Nov. 16, 2001
While the nation’s media is fixated on Afghanistan, the Bush Administration is quietly extending its “war on terrorism” into our own hemisphere. And a lot of it looks like a dark redux of the past.
In late September, Francis X. Taylor, head of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, told the press that “Our strategy in this hemisphere is similar to our strategy around the world, and it involves the use of all the elements of our national power.” Taylor’s target was Colombia’s two insurgent groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army, plus the right-wing paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces (UNO).
Taylor said that the three groups would “get the same treatment as any other terrorist group in terms of our interest in going after them,” adding this would include, “Where appropriate—as we are doing in Afghanistan—the use of military power.”
But the US has no intention of going after the paramilitaries. To do so would challenge the Colombian armed forces, our major ally in the 37-year old civil war. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports, “There is detailed, abundant, and compelling evidence of continuing close ties between the Colombian Army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations.”
According to Colombian rights groups, the “paras” and the Army are responsible for 85% of the 30,000 annual extra-judicial killings in Colombia. In 2001 alone, the”paras” have murdered 118 trade unionists and “disappeared” another 66. While the Army claims it takes an “even-handed” approach to the three groups, a US intelligence report by the RAND Corporation documents that last year the Army killed 2,677 FARC members and 76 “paras,” even though UNO outnumbers FARC almost two to one.
The only thing the US has done about the “paras” is to cancel the visas of five fundraisers.
While the US and the Colombian Army claim to focus on the guerrillas because the latter are involved with narcotics, the leader of UNO, Carlos Castano, freely admits that 70 percent of the organization’s income comes from drugs. The RAND study says the rest “comes from extortion.” That’s a nicely balanced budget for an ally. And “ally” status is what UNO is headed for. When Vice-President Dick Cheney said last February that in the fight against terrorism “You’ve got to deal with some bad guys,” he had the Colombian “paras” in mind.
None of this has anything to do with fighting terrorism. The escalation of US presence started long before Sept. 11, with devastating effects on Colombian society. The Colombian Commission of Jurists found that since U.S. aid increased in July 2000, politically motivated killings have jumped from 12 to 20 per day, and the number of internal refugees is now two million.
According to the monthly publication, Counterpunch, the blueprint for intervention was drawn up more than a year ago by the US Air Force’s think tank, the RAND Corporation. RAND argues that the US faces a choice of either escalating its commitment “to include perhaps an operational role for US forces” or face a “serious loss of credibility” in its efforts to control terrorism in the region. Reviving a version of the old Southeast Asia “Domino Theory,” RAND argues that a failure for the US to act militarily would result in “spillover effect,” with terrorism spreading into neighboring countries.
According to RAND, efforts to control the “paras” is “unwise and shortsighted,” and the group should instead be reorganized into a “supervised network of self-defense organizations” a la Guatemala. Those particular “self-defense organizations” were responsible for a significant portion of the 200,000 plus civilian deaths in Guatemala’s long civil war.
Unbeknown to most Americans, the RAND study is already being implemented. While the White House claims there are only 500 military personal and 300 civilians in Colombia, Stratfor, a global intelligence company, says the figure is really 2,000. There may indeed be only 500 US soldiers in Colombia, but the Pentagon has just put 400 military advisors into Eloy Alfaro Airport in Manta, Equador. The airport borders Colombia, and the advisors’ mission is surveillance.
Some of these Americans are doing more than looking. Green Berets are in the field with one Colombian battalion and are training three more. And, according to the Miami Herald, US personal, armed with M-16s, engaged in a firefight with FARC last Feb. 18 near the town of Curillo in Southern Colombia. The reason no one has heard about this is because the Americans were working for a private contractor that hires former US military personal.
When the Examiner reported last year that US-supplied helicopters and anti-personal bombs killed 19 peasants and wounded 25 others in the town of Santo Domingo, what was not known at the time is that Americans civilians working for Air Scan International of Florida, on contract for Occidental Petroleum Company, served as spotters for the aircraft.
Private US companies like Air Scan, Military Professionals Resources Inc., Virginia Electronics, and DynCorp supply pilots, bodyguards, and security services, but unlike the US military, are not subject to congressional oversight. Privatizing the war has become a very handy way to hide the level of US involvement.
Ripples from Sept. 11 are already spreading in Latin America. Militaries in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have begun beefing up to join the “war on terrorism,” a worrisome development that could undermine fragile regional peace agreements. With the White House keeping the clamps on the news, and with intervention obscured by a screen of privacy, we may end up in a quagmire without any idea how it happened.
Let’s see, American advisors taking sides in a civil war fought thousands of miles away in the jungles. Have we been here before? Is this the “new war on terrorism” or a rerun of Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua?