Colombia: Montoya, the AUC & Washington

Diego Montoya, who was arrested in La Paila, Valle del Cauca, on September 10, ranked second on the FBI's 10 most-wanted fugitives list. He will shortly be extradited to the US to stand trial for cocaine-related racketeering offences. Predictably, the US State Department and much of the corporate media have hailed his arrest as a victory in the so-called "war on drugs". Yet, despite this official posturing, it is undeniable that Montoya, like many other significant figures associated with Colombia's multibillion-dollar cocaine industry, was a product of US Colombia policy.

Far from being an enemy of the US, Montoya's organisation was a proxy in Washington's decades-old dirty war against leftist revolutionaries in Colombia. During the 1990s, the Norte del Valle cartel (NV) — named after the Cauca Valley north of Santiago de Cali — became Colombia's most powerful cocaine trafficking organisation. Formed in the early 1990s after the implosion of the Cali and Medellin cartels, NV quickly established control over a vast swathe of central and northern Colombia's coca-growing regions.

Extreme violence was a key to NV's initial success in capturing the market, though brute criminal force alone cannot explain the immense political power the cartel accrued. The well-documented alliance between NV and right-wing paramilitary groups controlled by the US-funded Colombian military guaranteed the cartel's virtual impunity for more than a decade. During this time, it is estimated that NV was responsible for exporting 600 tonnes of cocaine to the US.

As far as Washington was concerned, this US$10 billion avalanche hitting US streets was a better option than allowing leftist guerillas to stir up the surplus general population of Latin America. Since the 1960s, the Colombian military has been waging a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against leftist rebel groups, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), located mainly in the country's southern provinces. This campaign was instigated by the Kennedy administration, which directed significant funding to client states in a bid to ensure that leftist insurgents resisting US hegemony were eliminated from the Western Hemisphere.

In 2000, the Clinton administration implemented Plan Colombia, an "aid package" that massively expanded the longstanding US military contribution to Colombia's civil war. US funds and equipment, it was argued, would allow the "democratic" Colombian state to wage an effective interdiction campaign against the cocaine industry. The Bush administration has continued to funnel billions of dollars to the Colombian military under the official guise of combatting "narco-terrorists".

Proponents of Plan Colombia have always denied that Washington's expanding intervention is aimed at quelling leftist insurgents. Yet, as many commentators have noted, the selective targeting of coca-producing areas points to the underlying US motivation. The vast bulk of US military assistance has been directed against coca cultivation in southern Colombia, the FARC's stronghold. By contrast, the cocaine industry in central and northern Colombia, where the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) — a right-wing paramilitary terror group — prevails, has been left largely untouched.

Unlike the FARC, which tends to tax peasant coca cultivators in the area under its control, the AUC has routinely participated in the full-scale manufacture and trafficking of cocaine. During the 1990s, the AUC worked hand-in-hand with NV. An estimated 70% of the AUC's funds stemmed directly from the cocaine trade. The scale of the cartel's operation made a mockery of US policy, exposing the hypocrisy that underpins the war on drugs.

Washington continued to fund the Colombian military, whose direct links to the paramilitaries and NV were well understood. Just as the Nicaraguan Contras were tacitly encouraged by the CIA to raise funds through extortion, terror and cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, the AUC was permitted to pull out all the stops in its atrocity-laden campaign against leftist guerillas. The real target was not cocaine, but leftist groups that threatened to take power and remove resource-rich Colombia from Washington's sphere of influence.

NV was therefore permitted to carry on with its flourishing export business. Despite the growing discomfort of some US policy-makers, the cocaine-funded AUC was seen as a necessary ally in the war against the FARC. The official policy was to turn a blind eye to the AUC's terror and drug trafficking, but loudly condemn the FARC's far more tenuous stake in coca cultivation.

During the late 1990s, the AUC waged a murderous offensive against "insurgents" in lucrative coca-producing areas of Colombia. Mass killings of civilians were commonplace, openly aided by the Colombian military. Yet the US funds kept rolling in, allowing the AUC and NV to take control of an even larger share of the cocaine industry. The cartel's profits soared, along with the appalling carnage.

Following the arrest and extradition of NV chief Luis Gomez in 2004, cartel heavyweights Diego Montoya and Wilmer Varela went to war. Thousands were slaughtered in the bitter factional strife, which greatly destabilised the cartel. During this period, Montoya remained affiliated with the AUC, leaving Varela to forge new links with rogue elements of the FARC.

With NV tearing itself apart, Montoya was formally indicted by US authorities keen to distance themselves from a nefarious client whose political usefulness had expired. Montoya's capture represents the fall from grace of yet another proxy-turned-enemy in the machinations of US foreign policy. As for the cocaine trade, insatiable US demand for the drug will ensure that trafficking remains as immensely profitable as ever.

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