U.S. War on Communism, Drugs, and Terrorism in Colombia

On Thursday,  September 6, the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, rejected a proposed bilateral ceasefire by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels aimed at bringing an end to Colombia’s armed conflict. He declared that he had asked operations to be intensified and stated that “there will be no ceasefire of any kind.” 


Today Colombia is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military training and aid in the world. Although the U.S was involved in counterinsurgency operations in Colombia during the Cold War, the continued flow of military funding and training occurred as a result of Bill Clinton’s “Plan Colombia” (2000–2006) and George W Bush’s “Andean Regional Initiative” (2008–2010), both of which were aimed at the forced eradication of coca and fighting Colombia’s left-wing guerrillas. Through these initiatives billions of dollars have been spent fighting a war on drugs followed by a war on terror. Coca production in Colombia, however, has increased—as has the intensity of the internal armed conflict with both FARC and right-wing paramilitary groups growing in size and strength.


Despite numerous studies concluding that the cheapest and most effective way to deal with the drug situation is to redirect funds from law enforcement and forced eradication into treatment and prevention, the U.S. government has maintained its militaristic approach to the war on drugs both at home and abroad. Given the resounding failure to achieve the stated objectives of these initiatives, one must ask if there’s an alternative objective—one that the current strategy achieves sufficiently?


The Neoliberal Effect


The U.S. has a long-held policy of pushing neoliberal economic polices in Latin America, achieved through NGO activity, strategically allocated aid, coercive interventions, conditions attached to IMF and World Bank loans, and bi-lateral and multi-lateral free trade agreements. There is substantial literature exposing the resultant social stratification these policies have caused in Latin America but there is one particular effect of neoliberalism that has directly resulted in increased cultivation of coca for export.


The neoliberal model aims to reorient agricultural production to the export market. While neoliberal policies remove protective tariff barriers on agricultural goods, subsidized U.S. agricultural imports undermine the price received for locally produced crops. Larger farms and ranches with sufficient resources can move into growing export crops such as coffee but these crops are more labor intensive, require more land and cost more to transport. Many small farmers and peasants therefore find that the only area in which they can maintain a competitive advantage is in the cultivation of coca. This was evident in Mexico after the signing of NAFTA when U.S.-subsidized corn imports destroyed Mexico’s domestic production. Those who could not afford to invest in the production of other export crops either switched to cultivating illicit drugs or moved to the city, where a lack of employment opportunities pushed many into other elements of the drug trade.


It is clear that if the U.S. wished to reduce the cultivation of coca in Colombia, the most effective policy would be to redirect military aid into funding government subsidization of legal crops. Yet the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement actually prohibits such action. Under the agreement—signed in 2006 but not taking affect until May 2012—Colombia is obliged to dismantle all domestic protections while the U.S. is permitted to maintain their own agricultural subsidies, thus gaining an unfair advantage in the trade of agricultural produce. In 2010, Oxfam International commissioned a study that demonstrated that the agreement would lower the prices local farmers would receive for major crops such as corn and beans which, in turn, would reduce domestic cultivation of these crops and substantially impact the income and livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Colombia’s peasant farmers.


Biological Warfare


One major part of both Plan Colombia and the Merida initiative has been the destruction of coca fields by aerial chemical fumigation, thus impacting the cocaine trade at its source. Glyphosate, the chemical substance used to fumigate illicit crops—known by its brand name Round- up—was originally patented and produced by the most notorious of U.S. agricultural corporations, Monsanto. Glyphosate is classified by Monsanto as a “mild” herbicide, but by the World Health Organization as “extremely poisonous.” Roundup is sold over the counter in the U.S. as a herbicide and carries these warnings: “Roundup will kill almost any green plant that is actively growing. Roundup should not be applied to bodies of water such as ponds, lakes or streams…. After an area has been sprayed with Roundup, people and pets (such as cats and dogs) should stay out of the area until it is thoroughly dry…. If Roundup is used to control undesirable plants around fruit or nut trees, or grapevines, allow twenty-one days before eating the fruits or nuts.”


In Colombia, however, two additives—Cosmo-Flux 411 and Cosmo InD—are added, increasing the toxicity four-fold and producing what is known as Roundup Ultra or, as some call it, “Colombia’s Agent Orange.” In addition, the concentrations in the mixtures prepared by the Colombian military (under the guidance of their U.S. colleagues) are five times higher than is recognized as safe for aerial application by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This product is regularly sprayed over inhabited areas, farmland, livestock and areas of invaluable bio-di versity. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a Federal Advisory Committee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, issued a letter on July 19, 2001 stating that: “Aerial spraying of the herbicide has caused eye, respiratory, skin and digestive ailments; destroyed subsistence crops; sickened domestic animals; and contaminated water supplies.” Even anti-drug development projects, including ones funded by USAID, the UN, the Colombian government and international NGOs, have been destroyed by fumigation. One of many examples is that of CORCUSA, an organic coffee cooperative founded to provide peasant farmers with an alternative to coca cultivation. CORCUSA was fumigated in 2005 and again in 2007 destroying the coffee crop and the project’s organic certification for future crops.


As well as the clear human health, food security, and environmental risks involved in the fumigation campaign, it has also been a massive failure in achieving its stated goal: the eradication of the coca crop. Coca, unlike most other food crops, is actually quite resistant to aerial spraying of glyphosate. Many farmers who have their food crops destroyed are left with few options when coca is all that will grow on their land after the spraying of glyphosate—so the result of the fumigation campaign has been a marked increase in coca cultivation.


Militarization of the War on Drugs


The militaristic approach to fighting the drug war has intensified the conflict in Colombia. The result has been mass displacement and disenfranchisement of people which, in turn, has pushed more people into some area of the drug trade. What’s more, numerous studies dating back to the 1980s have mutually concluded that militarizing the drug war would have little to no effect on the consumption of illicit drugs in the United States. The effect of the militarized strategy has been a marked increase in drug related violence wherever it is initiated and there is not a more clear-cut example of this than Mexico. Before Calderon militarized Mexico’s drug war the violent crime rate was actually falling. Since this approach has been adopted—with avid U.S. support including the allocation of $1.4 billion over a 3-year period (2008-2010) through the Mérida Initiative—the homicide rate has more than doubled, the violent crime rate has increased by more than 200 percent, and the number of human rights abuses committed by the military in their attempts to reign in the drug cartels has increased 6-fold.


In terms of preventing the flow of drugs into the U.S., the militarized approach has one simple economic paradox at its core. By dispro- portionally tackling production and distribution (the supply side of the equation) without equally tackling consumption (the demand side of the equation), the price of the product is increased, thus providing a greater profit incentive for people to take the involved risks in trafficking and producing illicit drugs. 


War on Narcoguerrillas?


As previously stated, Plan Colombia’s original objective was the eradication of coca plantations by targeting left-wing narcoguerrillas (FARC) who, it was explicitly claimed, were directly involved in the drug trade. Evidence of a direct link between FARC and the illicit drug trade, however, did not emerge until the early 2000s after Plan Colombia had been instigated. In fact, into the late 1990s, there was little evidence to suggest that FARC’s involvement in the production and distribution of drugs extended beyond the taxation of coca cultivation in the regions it controlled. In 1997, Donnie Marshall, Chief of Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, admitted this in a DEA congressional testimony stating that, “there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves, either by producing cocaine HCL and selling it to Mexican syndicates, or by establishing their own distribution networks in the United States.”


Plan Colombia—while stating the pursuit of left-wing narcoguerrillas as an objective—did not equally target right-wing Colombian paramilitaries. While a few high profile cases of paramilitaries being tried and convicted on drug trafficking charges have occurred, on the whole, the focus remains principally on FARC. This is despite the fact that at least as early as 1997 the DEA were aware of their involvement in narcotics trafficking. In the same congressional testimony quoted above, Marshal stated that the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia), the largest Colombian right-wing paramilitary group, has been “closely linked” to the Henao Montoya organization—“the most powerful of the various independent trafficking groups that comprise the North Valle drug mafia”—and that the AUC’s leader, Carlos Castano, is “a major cocaine trafficker in his own right.” Fumigation, too, has been concentrated mainly in FARC strongholds in the South East despite the fact that right-wing paramilitaries are known to be involved in cocaine production and trafficking in the north of the country. Suspicions have thus emerged that the real aim of the fumigation campaign is to remove one of FARC’s key revenue streams (the taxation of coca cultivation in areas they control) rather than coca cultivation in general.


In 2001, an investigation by Amnesty International led to a lawsuit to obtain CIA records of Los Pepes, a vigilante organization set up by Carlos Castano. Its findings revealed “an extremely suspect relationship between the U.S. government and the Castano family—at a time when the U.S. government was well aware of that family’s involvement with paramilitary violence and narcotics trafficking.”


War on Drugs/War on Terror


Colombia was one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid and training throughout the Cold War. In the Cold War era the communist threat was used to justify counterinsurgency operations against FARC rebels whose communist/socialist roots posed a particular threat to U.S. economic interests, due to Colombia’s extensive natural resources and strategic geographical location. Today, even if the idea of FARC gaining control over the Colombian state has diminished in credibility, the rebels regularly attack U.S. interests, including the infrastructure (railways, pipelines etc.) of U.S. energy and mining multinationals in Colombia. As Marc Grossman, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, put it: “[Colombian insurgents] represent a danger to the $4.3 billion in direct U.S. investment in ColombiaColombia supplied three percent of U.S. oil imports in 2001, and possesses substantial potential oil and natural gas reserves.”


After the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the communist threat no longer justified U.S. counterinsurgency operations in Colombia or elsewhere in Latin America. The U.S. Military’s Southern Command (SOUTH-COM) therefore welcomed the drug war as a new justification for maintaining the same levels of military spending and counterinsurgency. The training of Latin American militaries and “low intensity warfare strategies employed in Central America were easily adopted to fight a war on drugs.” In Colombia, FARC, previously labelled “Communist,” became “narcoguerrillas” and, post-9/11, this morphed again into “terrorists.” Again, the target of this campaign remained FARC despite the fact that the Colombian Army and closely linked armed right-wing paramilitary groups have been responsible for countless grave human rights abuses.


Historic Importance to U.S. Foreign Policy


Military training and the cultivation of allied militaries whose interests and ideologies would reflect those of Washington has, historically, been one of the main methods of U.S. control in Latin America. Several Spanish language schools were established specifically for training Latin American officers including the notorious School of the Americas (SOA) which trained nearly every officer involved in the 1973 Chilean coup and where many members of the Colombian Army continue to train today. As well as training these officers in counter-insurgency, counter terrorism, and unconventional warfare (among other forms of attack), the SOA intentionally cultivates a glorified image of “privileged capitalist modernity and a strong belief in the right-wing capitalist model.”


What resulted from such instruction in the past was the creation of highly politicized right-wing military entities which remained allied to the state only insofar as the government in power reflected a similar ideology. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s this resulted in military coups overthrowing left-wing governments throughout Latin American and the Caribbean. As Latin American states transitioned to democracy, the strength of these staunchly right-wing militaries (as well as well-grounded fears of U.S. military intervention) led to the establishment of pacted democracies whereby elite and military support for the democratic transition was conditioned on the formation of certain economic parameters to be enshrined into the constitution.

Despite the fact that many democratic movements mobilized on the basis of wealth redistribution, these pacts generally guaranteed the continued presence of foreign multinationals in the extractive industries as well as ruling out the nationalization of resources and the socialization of land as policy options regardless of electoral outcomes. Where specific pacts did not exist, left-leaning elected governments remained very wary of their right-wing militaries when making policy decisions. In Chile, one of the more modern examples, even though the Concertación (Chile’s democratic movement) opposed neoliberalism, the intimidating power of the right-wing military caused them to accept a moderately reformed version of Pinochet’s 1980 constitution, which enshrined the neoliberal model as well as a number of authoritarian enclaves with a bias to the political right.


This is also the reason why very few Latin American countries—with the notable exception of Argentina—have managed to hold military personnel accountable for atrocities of the past. Indeed, in many places, army personnel who took part in grave atrocities continue to hold high ranking positions in the military. In Colombia, this is particularly so and, as military abuses continue to this day, a culture of impunity has been created, which remains a hindering factor to any potential for peace and reconciliation.


The more recent move to the left in Latin America has been a success, in part, because the new generation of left wing leaders are acutely aware of the dangers the military pose. In Bolivia one of Morales’s acts as president was to raise military wages and the recent police strikes (so severe some called them a police mutiny) were partly based on the fact that police wages were roughly half those received by similar ranking military officers. In Venezuela, Chavez holds tight to his military image and many critics have used this to claim he is merely another “generalissimo.” This criticism fails to realize, however, the great political importance in Chavez’s realignment of the Venezuelan military with the democratically elected government of the state rather than outside forces an ideologies. His success in this endeavor was demonstrated when soldiers loyal to him reversed a military coup that displaced him briefly from power in 2002. Both Chavez and Morales, due to their opposition to drug war policies and the imperialist undertones they carry, have driven the DEA out of their respective countries.


The Stability Of Instability


It is clear that the war on drugs and the subsequent war on terror in Colombia have been used as fronts to justify the continued counterinsurgency war against FARC. Or, as Stan Goff—a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer for counterinsurgency operations and former military advisor to Colombia—put it: “the ‘war on drugs’ is simply a propaganda ploy…. We were briefed by the Public Affairs Officers that counter-narcotics was a cover story…that our mission, in fact, was to further develop Colombians’ capacity for counterinsurgency operations.”


U.S. and Colombian government anti-terror and anti-drug policy, however, has actually swelled the ranks of FARC. Peasant farmers who depend on coca for their livelihoods are forced to rely on the armed guerrillas to protect their crop from planes spraying chemicals. The displacement and terrorization of people and the destruction of subsistence crops in rural areas due to fumigation and military and paramilitary activity have created a large amount of unemployed, disenfranchised, and angry young people who gravitate towards the guerrilla movement due to the impunity of the armed forces and the perceived inability of the Colombian justice and democratic political systems to hear their grievances or reflect their interests. The fact that the Colombian army and paramilitary groups continue to see coca-growing peasants as guerrilla collaborators and therefore legitimate military targets (due to the taxes they are forced to pay FARC on their coca crops), exacerbates the divide between the military and the peasantry.


Some have been led to argue that the real aim in Colombia is, in fact, to maintain a state of constant conflict. One in which there is sufficient order to protect investments and transport links but, also, sufficient disorder and terror so as to maintain a subservient and flexible workforce and an economic system which allows only a small local elite and foreign multinationals to benefit from the country’s resources. The official military protect investments and transport links important to the extractive industries while paramilitaries closely linked to the official army, and revealed to be linked to the U.S. government—intimidate any move toward reform of the system. This is achieved through a policy of assassination, suppression and terrorization of the political left, human rights activists, trade unionists and peasant and indigenous movements.


Economic Imperialism


In 1996, four years before Plan Colombia was passed by Congress, the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership—representing U.S. companies with interests in Colombia—was founded. This organization launched a well-financed lobbying effort for U.S. intervention in the resource-rich Andean state. Among the companies represented in this Business Partnership were Occidental Petroleum, Enron, Texaco, and BP. A survey released just months prior to the passage of Plan Colombia in the U.S. indicated that there were a large number of commercially viable and unexploited oil fields in the Putumayo region of Colombia, incidentally, the same area that experiences the highest intensity of paramilitary activity and aerial fumigation.


This correlation has aroused suspicion that these policies are actually aimed at displacing local people from their land in order to open it up to speculation by foreign multinationals while simultaneously clearing the dense rainforest that makes identifying and pinpointing the location of oilfields difficult…. This seems to be a recurrent theme in local impressions of the U.S. war on drugs in a number of different countries. In Guatemala, for example, locals have criticized militarization of the resource-rich north eastern province of Petén. While it is known that this area is used to transport drugs to Mexico locals suspect the heavy military presence is more to do with oil interests in the region…. Similar complaints have emerged from the Moskitia region of eastern Honduras which has experienced increased militarization in recent years, particularly since the 2009 coup. According to Norvin Goff Salinas, president of an indigenous Miskitu federation: “More than anything else, they’re militarizing because of the natural resources that are in the Moskitia, especially the strategic spots where there is oil.”


Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows into Colombia rose from $2.4 billion at the outset of Plan Colombia to $14.4 billion by 2011. In the mid-1990s, oil and gas constituted only 10 percent of all FDI in Colombia but by 2010 this had increased to almost one-third. Colombia, however, remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist and one of the most unequal countries in the world with the top 10 percent of the population controlling nearly half of the country’s wealth.




It is evident that in the stated objective of eradicating coca cultivation and narcotrafficking in Colombia U.S. anti-drug strategy has been a resounding failure. From the perspective of the U.S. State Department, however, Plan Colombia was not a failure at all, but instead “allowed for the creation of an effective new model for U.S. intervention.” As the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s director of international affairs and trade put it, “international programs face significant challenges reducing the supply of illegal drugs but support broad U.S. foreign policy objectives.”  These objectives, throughout the period of U.S. hegemony, have remained the same. U.S. imperialism is not based on territorial control but on economic control. The adoption of the neoliberal capitalist model across Latin America greatly benefited U.S. companies by making resource extraction cheaper (due to reduced corporate tax), labor cheaper (due to labor flexiblization practices) and domestic markets easier to dominate (due to the removal of all state subsidies and the breakup of state owned companies).


The difficulty lies in maintaining a system in which the main beneficiaries of economic production in a country are a tiny local elite and foreign multinationals. This, historically, has been achieved through substantial repression. Throughout the Cold War such repression was justified by labelling as communist any movement or political party whose views fell outside of radical right-wing capitalism. One crucial method of ensuring the maintenance of this economic model in Latin America has always been the cultivation of allied militaries whose ideological beliefs fall exactly in line with those of Washington. The end of the Cold war necessitated a new justification for the continuation of this practice, thus the war on drugs was born. After the 9/11 attacks, this evolved into a war on terrorism.


While U.S. Colombia policy is certainly aimed at making sure FARC never gains the strength or political unity necessary to overthrow the state, FARC is also a necessary enemy, just as the continuation of the internal conflict is necessary, to justify continued U.S. military training, aid, and intrusion in the affairs of the strategically located oil and resource-rich Andean state. 


Jenny O’Connor is a graduate in international relations with a focus on economic relations and Latin American politics.