Colombia Primer

What is Plan Colombia and the Andean Regional Initiative?

Colombia’s 35 year old civil war has created the third largest refugee population in the world, produces over 4,000 politically motivated murders every year, and has contributed to the 1.5 million internally displaced people within its borders.1 Approximately 55 percent of all Colombians live below the poverty level. Plan Colombia was a $1.3 billion dollar military aid package given by the Clinton administration to the Colombian military in 2000-2001. The stated objective of the aid was the eradication of coca plantations and what the US termed “narco-guerrillas” who were said to be explicitly involved in the coca trade. 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.”2 To this end there have been a number of joint Colombian and US military initiatives that have included the formation of two 950-man counter-narcotics divisions and additional funding for another division. The counter-narcotic units trained and equipped by the US were trained for a  “southern push” into the Putumayo region of Colombia where the 20,000 member, left wing guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia (FARC), are most active. The US argued that the southern regions were where the majority of the ad-hoc coca cultivation took place and thus should be where anti drug operations should concentrate. The FARC rebels had consolidated their military hold on this area and the U.S claims that the rebels have profited from the sale and cultivation of coca through a system of coca profit taxation. As part of the $1.3 billion package, the US also provided a $341 million upgrade to radar facilities in Colombia as well as sharing intelligence on guerrilla activity in the southern areas. A riverine program has been deployed along the rivers on the Ecuadorian border to the south.3 The US Department of Defence maintains that there are approximately 250-300 US military personnel and 400-500 US mercenaries contracted to work in Colombia.

With the election of President George W. Bush, and in the aftermath of September 11th, a new counter-terror orientation has occurred within US policy, which has seen a blending of the war on drugs with an alleged ‘war on terror’ in Colombia. This has been accompanied with a shift to viewing the insurgent groups in Colombia as international terrorists. The US Attorney General, John Ashcroft stated recently “the State Department has called the FARC the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere.” Which has  “engaged in a campaign of terror against Colombians and US citizens.”4 Bush’s latest aid package for the Colombian military has been renamed the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI), and goes to various countries surrounding Colombia, with Colombia still getting the largest share. The Bush administration has committed $526 million to Colombia for the year 2002, with 71 percent of the money military aid, and looks set to commit approximately $700 million for 2003.5 However, there are a number of omissions and silences within the US’s stated objectives which, when examined, utterly compromise the stated goals of both Plan Colombia and the ARI, and point towards more traditional US concerns in this Oil rich region.

Is the US fighting a war on drugs in Colombia?

The FARC acknowledge that along with all businesses within their zones of control, in some areas they also tax coca cultivation. The administrator of the UN Drug Control Program, Klaus Nyholm stated that FARC fronts are quite autonomous in respect to coca cultivation, with some fronts “not involved at all” and in other areas “they actively tell farmers not to grow [coca]”.6   Also in existence throughout Colombia, but primarily concentrated in Colombia’s north, are well-armed right wing paramilitary groups, the largest of which is the umbrella organisation, the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) that has approximately 10,000 combatants and is headed by Carlos Castano.7 Large landowners formed the paramilitary death squads in the 1960’s to protect their interests against guerrilla incursion and to suppress peasant demand for land reform. During the 1980s the death-squads evolved into clandestine private armies for narco-barons and as part of the Colombian states counter-insurgency war against civil society and leftist political parties.8 They were also used for land clearances and “social cleansing” operations. The UN reports that within “areas dominated by paramilitaries, social cleansing has been systematically practised against prostitutes, homosexuals, criminals, drug addicts, street children and informal garbage collectors, among others.” 9 Whilst the south is an area of significant coca cultivation more important are the major trafficking networks concentrated in the north of Colombia and connected to the paramilitaries and landholding elite’s. It is these trafficking networks that are responsible for transhipment into US markets and laundering efforts into both Colombian and international financial networks, and yet the US has completely ignored these in Plan Colombia and the ARI, and instead has favoured a Southern Push against the FARC.

A report produced by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs found no evidence of the FARC’s export of drugs to the US but did point to the extensive nature of drug smuggling to the US by “right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy drug barons, the armed forces, key financial figures and senior government bureaucrats”.10 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”.11 Furthermore, Milford argued “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”.12 This confirms an article by The Economist that highlights the fact that the right wing paramilitary groups are “far deeper into drugs” than the FARC and the US DEA “knows it”.13 In a report submitted to the US Senate 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.14

In sum, although in some areas some FARC fronts are involved in coca taxation, upon examination of the U.S.’s own agency’s reports and findings it becomes clear that the paramilitary death squads are far more heavily involved than the FARC in drug cultivation, refinement and transhipment of drugs to the US. Castano has admitted as much when he stated that drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably financed 70 percent of his organizations operations.15 Instead of the “narco-guerrilla” term that is constantly invoked within US foreign policy discourse, a more suitable phrase would be “narco-paramilitary”. However this is a term conspicuous by its absence and the US has geared Colombian military strategy, and supplied the arms, exclusively for a Southern push and counter-insurgency war against the FARC. In short, the “war on drugs” is actually a “war on drugs that some FARC fronts tax” whilst totally ignoring the paramilitaries deep involvement in drug trafficking to US markets. It seems logical to conclude then, that the US military aid is not a war on drugs. However, the US is now switching from anti-drugs to an anti-terror justification for its aid to the Colombian military.

Is the US fighting a ‘war on terror’ in Colombia?

The US’s new ‘war on terror’ has given the green light to numerous governments to escalate their wars against rebel movements and insurgencies within their borders. This has been the case in Colombia where the recent collapse in peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government led to the retaking of the FARC’s demilitarised zone in the south. The Colombian military have enforced a news blackout within the region, with initial reports suggesting that paramilitaries are now entering the former rebel zone in large numbers.16 Whilst all the armed actors within Colombia carry out human rights abuses, the paramilitaries are consistently responsible for the vast majority of these abuses, with over 80 percent of all abuses attributed to them.17 The paramilitaries regularly use terror to murder and intimidate civilians. For example, in their most recent report Human Rights Watch (HRW) describe how fifty paramilitary fighters entered a small coastal town in Colombia, Chengue, and pulled dozens of residents from their homes. “They assembled them into two groups above the main square…[t]hen, one by one, they killed the men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and a sledgehammer. When it was over, twenty-four men lay dead in pools of blood…as the troops left they set fire to the village”.18

The paramilitaries have been shown to have significant and consistent ties with the Colombian military. Human Rights Watch together with Colombian human rights investigators conducted a study that concluded that half of Colombia’s eighteen brigade-level army units have extensive links to the narco-paramilitaries. This collusion is national in scope and these units include those receiving or scheduled to receive US military aid.19 In a letter to Madeline Albright, then US Secretary of State, Human Rights Watch made a number of observations regarding the linkages between the Colombian military and paramilitary units including the shared use of intelligence, weapons, vehicles, and medical aid. Many of the officers involved remain on active duty. The report also highlights the use of narco-paramilitary networks in the assassination and intimidation of those involved in monitoring human rights and government peace talks with the rebels. At least seven of the officers mentioned in the report have been trained by the US military’s training academy School of the Americas 20 In the most recent HRW report, they state that there has been an almost complete failure on the part of the Colombian government to effectively address  “the problem of continuing collaboration between its forces and abusive paramilitaries and military impunity has contributed to a continuing, serious deterioration in human rights guarantees”.21 They add that “the US has violated the spirit of its own laws and in some cases downplayed or ignored evidence of continuing ties between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups in order to fund Colombia’s military and lobby for more aid”.22

The role of the US in Colombia’s paramilitary terror war 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. However, Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the order. Nowhere within the Order is any mention made of drugs. Indeed the secret re-organisation focussed solely on combating what was called “escalating terrorism by armed subversion”.23 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”.24 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.25 The US then, has clearly participated in strengthening the ties between the leading terrorists in Colombia, the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies. 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 then, 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”.26

What is driving US policy in Colombia?

War on the FARC

Undoubtedly, there are numerous factors that feed into the formulation of any policy, and this includes US policy in Colombia. Whilst the war on drugs is being waged in Colombia, it is selective in its application, and is an element of a much wider and more significant war against the largest leftist insurgency in Latin America, the FARC. Targeting the coca plantations within FARC territory serves a dual purpose. It allows Washington to continue to claim that Plan Colombia was an anti-drug plan whilst pursuing counter-insurgency, but most importantly of all, by concentrating all of its efforts towards coca plantations within FARC territory it cuts off significant tax revenue for the FARC thereby making the insurgency harder to fund and thus sustain. In short, Washington has chosen to ally itself with the ultra right narco-paramilitaries that share Washington’s common objectives. The ‘war on terror’ has even less basis in reality as the symbiotic relationship between the Colombian military and paramilitary networks has been shown conclusively in innumerable reports and eyewitness accounts. In short, the US is sponsoring state terrorism to eliminate the FARC and their alleged civilian sympathisers.

US economic interests

The US has substantial economic interests within Latin America in general and Colombia more specifically. By 2010 overall US trade with Latin America is set to surpass trade with Europe and Japan.27 Colombia is the U.S.’s seventh largest oil supplier and has discovered vast oil reserves within its territory.28 The US has sought to decrease its post Gulf War oil reliance on the Middle East and shift its oil supply purchasing to Latin America. Venezuela and Colombia increasingly figure in this equation.29 This in turn necessitates the elimination of any threat to US corporate interests whose pursuit of profit within Colombia is an area of perceived “vital interest” to Washington.30 For example, Occidental Petroleum is a major oil producer in Colombia and has lobbied Congress intensively for the safe passage of Plan Colombia (along with major defence contractors who stand to gain $400 million from Plan Colombia with the purchase of high tech helicopters).31 Washington’s interest merges with US corporate interests not only through the mutual desire to increase access to Colombia’s markets (and thus increasing US power in the region) but also in eliminating the rebels who have consistently bombed Occidental’s oil pipelines and whose very presence destabilises this crucial oil region. The Bush administration has just requested $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.32

Controlling the threat of civil society

Colombia’s war also fits into the classic mode of counter-insurgency that emerged under President Kennedy’s reorganisation of Latin American militaries from external defence to internal security. This re-organisation served to standardise arms and training of Latin American militaries, and helped impart unconventional warfare guidelines to the Officers of various Latin American nations passing through the numerous US run training academies, of which the School of the Americas (SOA) is now the most (in)famous.  The SOA has trained more Colombian personnel than any other nation.33 The new counter-insurgency role was to “look inward toward an internal enemy whose surveillance and suppression was previously the province of the political police. The task of the United States was not just to legitimise an internal security role for professional armies-a role already accepted in part-but to encourage this to be seen as their primary role.”34 During the cold war the internal enemy was constructed as communism that, according to counter-insurgency ideology, was invariably manifested in political terms. Within the Latin American context in general, and Colombia more specifically, political demands for socio-economic reforms were interpreted through the prism of counter-insurgency, with civil society becoming the primary barometer of the level and potentiality of “subversion”. A 1985 Tactical Intelligence manual from US Southern Command (the US’s Unified Command for Latin America) explained that “‘battlefield preparation’ means collecting information on civil society: who stands for what, which groups or individuals can be mobilized for counterinsurgency and which must be neutralized”. Counter-insurgents must watch for any “refusal of peasants to pay rent, taxes, or loan payments or unusual difficulty in their collection,” an increase “in the number of entertainers with a political message,” or the intensification of “religious unrest”.35 In a similar manual produced by the School of the Americas, intelligence required identifying “the nature of the labor organizations” the potential establishment of “legal political organizations that serve as fronts” for insurgents. Potential vulnerabilities in the “system of public education,” and the influence of “politics on teachers, texts, and students…” and “the relations between religious leaders…. (domestic or missionaries), the established government and the insurgents.”36 Civil society organisations then, especially those that sought to challenge prevailing socio-economic conditions, were overwhelmingly constructed as subversive to the social and political order, and in the context of counter-insurgency, legitimate targets for attack. The primary means for what has been termed “counter-terror” in US sponsored counter-insurgency, but what can be more accurately described as “terror”, has been the use of paramilitary death-squads.  In the Colombian context, the link between the death-squads and the Colombian military is clear. In terms of the translation of counter-insurgency “terror” tactics against civil society in contemporary Colombia the statistics are shocking. In the last fifteen years, an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries with 4000 activists murdered in the 1980s, 151 journalists have been shot, 300,000 Colombian civilians have been killed, three out of four trade union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries, and teachers are “among the workers most often affected by killings, threats and violence-related displacement.”37 Paramilitary groups also regularly target human rights activists, indigenous leaders, and community activists.38 This repression serves to stifle political and economic challenges to the Colombian status quo, and civil society resistance to the US led neo-liberal restructuring of Colombia’s economy.  Anti-communism served as the ideological vehicle during the cold war, and now anti-drugs and a ‘war on terror’ serve as the latest justifications for the war on Colombia’s civil society.

1 Garry M, Leech, Colombia’s Forgotten Refugees, February 12, 2000, <>.
2 Joseph Biden. Aid to ‘Plan Colombia’: the Time for US Assistance is Now. Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations. May 2000.
3 Rand Beers, US Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Remarks before the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, Narcotics and Terrorism Subcommittee, Washington, DC, February 25, 2000, <>.
4 Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft, March 19, 2002.
5 The ARI was sold a balanced package with a 50-50 split between military and socio-economic projects. However, the Centre for International Policy estimate that there are a number of hidden funding channels that have not been taken into account. Most of these channels come through Pentagon funds and include “Section 1004” counter-drug training to military and police personnel and Presidential “draw-downs”. This is how they have arrived at the 71% figure used above. See
6 Klaus Nyholm, quoted in Noam Chomsky. Rogue States. The Rule Of Force in World Affairs. (London: Pluto Press, 2000) p.72.
7 Castana was said to have “resigned” his leadership on 6th June, 2001. Allegedly his resignation was prompted by splits in paramilitary strategy. He now heads a political directorate which is in overall command of the AUC, and is widely believed to still lead the AUC, along with others under his command.
8 Jenny Pearce. Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth. (London: Latin American Bureau, 1990) pp. 183-275.
9 UN High Commission for Human Rights Report 2000. February 8, 2000.
10 Council of Hemispheric Affairs, Drugs Replace Communism as the Point of Entry for US Policy on Latin America, August 1999, <>.
11 James Milford, DEA Congressional testimony. House International Relations Committee, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, July 16, 1997, <>.
12 Milford. DEA Congressional testimony. Ibid.   
13 “Policy, Which Policy?” The London Economist, February 20, 1999,  <>.
14 Joseph Biden. Report to the US Senate  Committee on Foreign Relations, May 3, 2000.
15 Reuters. Colombian Paramilitary Chief Admits Getting Backing From Businessmen. September 6, 2000.; In the same interview Castano also argued that ” We have always proclaimed that we are the defenders of business freedom and of the national and international industrial sectors”
16 Latin American Federation of Journalists. Death Squads Preparing to Massacre DMZ Civilians. March, 8. 2002.
17 Human Rights Watch. The Ties that Bind.
18 Human Rights Watch. The ‘Sixth Division’: Military-Paramilitary Ties and US policy in Colombia. September 2001,
19 Human Rights Watch, Colombia 2000 <>.
20 Human Rights Watch Press Release, Letter to Albright, February 23, 2000 <>; Colombia remains one of the largest suppliers of its personnel to the School of the Americas. Students are  trained in counter-insurgent warfare, anti-narcotics operations, military intelligence and so on. There is evidence to suggest that at least two hundred of SOA Colombian graduates have gone on to perpetrate some of the worst human rights abuses in Colombia’s; see School of the Americas Watch <>.
21 Human Rights Watch. The ‘Sixth Division’
22 Human Rights Watch. The ‘Sixth Division’
23 Human Rights Watch / Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Colombia’s Killer Networks: the Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 1996, p 28, <>.
24 Human Rights Watch / Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Colombia’s Killer Networks. p 29.
25 Human Rights Watch / Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Colombia’s Killer Networks. p 30.
26 Human Rights Watch / Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, Colombia’s Killer Networks. p 5-6.
27 Donald E, Schulz, The United States and Latin America: Shaping an Elusive Future (Carlisle PA, Strategic Studies Institute, March 2000) p2.
28Schulz. The United States and Latin America. Ibid,. p3.
29 Michael T, Klare, “Hail Colombia: Is It Drugs – Or Oil?” San Francisco Examiner April 10, 2000.
30 David Passage, The United States and Colombia: Untying the Gordian Knot, March 2000, pp 4 – 6, <>.
31 Cynthia Cotts,  “The Times’ Silence On Plan Colombia” Chicago Tribune,  February 13, 2001.
32 Martin Hodgson. ‘Oil Inflames Colombia’s Civil War’. Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2002.
33 See School of the Americas Watch website for more details.
34 Michael McClintock. The United States and Operation Condor: Military Doctrine in an Unconventional War. Paper given at 2001 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Washington DC, September 6-8, 2001.
35 HQ USSOUTHCOM, July 23, 1985, LIC Paper No. 55, The Tactical Intelligence Process for Low Intensity Conflict. US Army Intelligence Center and School, Student Information Sheet, AA05387B, May 1985. pp. 27-28 quoted in McClintock. The United States and Operation Condor.
36 Department of Defense, US Army School of the Americas, Inteligencia de Combate, p. 168 Quoted in McClintock. The United States and Operation Condor.
37 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Report 2000. February 8, 2001.
38 State Department. Human Rights Report 2000. Colombia, February 26, 2001.

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