watch, FARC commander Simon Trinidad dismissed international humanitarian law as "a bourgeois concept."

But the main criticism of the rebel groups is that they have used hostage-taking as both a political tool and a major source of funding. Today 7 out of 10 kidnappings worldwide occur in Colombia, with the guerillas responsible for the majority of incidents. Most hostages are held non-combatants that are held for ransom (see MONITOR story). Colombia's high unemployment and poverty rate have also led to copycat kidnappings.

No aspect of the Colombian war is untouched by international drug trafficking, but the ELN strongly opposes drug cultivation in favor of growing food crops (less than five percent of all land in Colombia is suitable for agriculture). FARC has been charged with extorting protection money from drug growers and traffickers in the regions they control, and last year authorities stumbled over a covert drugs- for- guns operation that would have smuggled 10,000 Russian AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition to FARC (see MONITOR story).

The Para-
There are several paramilitary "self-defense" groups, with an umbrella organization called the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). Leader Carlos Castaño has trained a generation of kilers at the enormous ranch owned by his brother, Fidel, who made his fortune from drug trafficking for the Medellín Cartel.

With their private army, the Castaño brothers revived the seige of terror not seen since the days of La Violencia. The paramilitaries work like this: First rumors of a coming attack spreads through a village; then anonymous death threats and graffiti appear; then late one night the killers arrive and prepare for a leisurely slaughter. One account last year described two days of torturing, stabbing, shooting, and decapitating villagers. "To them, it was like a big party," a survivor told the New York Times. "They drank and danced and cheered as they butchered us like hogs."

Once the villagers flee, the abandonded farms are taken by drug traffickers, who in turn fund Castaño's death squads. It has been estimated that 30 percent of the arable land in Colombia is now owned by these narco-ranchers.

These paramilitary groups also target anyone thought to be sympathetic to reform. Judges, politicians, teachers, church workers, intellectuals, doctors, airplane pilots, and trade unionists are all suspect. While the paramilitaries also use kidnapping, it is not a regular tactic as it is with the guerillas. RThe paramilitaries are most likely to just kill the person instea.

Like the rebels, the paramilitaries also rely heavily upon child soldiers. Colombia's Public Advocate's Office says as many as half the members of some units are children, some as young as eight.

But although both Castaño brothers have been convicted of numerous massacres, neither Carlos or Fidel has ever been arrested. (Fidel has not been seen since 1994.) While the leftist guerilla organizations are on the U.S. State Department list of "terrorist" organizations, AUC is not, which allows the group to fundraise and lobby in the United States.

The Colombian military has always denied ties to the paramilitaries, but troops have often attacked human rights workers monitoring paramilitary activity, charging that they were guerilla supporters. Army forces also defended Castaño's home against a FARC assault in 1998. And in 1990, an army major led a death squad in a gruesome slaying of 107 people, some killed by chain saws.

Both the CIA and U.S. miltary have been involved with Colombia for decades helping train the paramilitary side of the Colombian army. A special Army school was setup in 1955 to "perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents..." Human Rights Watch aquired U.S. Army Field Manuals and U.S. Army Special Texts detailing how to use covert operations to terrorize "subversives."

In 1990, the CIA and U.S. miltary again met to plot Colombia's future. The result was a document that clearly shows that the paramilitaries are simply the terrorist wing of the army. "Order 200-05/91" spelled out exactly how they covertly work together: Recruitment, training, and organization of paramilitaries was directly under command from the Colombian military. Human Rights Watch called it "a blueprint for ... a secret network that relied on paramilitaries not only for intelligence but to carry out murder."

The Colombian Drug Connection
FARC youth
FARC youth
It's ironic that the multi- billion- dollar cocaine cartels apparently began with an encounter between leftist guerillas and a powerful family growing coca.

In 1980, one of the smaller rebel groups kidnapped a member of the Ochoa family from the city of Medellín. After negotiations, the Ochoa family and their allies created a 2,000 man private army to fight jointly with the guerillas. The experience taught the coca-growing families that they could cooperate, and thus the cartels were born. Within a few years, the cartels had become the most successful criminal syndicate in history, taking in an estimated $8 billion during 1988 alone.

The cartels were so wildly successful because they controlled both Colombian drug production and distribution of the product to their biggest customer, the United States. The Medellín cartel had already established a cocaine pipeline to Florida, following 1970s gangland battles with the Miami Cubans for dominance. A new market opened up during the 1980s when Congress banned aid to the Nicaraguan contras guerrillas. After that, it was the steady supply of Colombian drugs that funded the illegal U.S. support of Reagan's "freedom fighters."

Better yet, this new drug route came with the benefit of protection from arrest. As Gary Webb wrote in a MONITOR update, "The Crack Up:"

...By 1987, the CIA report shows, the agency was sitting on six years' worth of reports from field agents, station chiefs, informants, assets, private citizens and some of the contras themselves, all indicating that Ronald Reagan's "freedom fighters" were shipping planeloads of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. The Justice Department's files likewise bulged with evidence of contra drug running, including eyewitness testimony from inside informants. Ditto for the State Department. The CIA had briefed Vice President George Bush personally...

The Medellín cartel was smashed in 1993 and the Cali cartel ended a few years later, but by that time cocaine was Colombia's major industry. The drug money touches every aspect of Colombia; not long after a new president was elected in 1994, it became a national scandal when it was discovered that he had accepted considerable campaign donations from drug traffickers.

U.S. Involvement
As Colombian authorities destroy coca plants in record-breaking numbers each year, they still fall behind. In just one region in southern Colombia, coca planting leapt by 300 percent in only three years.

As drug growing has expanded, so has the U.S. budget for assistance to Colombia. Since 1990, Colombia had been the #1 recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America, and the money continues to pour in. About $1 billion was given to Colombia during the 1990s.


This summary was drawn from dozens of articles that appear in the Monitor archives, as well as many other newspaper articles, books, and reports from human rights groups and U.S. government documents. To learn more about Colombia, we suggest these Internet resources:

MONITOR Archives

Human Rights Watch

Colombia Report

Center for International Policy

The U.S. has paid token notice to Colombia's poor record in solving its problems. The 1996 and 1997 State Department human rights reports rebuked Colombia for condoning paramilitary violence ("Killings by paramilitary groups increased significantly [in 1997], often with the alleged complicity of individual soldiers or of entire military units..."). Congress also "decertified" Colombia for aid in 1996-97 for not doing enough to control the drug trade. But at the same time, the U.S. has refused to turn off the money faucet. The Clinton Administration sidestepped the decertification ban and still gave the Colombian army its promised $30 million.

The 1998 election of new president Andrés Pastrana (Conservative party) has led to a much closer working relationship between the Colombian government and the U.S. -- specifically, the White House office on National Drug Control Policy. The result of their talks became "Plan Colombia," a $7.5 billion program to fight drugs, pacify the country, and improve human rights. The U.S. will pay $1.3 billion, and Colombia plans to borrow $4 billion. It is hoped that other nations will chip in to pay the rest. Most of the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia aid is to go towards financing, training and supplying army anti-narcotics battalions operating in southeastern Colombia, an area controlled by FARC guerillas.

Congress approved Plan Colombia funding with the stipulation that military personnel suspected of committing human rights violations or of collaborating with right-wing paramilitary squads must be dismissed. But once the money was approved, Clinton waived those human rights conditions on the grounds of U.S. national security interests.

When Plan Colombia began in September, 2000, effects were almost immediately controversial, as U.S.-trained soldiers began aerial spraying of glyphosate, an herbicide intended to defoliate illegal crops. A few months later, four Colombian governors told Washington that this fumigation is causing new problems. Food crops are being destroyed as well as the coca, marijuana, and poppies used for drugs. Reports of symptoms resembling chemical poisoning, including vomiting, fever, and skin rashes, are common. Complaints have also come from across the Ecuador border because of wind drift.

As critics predicted, Plan Colombia has destabilized the region. Drug growers as well as AUC paramilitaries are moving into Ecuador to continue operations there (see MONITOR story). Ecuador was promised $42 million to assist with its role in Plan Colombia, and the government is spending the first $8 million in buying U.S.-made helicopters and weapons for troops patrolling along its border.

The Bush Administration has shown no sign of changing course from Clinton. In March 2001, Colombia received approval from the United States for the second consecutive year for meeting Y2000 targets for eradicating crops used in drug production, although the total cultivated area actually expanded by over 25,000 acres -- about ten percent more than in 1999.

As for the guerilla organizations, FARC continues its on-again, off-again peace negotiations with Pastrana. It has offered to stop fighting and wipe out coca production in the region it controls. In exchange, it wants the government to develop markets for alternative crops. With the influx of Plan Colombia funding, it appears that the government is not seriously considering these options.

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