Miami South Com


Nikolas Kozloff

Slowly
but surely, the U.S. presence is escalating in Colombia’s counterinsurgency
war against left wing rebels. Currently there are 1,000 U.S. marines stationed
at a military base on the Colombian Pacific coast at Bahia Malaga, dispatched in
support of the army. Patience seems to be wearing out in Washington for a
peaceful settlement, as evidenced by a recent report by the French news agency Agence
France Presse
stating that U.S. leaders have been actively courting Latin
leaders to organize a military intervention force to pacify Colombia. Such a
multinational force would intervene in early 2000 acting on a request by
Colombian president, Andres Pastrana. According to the report, Pastrana would
try to reach an agreement with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC), the country’s leading rebel group. If peace were not reached
by January, Pastrana would declare a state of internal war in Colombia and call
on regional aid to help pacify his country. An intervention force of Peruvian,
Ecuadoran, and Brazilian soldiers would join forces with the Colombian army,
currently being trained by U.S. advisers to fight the rebels. In an ominous
recap of the Kosovo war, U.S. warships off Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific
coasts would then support the allied intervention with missile attacks and air
strikes.

Moves towards
greater U.S. involvement have been directed and coordinated out of a rather
nondescript looking building located at 3511 NW 91 Avenue in Miami. This is the
site of the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for all U.S. military operations
in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1998, Miami South Com had a budget of
$566 million. According to Charles Wilhelm, South Com’s commander, the center
is "the most technologically advanced military intelligence facility in the
world."

Wilhelm, a
Vietnam veteran who was disappointed by the onslaught of negativism surrounding
that war, and who remarked to the Miami Herald that he "would have gone
back for a third tour, a fourth," now would like to roll back the guerrillas
in Colombia. In order to do this, however, Wilhelm has collaborated with top
Colombian brass, some of which have alleged connections to right-wing
paramilitary death squads. Reportedly, Wilhelm met with former Colombian Defense
Minister Harold Bedoya Nava back in 1997 to discuss the need for growing U.S.
military involvement in Colombia. Bedoya Nava was reportedly one of the worst
human rights offenders in the military. Bedoya Nava studied military
intelligence at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in 1965 and was invited
back to teach it as a guest professor in 1978 and 1979. According to School of
the Americas Watch, Bedoya was believed to be the founder and chief of the
paramilitary death squad known as "AAA" (American Anti-Communist Alliance).
In 1997, the Colombian government forced General Bedoya’s retirement. His
hostility to human rights and career-long association with the dramatic increase
in joint army-paramilitary operations was notorious. "We took Bedoya out
because of human rights," former President Ernesto Samper told Human Rights
Watch in an interview.

More recently,
Wilhelm has met with Colombian General Fernando Tapias, who has done his best to
obstruct human rights in his country, by preventing prosecutors from questioning
fellow Colombian officers allegedly implicated in killings and death threats.
Tapias argued that such cases involved official acts and should be tried before
a military tribunal. Yet another associate of Wilhelm’s is General Jose Manuel
Bonett, until recently the commander of the Colombian armed forces. Wilhelm has
spent considerable time with General Bonett, touring recent areas of conflict in
Colombia, surveying coca production in southern Colombian departments, and
discussing planned operations and the intelligence training and equipment
support needs of the armed forces.

Last April
Wilhelm sent a letter to Bonett, which read, "At this time the Colombian armed
forces are not up to the task of confronting and defeating the insurgents….
Colombia is the most threatened in the area under the Southern Command’s
responsibility, and it is in urgent need of our support." Bonett, who made the
letter public, agreed, saying the Colombian armed forces are in "a position of
inferiority" to the rebels and adding that he would gladly accept U.S.
military aid, even "atomic bombs." Bonett, it turns out, was a protégé of
General Harold Bedoya, and got his start in the Middle Magdalena region, where
he served as Second Division Commander. In a 1995 memo addressing army strategy,
Bonett instructed his troops to focus intelligence gathering on towns and strike
civilian "support networks" since guerrillas "reclaim their sick and
wounded there, their weapons caches, their tailors, their bank accounts, their
businesses, and other types of logistical activities essential to subversive
combat." Targeting civilians, Bonett stressed, would "noticeably weaken [the
guerrillas’] capability." Later, when Bonett went up in rank, he was
influential in clearing his fellow officers of rampant human rights abuses, and
has been photographed candidly talking with right-wing paramilitary death squad
assassins.

Unlike the School
of the Americas, where activists exposed the links between the U.S. and Latin
American military establishments, there has not been a similar grass roots
movement against Miami South Com. Miami’s press has not sought to analyze the
activities of the center or its champion Charles Wilhelm, who has been portrayed
as a great patriot. Similarly, Miami’s religious and labor leaders have yet to
come out publicly against Miami South Com. If there is further U.S. involvement
in Colombia, however, residents might be forced to reexamine the nondescript
building, located at 3511 NW 91 Avenue.
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