Israel's Latin American trail
by Jeremy Bigwood
June 5, 2003
"I learned an infinite amount of
things in Israel, and to that country I owe part of my essence,
my human and military achievements" said Colombian paramilitary
leader and indicted drug trafficker Carlos Castao in his ghostwritten
autobiography, Mi Confesin.
Castao, who leads the Colombian paramilitaries,
known by their Spanish acronym AUC, the largest right-wing paramilitary
force to ever exist in the western hemisphere reveals that he
was trained in the arts of war in Israel as a young man of 18
in the 1980s.
He glowingly adds: "I copied the
concept of paramilitary forces from the Israelis," in his
chapter-long account of his Israel experiences.
Castao's right-wing Phalange-like AUC
force is now by far the worst human rights violator in all of
the Americas, and ties between that organisation and Israel are
continually surfacing in the press.
Outside the law
The AUC paramilitaries are a fighting
force that originally grew out of killers hired to protect drug-running
operations and large landowners. They were organised into a cohesive
force by Castao in 1997. It exists outside the law but often coordinates
its actions with the Colombian military, in a way similar to the
relationship of the Lebanese Phalange to the Israeli army throughout
the 1980s and 1990s.
According to a 1989 Colombian Secret Police
intelligence report, apart from training Carlos Castao in 1983,
Israeli trainers arrived in Colombia in 1987 to train him and
other paramilitaries who would later make up the AUC.
Fifty of the paramilitaries' "best"
students were then sent on scholarships to Israel for further
training according to a Colombian police intelligence report,
and the AUC became the most prominent paramilitary force in the
hemisphere, with some 10,000-12,000 men in arms.
The Colombian AUC paramilitaries are always
in need of arms, and it should come as no surprise that some of
their major suppliers are Israeli. Israeli arms dealers have long
had a presence in next-door Panama and especially in Guatemala.
In May of last year, GIRSA, an Israeli
company associated with the Israeli Defence Forces and based in
Guatemala was able to buy 3000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and
2.5 million rounds of ammunition that were then handed over to
AUC paramilitaries in Colombia.
Links with the continent
Israel's military relations with right-wing
groups and regimes spans Latin America from Mexico to the southernmost
tip of Chile, starting just a few years after the Israeli state
came into existence.
Since then, the list of countries Israel
has supplied, trained and advised includes Argentina, Bolivia,
Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay,
Peru and Venezuela.
But it isn't only the sales of planes,
guns and weapons system deals that characterises the Israeli presence
in Latin America.
Where Israel has excelled is in advising,
training and running intelligence and counter-insurgency operations
in the Latin American "dirty war" civil conflicts of
Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and now Colombia.
In the case of the Salvadoran conflict
- a civil war between the right-wing landowning class supported
by a particularly violent military pitted against left-wing popular
organisations - the Israelis were present from the beginning.
Besides arms sales, they helped train ANSESAL, the secret police
who were later to form the framework of the infamous death squads
that would kill tens of thousands of mostly civilian activists.
From 1975 to 1979, 83% of El Salvador's
military imports came from Israel, according to the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute. By 1981, many of those
in the civilian popular political movements who had survived the
death squads headed for the hills to become guerrillas.
By 1981 there was an open civil war in
El Salvador which took over a decade to resolve through negotiations.
Even though the US was openly backing
the Salvadoran Army by 1981, as late as November 1983 it was asking
for more Israeli "practical assistance" there, according
to a declassified secret document obtained recently by Aljazeera.
Among the assistance asked for were helicopters,
trucks, rifles, ammunition, and combat infantry advisors to work
at both the "company and battalion level of the Salvadoran
One notable Salvadoran officer trained
by the Israelis was Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who always held
a high opinion of the Israelis. It was Major D'Aubuisson who ordered
the assassination of El Salvador's archbishop amongst thousands
of other murders.
Later he would organise the right-wing
National Republican Alliance Party (ARENA) and send his son to
study abroad in the relative safety of Israel.
Amazingly, while the Israelis were training
the El Salvadoran death squads they were also supporting the anti-semitic
Argentine military government of the late 1970s and early 1980s
- at a time when that government was involved_in another "dirty
war" of death squads and disappearances.
In 1978, Nicaragua's dictator Somoza was
making his last stand against a general uprising of the Sandinista-led
population who were sick of his family's dynasty which had ruled
and monopolised the county for half a century. The Israelis and
the US had been supplying Somoza with weapons for years. But when
President Jimmy Carter came into office in 1976 he ordered a cessation
of all US military assistance to Nicaragua.
Filling the void, the Israelis immediately
increased their weapons supplies to Somoza until he fled the country
when the Sandinistas took power.
Israeli operatives then helped train right-wing
Nicaraguan Contras in Honduran and Costa Rican camps to fight
the Sandinista government, according to Colombian police intelligence
reports Aljazeera_has obtained.
At least some of the same Israeli operatives
had also previously trained the nucleus of the paramilitary organisations
that would become the AUC in Colombia.
But by far the bloodiest case of Israeli
involvement in Latin America was its involvement in Guatemala
from the 1970s to the 1990s. As in El Salvador, a civil war pitted
a populist but, in this case, mainly Indian left against a mainly
European oligarchy protected by a brutal Mestizo Army.
As Guatemalan President Carlos Arana said
in 1971, "If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery
in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so."
The Israelis supplied Guatemala with Galil
rifles, and built an ammunition factory for them, as well as supplying
armoured personnel carriers and Arava planes. Behind the scenes,
they were actively involved in the bloodiest counter-insurgency
campaign the hemisphere has known since the European conquest,
in which at least 200,000 (mostly Indians) were killed.
Like Israel's original occupation of Palestine,
several entire Guatemalan Indian villages were razed and a million
people displaced. "The guerrilla is the fish. The people
are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the
sea," said Guatemalan President Rios Montt in 1982.
Guatemalan army officers credit Israeli
support with turning the tide against the uprising, not only in
the countryside where Israeli counter-insurgency techniques and
assistance set up strategic-hamlet-like "development poles"
along the lines of the Israeli kibbutz, but also in the cities
where "Israeli communication technicians and instructors"
working through then-sophisticated computers were able to locate
and then decimate guerrillas and their supporters in Guatemala
City in 1981.
From the late 1970s until the 1990s, the
US could not overtly support the Guatemalan army because of its
horrendous human rights record (although there was some covert
support), but many in the US government, especially in the CIA,
supported Israel in taking up the slack.
But the US grew to regret its actions.
On 10 March 1999, US President Bill Clinton issued an apology
for US involvement in the war: The "United States... support
for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent
and widespread repression...was wrong." No similar statement
has ever been forthcoming from the Israelis.
At the present time, the only major insurgency
war in Latin America is in Colombia, where Israel has an overt
Besides the dozen or so Kfir IAI C-7 jet
fighters they have sold the Colombian government, and the Galil
rifles produced in Bogota under licence, most of the Israeli ties
to the government's counter-insurgency war are closely-guarded
Aljazeera's attempts to obtain clarification
on these and other issues for this story were stonewalled by the
Israeli embassy in Washington.
Why does Israel continue to provide arms
and expertise to the pariahs of the world? Clearly, part of the
reason is the revenues produced by arms sales, and part of it
has do with keeping up with trends in counter-insurgent war across
But another factor is what is demanded
of Israel by the world's only superpower, the US, in partial exchange
for the superpower's continued support for Israeli dominance in
the Middle East.
This relationship can be best illustrated
by recently declassified 1983 US government documents obtained
by the Washington, DC-based National Security Archives through
the Freedom of Information Act.
One such declassified document is a 1983
memo from the notorious Colonel Oliver North of the Reagan Administration's
National Security Council and reads: "As discussed with you
yesterday, I asked CIA, Defense, and State to suggest practical
assistance which the Israelis might offer in Guatemala and El
Another document, this time a 1983 cable
from the US Ambassador in Guatemala to Washington Frederic Chapin
shows the money trail.
He says that at a time when the US did
not want to be seen directly assisting Guatemala, "we have
reason to believe that our good friends the Israelis are prepared,
or already have, offered substantial amounts of military equipment
to the GOG (Government of Guatemala) on credit terms up to 20
years...(I pass over the importance of making huge concessionary
loans to Israel so that it can make term loans in our own backyard)."
In other words, during civil wars in which
the US does not want to be seen getting its hands dirty in Latin
America, the superpower loans Israel money at a very good rate,
and then Israel uses these funds to do the "dirty work".
In this regard, in Latin America at least, Israel has become the
hit-man for the US.