View from the North

excerpted from the book

Colombia and the United States

War, Unrest and Destabilization

by Mario A. Murillo

Seven Stories Press, 2004, paper


.. there is considerable evidence that the general thrust of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Colombia over the years has remained consistent... for years the United States concerned itself with fighting the war on drugs, investing millions of dollars on a primarily military approach. This has led to a further escalation in the internal military conflict, an increasingly deteriorating human rights crisis, and a general failure to put a dent in the international drug trade. In the end, only a tiny fraction of both the Colombian and U.S. populations has been well served by these policies. Since September 11, 2001, the drug war has been put on the back burner in favor of the more pressing issue of counterterrorism. This has been the justification for even further U.S. involvement, with the long-term impact still unknown. Tragically, as a result, the possibilities for a fundamental transformation of these policies have diminished considerably.

Colombia's dependence on Washington for military and economic support stretches far back, a dependency that has dictated Colombian domestic security policy since the 1950s. At the time, U.S. military and intelligence services made their first bilateral agreements with Colombia in the interest of hemispheric defense and in response to the ongoing presence of peasant guerrilla organizations that were fighting the government. This is the period where ... Washington made its first major "decision" regarding how to deal with Colombia and the region as a whole: The communist threat had to be confronted in every corner of the globe, especially in "our own backyard."

The second major "decision" made by Washington that has directly impacted Colombia was to embark on the "global war against narcotrafficking"; although the drug war was launched more than twenty-five years ago, one could safely argue that the latest phase of this war was declared by former president George Bush in 1989. In his inaugural address, the first President Bush referred to drug trafficking as a "clear and present danger" threatening the national security of the United States. This was of course the early days of the post-Cold War, and the United States was searching for a new sense of purpose in order to maintain its powerful military and security infrastructure intact and make people quickly forget about the potential for a "peace dividend." In September of that year, as the drug war was being launched, Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, went so far as to say that the president would send troops into Colombia,

... Colombia was the only South American l country to openly support the U.S. military attack on Baghdad {Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador were the only other regional members of the "coalition". This controversial decision by President Uribe paid off with the announcement in late March 2003 of an additional $105 million in "counterterrorism" aid that the Bush administration pushed through just as the bombing of Iraq began. The generous gift from Washington padded the already hefty $500 million in aid destined to Colombia for fiscal year 2004. One State Department official was quoted in E1 Tiempo as saying, "There's no doubt that Uribe's backing [of the war on Iraq] demonstrates that he is a friend, that we speak the same language, and that we face the same threats." Meanwhile, opposition members of Colombia's Congress expressed their outrage with this affront to Colombian national sovereignty. One independent legislator, in a dramatic session on the floor of the chamber of representatives, presented Uribe and his ministers a pair of knee pads with American flags painted on them in a symbolic gesture that needed no translation. Most Colombians opposed the war in Iraq and saw Uribe's support clearly for what it was: an opportunistic way to remain ,, in the good graces of the Bush administration.

Whether it's called mutual dependency or superpower coercion, it is not always as obvious as the above-mentioned examples. Going a bit further back in recent history, one has to look a little more carefully to see how military dependency on the United States has had a profound impact on Colombia's internal policies. The malleability of Colombian leaders became readily apparent in 1998 when the Conservative Party leader Andres Pastrana became president and the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia aid package materialized. Prior to his election, Pastrana talked about the need to resolve the thirty-four-year civil conflict as a first step to addressing the drug problem in Colombia. In campaign speeches, he argued that only after a comprehensive peace was signed with the guerrillas would the social conditions exist to adequately tackle the root causes of the illicit drug trade, which is poverty and a lack of economic development in many areas of the country where coca and poppy is grown, areas that happen to be under the control of the guerrillas.

Plan Colombia initially was a development strategy for the areas most affected by the conflict and most marginalized in terms of basic human necessities. Modeled after the post-World War II Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe, it addressed the many conditions behind the drug trade and the internal armed conflict, such as economic inequality, lack of opportunities for progress, especially for Colombian youth, and an unequal distribution of land. It also addressed questions relating to the collapse and general lack of institutional legitimacy and the minimal capacity to govern on the part of local and national authorities. It raised issues such as respect for human rights and the creation of truly participatory democracy as necessary steps in eradicating the fundamental seeds of the conflict. Even among traditional critics of Colombian state policies, such as members of NGOs, human rights activists, and sectors of the different social movements, there was some room for optimism with Pastrana's approach to the problem.

After Pastrana's first visit to Washington, however, he made a sudden about-face. As one Colombian observer put it, Washington's response was that Plan Colombia was but a "catalog of good intentions" that needed considerable editing. Pastrana's new line was that the drug issue needed to be resolved first if peace were to come to Colombia, and the only way to do this was to step up U.S. military aid. The earlier language that focused on the needs of the countryside and the profound poverty that fueled the conflict was thoroughly altered. His proposed $7 billion reconstruction program emerged with a commitment from Washington to the tune of $1.3 billion in aid, more than 70 percent of which would be directed toward military and security measures designed to fight the "drug war." Plan Colombia was presented to the world as a Colombian initiative. Thus, the arrogant, almost ethnocentric determination that the only solutions to resolve these problems must emanate from Washington in the name of U.S. national security is disguised as a bilateral approach designed by like-minded people both countries.

Talk to anybody working in independent social organizations and they'll point to the neoliberal economic program implemented over the last fifteen years as one of the primary catalysts behind the rapid deterioration of the conflict, a fact not fully addressed by Plan Colombia's primarily military thrust. President Cesar Gaviria's decision to resolve Colombia's debt crisis through the route of the major multinational financial institutions set in motion a number of developments that led to the social and economic crisis that we are witnessing today.

Gaviria's so-called apertura economica, or economic opening-a step taken in order to fall into the good graces of the United States, the major banks up north, and other international investors-practically marked the end for Colombia's agricultural sector. As a result, by 2001, 80.5 percent of people in the countryside were living below the poverty level, up from 65 percent in 1993. More than 33 percent of the rural population was living in extreme poverty. The devastating impact of Gaviria's policies was felt everywhere, but perhaps it was felt most clearly in the coffee sector, once seen as the pride of Colombia's exports. The apertuIa was followed by the gutting of a worldwide agreement that had held coffee prices stable, benefiting Colombia's small family coffee farms. Since then global production has outstripped demand and sent prices tumbling, especially for the high-quality beans produced in Colombia. Almost immediately these developments led to a flood of cheap coffee entering Colombia from Vietnam, Brazil, and other countries. This, combined with lessening worldwide demand for Colombia's high-grade beans, sent many local farmers into bankruptcy and pushed unemployment above 20 percent in the coffee-growing region, making it easier for guerrillas and paramilitary forces to gain ground and recruit the rising number of unemployed youth. It also caused many farmers to abandon coffee altogether, choosing instead to plant coca.

If the collapse of the coffee trade could be attributed to other factors beyond the control of Colombian and U.S. policymakers, the responsibility for other negative developments in the agricultural sector lies right at the doorsteps of both Bogota and Washington. To many people, the economic opening represented the fundamental contradiction in U.S. counterdrug policy. On the one hand peasant farmers were being overwhelmed by the sudden influx of cheaper imported agricultural products, while on the other hand they were losing state subsidies and credits for their own crops. Credits were primarily made available to larger farming associations and organizations, yet at astronomically high interest rates. Smaller, independent peasant farmers had no way to compete, especially in the poorest rural areas lacking infrastructure or any other type of mechanism to get their "legitimate" products to market. This had always been a problem, but it was exacerbated by the neoliberal reforms pushed from Washington.

Survival instincts gave many small and mid-size farmers only one alternative: cultivate coca.

The response from the Colombian government, with the blessing from the United States, both before and after Plan Colombia, has been to fumigate those "illegitimate," crops and demand that the farmers start growing something else, without providing them substantial assistance or incentives to develop true alternatives. The response from groups like the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUCI, has been to resist these policies wholeheartedly, blocking major thoroughfares in massive national and regional mobilizations against the

fumigations, and demanding a shift in national priorities to provide credits and assistance to small farmers. In Cauca, indigenous farmers signed several agreements with the government in the mid-1990s, agreeing to manually eradicate coca and poppy cultivations in exchange for development assistance. The government of Ernesto Samper failed to fulfill its pledges of support to the communities, leading to massive protests throughout the department. In Putumayo, "social pacts" signed between the government and coca farmers were supposed to guarantee protection of individual plots, but, according to human rights groups, they did not prevent stepped-up aerial fumigations from destroying legitimate crops. It has been a consistent pattern of promises made and commitments broken, with poor farmers always losing out.

While this has been going on in the agricultural sector, we have also seen an acceleration in the government's attempt to privatize vital state industries. Throughout the l990s, the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) promoted the privatization of public infrastructure, including its telecommunications, energy, and even its social security system, all as a way to address the government's budget woes. In doing so, as part of the "modernization" program of the neoliberal governments of Gaviria and, later, Ernesto Samper, tens of thousands of state workers were targeted with layoffs, while thousands of others were forced to tighten their belts and surrender salary increases and health care benefits. By the end of Gaviria's term, 113,000 public sector jobs had been cut, a process continued under Samper and Pastrana in the name of "modernizing" the state, reforms endorsed wholeheartedly by the United States. Indeed, in 1999, Pastrana was forced to sign Colombia's first agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), sparking further privatization, deeper austerity measures, and the massive dismissal of state workers. Throughout the l990s, the proportion of Colombia's national budget directed toward servicing the debt increased every year, reaching 41 percent by 2001, thus making it by far the government's main priority, all at the expense of the typical Colombian worker.

Union activism, considered to be the most dangerous work in Colombia, has picked up despite the fact that between June 3, 2001 and May 2002 at least 175 trade unionists were killed, 9 disappeared, 156 received death threats, 38 were kidnapped, and 4 were victims of arbitrary detentions by state security forces. In the past decade, 1,500 trade unionists have been killed, detained, forcibly disappeared, or forced to leave Colombia, lending credence to the CUT's description of this process as a "genocide whose purpose is to exterminate the union leadership and our organizations" in general. All of this is carried out with complete impunity: Of the only 376 criminal investigations that have been conducted since 1986 involving violations against trade unionists, a full 321 remain in the preliminary stages, while only five people have been brought to justice. In the vast majority of the cases, the alleged perpetrators are members of paramilitary groups who accuse labor activists of collaborating with the guerrillas.

In some instances, these attacks have been linked to multinational corporations whose subsidiaries have been threatened by union organizing in Colombia, including such names as British Petroleum and Coca-Cola. For example, according to the "Campaign to Stop Killer Coke," a national effort run by U.S.-based trade unions such as the United Steelworkers of America, the International Labor Rights Fund, and the Colombian labor union Sinaltrainal (food and beverage workers union) paramilitary groups have killed at least eight labor leaders who had been trying to unionize the bottling factories operated by Coca-Cola's Colombian subsidiaries, a charge Coca-Cola dismisses out of hand. In the l990s, British Petroleum (BP) was linked to the assassination of a number of union and community leaders who were against the privatization of the oil industry. These activists were highly critical of the contamination of the town of el Morro in the Casanare department, in the heart of Colombia's oil region, paying the ultimate price for daring to speak out against the practices of the oil company. While BP denied having any links with paramilitaries, it acknowledged using private security contractors in the area who were training Colombian police in counterinsurgency techniques.'; Clearly, Colombia is the most difficult place in the world to do labor organizing. Neither Plan Colombia nor any of the other public policy pronouncements from Washington relating to Colombia have adequately addressed this harsh reality.

Given the history of oil exploration in Colombia and the indifference that multinationals and the government have shown toward indigenous communities in general, indigenous activists, environmentalists, and human rights workers had reason to be concerned about the links between Plan Colombia and oil interests. This history dates as far back as 1905, when the government began to dip into the country's petroleum deposits through contracts with private interests, both domestic and foreign. The so-called Mares Concession, signed over to the French-born Roberto de Mares by then-president Rafael Reyes and subsidized in part by the International Petroleum Company of Toronto, a subsidiary of Standard Oil, targeted the oil reserves alongside the Magdalena River in what is today the municipality of Barrancabermeja in the department of Santander. In less than two decades, through forced labor, the transmission of infectious diseases, and a complete transformation of their way of life, the entire population of the Yariguie Indians was wiped out. Neither the government nor Standard Oil was ever forced to answer to what happened.

Another egregious example was the Barco Concession of 1905, given to the Conservative General Virgilio Barco, a veteran of the War of a Thousand Days. Although it really didn't get off the ground until the late 1920s, the Barco Concession basically signed over the rights for exploration to the Gulf Oil Company, owned by Andrew Mellon, then U.S. Treasury Secretary. Resistance to oil exploration by the Motilon-Bari Indians led to Law 80 of 1931, which allowed the government to put "all the protection needed to repel attacks by the Motilon savages" at the disposal of oil companies, including "entire corps of the Armed Police or of the Public Force, as long as it was necessary." Sixty years later, the Motilon tribe for which this law was originally directed had lost two-thirds of its ancestral territory and half its population.

In the early 1960s, in the department of Putumayo the focal point for Plan Colombia in 2000-thousands of Inga, Siona, and Kofan Indians were forced to relocate when the construction of roads and oil pipelines by Texas Oil and Ecopetrol-the state oil company contaminated the communities' fresh water supplies. Back then, the population of the region was 65 percent indigenous, numbering about 13,000. Today, forty years after the development of oil in the area, indigenous people constitute less than 10 percent of the population.

The ONIC and their allies in the environmental and human rights movement have made it a point not to forget this long history. They repeatedly point to protections spelled out in the Constitution of 1991 regarding the exploitation and control of the resources in their territories, protections included after years of militant struggle by the ONIC and its many regional affiliate organizations. They have been forced to confront the government almost daily on this issue. The massive resistance in the 1990s to California-based Occidental Petroleum's drilling plans in U'Wa territory in northeastern Colombia was seen as one minor victory in their movement. But the challenges have not stopped, not only from Occidental but from many other sources. Today, as paramilitaries wrest control of Putumayo and force further displacement of indigenous and peasant communities, it is clear that the militarization of the region sparked by Plan Colombia has made things much worse for the people inhabiting these areas. Ironically, because the government's aerial fumigation efforts and increasing paramilitary and guerrilla incursions are seen as the primary causes of the forced displacement, today nobody talks about the potential for oil exploration as a culprit in the social decay.

For some observers in early 2003, it appeared as if the United States was deliberately looking for a way to get more directly involved in the military entanglement that is Colombia. When a small, single-engine Cessna carrying U.S. "intelligence" officials fell in a guerrilla-controlled area in southern Colombia in February 2003, the Bush administration's indignation should have come as no surprise. Three U.S. officials were captured by FARC fighters in the incident, while two other men-a Colombian and an American-were found shot to death by the wreckage of the plane, the victims of what Colombian officials described as a guerrilla execution. As a result of this incident, Washington sent in a 1 50-man special-forces rescue team to help the Colombian army find the men, a unit that was permitted to participate in "offensive," military operations against the rebels. Thus began one of the largest known military deployments of U.S. forces in the forty-year history of the Colombian conflict.

Therefore, as 2003 unfolded, elite U.S. forces were engaged in two of the hottest regions of the conflict: the oil-rich province of Arauca and the coca-growing region of Caqueta. This is without even considering the hundreds of "advisors" and private contractors engaged in countless undisclosed security and "training" operations throughout the country. Colombian human rights workers, peace activists, and popular movement leaders had warned of the potential for further U.S. meddling in the conflict when Plan Colombia was proposed in 1999. Three years, almost $2.5 billion, and hundreds of U.S. military "advisors" later, it becomes increasingly difficult to write them all off as alarmists.

In the wake of September 11, Washington ... expanded the highly controversial program of aerial fumigations of coca plantations in southern Colombia, a policy that had been the focus of massive resistance on the part of the peasant coca farmers in previous years, as I pointed out earlier. For years, these peasants have argued that the chemicals used in the fumigation process damage food crops, threaten the health of their families, and pose a risk to the environment. The aerial fumigation of coca plantations has continued almost without interruption, despite the fact that human rights groups have cited it as a primary cause of the recent displacements of thousands of civilians from their homes who are forced to flee into neighboring Ecuador or other departments in southern Colombia.

The aerial eradication campaign has been a major point of contention with the FARC rebels, who demanded the issue be placed on the negotiating table during talks with President Pastrana. The FARC had called for an end to the fumigations until alternatives for the peasant farmers could be found, a proposal that was not seen as too credible in the midst of reports that the guerrillas were using the demilitarized zone to expand their own coca cultivations. In response to the governments' unwillingness to budge on the issue of fumigations, guerrillas repeatedly targeted the crop-dusting planes, winning the FARC very little support from the government for its proposals on crop substitution. This in turn led to an increase in right-wing paramilitary activity in the department of Putumayo, where according to various reports, "death squads roam the region freely, killing suspected rebel collaborators or anyone else who gets in their way.... Even the presence in [Puerto Asis] of a U.S.-trained counter-narcotics battalion has had no effect.... The area is becoming one of the world's deadliest places, with 128 reported homicides" in 2002.

The spraying operation was supposed to coincide with development assistance for alternative crops, although the dispersal of funds has been limited to those farmers in Putumayo who signed "social pacts" in exchange for manual eradication of the illicit crops. According to peasant leaders and human rights activists, many farmers who signed the pact still had their land fumigated by the government, because the government failed to make distinctions between industrial plantations and small crops. People from the area argued this was fueling the anger and frustration of the community and was forcing people to leave their lands.

In the absence of peace talks and in his campaign to broaden the war against the FARC, President Uribe has given American officials wide latitude in carrying out the spraying, which involves at least 18 crop-dusting planes and is expected to expand in the coming years. This is yet another example of Bogota giving in to Washington's demands as conditions for further assistance, despite popular opposition. And although it can be seen as part of an overall counterdrug strategy, the fumigations add fuel to the fire of an already explosive situation of military conflict with the guerrillas in the south, while in actuality doing little to combat the drug problem.

... The major U.S. news media for the most part echo the position of the U.S. government, present the vast array of complex issues affecting Colombia within the context of U.S. interests in the region, frame the Colombia "story" in a one-dimensional way that portrays the Colombian government as a "good friend" of the United States that is under siege from narcotraffickers and terrorists, and target the left-wing guerrillas and their links to the drug trade as the primary threat to the security of both Colombia and the United States ...

Colombia and the United States

Index of Website

Home Page