Inside U.S. Counterinsurgency:
A Soldier Speaks
by Stan Goff
iF magazine, November / December 1999
Tolemaida is hot. The whole Sumapaz River Valley is hotter
Steep, semi-arid, plenty of thorns and mosquitoes, it's the
perfect place for the Lancero School, where the Colombian military
runs its toughest course of training and assessment. About 70
miles south of Bogota, Tolemaida is also home of Colombian Special
Forces, kind of like the Fort Bragg of Colombia. I'd been married
for the second time for only 10 days on Oct. 22, 1992, when 7th
Special Forces sent me there. c Bill Clinton was campaigning for
the presidency against George Bush, and I remember the Delta guys
who were billeted alongside us shrieking and carrying on when
the election results came through. "That faggot lovin' draft
dodger! Shit!" Delta was there training a select group of
Colombian soldiers for "close quarter battle," which
means fighting inside buildings during hostage situations and
the like. We were training two battalions of Colombian Special
Forces in night helicopter operations and counterinsurgency tactics.
Of course, we were there helping the Colombian army to defend
democracy against leftist guerrillas who were the foes of democracy.
It mattered not that only a tiny fraction of the population had
the means to recruit and promote candidates or that terror stalked
I'm not being cynical. I'm just awake now. It took a couple
Growing up, l lived in a neighborhood where everyone worked
in the same plant, McDonnell-Douglas, where F-4 Phantoms were
built to provide close air support for the troops in Vietnam.
My dad and mom both riveted, working on the center fuselage
assembly. I just understood that it was my duty to fight the godless
collectivist menace of communism.
So, I joined the Army seven months after I squeaked through
high school. In 1970, I volunteered for the airborne infantry
and for Vietnam.
In the years that followed, l found out that I didn't know
communism from cobblestones. AII I saw in Vietnam was a race war
being conducted by an invading army, and very poor people were
taking the brunt of it.
I left the Army after my first hitch, but poverty coaxed me
back in 1977. Soon, I had stepped onto the slippery slope of a
military career. But I didn't like garrison soldiering and I did
like to travel. So, it was inevitable that I ended up in Special
Operations, first with the Rangers, later with Special Forces.
In 1980, I went to Panama. The fences there separated us from
the "Zonies" -- the slum dwellers who lived in the Canal
Zone. After that, l went to El Salvador, Guatemala and a host
of other dirt-poor countries.
Over and over, the fact that we as a nation seemed to take
sides with the rich against the poor started to penetrate -- first
my preconceptions, then my rationalizations, and finally, my consciousness.
Now I am the Viet Cong.
The former Special Forces guy posing as a political officer
didn't even try to hide his real job at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala.
"You with the political section?" I asked. l knew
what he did. l was trying to be discreet.
"I'm a fuckin' CIA agent," he responded.
The CIA man had adopted me out of friendship for a mutual
acquaintance, one of my work associates with whom he had served
in Vietnam. The CIA man told me where to get the best steak, the
best ceviche, the best music, the best martinis. He liked martinis.
We stopped off one afternoon at the E1 Jaguar Bar in the lobby
of the El Camino Hotel, a mile up Avenida de la Reforma from the
U.S. Embassy. He drank eight martinis in the first hour.
The CIA man began spontaneously relating how he had participated
in the execution of a successful ambush "up north,"
two weeks earlier.
"North" was in the Indian areas: Quiche and Peten,
where government troops were waging a scorched-earth campaign
against Mayans considered sympathetic to leftist guerrillas.
He was elated. "Best fuckin' thing I got to do since
"You're talkin' kinda loud," I reminded him, thinking
this must be pretty sensitive stuff.
"Fuck them!" he shot a circumferential glare. "We
own this motherfucker!" The other patrons looked down at
their table tops. The CIA man was big and manifestly drunk.
I should have known better, but I mentioned a Mayan schoolteacher
who had just been assassinated by the esquadrones de muertos.
It had been in the newspapers. The teacher had worked for the
Agency for International Development.
My point was that it made the United States look bad, when
these loose cannons pulled stunts like that. The impression was
left that the U.S. government tacitly approved of assassinations
by continuing to support Guatemala's government.
"He was a communist," stated the CIA man, without
even pausing to toss down his dozenth martini. His eyes were getting
that weird, stony, not-quite-synchronized look.
So that's how it was. I never thought to thank him for peeling
that next layer of innocence off my eyes.
I had to take the CIA man's car keys from him that night.
He wanted to drive to some whorehouse in Zone 1.
When we left the bar, he couldn't find his car in the parking
lot, so he pulled his pistol on the attendant and threatened to
shoot him on the spot. He accused the attendant of being part
of a car theft gang.
"I know these motherfuckers," he glared. The attendant
was almost in tears, when I wrested the pistol from my colleague's
We proceeded to find his car in the lot one block away. That's
when he started talking about driving to his favorite bordello.
"Gimme the keys!" he bellowed, as I danced away
"I'll kick your ass," he said.
I reached into my pocket and grabbed three coins. When he
lunged at me again, I tossed the coins into a street drain with
a conspicuous jingle.
"There's the keys," I said.
He peered myopically into the drain for a moment, then tried
to train his eyes on me. I dodged his staggering assault like
he was a child. He almost fell, and I found myself wondering how
I could possibly carry him.
He turned abruptly, like he'd just forgotten something, and
tottered quietly away. I dropped his keys off at the political
section the next day, with a note explaining where his car was.
Fred Chapin was the U.S. ambassador in Guatemala. He was famous
for his ability to drink a bottle of Scotch and still give a lucid
interview in fluent Spanish, before his bodyguards carried him
up to his room at la residencia and poured him into bed.
Chapin was credited with a well-known quote in Foreign Service
circles: "I only regret that I have but one liver to give
for my country."
Embassies are collections of these idiosyncratic characters.
Mauricio, another one of these exotic individuals, was the
chief Guatemalan investigator assigned to work with the Security
Section at the embassy.
Dissipated to a fault, even the thugs on the bodyguard details
gave him a wide berth. His reputation as a sadistic former death
squad member was well known.
His history was on him, like an aura of impersonal decay.
He made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. "If you
need to find something out, just send Mauricio" was the provincial
wisdom at Security.
Langhorn Motley, Reagan's special ambassador to Central America,
came to Guatemala to see what was being done with U.S. money,
other than aboriginal genocide and the elimination of Bolshevik
school teachers, of course.
I was assigned as a member of his security for a trip to Nebaj,
a tiny Indian hamlet near the Mexican border. We were going to
inspect a hospital.
There were no roads into Nebaj, so a helicopter was coordinated.
When we finally arrived in Nebaj, the pilot and crew chief were
in an animated conversation, both referring again and again to
the fuel gauge.
Out of the helicopter, we were escorted through the dirt streets
to an open-bed 2 1/2-ton truck by a corpulent, European-looking
Guatemalan lieutenant colonel. The villagers stood in silence
as we passed.
Two small children, maybe three years old, burst into hysterical
tears when I walked too near them with my CAR-15 assault rifle.
I tried not to speculate about their reaction or its antecedents.
The truck took us to a dusty stone foundation. Nothing more.
No rooms, no walls, no nothing. This was the hospital. Motley
turned to me and said, "This is a fuckin' white elephant."
Later, the lieutenant colonel sat us in a room at his headquarters
and trotted in two "former guerrillas." One was a skinny
old man. The other was a pregnant woman, around 25 years old.
They told us dutifully that they had been reformed by their
new-found understanding of the duplicity of the communists and
by the humanitarian treatment they had received at the hands of
It was a flat-eyed, canned recital, but it seemed to please
the lieutenant colonel who sat there with a benevolent half-smile,
glancing from them to us and back, judging their performance,
assessing our reaction.
The skin of the two demonstration Indians almost moved from
underneath with an arid, copper-tongued terror. The whole place
smelled like murder to me.
Reporters in El Salvador tended to hang out at the pool in
the Camino Real Hotel, with transistor radios pressed to their
I was chatting up a member of the press corps one day, having
lunch at the Camino. Around 30, she worked for the Chicago Tribune.
She was just terribly excited because she had been allowed
aboard a helicopter the week before, that flew into Morazan, a
stronghold of leftist guerrillas. She got to see some bang-bang
and was eternally grateful to the Embassy for arranging it for
Would I mind, she asked, taking her out for coffee or a drink
somewhere in the barrios sometime? She would never think of doing
I was disillusioned. With her anemic weariness, she annihilated
my concept of reporters as eccentric fearless old salts, obsessed
with getting at the real story.
Bruce Hazelwood was a member of the Milgroup at the U.S. Embassy,
like me a former member of the counter-terrorist unit at Fort
Bragg. Hazelwood oversaw training management in the Estado Mayor,
Over the past five years, he had earned an enviable reputation
as a productive liaison with the Salvadoran military. He told
me off the cuff once that his biggest problem was getting the
officers to quit stealing.
Good-looking, strawberry blonde, freckled, charming, Hazelwood
also was a favorite of the young women with the press corps.
I went with him and an Embassy entourage to visit an orphanage
at Sonsonate. The women from the press pool absolutely doted on
him. He rewarded them with tons of mischievous magnetism.
Billy Zumwalt, also with the Milgroup, a fellow with Elvis-like
looks, did the same thing at a party. The women from the press
would skin up alongside him, asking how he thought progress was
coming with the human rights situation. He would ask them how
it seemed to them.
Well, they'd say, there were only a few battlefield executions
of prisoners still taking place, according to rumors, but they'd
heard nothing else. We can't expect them to come around overnight,
now, can we?
Would you like to go dancing at an all night club later? You
know where one is? I know where they all are, he'd tell them.
Zumwalt told me at a bar once that he was training the finest
right-wing death squads in the world.
The reporters at the Camino Real hired Salvadoran rich kids
as informants and factotums. R was very important that they be
educated, English-speaking kids, 20 to 2 5 years old, who could
keep the reporters abreast of rumors and happenings in the capital.
But the rich kids were as far from the lives of average Salvadorans
as were most of the reporters.
In the street, I saw an old woman dragging herself down the
sidewalk with a gangrenous leg, a crazy man shriveled in a corner,
bone-skinny kids who played music for coins with a pipe and a
On the bus one day in downtown San Salvador, a blind man came
begging, and people who could ill afford it gave him a coin. These
people were callused, very modestly dressed, with Indian still
in their cheeks.
To the slick, manicured, round-eyed, well-to-do, the poor
and the beggars were invisible, as invisible as the blackened
carboneros, the worm-glutted market babies, the brooding teens
with raggedy clothes, prominent ribs and red eyes glaring out
of the spotty shade on street corners.
They have to be invisible so they can be ignored. They have
to be subhuman so they can be killed.
I was reminded of the goats at the Special Forces Medical
Lab. When I was training to be a medic, we used goats as "patient
The goats would be wounded for trauma training, shot for surgical
training, and euthanized over time by the hundreds for each 14-week
Nearly every student upon arrival would begin expressing his
antipathy for the caprine breed. "A goat is a dumb creature,
hard-headed, homely," we'd say.
A few acknowledged what the program was actually doing without
seeking these comfortable rationalizations. A few even became
attached to the animals and grew more depressed with each day.
But most required the anti-caprine ideology to sustain their
As a member of 7th Special Forces, I went to Peru in 1991.
The reasons we went there were manifold and layered, as are many
of our rationales for military activity.
We were committed, as a matter of policy, to encouraging something
called IDAD for Peru. That means Internal Development and Defense.
We were involved in a nominal partnership with Peru in the
"war on drugs." Peru was in our "area of operational
responsibility," and we (our "A" Detachment) were
performing a DFT, meaning a Deployment for Training.
So, we went to Peru to assist in their internal development
and defense, to improve their "counter-drug" capabilities,
and to train ourselves to better train others in our "target
Those were the official reasons. No briefing mentioned another
part of the mission: unofficial wars on indigenous populations.
The course of training we developed for the Peruvians was
basic counterinsurgency. Drugs were never discussed with the Peruvian
officers. It was a sensitive issue - if you get my drift.
We were quartered in an ammunition factory outside the town
of Huaichipa, for the first few weeks. Later, we moved into DIFE,
the Peruvian Special Forces complex at the edge of Barranco district
During the middle of the mission, we camped at the edge of
an Indian village called Santiago de Tuna in the sierra four hours
out of the capital.
Tuna is the Spanish word for prickly pear cactus fruit. Blessed
with Cactus Fruit would be the direct translation. Local Indians
did bring us two sacks full of cactus fruit, which was delicious
and which kept everyone regular.
We became very chummy with the Peruvian officers, some of
whom were easy-going fellows, and some of whom were aggressively
macho. They stuffed us full of anticuchos (spicy, charbroiled
beef heart) and beer every night.
Sometimes the combat veterans would get very drunk and spit
all over us as they relived combat. One major couldn't shut up
about how many people he had killed, and how the sierra was a
land for real men.
A lot of drinking went on. Beer with the officers and soldiers.
Cocktails in the bars; pisco with the Indians, who the soldiers
tried to run off because they were considered a security risk.
One Indian man, in particular, toothless and dissipated, his
blood-red eyes swimming with intoxication, astonished me with
his knowledge of North American Indian history. He even knew the
years of several key battles in our war of annihilation.
Geronimo was a great man, he said. A great medicine man. Great
warrior. A lover of the land.
A Peruvian captain said a strange thing to me, as we walked
past an Indian cemetery during the gut-check forced march out
of Santiago de Tuna.
"Aqui hay los indios amigos." Here are the friend
y Indians. He opened his hand toward the little acre of graves.
Then I was training Colombian Special Forces in Tolemaida
in 1992, my team was there ostensibly to aid the counter-narcotics
We were giving military forces training in infantry counterinsurgency
doctrine. We knew perfectly well, as did the host-nation commanders,
that narcotics was a flimsy cover story for beefing up the capacity
of armed forces who had lost the confidence of the population
through years of abuse. The army also had suffered humiliating
setbacks in the field against the guerrillas.
But I was growing accustomed to the lies. They were the currency
of our foreign policy. Drugs my ass!
Drug czar Barry McCaffrey and Defense Secretary William Cohen
are arguing for massive expansion of military aid to Colombia
Already, Colombia is the third largest recipient of U. S.
military aid in the world, jumping from $85.7 million
in 1997 to $289 million last fiscal year. Press accounts say
about 300 American military personnel and agents are in Colombia
at any one time.
Now, the Clinton administration is seeking $1 billion over
the next two years. The Republican-controlled Congress wants even
more, $ 1.5 billion, including 41 Blackhawk helicopters and a
new intelligence center.
The State Department claims the widened assistance is needed
to fight "an explosion of coca plantations." The solution,
according to the State Department, is a 950-man "counter-narcotics"
But the request is strangely coincident with the recent military
advances of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionario Colombiano (FARC),
the leftist guerrillas who already control 40 percent of the countryside.
In the United States, there is a different kind of preparation
afoot: to prepare the American people for another round of intervention.
McCaffrey -- not coincidentally the former commander of Southcom,
the Theater Command for the U.S. armed forces in Latin America
-- is "admitting" that the lines between counter-narcotics
and counterinsurgency are "beginning to blur" in Colombia.
The reason? The guerrillas are involved in drug trafficking,
a ubiquitous claim that it is repeated uncritically in the press.
There is no differentiation between the FARC and a handful of
less significant groups, nor is there any apparent preoccupation
with citing precise evidence.
When this construct first began to gain wide currency, former
U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Miles Frechette pointed out that there
was no clear evidence to support the claims. His statement was
We were to be prepared.
In Colombia, it is well known that those who profit the most
from the drug trade are members of the armed forces, the police,
government officials, and the "big businessmen" of the
The FARC taxes coca, a far cry from trafficking. The FARC
also taxes gas, peanuts and furniture.
Coca also is the only crop left that keeps the campesinos'
heads above water. The peasant who grows standard crops will have
an average annual income of around $250 a year. With coca, they
can feed a family on $2,000 a year. These are not robber barons.
They are not getting rich.
Once the coca is processed, a kilo fetches about $2,000 in
Colombia. Precautions, payoffs and the first profits bring the
price to $5,500 a kilo by the time it reaches the first gringo
The gringo sells that kilo, now ready for U.S. retail, for
around $20,000. On the street in the United States, that will
break out to $60,000. There are some high rollers at the end of
the Colombian chain, but the real operators are the Americans.
Still, drugs can fill in for the World Communist Conspiracy
only so far. Drugs alone won't justify this vast military build-up.
For that, we also must believe we are defending democracy and
protecting economic reform.
[For more background on Colombia, see Human Right Watch's
Colombia's Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership
and the United States, November 1996.]
The rationales have become more sophisticated since I was
in Guatemala in 1983, way more sophisticated than the blunt instrument
of open war in Vietnam.
Democracy wasn't the goal then. We were stopping communists.
Drugs are a great rationale, too. But with the FARC, we can have
our drug war and our war against communists.
Yet, behind the democratic facade in Colombia are the most
egregious and systematic human rights violations in this hemisphere.
Except in the 40 percent of the country where the FARC holds sway,
right-wing paramilitaries, supported and coordinated by the official
security forces, are involved in a process that would have made
Roberto D'Abuisson or Lucas Garcia or Rios Montt proud: torture,
public decapitations, massacres, rape-murder, destruction of land
and livestock, forced dislocations. Favored targets have been
community and union leaders, political opponents, and their families.
This July, Commander of the Colombian Army, Jorge Enrique
Mora Rangel intervened in the Colombian judicial process to protect
the most powerful paramilitary chief in Colombia, Carlos Castano,
from prosecution for a series of massacres. Castano's organization
is networked for intelligence and operations directly with the
That network was organized and trained in 1991, under the
tutelage of the U.S. Defense Department and the CIA. This was
accomplished under a Colombian military intelligence integration
plan called Order 200-05/91.
The cozy relationship between the Colombian army and Castano
raises another little problem for the drug-war rationale. Castano
is a known drug lord. Not someone who taxes coca growers, but
a drug lord.
There is also the U.S. government's troubling history of fighting
with -- not against-- drug traffickers. Indeed, the CIA seems
to have an irresistible affinity for drug lords.
The Tibetan contras trained by the CIA in the 50's became
the masters of the Golden Triangle heroin empires. In Vietnam
and Cambodia, the CIA worked hand in glove with opium traffickers.
The contra war in Nicaragua was financed, in part, with drug
profits. The ClA's Afghan-Pakistani axis employed in the war against
the Soviets was permeated with drug traffickers. Most recently,
there were the heroin traffickers of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
It might make more sense for McCaffrey to find $1 billion
dollars to declare war on the CIA.
I was in Guatemala in 1983 for the last coup. In 1985, I was
in El Salvador; 1991, Peru; 1992, Colombia.
People don't generally hear from retired Special Forces soldiers.
But people need to hear the facts from someone who can't be called
an effete liberal who never "served" his country.
A liberal will tell you the system isn't working properly.
I will tell you that the system is working exactly the way it's
As an insider on active duty in the armed forces, l saw the
deep dissonance between the official explanations for our policies
and our actual practices: the murder of schoolteachers and nuns
by our surrogates; decimations; systematic rape; the cultivation
I have concluded that the billions in profit and interest
to be made in Colombia and neighboring nations has much more to
do with the itch for stability than any concern about democracy
or cocaine. After reflection on my two decades plus of service,
I am convinced that I only served the richest one percent of my
In every country where I worked, poor people's poverty built
and maintained the wealth of the rich. Sometimes directly, as
labor; sometimes indirectly, when people made fortunes in the
armed security business, which is needed wherever there is so
Often the companies that need protecting are American. Chiquita
is a spiffed-up version of United Fruit, the company that pressed
the United States for the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala in
1954. Pepsi was there for Pinochet in Chile in 1973.
But the top interest now is financial. The United States is
the dominant force in the dominant lending institutions of the
world: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
What the United States exports, more than anything else, is
credit. So the money is made from squeezing the interest out of
What that means in the Third World is that the economic elites
borrow the money, with the government as their front, then bleed
the population to pay the interest. That's done through higher
more regressive taxes, by cutting social services, by selling
off public assets, by co-opting or crushing labor unions, and
If the governments don't do enough, Washington pressures them
to do more. At home, the American people are told that these countries
need "structural adjustment" and "economic reform,"
when the reality is that U.S. foreign policy often is being conducted
on behalf of loan sharks.
The big investors and the big lenders also are the big contributors
to political campaigns in this country, for both Republicans and
Democrats. The press, which is run by a handful of giant corporations,
somberly repeats this rationale again and again, ~ economic reform
Pretty soon, just to sound like we're not totally out of touch
with current events, we catch ourselves saying, yeah ... Colombia,
or Venezuela, or Russia, or Haiti, or South Africa, or whomever
... they need "economic-reform-and-democracy. ~
Though phrased differently, this argument is not new. In 1935,
two-time Medal of Honor winner, retired Gen. Smedley Butler accused
major New York investment banks of using the U.S. Marines as "racketeers"
and "gangsters" to exploit financially the peasants
Later, Butler stated: "The trouble is that when American
dollars earn only six percent over here, they get restless and
go overseas to get 100 percent. The flag follows the dollar and
the soldiers follow the flag.
I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to defend some lousy
investment of the bankers. We should fight only for the defense
of our home and the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is
simply a racket.
"There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the
military gang is blind to. It had its 'finger men' to point out
enemies, its 'muscle men' to destroy enemies, its 'brain men'
to plan war preparations and a 'Big Boss'-super-nationalistic
capitalism," Butler continued.
"I spent 33 years and four months in active military
service in the Marines. I helped make Tampico, Mexico, safe for
the American oil interests in 1914; Cuba and Haiti safe for the
National City Bank boys to collect revenue; helped purify Nicaragua
for the International banking house of Baron Broches in 1909-1912;
helped save the sugar interests in the Dominican Republic; and
in China helped to see that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
War is a racket."
Like Gen. Butler, l came to my conclusions through years of
personal experience and through the gradual absorption of hard
evidence that I saw all around me, not just in one country, but
in country after country.
I am finally really serving my country, right now, telling
you this. You do not want some things done in your name.
Stan Goff retired from the U.S. Army in February 1996, after
serving in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Colombia,
Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Somalia and Haiti. He lives in Raleigh,
and Third World