Still Seeing Red
The CIA fosters death squads in Colombia
by Frank Smyth
The Progressive magazine, June 1998
Back in 1989, the CIA built its first counter-narcotics center
in the basement of its Directorate of Operations headquarters
in Langley, Virginia. Since then, the newly renamed "crime
and narcotics center" has increased four-fold, says CIA spokeswoman
Anya Guilsher. She says she cannot comment about any specific
counter-drug operations, except to say that the agency is now
conducting them worldwide.
The CIA was established in 1947 as a front-line institution
against the Soviet Union. Today, nine years after the Berlin Wall
fell, the agency is seeking a new purpose to justify its $26.7
billion annual subsidy. Besides the crime and narcotics center,
the CIA now runs a counterterrorism center, a center to stymie
the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and even an
ecology center to monitor global warming and weather patterns,
including El Nifio.
George J. Tenet, the Clinton Administration's new Director
of Central Intelligence, recently told Congress the United States
faces new threats in "this post-Cold War world" that
are "uniquely challenging for U.S. interests."
But the CIA remains a Cold War institution. Many officers,
especially within the clandestine operations wing, still see communists
behind every door. They maintain warm relationships with rightist
military forces worldwide that are engaging in
Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist, has written about the
CIA or drug trafficking in The Village Voice, The New Republic,
The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Jane's Intelligence
Review. He has also contributed to "Crime in Uniform: Corruption
and Impunity in Latin America," published jointly by the
Cochabomba-based Accion Andina and the Amsterdam-based Transnational
widespread human-rights abuses. These ties conflict with the
agency's putative goal of fighting drugs, since many of the rightist
allies are themselves involved in the drug trade.
Take Colombia. In the name of fighting drugs, the CIA financed
new military intelligence networks there in 1991. But the new
networks did little to stop drug traffickers. Instead, they incorporated
illegal paramilitary groups into their ranks and fostered death
squads. These death squads killed trade unionists, peasant leaders,
human-rights monitors, journalists, and other suspected "subversives."
The evidence, including secret Colombian military documents, suggests
that the CIA may be more interested in fighting a leftist resistance
movement than in combating drugs.
Thousands of people have been killed by the death squads,
and the killings go on. In April, one of Colombia's foremost human-rights
lawyers, Eduardo Umaha Mendoza, was murdered in his office. Umaha's
clients included leaders of Colombia's state oil workers' union.
Reuters estimated that 10,000 people attended his funeral in Bogota.
Human-rights groups suspect that Umaha's murder may have been
carried out by members of the security forces supporting or operating
in unison with paramilitary forces. At the funeral, Daniel Garcia
Peha, a Colombian government
official who was a friend of Umaha's, told journalists that
before his death Umaha had alerted authorities that state security
officials along with security officers from the state oil company
were planning to kill him.
The killings are mounting at a terrible pace. In February,
a death squad mowed down another leading human-rights activist,
Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo. He had pointed a finger at the military
and some politicians for sponsoring death squads.
"There is a clear, coordinated strategy of targeting
anyone involved in the defense of human rights," says Carlos
Salinas of Amnesty International. "Every statement of unconditional
support by U.S. lawmakers only encourages these kinds of attacks."
A new debate is taking place today between human-rights groups
and the Clinton Administration over U.S. aid to Colombia. The
Clinton Administration has escalated military aid to Colombia
to a record $136 million annually, making Colombia the leading
recipient of U.S. military aid in this hemisphere. Now the Administration
is considering even more, including helicopter gunships.
Colombia did not figure prominently on the world stage back
in late 1990 and early 1991. Germany was in the process of reunification,
Iraq's Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait, and El Salvador
was negotiating an end to its long civil war. But the Bush Administration
was not ignoring Colombia. It was increasing the number of U.S.
Army Special Forces (or Green Beret) advisers there. And the CIA
was increasing the number of agents in its station in Bogota-which
soon became the biggest station in Latin America.
"There was a very big debate going on [over how to allocate]
money for counter-narcotics operations in Colombia," says
retired Colonel James S. Roach Jr., the U.S. military attache
and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) country liaison in Bogota
in the early 1990s. "The U.S. was looking for a way to try
to help. But if you're not going to be combatants [yourselves],
you have to find something to do."
The United States formed an inter-agency commission to study
Colombia's military intelligence system. The team included representatives
of the U.S. embassy's Military Advisory Group in Bogota, the U.S.
Southern Command in Panama, the DIA, and the CIA, says Roach,
who was among the military officers representing the DIA. The
commission, according to a 1996 letter from the Defense Department
to Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, recommended
changes in Colombia's military intelligence networks to make them
"more efficient and effective."
In May 1991, Colombia completely reorganized its military
intelligence networks "based on the recommendations made
by the commission of U.S. military advisers," according to
the secret Colombian reorganization order, which Human Rights
Watch made public in 1996. The U.S. commission of advisers backed
the reorganization plan ostensibly as part of the drug war. Yet
the secret Colombian order itself made no mention anywhere in
its sixteen pages or corresponding appendices about gathering
intelligence against drug traffickers. Instead, the order instructed
the new intelligence networks to focus on leftist guerrillas or
"the armed subversion."
The forty-one new intelligence networks created by the order
directed their energies toward unarmed civilians suspected of
supporting the guerrillas. One of these intelligence networks,
in the oil refinery town of Barrancabermeja in Colombia's strife-torn
Magdalena Valley, assassinated at least fifty-seven civilians
in the first two years of operation. Victims included the president,
vice president, and treasurer of the local transportation workers
union, two leaders of the local oil workers union, one leader
of a local peasant workers union, two human-rights monitors, and
Colonel Roach says the Defense Department never intended the
intelligence networks to foster death squads. But Roach says he
can't speak for the CIA, which was more involved in the intelligence
reorganization and even financed the new networks directly.
"The CIA set up the clandestine nets on their own,"
says Roach. "They had a lot of money. It was kind of like
Santa Claus had arrived."
The secret Colombian order instructed the military to maintain
plausible deniability from the networks and their crimes. Retired
military officers and other civilians were to act as clandestine
liaisons between the networks and the military commanders. All
open communications "must be avoided." There "must
be no written contracts with informants or civilian members of
the network; everything must be agreed to orally." And the
entire chain of command "will be covert and compartmentalized,
allowing for the necessary flexibility to cover targets of interest."
Facts about the new intelligence networks became known only
after four former agents in Barrancabermeja began testifying in
1993 about the intelligence network there. What compelled them
to come forward? Each said the military was actively trying to
kill them in order to cover up the network and its crimes. By
then the military had "disappeared" four other ex-agents
in an attempt to keep the network and its operations secret.
Since the military was already trying to kill them, the agents
decided that testifying about the network and its crimes might
help keep them alive. Saulo Segura was one ex-agent who took this
gamble. But rather than prosecuting his superiors over his and
others' testimony, Colombia's judicial system charged and imprisoned
Segura. In a 1996 interview in La Modelo, Bogota's maximum-security
jail, Segura told me he hadn't killed anyone and that his job
within the network was limited to renting office space and handling
money. Segura then glanced about nervously before adding, "I
hope they don't kill me."
Two months later, on Christmas Eve, Segura was murdered inside
his cellblock. His murder remains unsolved; the whereabouts of
the other three ex-agents is
unknown. No Colombian officers have been prosecuted for ordering
the Barrancabermeja crimes.
In 1994, Amnesty International accused the Pentagon of allowing
anti-drug aid to be diverted to counterinsurgency operations that
lead to human-rights abuses. U.S. officials including General
Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton Administration drug czar who was
then in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, publicly denied it.
But back at the office, McCaffrey ordered an internal audit. It
found that thirteen out of fourteen Colombian army units that
Amnesty had specifically cited for abuses had previously received
either U.S. training or arms. Amnesty made these documents public
in 1996. (Full disclosure: I provided the internal U.S. documents
to Amnesty; Winifred Tate and I provided the secret Colombian
order to Human Rights Watch.)
Colombian military officers, along with some of their supporters
in the United States, say the line between counterinsurgency and
counter-drug operations in Colombia is blurry, as Colombia's leftist
guerrillas are more involved today than ever before in drug trafficking.
Indeed, they are. For years, about two-thirds of the forces
of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and about
half the forces of the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been
involved in the drug trade, mainly protecting drug crops, according
to both U.S. intelligence and leftist sources.
Colombia's rightist paramilitary groups, however, are even
more involved in the drug trade, and they have been for a decade.
Back in 1989, Colombia's civilian government outlawed all paramilitary
organizations after a government investigation had found that
the Medellin drug cartel led by the late Pablo Escobar had taken
over the largest ones.
At the time, Escobar and his associates were fiercely resisting
U.S. pressure on the Colombian government to make them stand trial
in the United States on trafficking charges. They took control
of Colombia's strongest paramilitaries and used them to wage a
terrorist campaign against the state. These same paramilitaries,
based in the Magdalena Valley, were behind a wave of violent crimes,
including the 1989 bombing of Avianca flight HK-1803, which killed
111 passengers. Investigators concluded that Israeli, British,
and other mercenaries, led by Israeli Reserve Army Lieutenant
Colonel Yair Klein, had trained the perpetrators in such techniques.
In February, Klein and three other former Israeli reserve officers,
along with two Colombians, were indicted in absentia for their
alleged involvement in these crimes.
The CIA bears some responsibility for the proliferation of
drug trafficking in the Magdalena Valley since it supported rightist
counterinsurgency forces who run drugs. But the CIA has also helped
combat drug trafficking in Colombia. In other words, different
units within the agency have pursued contrary goals.
The ClA's most notable success in the drug war was the 1995-1996
operations that, with the help of the DEA, apprehended all top
seven leaders of Colombia's Cali drug cartel. One of those apprehended
was Henry Loaiza, also known as "The Scorpion," a top
Colombian paramilitary leader. He secretly collaborated with the
CIA-backed intelligence networks to carry out assassinations against
A young, techno-minded CIA team led the Cali bust. Heading
up the team was a woman. "I'm just a secretary," she
protested when I called her on the phone at the time.
But despite her denials, she was not unappreciated. On September
19, 1995, a courier delivered a white box to her at the U.S. Embassy
in Bogota. I happened to be in the lobby at the time. She opened
the box to find roses inside. They had been sent by the head of
Colombia's National Police, General Rosso Jose Serrano.
Most other agency counter-drug operations, however, have yielded
The net result of CIA involvement in Colombia has not been
to slow down the drug trade. Mainly, the agency has fueled a civil
war that has taken an appalling toll on civilians.
Colombia is not the only place where these two elements of
the CIA have clashed with each other.
In Peru, the CIA coordinates all of its counter-drug efforts
through the office of the powerful intelligence chief, Vladimiro
Montesinos-even though DEA special agents have produced no fewer
than forty-nine different intelligence reports about Montesinos
and his suspected narcotics smuggling. It is no wonder that agency
counter-drug efforts in Peru have failed.
In Guatemala, the agency has played a strong role in both
counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations. As in Peru, the
agency has worked with Guatemala's office of military intelligence,
even though DEA special agents have formally accused a whopping
thirty-one Guatemalan military officers of drug trafficking. Despite
the CIA's efforts, not even one suspected officer has been tried.
The Clinton Administration finally cut off CIA counterinsurgency
aid to Guatemala in 1995 after revelations that an agency asset,
Guatemalan Army Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, had been involved
in the murder of Michael DeVine, a U.S. innkeeper, as well as
in the murder of Efram Bamaca Velasquez, a leftist guerrilla who
was married to the Harvard-educated lawyer, Jennifer Harbury.
But the Clinton Administration has allowed the CIA to continue
providing counter-drug aid to Guatemala.
Most of the major drug syndicates so far uncovered by the
DEA have enjoyed direct links to Guatemalan military officers.
One of the largest syndicates, exposed in 1996, "reached
many parts of the military," according to the State Department.
This year, the State Department reports, "Guatemala is
the preferred location in Central America for storage and transshipment
of South American cocaine destined for the United States via Mexico."
Mexico is the next stop on the CIA counter-narcotics train.
The fact that Mexico's former top counter-drug officer, General
Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was himself recently indicted for drug
trafficking, raises the same old question: What is U.S. policy
really all about? Before Gutierrez was busted, the DEA thought
he was dirty, while U.S. officials, like General McCaffrey, still
sporting Cold War lenses, thought he was clean and vouched for
him shortly before his indictment.
Some DEA special agents question the CIA's priorities in counter-drug
programs. Human-rights groups remain suspicious of the same programs
for different reasons.
"There is no magic line dividing counter-narcotics and
counter-insurgency operations," says Salinas of Amnesty International.
"Given the current deterioration of human rights in Mexico,"
an expanded role in counter-drug operations by the United States
"could lead to a green light for further violations."
Testifying before Congress in March, the CIA Inspector General,
Frederick R. Hitz, finally addressed allegations that the CIA
once backed Cold War allies like the Nicaraguan contras even though
they ran drugs. Hitz admitted that, at the very least, there have
been "instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent
fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the
contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking
activity, or take action to resolve the allegations."
What CIA officials have yet to admit is that the agency is
still doing the same thing today.
and Third World