‘We mean Dead or Dead’

‘If Osama bin Laden were hiding in the jungles of Colombia instead of Afghanistan, whose help would we enlist to find him? U.S. Army Special Forces? The Colombian Army? I don’t think so.

Actually, we would enlist the drug cartels. They have the three attributes we need: They know how to operate as a covert network and how to root out a competing network, such as Mr. bin Laden’s. They can be bought and know how to buy others. And they understand that when we say we want someone “dead or alive” we mean “dead or dead.”‘

Thomas Friedman New York Times – 28 September 2001

Friedman could well be telling the truth to a greater extent than he realizes. He did make one mistake, though. He doesn’t mean ‘the drug cartels’. He means the paramilitaries, ‘Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas’ (AUC). They’re a group of vicious thugs who are responsible for the majority of the massacres and assassinations that kill about 3000 Colombians a year in political violence.

It’s true that they have close links to the drug cartels. It’s true that they can be bought. And it’s true that they know how to give people the choice of being ‘dead or dead’. The reason Friedman is more honest than he knows is that this isn’t a hypothetical situation.

‘We’ have been inculcating the AUC for years now, even though they are on the US’s list of terrorist organizations. You would have a hard time getting a US official to admit that the AUC is getting help from the US. But the circumstantial evidence keeps on piling up. Headlines like ‘six guerrillas killed, 2 paramilitaries arrested by army’ keep popping up.

Paramilitary massacres happen too often in villages with army bases suspiciously nearby. And too many displaced Colombians will tell you straight, that the US-backed army and the paramilitaries share equipment, personnel, and missions.

Colombia is experiencing exactly the kind of ‘fight fire with fire’, ‘fight terrorism with terrorism’, ‘terror-is-a-dirty-business-and-if-we-want-to-protect-freedom-we-have-to-get-our-hands-dirty’ war that Friedman wants the US to unleash on the world. George Monbiot called it the assembling of a giant death squad to do extrajudicial executions.

There are other similarities between the rhetoric of Bush’s new war and that of AUC. Bush’s ultimatum was that if you are not with us, you are with the terrorists. If you are a terrorist, you are wanted dead or alive (and Friedman tells us this really means dead or dead). When the AUC enacts a massacre in an indigenous, campesino, or afro-Colombian community, or when it assassinates a unionist or women’s or peace activist, it does so in a similar two step process. It starts off with the claim that if you are not with the AUC you are with the insurgency. Next, if you are with the insurgency, you ought to be dead.

Maybe this war is the globalization of the Colombian model of counterinsurgency. The weapons of the war are: using civilian populations as military targets; using murder and slaughter of those populations to try to influence your adversary (who is a government or an armed actor); polarization of the world into enemy and non-enemy, with open season on anyone who is an enemy.

To be fair, Colombia isn’t unique in this sense. It isn’t just in Colombia that the US fights wars this way. Think of the ‘free-fire zones’ in Vietnam, the ‘civilian-military’ targets in Yugoslavia, the ‘sanctions of mass destruction’ in Iraq. Now will it be the ‘seal them in and let them starve’ model in Afghanistan?

Nor is it only that the Colombian model will influence the War on Terrorism. No, the War on Terrorism will certainly influence Colombia as well. With the declaration of this new war, the US is now fighting two wars in Colombia. One is against a weed (the War on Drugs) and the other is against a tactic (the War on Terrorism).

But the way they are prosecuted will probably not change in the slightest. Instead of fumigating farmers (and their kids) in order to save kids on the streets of the US, we’ll be fumigating farmers in order to deprive the terrorist guerrillas of their financing. And so on.

If fumigation does end up being justified as part of the war on terror, though, I wonder whether anyone will point out the irony that all the crop dusters in North America were grounded for fear that they would be used for terrorist attacks. Colombian peasants have been asking that US crop dusters in Colombia be grounded for some time now.

In the 1980s, the US trained and armed the mujahaddin to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. There is considerable evidence that it is nurturing another group of killers in Colombia in the AUC. The mujahaddin have since gone out of control and become the number one enemy. Will the AUC stay under control, content to kill only acceptable targets? Or will there be ‘blowback’ from them in twenty years?

If the (il)logic of the War on Terrorism is the same as that of the War on Colombia/Drugs/Guerrilla Insurgents, perhaps the way out is the same as well.

It starts out by realizing that the killers on both sides often have more in common with one another than with the people they are killing. It moves from there to make sure that the people who are in the crossfire have a place at the table and a real say. It involves recognizing the objective is peace, not liquidation of the enemy.

It involves negotiation, and political solutions, even between actors who hate one another, have committed horrible atrocities, and have no reason to trust one another. Where atrocities have been committed, it involves isolating the individuals responsible and bringing them to justice, and not using mass reprisal to continue a cycle of vengeance.

Maybe we could let Colombia be a laboratory for this kind of peace-building, before we unleash it on the whole world. It would be good to hurry, though. The borders from Afghanistan are still sealed, and if this War keeps up, many people are going to die.

Justin Podur maintains ZNet’s Colombia Crisis section (www.zmag.org/crisescurevts/colombiatop.htm) He can be reached at justin.podur@utoronto.ca

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