The Washington Post Misleads on Colombia
By John I. Laun
On December 21, 2013 the Washington Post published an article titled “Covert action in Colombia” by reporter Dana Priest.
Ms. Priest is a veteran reporter who has over the course of her career produced significant reports on important topics. However, in her report on the role of the United States government in supporting the Colombian state’s war on the FARC guerrillas she has overlooked or ignored some very basic aspects of this relationship.
The most significant of these is that she ignores the nature and history of the paramilitary forces’ activities and the link of these to the United States government. As Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., correctly observed years ago, the paramilitaries in Colombia are a strategy of the Colombian state. Furthermore, this strategy was suggested to the Colombian government by a United States military mission to Colombia in February 1962, in response to fear of the spread of influence of the Castro Revolution in Cuba. The mission was led by Lieutenant General William Yarborough, the Commander of the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center. A Wikipedia entry cites a secret report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff quoting Yarborough as recommending “development of a civilian and military structure…to pressure for 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. It should be backed by the United States.”
(See this citation and more information at Wikipedia.org/wiki/William_P_Yarborough.)
The basic idea behind the reliance upon paramilitaries has been to keep the Colombian military from being involved directly in the Colombian government’s dirty war against the guerrillas and rural noncombatants and thus avoid having “dirty hands”. As Father Giraldo observed back in 1996, “Paramilitarism becomes, then, the keystone of a strategy of “Dirty War”, where the “dirty” actions cannot be attributed to persons on behalf of the State because they have been delegated, passed along or projected upon confused bodies of armed civilians.” (Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1996, p. 81).
There are many examples of the paramilitary death squad actions. One of these was a terrible slaughter by machetes and chainsaws of an estimated 30 civilians in the town of Mapiripán in Meta Department on July 15-20, 1997, in which paramilitary forces under the command of Carlos Castaño in northern Colombia were allowed to travel by airplane with Colombian military acquiescence to reach their target community in southeast Colombia. A second example of the vicious attacks of paramilitary forces upon civilians was the slaughter on February 21, 2005 of 8 persons of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in Antioquia Department, including a founder and leader of that Community, Luis Eduardo Guerra. The latter massacre was carried out with the assistance of Colombian Army soldiers from the Seventeenth and Eleventh Brigades.
While Ms. Priest approvingly suggests that Colombia “with its vibrant economy and swanky Bogota social scene” is far removed from Afghanistan, she fails to recognize that most of Bogota’s nearly 8 million residents are very poor, while a great majority of the country’s rural residents are impoverished. To be accurate in her portrayal of present-day Colombia, Ms. Priest should recognize and acknowledge that the distribution of land among Colombia’s population is the second worst in South America, after Paraguay, and the 11th worst in the world. (Oxfam Research Reports, “Divide and Purchase: How land ownership is being concentrated in Colombia”, 2013, p.7. See http://www.oxfam.org.)
In rural areas paramilitary forces, supposedly demobilized in a sham proceeding during Alvaro Uribe’s Presidency, continue to threaten and murder campesinos (small-scale farmers) and force them and their families off their lands, so they can be taken over by large landowners or multinational corporations with mining and petroleum plans encouraged by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. Paramilitary activity also continues to account for murders of labor union leaders and organizers, more of whom are killed in Colombia year after year than in any other country in the world.
It is also disappointing that Ms. Priest makes no mention of the fact that there are some 6 million internally-displaced persons in Colombia, more than any other country in the world. In his December 27-29 article titled “Myth-making in the Washington Post: Washington’s Real Aims in Colombia”, (below) Nick Alexandrov correctly calls attention to Ms. Priest’s failure to take into account these displaced persons. And he also properly focuses criticism upon Ms. Priest’s failure correctly to acknowledge one of the most important links of the United State to Colombia and one of the most damaging: the drug trade and the effects of coca crop spraying (fumigation) upon Colombia’s rural population. Here again the responsibility of the United States government is clear and direct. As Mr. Alexandrov points out, tens of thousands of Colombia’s campesinos have been decimated economically as their legal food crops are destroyed through fumigation under direct control of the United States government. As a Colombia Support Network delegation was told by U. S. Embassy personnel while Anne Patterson was Ambassador there, the crop-spraying campaign using Round-Up Ultra has been controlled from the Embassy itself. Indeed, mayors of towns in Putumayo Department (province) told us they are not informed in advance and have no control over when fumigation of farm fields in their municipalities occurs.
Furthermore, the assertion that the FARC are principally responsible for Colombia’s production of illicit drugs is questionable. Right-wing paramilitaries, protected by the Colombian Army and linked to many Colombian political figures, have been involved in the drug trade for decades, and continue to benefit from this trade, as do their benefactors in the private sector, such as owners of large cattle ranches, merchants, and banana plantation owners. And the United States government has supported and even idealized one of the persons most responsible for corruption of the political process in Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez. Before his election as President in 2002, Alvaro Uribe had been identified by the United States government as linked to drug-trafficking. As Virginia Vallejo, a Colombian television journalist and sometime love interest of Pablo Escobar, suggested to me in a telephone conversation and mentioned in her book, Amando a Pablo, Odiando a Escobar (Random House Mondadori, September 2007), Álvaro Uribe was favored by Escobar. He allegedly approved the opening of drug-transit airstrips as Director of Civil Aeronautics. Later, as Governor of Antioquia Department, Uribe promoted the formation of so-called “self-defense” forces, which morphed into cut-throat, illegal paramilitaries who ravaged the countryside. His cousin Mario Uribe, with whom he has been particularly close, was convicted of corrupt actions and spent time in prison, while his brother Santiago Uribe Vélez is about to be prosecuted for organizing and training illegal paramilitary forces on a Uribe family ranch. When Álvaro Uribe ran for re-election in 2004, his agents bribed Congresswoman Yidis Medina to get her to change her vote in committee so that Uribe could be re-elected (not permitted at that time by the Colombian Constitution). Yidis Medina went to prison for having received the bribe, but neither Alvaro Uribe nor his staff members who offered the bribe have been convicted and sentenced for the offenses they committed.
What was the reaction of the United States government to President Uribe’s alleged promotion of illegal activities? He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, the highest honor a President can convey upon any person! (For a detailed account of Alvaro Uribe’s purported misdeeds, see the Master’s thesis of Francisco Simón Conejos at the University of Valencia, Spain, of December 2012, titled, in English translation, “Crimes Against Humanity in Colombia: Elements to Implicate ex-President Alvaro Uribe Vélez before Universal Justice and the International Criminal Court”.)
No analysis of the United States’ role in Colombia can properly ignore the relationships and responsibilities outlined above. But even beyond these points if one is to consider whether the United States’ actions toward and in Colombia have been beneficial for that country and its people, one must look at the effect of the United States government’s support for corporate interests of companies from this country and their actions in Colombia. The policies of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama in the past two decades have advanced the agendas of mining and petroleum companies— such as Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, and Drummond— and food companies— such as Chiquita Banana and, most recently, Cargill— while these companies’ activities in rural Colombia have caused environmental damage, massive displacement of residents of these areas and destruction of the campesino economy. One wishes that Ms. Priest had treated the Colombian context much more broadly to provide a much more complete and honest view of how United States government actions and policies have affected the population of this important country, with Latin America’s third largest population (after Brazil and Mexico).
John I. Laun
President, Colombia Support Network
Mythmaking in the Washington Post
Washington’s Real Aims in Colombia
Last Sunday’s Washington Post carried a front-page article by Dana Priest, in which she revealed “a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.” Thanks to “a multibillion-dollar black budget”—“not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia”—as well as “substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency,” the initiative has been successful, in Priest’s assessment, decimating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, as the country’s “vibrant economy” and “swanky Bogota social scene” flourish.
The lengthy piece offers a smorgasbord of propagandistic assertions, pertaining both to Washington’s Colombia policies, and to its foreign conduct in general. For a sampling of the latter, consider one of the core assumptions underlying Priest’s report—namely, that our noble leaders despise drugs. The FARC’s “links with the narcotics trade” and “drug trafficking” motivated U.S. officials to destroy their organization, we’re supposed to believe. True, CIA informants in Burma (1950s), Laos (1970s), and Afghanistan (1980s) exploited their Agency ties “to become major drug lords, expanding local opium production and shipping heroin to international markets, the United States included,” Alfred W. McCoy’s research demonstrates. True, a few decades ago the Office of the United States Trade Representative joined “with the Departments of Commerce and State as well as leaders in Congress” for the purpose of “promoting tobacco use abroad,” the New York Times reported in 1988, quoting health official Judith L. Mackay, who described the resulting “tobacco epidemic” devastating the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries: “smoking-related illnesses, like cancer and heart disease” had surpassed “communicable diseases as the leading cause of death in parts of Asia.” True, the DEA shut down its Honduran office in June 1983, apparently because agent Thomas Zepeda was too scrupulous, amassing evidence implicating top-level military officials in drug smuggling—an inconvenient finding, given Honduras’ crucial role in Washington’s anti-Sandinista assault, underway at the time.
But these events are not part of History, as the subject has been constructed in U.S. schools. It’s common to read, every year or so, an article in one of the major papers lamenting the fact that “American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject,” as Sam Dillon wrote in a 2011 piece for the Times. The charge is no doubt true, as far as it goes: Dillon explained that only a “few high school seniors” tested were “able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War,” for example. But the accusation is usually leveled to highlight schools’ inadequacies, with little examination of the roles these institutions are meant to serve. And the indictments are hardly novel: in 1915, a Times story on New York City’s public schools complained their graduates “can not spell simple words,” were incapable of finding “cities and States” on a map, and so on. That piece explicitly critiqued graduates’ abilities to function as disciplined wage-earners, and so was more honest than the majority of today’s education coverage. The simple fact is “that the public schools are social institutions dedicated not to meeting the self-perceived needs of their students [e.g., by providing an understanding of how the world works] but to preserving social peace and prosperity within the context of private property and the governmental structures that safeguard it,” David Nasaw concludes in his fascinating history of the subject. Private schools, to be sure, are similar in essential respects. And one result of this schooling is that well-educated journalists can repeat myths about U.S. foreign policy, as their well-educated readers nod in blind assent.
The notion that U.S. officials have a coherent counterdrug policy is, again, one of these myths. In addition to the historical examples of U.S. support for drug traffickers cited above, we can note that the slur “narco-guerrilla,” which Washington uses to imply that the FARC is somehow unique for its involvement in the narcotics trade, ought to be at least supplemented by—if not abandoned in favor of—“narco-paramilitary.” Commentators tend to discuss the paramilitaries and the Colombian state separately, presupposing the former are “rogue” entities—another myth—when it would be better to view them, with Human Rights Watch, as the Colombian Army’s unofficial “Sixth Division,” acting in close conformity with governmental aims. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño admitted in March 2000 that some 70% of the armed groups’ funding came from drug trafficking, and U.S. intelligence agencies took no issue with his estimate—and “have consistently reported over a number of years that the paramilitaries are far more heavily involved than the FARC in drug cultivation, refinement and transshipment to the U.S.,” International Security specialist Doug Stokes emphasizes.
When these substances enter our country, they become a key pretext for the skyrocketing incarceration rate, which has more people imprisoned for drug offenses today than were incarcerated for all offenses in 1980, criminologist Randall Shelden has pointed out, with rates of arrest and sentencing durations especially severe for blacks. “Every criminal prohibition has that same touch to it, doesn’t it?” legal historian Charles Whitebread once asked. “It is enacted by US,” he stressed, “and it always regulates the conduct of THEM”—“you know, them criminals, them crazy people, them young people, them minority group members,” he added sardonically. Reviewing the history of marijuana prohibition, Whitebread noted that, at the Marihuana Tax Act hearings in 1937, two men spoke regarding the drug’s medical effects. One was Dr. William C. Woodward, Chief Counsel to the American Medical Association, who explained his organization had found “no evidence that marihuana is a dangerous drug.” “Doctor,” a Congressman complained, “if you can’t say something good about what we are trying to do, why don’t you go home?” The second was a Temple University pharmacologist, “who claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died.” When one Congressman asked him whether he had experimented on dogs because of some similarity they bore to humans, the pharmacologist professed ignorance: “I wouldn’t know, I am not a dog psychologist.”
That was the extent of the medical basis for outlawing marijuana in the U.S., as threadbare as the anti-drug pretexts of Washington’s Colombia policies. Nearly four years after Plan Colombia’s 1999 announcement, for example, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported that “the Departments of State and Defense [had] still not developed estimates of future program costs, defined their future roles in Colombia, identified a proposed end state, or determined how they plan[ned] to achieve it.” But while efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production were poorly articulated—and failed consistently—other endeavors met with great success. For example, aerial fumigation displaced some 17,000 people from the Putumayo Department, where the FARC had a major presence, in 2001 alone. The fumigation effectively converted the land from a means of subsistence into a profit source: journalist Garry Leech pointed out that, from 2003-2004, there was “a slew of new contracts signed between multinational companies and the Colombian government,” and the events in Putumayo and elsewhere suggest that Colombia’s herbicide-spraying campaign was never really aimed at illicit crops, typically described as the main target. It seems that if the point were to eradicate, say, coca, the solution would be relatively simple: let coca growers harvest something else. But Plan Colombia has consistently devoted only minimal funding for alternative development schemes, indicating the peasants’ sin isn’t growing coca, but living as subsistence farmers. That kind of activity is an inappropriate use of the land in an oil-rich region, where there are profits to be made.
A Guatemalan peasant made a similar point to author-activist Kevin Danaher, when he visited her country in 1984—shortly after School of the Americas alumnus Ríos Montt had completed his genocidal tear through the countryside. The woman, Danaher writes, “told us that soldiers had come to her home one night and hacked her husband to death, right in front of her and her three children;” the man “was a subversive,” in the military’s eyes, “because he was helping other peasants learn how to raise rabbits as a source of food and money.” Danaher struggled to understand the connection between this effort at self-sufficiency, and the brutal end its advocate met. “Look,” the widow explained, “the plantations down along the coast that grow export crops are owned by generals and rich men who control the government. A big part of their profit comes from the fact that we peasants are so poor we are forced to migrate to the plantations each year and work for miserable wages in order to survive.” Were she and other Guatemalan peasants to become self-reliant, they “would never work on the plantations again”—an indication of the severe threat rabbit-raising posed.
This woman’s remarks indicated who Washington’s real enemy was in Guatemala, and throughout the world. The U.S. government was not opposed merely to “Communists,” real or imagined, during the Cold War, and in Colombia its policies have helped ruin—or end—the lives of millions of destitute individuals beyond the FARC’s top officials. Of course, Sunday’s Post article ignores this fact, portraying the struggle as one between the U.S. government and its Colombian allies on one side, and aggressive guerrillas on the other. But we can expect little else from this mythmaker of record.