A Historian Instructs Peace Negotiators on U.S. Role in Colombian Civil War
Colombia is seemingly a “no-go” zone for most U. S. media and even for many critics of U.S. overseas misadventures. Yet the United States was in the thick of things in Colombia while hundreds of thousands were being killed, millions were forced off land, and political repression was the rule.
Bogota university professor and historian Renán Vega Cantor has authored a study of U.S. involvement in Colombia. He records words and deeds delineating U.S. intervention there over the past century. The impact of Vega’s historical report, released on February 11, stems from a detailing of facts. Communicating them to English-language readers will perhaps stir some to learn more and to act.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government have been at war for half a century. Vega’s study appears within the context of negotiations in Cuba to end that conflict. Negotiators on both sides agreed in August, 2014 to form a “Historical Commission on Conflict and its Victims” to enhance discussions on victims of conflict. The Commission explored “multiple causes” of the conflict, “the principal factors and conditions facilitating or contributing to its persistence,” and consequences. Commission members sought “clarification of the truth” and establishment of responsibilities. On February 11 the Commission released an 809 – page report offering a diversity of wide-ranging conclusions. Vega was one of 12 analysts contributing individual studies to the report.
Having looked into “links between imperialist meddling and both counterinsurgency and state terrorism,” he claims the United States “is no mere outside influence, but is a direct actor in the conflict owing to prolonged involvement.” And, “U. S. actions exist in a framework of a relationship of subordination. … [T]he block in power had an active role in reproducing subordination, because, (Vega quotes Colombia Internacional, vol 65), ‘there existed for more than 100 years a pact among the national elites for whom subordination led to economic and political gains.’” As a result, “Not only in the international sphere, but in the domestic one too, the United States, generally, has the last word.”
In 1903, after 50 years of minor interventions, the United States secured Panama’s independence from Colombia as a prelude to building its canal there. As a sop to wounded Colombian feelings and to secure oil- extraction rights, the United States paid $25 million to Colombia under the Urrutia-Thompson Treaty of 1921. Colombia that year sent 72 percent of its exports to the United States, thanks mostly to U.S. banana and oil producers and U.S. lenders.
Vega highlights Colombia’s “native” brand of counterinsurgency. Under the flag of anti-communism, the Colombian Army violently suppressed striking oil, dock and railroad workers. On December 6, 1929 at the behest of the U.S. United Fruit Company, that Army murdered well over 1000 striking banana workers near Santa Marta. According to Minister of War Ignacio Rengifo, whom Vega quotes, Colombia faced a “new and terrible danger … The ominous seed of communism is being sprinkled on Colombian beaches [which] now begin to germinate in our soil and produce fruits of decomposition and revolt.” Having investigated those events, Representative Jorge Eliécer Gaitán told Colombia’s Congress in 1929 that, “It was a question of resolving a problem of wages by means of bullets from government machine gunners, because the workers were Colombian and the Company was American. [After all,] the government has murderous shrapnel for Colombians and a trembling knee on the ground before American gold.”
From the late 1930’s on, Gaitán and the left wing of the Liberal Party were leading mobilizations for agrarian and labor rights. With the advent of Conservative Party rule in 1946, repression with anti-communist overtones led to thousands of killings. By then U.S. military missions and instructors were operating in Colombia. U.S. military units no longer needed specific permission to enter Colombia. Colombia and other Latin American nations in 1947 signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, a military security agreement. Then on April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated.
Colombian cities erupted in destruction and chaos. Within two weeks, 3000 died. Prompted by U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the Colombian government blamed communists for Gaitán’s killing. Marshall was in Bogota that day presiding over a hemisphere-wide meeting at which, for cold war purposes, the Pan-American Union became the Organization of American States. Over the next ten years, war between the Colombian Army and peasant insurgents took nearly 200,000 lives. Most insurgents were affiliated with the Liberal Party but were labelled as communists.
The two nations signed a military assistance agreement in 1952 in response to an alleged “communist conspiracy.” Colombia was the only Latin American nation to send troops to the Korean War. Returning home, “Korea Battalion” veterans attacked insurgents and strikers. Colombia established its “School of Lancers” in 1955, modeled on and facilitated by the U.S. Army Ranger School. That year, with U.S. advisers on hand, Colombian troops used napalm in an unsuccessful effort to eradicate peasant insurgents in Tolima department. In 1959 U.S. military advisers secured President Alberto Lleras Camargo’s approval for a helicopter-equipped, 1500 – person counter-insurgency unit. A “secret CIA team” visited military detachments and inspected security archives to expand counterinsurgency and psychological warfare capabilities.
Yet rural uprisings continued, and, increasingly, insurgents were identifying themselves as communist. In response U.S. General William Yarborough and a U.S. Special Forces team visited four Colombian army brigades in 1962. They were there “to evaluate the ‘effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations’” and plan U.S. assistance. The U.S. army soon stepped up training and technical assistance, and provided new equipment, especially helicopters. Significantly, the Yarborough report, in a “Secret Supplement,” proposed that the “Colombian state organize paramilitary groups in order to ‘execute paramilitary activities like sabotage and/or terrorism against known partisans of communism. [The report emphasized that,] The United States must support this.’” It recommended new “interrogation techniques for ‘softening up’ prisoners.”
The FARC did not yet exist. In 1964, however, the Colombian army sent 16,000 Colombian troops into small-farmer communities in the Marquetalia region of southern Tolima. The U.S. government provided $500,000, and U.S. advisers were on hand as soldiers descended upon a relative handful of rebels. They escaped and within weeks established themselves as the FARC.
Continuing, Vega details:
* The subsequent flow of U.S. equipment and funding to the Colombian military
* Training of 10,446 Colombian soldiers – torture techniques included – at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas between 1946 and 2004 (5239 between 1999 and 2012).
* S. launching of Colombia’s FBI-like police and intelligence agency known as the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) in 1960
* Military and police assistance costing $10.7 billion between 1999 and 2007 under U.S. Plan Colombia. Its implementation caused the FARC in 2002 to end peace negotiations with the government.
* Use of the U.S. “drug war” as a new pretext for military aid, beginning with the Reagan administration
* Collusion between CIA teams and Colombian drug lords
* Deployment of U.S. soldiers and military contractors in Colombia
* Impunity for U.S. personnel accused of civilian killings and anti-women violence
* Establishment of seven U.S. military bases in Colombia in 2009
* S. use of Colombian personnel to train security forces in U.S. client states throughout the world
*High – technology intelligence equipment supplied for targeting FARC detachments and leaders, often with direct U.S. participation
The U. S. protégée DAS monitored opposition politicians, journalists, unionists and government officials, including Supreme Court justices. Adverse publicity led to its dissolution in 2011. The DAS had used paramilitaries to murder many of those under surveillance. Vega says U.S. embassy officials identified civilians for DAS targeting.
Vega reports on the 5000 or so civilians whom soldiers killed and then dressed in FARC uniforms to make them look like casualties of war. The scandal of the so-called “false positives” broke in 2008. It came about in part because extra U.S. funding was available to military units demonstrating effectiveness. The way to do that was to exhibit a high number of FARC casualties.
Vega quotes from the U.S. Institute of Policy Studies: “Everything indicates that support from the CIA or U.S. Special Forces to paramilitaries was the tool allowing them to be consolidated like never before.” He cites a “quantitative study” of municipalities showing that proximity to military bases receiving U.S. military assistance was associated with increased numbers of paramilitary attacks against civilians. From the bases, paramilitaries secured armaments, logistics, and intelligence, plus access to “helicopters or airplanes acquired from the United States.”
Having reported on what happened between the United States and Colombia, Vega then drew conclusions. Their essentials appear below in translation:
“During much of the twentieth century, Colombian governments and dominant classes continued a strategic alliance with the United States that was mutually beneficial to both sides …”
“A native counterinsurgency exists in Colombia nurtured on anti-communism that preceded the advent of the counterinsurgency doctrine. Anti-communism was renewed and integrated with the latter for the sake of U.S. geo-political interests during the cold war.”
“U. S. interference in the social and armed conflict in our country has been constant and direct since the end of the 1940’s …”
“Successive U.S. governments of the last seven decades are directly responsible for the perpetuation of armed conflict in Colombia. They have promoted counterinsurgency in all its manifestations and stimulated and trained the armed forces in their methods of torture and elimination of those seen as internal enemies …”
“The Yarborough mission of 1962 was directly responsible for the consolidation of paramilitarism in Colombia … “
“The United States has contributed to militarization of Colombian society through financing and support of the Colombian state and its armed forces …”
“The United States shares direct responsibility for thousands of assassinations committed by the armed forces and paramilitaries … It sponsored military brigades dedicated to that type of crime and backed private groups of assassins.”
“Direct U. S. control of DAS from the time of its formation to its recent dissolution makes that country responsible in part for the numerous crimes committed by that security organism against the population, [especially] unionists and social leaders …”
“In promoting the so-called drug war, the United States in a direct way participated in the destruction of the small-farmer and indigenous economy all over Colombia …”
“By virtue of agreements between the United States and Colombia, privatization of war promoted by Plan Colombia and the new counterinsurgency encourages utilization of mercenaries in our country’s internal war. They commit crimes … with full impunity. This encourages the “culture of impunity” characterizing the Colombian armed forces.”
“Since the late 1940’s state terrorism in Colombia has been promoted not only through military and financial support from the United States but also by our own dominant classes intent upon preserving their power and wealth and rejecting basic economic and social reforms of a re-distributive nature.”
“Some firms based on U. S. capital, like Chiquita Brands, having financed and sponsored paramilitary groups, are directly responsibility for hundreds of crimes …”
Reflections from a northern vantage point are in order. First, it’s not clear that the U. S. government, a force for war in Colombia, will accept a peace settlement reflecting FARC ideas of peace with social justice. Surely the time is now for fair-minded North Americans to pay attention to and get involved with solidarity efforts on behalf of the peace process and justice itself in Colombia. Secondly, while the thrust of Professor Vega’s study should be understandable by one and all, appreciation of the Colombian conflict as struggle between social classes will help with a full understanding and with movement toward action.
W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.
Source: http://www.rebelion.org/docs/195465.pdf (The author translated.)