Letter from the US: US military drive against growing insurgency in Colombia

June 17, 1998

Letter from the US

US military drive against growing insurgency in Colombia

By Barry Sheppard

The Pentagon, worried about recent left-wing guerilla victories, is stepping up the flow of arms and training to Colombia's military, under cover of the "war on drugs".

A recent exposé in the New York Times said, "Officials say more United States training and equipment are going to shore up basic deficiencies in the tactics, mobility and firepower of the Colombian military, rather than for operations directed at the drug trade. Faced with a string of rebel victories, including a devastating ambush of Colombian troops in March, American generals have embarked on an ambitious effort to help reorganise the Colombian army.

"According to senior American officials, the Clinton administration has also been considering options that officials said include additional military training, providing more sophisticated helicopters and material, and creating a high-tech intelligence centre that would be run by American officials on Colombian soil."

In 1990, several guerilla groups agreed to lay down their arms. Two main groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), did not.

Military officials, including General Wilhelm, the commander-in-chief of the US Southern Command, which is in charge of the US operation in Colombia, say there is some insurgent activity in approximately 700 of the country's 1071 municipalities. They estimate the rebels' strength at up to 18,000 combatants — 10-11,000 in the FARC and 7000 in the ELN — "up from as few as 8000 fighters six years ago".

Wilhelm said, "The threat is intensifying. We are seeing, basically, an undermining of governance at the grassroots level. In a sense, I see a nation divided."

Right-wing death squads are working with government troops, according to the Times. "In many cases, drug traffickers have also armed the paramilitaries against the insurgents; victims of the squads have included thousands of peasants and unionists, and hundreds of the rebels who gave up their guns."

The fig leaf under which the US government and generals try to cover their attack on the rebels is the charge that the insurgents are protecting the drug trade. This is the "justification for the difficulty that officials had in keeping American aid from going to Colombian units that fought mainly against the insurgents", the Times reported.

In 1994, the US Congress required the Clinton administration to verify that US military aid would go only to troops that "primarily" carried out anti-drug operations. In March 1996, Clinton reacted to evidence that Colombian President Ernesto Samper had taken money from the Cali drug cartel by cutting off almost all aid, except that designated to fight drugs.

"Yet according to many officials", the Times reports, "the Pentagon quietly distinguished itself by finding creative ways around the restrictions. 'We refused to disengage', said a Pentagon official who spoke on condition that he not be identified."

Leonardo Garcia, a spokesperson for the FARC, told the Times that the rebels did not protect cocoa fields to make money, as the US charges, but to defend the peasants working them. Given the drug trafficking out of Colombia, poor peasants often find they get more money growing cocoa than other crops, although what they receive for the cocoa is minuscule compared to what the drug cartels and dealers get.

The schools for Colombian troops that the US runs are described by administration officials as "heavy doses of anti-drug tactics with some counter-terrorism, hostage rescue and medical training thrown in", according to the Times. "But military officials familiar with the programs said they concentrated less on weak links in the cocaine trade than on shortcomings of the Colombian army.

"One instance of the vague definition of 'counter drug' preparation are the courses that United States Army trainers, drawn in largely from the Seventh Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., often lead in the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange training.

"Working with Colombian units, Defense Department officials said, the teams teach such skills as basic marksmanship and jungle manoeuvres. At the end of a course, the trainers will typically plan a 'graduation' attack on the guerillas and then wait at their base while the students carry it out."

When the US embassy in Bogota investigated in 1994, officials said that "anti-drug" aid had gone to seven Colombian brigades and seven battalions implicated in abuses linked to the death squads. Congress then supposedly cut off any aid to units linked to human rights abuses.

But "some American-trained forces", according to the Times, "have continued to be accused of abuses, and Colombian prosecutors are investigating reports that a massacre of suspected rebel sympathisers last year around the southern village of Mariripan was carried out by a paramilitary squad flown into the nearby military airfield at San Jose del Guaviare, the staging base for American-supported anti-drug operations in the region".

US embassy officials claim the "anti-drug" aid can be used only in a designated region of Colombia "where the ties between drug producers and guerillas are held to be so close that any rebel units could be fairly considered the traffickers' ally".

This geographical "box" is, however, not recognised by the Pentagon. "In terms of geography", Wilhelm told the Times, "I'm personally not aware of any restrictions".

In an understatement of the year, the Times notes, "There is little question that the evolving United States policy has focused less on the close relationship that Colombian traffickers have with many right-wing paramilitary groups".

Garcia summed up the purpose of the "drug" charges against the insurgents: "The idea is simply to label us as delinquents, to reject us as people with a political struggle. It is a way to legitimise a military intervention."

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