Colombia’s Paramilitary


The paramilitaries of Colombia are among the most brutal human rights violators in the world today.  They are waging a war against the civilian population of Colombia, taking on the "dirty war" aspects of a counterinsurgency campaign that the Colombian military would rather not have as part of its public image.  It is well-known that the paramilitaries and the military of Colombia collaborate on a vast scale, but the US continues to provide Colombia with massive military aid.  This aid has the potential to exacerbate a humanitarian disaster of incredible proportions.  What follows is a brief history of the Colombian paramilitaries, an account of their human rights violations, collaboration with the Colombian military, and a description of the effects that increased US military aid is having. 

The Origins and Development of Colombian Paramilitary Armies

The existence of paramilitary forces in Colombia can be roughly divided into three periods: official paramilitarism, private paramilitarism, and modern paramilitarism.  Official paramilitarism was marked by the deliberate and open creation of civilian armed groups by the Colombian military.  Private paramilitarism was the initial emergence of private armies organized by rural elites.  Modern paramilitarism is characterized by the collaboration of private armies and the Colombian military.

 Public paramilitarism came into being in 1962, with the creation of "Plan Lazo," a counterinsurgency strategy developed by Colombian army commander General Alberto Ruiz.  It was heavily influenced by US Army special warfare advisors who visited Colombia in February, 1962.  The leader of the advising team, General William Yarborough, recommended that a "concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations…This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents."   (my emphasis) 

 In 1965, the arming of civilians gained legal status with Presidential Decree 3398, stating that to put down the insurgency Colombia needed "the organization and tasking of all of the residents of the country."  In 1968, Law 48 made this presidential decree permanent law.  Law 48 allowed the Defense Ministry "to support, when it considers convenient, as if private property, [armies] which are considered as being of a private use of the Armed Forces."   Twenty-one years later, in 1989, the Colombian Supreme Court declared the section of Law 48 allowing the arming of civilians for military purposes to be unconstitutional, thus leading to a more clandestine relationship between the military and private armies.

 The purpose of official paramilitaries was stated in Colombian military strategy manuals.  A manual entitled "Regulations for Counterguerilla Combat" discusses how to "organize the civilian population militarily so that they may defend themselves against guerrilla actions and assist combat operations."  The manual states that control of such organized "self-defense committees" "should remain in military hands at all times."   
 Official paramilitaries did more than mere "self-defense" and assist combat against guerrillas.  They targeted any civilians whom they considered to be guerilla supporters.  The definition of "guerrilla supporters" was extremely broad and included virtually all forms of social protest, such as "government critics, trade unionists, community organizers, opposition politicians, civic leaders, and human rights activists."   The public paramilitaries had little substantial effect on the counterinsurgency war, compared with the central role that modern private paramilitaries now play.  They served more as a precursor to the private paramilitary armies that later developed. 

 While official paramilitaries had been created exclusively by the Colombian military, private paramilitaries were organized primarily by wealthy elites.  Military officers were sometimes involved in the creation of these private armies, but such participation expanded beyond the military into the private sector.

 One of the first private paramilitary forces came into existence in 1973 when emerald mining in the Colombian department of Boyaca was privatized.  Mafias competed for control of the immensely valuable mines and used private armies to increase their territory and resolve land disputes.  Many other such armies emerged throughout Colombia. 

  December 3, 1981 marked the beginning of the modern paramilitaries.  On this date, a helicopter flew over the city of Cali and dropped leaflets announcing the formation of a new organization called Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores  [MAS]).  MAS was organized by 223 drug traffickers who had had numerous family members kidnapped by guerrillas.  The fliers specifically mentioned the kidnapping of Martha Nieves Ochoa, a relative of major drug trafficking leaders, and stated that a squadron of over 2,000 men had been formed to "execute without mercy any person linked to any kidnapping."  

 In the beginning of 1982, in Puerto Boyaca, Santander department, a meeting of businessmen, cattle ranchers, representatives from the Texas Petroleum Company, active-duty army officers and politicians produced the formation of another paramilitary group, taking on the same name as its predecessor, MAS.  Their interests were foremost to protect the wealthy population from guerrilla kidnappings and demands, but went further to "cleanse the region of subversives."  This included anyone who opposed MAS, such as members of the progressive wing of the Liberal Party.  Other private armies in different parts of Colombia began identifying themselves with MAS. 

 Another paramilitary organization formed in northern Colombia around the same time as MAS was the Peasant Self-Defense Units of Cordoba and Uraba (Autodefensas Campesinas de Cordoba y Uraba [ACCU]).  ACCU’s founders were the two sons of a rancher from Antioquia, Carlos and Fidel Castano.  Their father had been kidnapped and killed by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucianarias de Colombia [FARC]).  The Castano brothers were heavily involved in drug trafficking and owned large amounts of land, thus providing the funds for the ACCU.  The ACCU’s mission was essentially the same as that of MAS.     

  Numerous other paramilitary organizations emerged in Colombia and eventually united into a loose federation, officially in April 1997 when Carlos Castano brought them under the umbrella of the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia [AUC]).  The AUC was led by Carlos Castano until June 2001, when he resigned his position, reportedly ceding control of military matters and focusing on political activity of the AUC.   The ACCU is the largest paramilitary organization in the AUC.  The AUC is currently estimated to have 4,000-5,000 active soldiers.
 As had been the case with MAS, the AUC exists as the armed wing of elite sectors of Colombian society.  Political scientist Nazih Richani notes that the constituency of the AUC have a "shared class position and politics [that gives] them common interest in defending the existing socio-economic order, not only against the guerrillas, but also against legal leftist groups, human rights organizations and virtually all other forces of democratic change."   

 Elite alignment behind paramilitary forces expanded greatly as a result of the attempted reforms of Colombian President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986).  Betancur took radical steps to attempt a political solution to the war with the guerrillas, allowing the guerrillas’ political party, the Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica, [UP]), to participate in government elections.  There was strong opposition to this by rural elites, especially in the department of Cordoba.  Cattle ranchers, drug-traffickers and other landed elites continued to face kidnappings and extortion by guerrillas and felt betrayed by the central government for negotiating with insurgents.  Additionally, the Colombian armed forces were committed to militarily defeating the guerrillas, resenting the idea of a comprehensive peace process.  Thus, initially in Cordoba and later throughout northwestern Colombia, a network of landed elites and military personnel sponsored and used paramilitary forces not only for protection, but also to eliminate any manifestation of a threat to their status, taking great pains to brutally suppress the Patriotic Union. The party did not last long, since about 3,000 party members were assassinated, including many presidential, mayoral, and legislative candidates.  Betancur’s peace process did not make any significant progress and the AUC continues to exist as the major paramilitary force in Colombia.

Human Rights Violations of Paramilitary Organizations

The human rights violations against civilians carried out by the AUC paramilitaries are among the worst in the world and continue to occur on a large scale throughout Colombia.  In 2000, there were over 4,000 politically motivated killings and 300,000 internally displaced people in Colombia.   Such figures have been typical for Colombia and the majority of these crimes are the responsibility of the paramilitaries.  The United Nations Commission on Human Rights claims that paramilitaries are "the main perpetrators of collective killings."    The major types of human rights violations the AUC paramilitaries commit are massacres and selective assassinations.  The use of such tactics goes back to the early days of MAS and the ACCU and have escalated since the mid-1990’s.  

 A massacre is defined by the Colombian Ministry of Defense as "the killings of four or more people at a time."  The ministry claimed that paramilitaries were responsible for 75 massacres between January and October of 2000-76% of all massacres during that time span.   The list of recorded massacres is far too lengthy to describe here, but a partial listing is necessary to give a true sense of what paramilitary forces do and why.  The following are descriptions of two of the most notorious paramilitary massacres in the past few years.

One massacre occurred in Mapiripan, Meta department, during July 15-20, 1997.  When an estimated 200 ACCU soldiers arrived in the town on July 15, among those they  searched for were peasants who had taken part in a department-wide protest over the poor economic conditions in Meta.  These people, among others, were rounded up and taken to the town slaughterhouse where soldiers tortured them and then slit their throats.  One victim, Antonio Maria Herrera, "was hung from a hook, and ACCU members quartered his body, throwing the pieces into the Guaviare River."  Other victims were decapitated.  A local judge in Mapiripan, Leonardo Ivan Cortes, repeatedly contacted the local security forces during the massacre, requesting help.  He stated that, "Each night they kill groups of five to six defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously massacred after being tortured.  The screams of humble people are audible, begging for mercy and asking for help."   Cortes made a total of eight telephone calls to local security forces, but neither the police nor army made any appearance or investigation until the paramilitaries had left, strong evidence of military acceptance of paramilitary activity. 

Another massacre took place on April 12, 2001 in parts of the Cauca department, in which approximately 130 civilians were killed.  A Colombian government spokesperson gave an example of two women who were killed:  "The remains of a woman were exhumed. Her abdomen was cut open with a chainsaw. A 17-year-old girl had her throat cut and both hands also amputated."

A farmer from the village of Naya was reported to have seen the following: 
"Paramilitary troops rounded up Naya residents, house by house, and assembled them along the dirt path running into town. [The farmer] said the paramilitary commanders gave his neighbors two chances to answer: ‘Do you know any guerrillas?’ A machete blow followed the third negative response." 

 Selective assassination by paramilitaries in Colombia has targeted individuals who, in one way or another, oppose the interests of the Colombian elite.  

 The most blatant example of selective assassination was the killing of about 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union in the 1980’s, as previously discussed.      

Organized labor has been another major target.  In 2000, at least 129 trade union leaders were murdered in Colombia. Out of all trade unionists killed in the world, three-fifths are Colombian.  The majority of killings are the work of the paramilitaries.  It is not difficult to see why organized labor is targeted.  As David Bacon notes,

"The Colombian government also views union activity as a threat because it challenges its basic economic policies.  The Pastrana administration is under pressure from the IMF and World Bank to cut the public sector budget, causing mass terminations, along with cuts in education, health care, and pensions…The money would be used to pay the country’s debt to foreign banks and lending institutions, making Colombia more attractive to foreign investors."  

 Human rights workers have been under consistent harassment by paramilitaries.  In 2000, numerous members of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos-Colombia [ASFADDES]) were murdered and/or received death threats.  Members of the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos [CREDHOS]) received over 12 death threats in August and September of 2000  and were on a paramilitary death list circulated in Barrancabermeja. Internal human rights groups are not the only ones to come under threat.  In early 2001, the international human rights organization Peace Brigades International, which sends people to numerous countries all over the world to accompany human rights defenders whose lives are believed to be in danger, was declared to be a military target by paramilitaries.  

 Whether members of fringe political parties, labor unions, human rights group, or any other group seeking change in Colombia’s economically polarized society, the paramilitary forces consistently legitimize their being targeted by referring to them as "guerrillas in civilian clothing" or the "unarmed wing of subversion." 

In the Colombian armed conflict, the paramilitary forces are not unique, but certainly excessive, in their targeting of the civilian population.  Why do the paramilitaries target civilians so consistently?  Why do they use such vicious tactics, such as massacres and torture?  In answering these questions, it is necessary to separate the targeting of apolitical civilians in particular regions and the selective assassination of individuals due to their political and/or human rights activity.  Both tactics are different in their desired ends, but share the function of instilling fear in the general population.  As the Israeli Ruchama Marton says of torture, fear "spreads to the other members of the oppressed group, to silence and paralyze them.  To impose silence through violence is torture’s real purpose."  If being politically active means risking being killed and/or tortured, there is a strong incentive to remain politically inert. 

In terms of massacres and other terror tactics used against the rural population, there is more involved than simply silencing the population.  The main issue at hand is territorial control and "in many cases forced displacement is a necessary requisite for taking possession of or dominating territories."   Forced displacement is a problem of gigantic proportions in Colombia, where in 2000 alone, about 300,000 people were displaced by violence.  Millions of Colombians are presently refugees within their own country.  Guerrilla forces and the Colombian military have caused much of the displacement, but "threats against the civilian population, massacres, and restrictions on movement by paramilitary groups have been the greatest causes of massive displacements."        

 The paramilitary strategy in rural areas is very consistent.  A specific community is targeted and isolated.  The members of the community are forced to gather together and identify themselves.  Paramilitaries often have a list of people who are separated from the rest and then tortured and killed, accused of being guerrilla supporters.  The remaining population is given the option of leaving the territory, accepting the authority of the paramilitaries, or being killed.  Given the options, it is no surprise that there is such a large displaced population.

It is important to note that "guerrilla supporter" is an extremely simple label to acquire.  As Colombian human rights worker Father Javier Giraldo says, "Campesinos, indigenous people or individuals who simply live in areas where guerrillas are active are considered guerrilla supporters, or at the very least, responsible for their presence and, therefore, legitimate targets of counterinsurgency."  

In all likelihood, it is irrelevant to the paramilitaries whether or not someone has actually helped the guerrillas in one way or another.  What is important is that the counterinsurgency function of "draining the water from the fish" is fulfilled.  Whether or not the population ideologically supports the guerrillas, the guerrillas need the population as a resource for survival.  When a territory is emptied of its population, guerrillas have the option of leaving a territory or fighting out in the open.  The staple of guerrilla warfare is being unexposed, therefore the more guerrillas can be isolated from the population, the harder it becomes for them to function effectively.  This is part of the strategy to take territorial control away from the guerrillas.

Collaboration Between Paramilitary Forces and the Colombian Military

 Paramilitaries are able to operate with impunity because of their consistent collaboration with the Colombian military. Not all private armies organized by Colombian elites necessarily have ties to the military, but the level of collaboration is nonetheless vast and national in scale.  According to Human Rights Watch, nine of Colombia’s eighteen Army brigades have "documented links to paramilitary activity."  

There is compelling evidence that the Colombian Army’s Third Brigade established aparamilitary force called the Calima Front (Frente Calima) in 1999, providing them with weapons and intelligence. Paramilitary soldiers of the ACCU were recruited and active duty and retired military officers were part of the project. In early August, 1999, the Calima Front committed massacres and killings in Tulu and nearby areas, causing large scale displacement.  Although the presence of the Calima Front was reported to local officials, the paramilitary group was unimpeded by the military. 

 Colombia’s Fourth Brigade, based in Medillin, is also known for large scale ties to AUC forces.  Like the Third Brigade, the Fourth has had ties to the ACCU.  ACCU and Fourth Brigade soldiers took part in a joint operation in El Aro, in October 1997.  This operation yielded the usual massacres, torture, and murder.  Paramilitaries and their military allies in the Fourth Brigade took part in a practice called "legalization," in which "paramilitaries would give the corpses of suspected guerrillas or murdered civilians to the Army in exchange for weapons and munitions…soldiers then clothed the corpses in military uniforms and claimed them publicly as guerrillas killed in combat."  The apparent purpose of such a practice is to enhance the reputation of military officers, in a war in which body count results are a measure for success.  "Legalization" is thought to be a widespread practice throughout Colombia.   

 Further military-paramilitary links were revealed in the military intelligence overhaul that took place in 1991.  Colombian Armed Forces Directive No. 200-05/91 authorized the establishment of numerous intelligence networks by the military, "in the face of escalating terrorism by armed subversion."  Each network would cover a certain geographic area.  The directive mapped out the chain of command such networks were to have.  The person in charge of a network, the Network Chief, was to be an active duty officer.  Next were Area Chiefs, responsible for coordinating efforts within specific sectors of the total area covered by the network.  The Area Chief was to be a retired or active-duty officer or non-commissioned officer, but could "also be a civilian with training and influence who is trustworthy."  Control Agents, below the Area Chiefs, were to be "civilians or retired non commissioned officers" and "in charge of covering the targets."  Next were Intelligence Agents and at the bottom, Informants.  The directive suggests using active or retired military officers much of the time, but is very loose with its language and implies that civilians are quite permissible in certain situations, especially lower down in the chain of command.   

 The directive does not mention paramilitary forces specifically, but observation of how the directive was put into effect reveals what its apparent intent was.  Forty-one intelligence networks were created whose major function was selective assassination.  The most well-known network established as a result of the directive was based in Barrancabermeja.  In the first two years of the network’s existence at least 57 civilians were assassinated.  The Barrancabermeja network was operated by the Colombian Navy and covered areas outside of the city as well.  The Colombian Navy had worked with MAS in the past in Barrancabermeja, but Directive 200-05/91 gave an aura of legality to their collaboration.  As could be expected, the intelligence network set up in Barrancabermeja in 1991, by the navy and MAS, targeted not just those who were seen as guerrilla supporters, but "members of the political opposition, journalists, trade unionists, and human rights workers, particularly if they investigated or criticized their terror tactics."   

 A former reserve officer, Felipe Gomez, testified to the Attorney General’s office that he was part of the Barrancabermeja network and was responsible for equipping and aiding paramilitaries in numerous areas.  Gomez organized paramilitaries in seven different towns, arming them with navy-provided weapons.  These paramilitaries were able to get ranchers to stop paying "war taxes" to the guerrillas and fund the paramilitaries instead.
 Further evidence of linkage between paramilitaries and the military is the fact that groups listed as targets of the intelligence networks by naval officers were also listed in a death threat circulated by a paramilitary group in Barrancabermeja in January of 1992. 
 Barrancabermeja is a key city in Colombia. It is a port city on the Magdalena River and the headquarters of the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, is located there, along with an oil refinery that provides 60% of Colombia’s fuel needs.  The economic activity of the city has given rise to the Syndical Union of Workers (Union Sindical de Obreros, [USO]), Colombia’s most powerful labor union.  Besides having a strong labor presence, the city has also been the home to left-wing parties, such as the Union Patriotica, and other civil society organizations. Both the FARC and the ELN have strongholds in parts of Barrancabermeja, as does the EPL to a smaller degree.  All of these factors make Barrancabermeja an extremely important strategic asset to Colombian elites, both in military and economic terms.   

Paramilitary activity in and around Barrancabermeja increased greatly in the mid to late 1990’s and continues into the present.  As part of the strategy of resting control of the city from the guerrillas, paramilitary forces have increased their power in the rural areas surrounding the city.  As the Colombian human rights group, the Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) stated:

[A] territorial advance to the north is evident…this territorial advance reaches the rural surrounds of Barrancabermeja…and is seen in the ‘anonymous’ presence of individuals linked to paramilitary groups in the northeastern district of the city; the paramilitary net is completed with the strategy which has already been implemented over several years  and involves the occupation of areas in the municipalities which border Barrancabermeja to the south – El Carmen, Cimitarra – and to the southwest – Puerto Parra – and the southeast – San Vincente de Chucuri, Simicota. 

North of Barrancabermeja, in the Sabana de Torres municipality, the Sabana de Torres Human Rights Committee reported many killings and "disappearances" by paramilitaries between 1993 and 1997.  Members of the committee then faced death threats themselves and its president fled the municipality after an attempt on his life by paramilitaries in December of 1997.  Torture, killings, and threats of civilians occurred in areas immediately west and southwest of Barrancabermeja. 

The Colombian military has been blatantly complicit in the violations of human rights by paramilitaries in and around Barrancabermeja.  For example, in June of 1995 in the village of Danto Bajo, Simacota Municipality (southeast of Barrancabermeja), a joint group of about 30 military soldiers and 10 paramilitary soldiers came and tortured a peasant farmer for more than two hours and then forced him to sign a statement saying he had been well-treated.  Numerous such joint patrols took place in Simacota. 

A very blatant example of paramilitary-military collaboration was an attack on Barrancabermeja by paramilitaries, on May 16, 1998.  Early that day a local army commander ordered that a 24-hour checkpoint be set up at La Y, the access route to numerous southeastern districts of the city.  Army and police units were also ordered to patrol northeastern districts of the city.  However, the check point and the patrol units were called back to barracks, with no apparent explanation, around 9pm. Paramilitaries entered the city via La Y shortly after the withdrawal of troops, focusing their incursion on areas of ELN influence in southeastern Barrancabermeja. 

The paramilitaries first entered a bar, attacked several people, and took two individuals, Juan de Jesus Valdivieso and Pedro Julio Rondon, on the pick-up trucks they had used to enter the city.  When Pedro Julio Rondon was recaptured after trying escape he told the paramilitaries that if they were going to kill him to do it where they were so that his body would be found.  A paramilitary soldier then slit his throat.  In the Divino Nino district a street party was ongoing when the paramilitaries surrounded it, proceeding to abduct more people.  Further attacks were made on civilians in other southeastern districts of Barrancabermeja. 

There were 11 confirmed deaths as a result of the paramilitary attack and 25 people "disappeared."  Most of those killed or "disappeared" were working class laborers and all were civilians. 

The withdrawal of the checkpoint at La Y was one piece of evidence pointing toward military collaboration in the attack.  Other events pointing to military complicity were as follows: (1) The paramilitaries were reported to have fired shots towards hills where they thought civilians had fled to.  This shooting took place about 130 meters away from a military post guarding an electrical installation.  The soldiers at the post did nothing to stop the attack.  (2) No action was taken when paramilitaries set up a road-block within 500 meters of the base of the "Nueva Granada" Air Defense Artillery Battalion.  (3) During the entire attack, paramilitary forces were never hindered by any military force whatsoever.  (4) Immediately following the attack, it was reported to the police and the army, who were given a description of the escape route taken by the paramilitaries.  There was no attempt made to track down the assailants.  (5) Military commanders in Barrancabermeja had been warned about a planned paramilitary attack, prior to the actual event, by numerous sources, but took no precautions.

In mid-1998, Carlos Castano claimed that an AUC-affiliated paramilitary group, the Self-Defense Forces of Santander and South of Cesar, was responsible for the attack on Barrancabermeja.  The group sent a letter to the president of Colombia stating that "It is clear that the 25 people who were detained on May 16 in Barranca[bermeja] were subversives belonging to the ELN (National Liberation Army/Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) and the EPL (Popular Liberation Army/Ejército Popular de Liberación).  The detainees made declarations and were submitted to trial and their corpses were incinerated."

Subsequent to the May 16 attack, paramilitaries have enjoyed and continue to enjoy access to the city on many occasions, killing and threatening people in a similar fashion, including union members and human rights workers.                      
Colombian Paramilitaries and US Military Aid to Colombia

 An issue that is central to concerned citizens is how US military aid to Colombia will effect the disposition of the paramilitaries.  Officially, the US government demands that all ties between the military and paramilitaries be broken and the AUC is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.  However, such proclamations seem to only be for public image given the fact that Colombia has been the leading recipient of US military aid in Latin America since the 1990’s and is now third in the world with the approval in 2000 of a $1.3 billion aid package for "Plan Colombia", about 80% of it military aid.  The current Bush Administration is looking to expand Plan Colombia, with its planned Andean Regional Initiative.  Money for Plan Colombia has been approved without any significant breaking of military-paramilitary links, and whether public pressure will hamper the potentially devastating effect of the Andean Regional Initiative remains to be seen.
 The first problem with US military aid to Colombia, in relation to the paramilitaries, is that the paramilitary forces will automatically be strengthened since they actively collaborate with the military.  This is a very serious problem in itself, but there are greater implications because US intervention in Colombia is more involved with paramilitarism than is publicly acknowledged.

 One example of this greater involvement was the reorganization of Colombian intelligence in 1991, which was heavily influenced by US advisors.  Colombian Armed Forces Directive No. 200-05/91 says "The Defense Ministry, based on the recommendations made by the commission of advisors of US Military Forces, has ordered the Restructuring of Military Intelligence at all levels."  Retired Colonel James S. Roach Jr. was the US military attache and Defense Intelligence Agency liaison to Colombia at this time.  Roach says that the US Defense Department did not intend for the new intelligence networks to be the assassination squads they became, but claims that the Central Intelligence Agency was more involved in the actual organization of the networks.  Roach said "The CIA set up the clandestine nets on their own…[The CIA] had a lot of money.  It was kind of like Santa Claus arrived."   It is quite likely that the CIA helped set up the networks with the intent to suppress the constituencies that opposed the interests of Colombian elites.  

 Another issue is the training of Colombian soldiers by US Army Green Berets and other special forces, such as the Navy SEALS.  Since President Kennedy’s expansion of special warfare and low-intensity conflict training, special forces have been the cornerstone of foreign counterinsurgency operations, having a strong presence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries, especially in Latin America, where counterinsurgency wars of atrocious proportions against civilian populations occured.   The history is enough to make one wary, but there is a rather frightening connection to Colombia in this regard.  In 1997, Green Berets were training a Colombian unit whose commander, Colonel Lino Sanchez, has been accused by the Colombian Attorney General’s office of collaborating with Carlos Castano for the Mapiripan massacre of July 20, 1997, previously described.   Although it is difficult to find direct complicity on the part of US advisors in the massacre, it occurred within close proximity to the training base, at Barracon Island, where the Green Berets were located, and paramilitaries had to pass a checkpoint at the island by boat. With the amount of Colombian military complicity in the massacre and the magnitude of the killings, it is hard to imagine that special forces would be left completely ignorant of the situation. The Green Berets finished a training course for Colonel Sanchez’s unit, beginning May 14, 1997 and the course finished very close to the day of the massacre.  It is a strong possibility that the Green Berets knew of the planned paramilitary massacre in advance and did nothing about it.  

 The training of Colombian paramilitaries by foreigners is not a new phenomenon.  A Colombian intelligence document from 1988 entitled "Organisation of Hired Assassins and Drug Traffickers in the Magdalena Medio" notes that in the training camps of paramilitary assassins "the presence of Israeli, German and North American instructors has been detected."   Public information about German and North American trainers is practically nonexistent, but some details of Israeli involvement have become available. 
 In 1989, it was discovered that paramilitaries directly involved with drug cartels had received training from retired Israeli officers.  A videotape, apparently recorded by Colombian cartel members, showed Israeli trainers "running military and assassination training exercises for about 50 men."  Two of the trainers were retired Lt. Colonel Yair Klein and Lt. Colonel Amatzia Shu’ali.  Klein was the president of a private Israeli military advising company, called Spearhead, for which Shu’ali worked.  Both men had been involved in other shady training operations; Klein was part of the Israeli effort to train the Nicaraguan Contras and Shu’ali had trained numerous Guatemalan military officers involved in brutal scorched earth campaigns against the civilian population.  Regarding the Colombian paramilitaries, Klein claimed that his work was supported by the Colombian government and military, saying the training occurred in  very close proximity to an army camp and involved the use of military equipment.  The Israeli government claimed that military trainers like Klein were acting independently in their training of Colombian paramilitaries, saying that Spearhead had applied for permission to work in Colombia but was denied.  The key issue was whether Spearhead was indeed "freelancing" or if it was a private front for military operations potentially embarassing to Israel.  This issue has not been fully resolved, but the fact that Klein, Shu’ali, and other involved in training paramilitaries were high-ranking individuals with close connections to the Israeli government casts doubt on Israel’s claim of non-involvement or ignorance of the situation.  As an Israeli magazine, New Outlook, stated, "Israel’s powerful defense ministry and its confederated military industries operate an international network of well-connected former military officers as sales agents.  These are people who have access, having cultivated key contacts among foreign armed forces.  They and their companies work independently of, but in cooperation with, Israel’s military attaches."    

   Further concern comes from the fact that the portion of Plan Colombia dedicated to aerial fumigation of coca crops is focused almost exclusively on FARC-controlled areas.  As John Donnelly of the Boston Globe reported, "The US-financed attack stays clear of the areas controlled by paramilitary forces in central and northern Colombia,"  where they have their greatest stronghold.  Military aid to Colombia has been and continues to be given on the grounds of reducing the flow of cocaine to the US by large-scale fumigation of coca crops, on the supposed grounds that the FARC are "narco-guerrillas."  The irony of this is that paramilitaries are far more involved in actual drug trafficking than the FARC is.  The FARC’s role in the drug trade rarely goes beyond taxing coca production, which should be kept in perspective since the FARC taxes most economic activity within their areas of control.  Paramilitaries, on the other hand, "protect far more drug laboratories and internal transit routes," according to freelance journalist Frank Smyth.   Carlos Castano has admitted publicly that 70% of AUC funding comes from the drug trade.  Two Colombian drug lords, Victor Carranza and Henry Loaiza, are both known to have strong paramilitary forces, are implicated in various massacres, and are thought to have military contacts currently or in the past.  One is left with the possibility that either the US is not targeting the paramilitaries simply due to a lack of interest in them or there is actual support for paramilitary activity.  While one possibility cannot be proven over the other, given the aiding of the Colombian military while it is known that they collaborate with paramilitaries, the CIA involvement in the establishment of intelligence networks, and the presence of US Special Warfare trainers, it is highly likely that there is some degree of support for paramilitary groups and tactics among certain sectors of the US government.

[A footnoted version of this article is available by request.  Please contact Adam Weiss]


  Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 1996.

  Giraldo S.J., Javier. Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy.  Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1996. p. 89

  Colombian Defense Ministry, Colombian Armed Forces Directive No. 200-05/91, 1991.

  Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks.

  Richani, Nazih. "The Paramilitary Connection." NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, September/October 2000: pp. 38-41. 

    Forero, Juan. "Colombian Rebel Resigns." New York Times,  June 10, 2001.

  Romero, Mauricio.  "Changing Identities and Contested Settings: Regional Elites and the Paramilitaries in Colombia."  Information Services Latin America: <www.igc.org/isla/SpecialRpts/SR1romero.html> (4/19/2001)

  Amnesty International, Country Report on Colombia, 2001.

  United Nations Commission on Human Rights,  Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Colombia,  February, 2001.  

  Human Rights Watch, Colombia and International Humanitarian Law, 1998.

  Agence France Presse, " ‘The Chainsaw Massacre’ is not a Movie in Colombia."  April 19, 2001

  Bacon, David. "The Colombian Connection: U.S. Aid Fuels a Dirty War Against Unions."  In These Times, July 23, 2001.

  Quoted by Noam Chomsky, Introduction, Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy.

  Support Group for Displaced People Organizations, Report on Forced Displacement in Colombia – 1999, Electronic Edition by Equipo Nizkor:  <http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/colombia/doc/gad1.html>, 6/19/2000.

  Human Rights Watch, The Ties that Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links,  February 2000.

  Amnesty International, Barrancabermeja: A City Under Siege, 1/05/1999.

  Smyth, Frank.  "Still Seeing Red"  The Progressive, June 1998: 

  For a critical history of US counterinsurgency programs see McClintock, MIchael. Instruments of Statecraft… For an account of the human toll of  these wars against civilian populations in Central America see Chomsky, Noam.  Turning  the Tide. South End Press: Boston,  1986.  

  Gomez, Igancio, "The Risks of US Aid", El Espectador, 2/27/2000, English translation, <www.icij.org/investigate/gomez.html>

  This Colombian Department of Security Administration report is reproduced in Impunity in Colombia, Pax Christi Netherlands and the Dutch Commission Justitia et Pax,  report of a 1988 investigative mission.

  Hunter, Jane. The Israeli Connection: Israeli Involvement in Paramilitary Training in Colombia, Arab-American Institute, September 1989.

  Donnelly, John. "House Panel Gets Chance to Fine-Tune Colombia Drug Bill"  The Boston Globe, 3/09/2000.

  Smyth, Frank. "Colombia’s Blowback", Crime in Uniform: Corruption and Impunity in Latin America, December 1997. <www.tni.org/drugs/folder3/smyth.htm>


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