Perception Management and the US Terror War in Colombia


During the 1980s, US counter-insurgency took on a new form, and became what is today known as Low Intensity Conflict. With the Vietnam experience behind them, US military planners recognised two crucial lessons that led to this change. First, the American public was not prepared to tolerate heavy US casualties in its imperial wars within the developing world. Amongst US strategists this became known as the “Vietnam-syndrome”; the image of dead American soldiers coming home in body-bags. Second, and more crucially, US strategists recognised that military victory is no longer the primary objective in these new Low Intensity Campaigns. The new objective is the political delegitimisation of the enemy and the management of public-opinion within both international and national contexts. Thus, US psychological warfare became crucial, and the management of consent central to overall victory. Simply stated, destroy popular support for the enemy by discrediting them, and the victory will follow. In Colombia today, this new form of Low Intensity Conflict has found an active application.

Opinion polls conducted in 1987 found that 76% of all Americans thought that the Colombian government was corrupt, and 80% wanted sanctions imposed upon it. In 1991, amidst the refusal of the Colombian State to hand over the notorious drug-trafficker, Pablo Escobar, the image of the Colombian State suffered further setbacks. In response to all this, the Colombian state embarked on its own Low Intensity Conflict to win the hearts and minds of the American people. It employed the services of a PR company, the Sawyer/Miller Group, which earned nearly a million dollars in fees and expenses in the first half of 1991 alone. The PR specialists job was to transform the perceptions of the Colombian state as a corrupt and brutal abuser of human rights, to a staunch ally of the US in its so-called “war on drugs”. The director of Sawyer/Miller’s Colombia account explained that “the main mission is to educate the American media about Colombia, get good coverage, and nurture contacts with journalists, columnists, and think tanks. The message is that there are ‘bad’ and ‘good’ people in Colombia and that the government is the good guy.” In fostering these perceptions the Sawyer/Miller group conducted opinion poll surveys and focus group sessions to evaluate public opinion. In 1991 alone, Colombia gave over $3.1 million to an advertising campaign. The campaign placed newspaper adds and TV commercials aimed at American policymakers in Washington. The adds all had a similar theme. They asked the American people to remember the bravery of the Colombian military in its war against drugs, and attempted to change perceptions of Colombia from being a drug supplier to the US as drug consumer.

Media requests for interviews with Colombian government officials went through Sawyer/Miller. They steered sympathetic reporters to key government ministries and made sure that critics of Colombia’s appalling human rights record were kept away. In one instance, after a meeting with Warren Hoge, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, the Times printed a long and inaccurate story glorifying the then Colombian President, Cesar Trujillo, whose campaign had been heavily funded with drug money. The Colombian government bought the reprinting rights to the article and sent thousands of copies to US Journalists and Embassies. Sawyer/Miller group regularly use the American press to distribute pro-Colombian government propaganda with the routine production of pamphlets, letters to editors signed by Colombian officials, and ads placed in The New York Times and The Washington Post. However, it is the transformation of the armed protagonists in Colombia’s conflict that has had the most effect. In recently declassified documentation, the US Ambassador to Colombia in 1996, Myle Frechette, admits that the perception of the FARC as narco-guerrillas, “was put together by the Colombian military, who considered it a way to obtain U.S. assistance in the counterinsurgency.” The PR job seems to have worked as the US has now made Colombia the third largest recipient of US military aid in the world today. This aid is allegedly for a counter-offensive against what have been constructed as the primary narco-terrorists in Colombia, the FARC.

The Democrat Senator Joseph Biden, stated in 2000 that never “before in recent history has there been such an opportunity to strike at all aspects of the drug trade at the source…Helping Colombia is squarely in America’s national interest. It is the source of many of the drugs that are poisoning our people.” Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State of the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, Peter F. Romero, stated that “Colombia must re-establish authority over narcotics producing ‘sanctuaries’…any comprehensive solution to Colombia’s problems must include the reestablishment of government authority over these lawless areas. To achieve this, we propose to give the Government of Colombia the air mobility to reach deep into these lawless zones and establish a secure environment for GOC officials”.

With the election of Bush, and after September 11th, a new “anti-terror” orientation has occurred in US policy toward Colombia. Colombia is now squarely in the sites of the Bush administration, with the US Attorney General, John Ashcroft stating that “the State Department has called the FARC the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere” who have “engaged in a campaign of terror against Colombians and US citizens.” US policy was originally sold as an anti-drug campaign, but has now switched to an anti-terror justification. In fighting their anti-drug and anti-terror wars in Colombia, Washington has given Colombia $1.3 billion in 2001-2002 and another $700 million has been lined up for 2003. All this money finds its way into the hands of Colombian state and the Colombian military. The US has instructed the Colombian military to concentrate its war against the leftist FARC rebel insurgents in the South of Colombia (what the US has termed a Southern Push). These “narco-guerrillas” and “narco-terrorists” are to be targeted, presumably because these are the primary “terrorists” and drug-traffickers.

In 1997, James Milford, the former Deputy Administrator with the U.S.’s central drug eradication body the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), stated that Carlos Castano, the chief of the paramilitary AUC is a “major cocaine trafficker in his own right” and has close links to the North Valle drug syndicate which is “among the most powerful drug trafficking groups in Colombia”. Milford went on that to say “there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves, either by producing cocaine…and selling it to Mexican syndicates, or by establishing their own distribution networks in the United States”. Donnie Marshall, the current Administrator of the DEA, stated in 2001 before the subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, that “the FARC controls certain areas of Colombia and the FARC in those regions generate revenue by “taxing” local drug related activities.” Marshall goes on to state categorically that “at present, there is no corroborated information that the FARC is involved directly in the shipment of drugs from Colombia to international markets”. Like Milford, the US’s DEA Director, also stated that unlike the FARC, the right-wing paramilitary groups “raise funds through extortion, or by protecting laboratory operations in northern and central Colombia. The Carlos Castano organization, and possibly other paramilitary groups appears to be directly involved in processing cocaine. At least one of these paramilitary groups appears to be involved in exporting cocaine from Colombia.” In a similar report submitted by US Senator Joseph Biden to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations it was stated that “that Castaño’s organization, and possibly other paramilitary groups ” were directly involved in the processing and export of Cocaine from Colombia”.

Klaus Nyholm, the Director of the UN’s drug control agency in Colombia, the UNDCP, stated that “The guerrillas are something different than the traffickers, the local fronts are quite autonomous. But in some areas, they’re not involved at all. And in others, they actively tell the farmers not to grow coca”. In the rebels former Demilitarised Zone, Nyholm stated that “drug cultivation has not increased or decreased” once the “FARC took control.” Indeed, Nyholm argued that, prior to the Colombian military and paramilitary offensive against the DMZ, the FARC were cooperating with a $6 million UN project to replace coca crops with new forms of legal alternative development.

The rebels then are clearly not international drug traffickers, and the narco-guerrilla myth serves a useful propaganda pretext for US interventionism within Colombia’s conflict. John Waghelstein, a leading US counterinsurgency specialist, explained the PR value of the “narco-guerrilla” concept with a “melding in the American public’s mind and in Congress of this connection [leading] to the necessary support to counter the guerrilla/narcotics terrorists in this hemisphere. Congress would find it difficult to stand in the way of supporting our allies with the training, advice and security assistance necessary to do the job. Those church and academic groups that have slavishly supported insurgency in Latin America would find themselves on the wrong side of the moral issue. Above all, we would have the unassailable moral position from which to launch a concerted offensive effort using Department of Defense (DOD) and non-DOD assets.”

More importantly however, by associating the rebels with drugs, the US obscures the role that the drug-funded paramilitaries play in its dirty war against Colombia’s civil society. The role of the US in Colombia’s paramilitary terror against the Colombian civilian population is made all the more stark considering the fact that US military advisers travelled to Colombia in 1991 to re-shape Colombian military intelligence networks. This restructuring was supposedly designed to aid the Colombian military in their counter-narcotics efforts. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the order. Nowhere within the Order is any mention made of drugs. Instead the secret re-organisation focussed solely on combating what was called “escalating terrorism by armed subversion”. The re-organisation solidified linkages between the Colombian military and narco-paramilitary networks that in effect further consolidated a “secret network that relied on paramilitaries not only for intelligence, but to carry out murder”. Once the re-organisation was complete, all “written material was to be removed” with “open contacts and interaction with military installations” to be avoided by paramilitaries. Stan Goff, a former US special forces trainer in Colombia stated that when he “was training Colombian Special Forces in Tolemaida in 1992, my team was there ostensibly to aid the counter-narcotics effort.” He was “giving military forces training in infantry counterinsurgency doctrine” and knew “perfectly well, as did the host-nation commanders, that narcotics was a flimsy cover story for beefing up the capacity of armed forces who had lost the confidence of the population through years of abuse.”

The US then, has clearly participated in strengthening the ties between the leading terrorists in Colombia, the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies, who are responsible for over 80% of all human rights abuses committed in Colombia today. Furthermore, as outlined above, the paramilitaries, as stated by the US’s own agencies, are amongst the biggest drug traffickers in Colombia today. In effect, US military aid is going directly to the major terrorist networks throughout Colombia, who traffic cocaine into US markets to fund their activities, and which the US has been instrumental in helping make more effective in creating what Human Rights Watch termed a “sophisticated mechanism…that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it”. During the Cold War, the US sold its counter-insurgency campaigns against social democrats, socialists, independent nationalists and even the Catholic Church, as part of a global struggle against the Soviet Union. In the post-Cold War era, the US has switched to new PR mechanisms to sell its imperial policy. The narco-guerrilla and counter-terrorist pretexts serves as a useful PR mechanism for conflating US “official enemies” with drugs and terrorism. Underlying these myths is the reality that the Colombian state and its privatised arm, the paramilitaries, combined with overt US support, continues to lead directly to the death and disappearances of thousands of Colombian civilians. The US terror war against Colombian civil society fits a consistent pattern within US policy throughout Latin America, which has led directly to the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Why is the US doing these things? Underlying US policy are a number of factors which include the importance of Colombian and Venezuelan oil to US energy needs. The regional destabilisation that may occur as a result of a potential rebel victory could seriously alter the balance of forces within the region and threaten the interests of the US’s big oil transnationals. The Bush administration’s new request for $98 million for a specially trained Colombian military brigade devoted solely to protecting Occidental Petroleum’s 500-mile long Cano Limon oil pipeline in Colombia makes this even clearer. Paul D. Coverdell, a Republican Senator explained that the “destabilization of Colombia directly affects bordering Venezuela, now generally regarded as our largest oil supplier. In fact, the oil picture in Latin America is strikingly similar to that of the Middle East, except that Colombia provides us more oil today than Kuwait did then. This crisis, like the one in Kuwait, threatens to spill over into many nations, all of which are allies”. The war on the rebels then, forms part of a classic counter-insurgency strategy of destroying nationalist forces that threaten US hegemony and elite interests throughout Latin America. The military aid both strengthens and grants legitimacy to the repressive apparatus of the Colombian state and its clandestine arm, the paramilitaries. In so doing, the Colombian state can continue to silence and murder those who dare question the status-quo in Colombia, a status-quo that currently sees the majority of Colombia’s people in poverty, with 25% of all Colombians living in abject misery. The US thus destroys the potential of an alternative model of socio-economic organisation, and escalates the costs of organising or speaking out in favour of potential alternatives. In prosecuting the war the US and Colombian elites rely on both coercive and consensual means. For US and international audiences there are vast PR propaganda campaigns to manage perceptions. In Colombia however it is a very different story where to get off you knees and stand on your feet is a risky business which all too often leads to a bullet made in the US.

Leave a comment