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 Institute.

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 one journalist.

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 suspected leftists.

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 few breakthroughs.

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.


CIA and Third World