Colombia's Lethal Concoction

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

A FARC parade in San Vicente del Caguan in February 2001. - JOSE MIGUEL GOMEZ/REUTERS

A FARC parade in San Vicente del Caguan in February 2001. - JOSE MIGUEL GOMEZ/REUTERS

Fire in the plains, Fire in the mountains: Oil, narcotics and counter-revolution makes an explosive combination.

COLOMBIA is the country that has given to the world the one novelist whose name has come to be identified in the global imagination with Latin America itself: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Never to be mistaken for history itself, One Hundred Years of Solitude is nevertheless the most fabulous fictional meditation on Colombian history. `Magic realism' was invented initially to capture the oddities of the social structure that had ensued out of the peculiarities of colonial settlement in that country, so different from the class formations and social structures of the European bourgeoisie for which the High Realism of the European novel was appropriate.

Colombia is also the principal source of cocaine and related lethal narcotics for the United States market, giving rise to a network of drug-trafficking cartels comprised of an immensely rich narco-bourgeoisie. It is out of the services he rendered to this narco-bourgeoisie and its American cohorts that the current President Alvaro Uribe Velez rose to great riches and unrivalled political power. After Venezuela and Mexico, Colombia is the third largest source of Latin American oil for the U.S. (it accounts for some 3 per cent of U.S. consumption) even though most of the country's oil resources remain uncharted so far. Colombian coffee is still the most popular and the cheapest - by some accounts, the best - of Latin American coffees consumed in the U.S., but the relative importance of coffee has now been supplanted by heroin trade and the hunger for oil. We might add that, contrary to popular perceptions, the U.S. imports for its domestic consumption more oil from Latin America than from West Asia. Colombia shares with Venezuela and Ecuador the Venezuela-Orinoco belt, which is widely suspected of having perhaps the largest pool of hydrocarbons in the world. The future of U.S.-Venezuelan relations, hence of Venezuelan oil for U.S. consumption, is uncertain. The importance of Colombian supplies, present and future, rises proportionately.

The U.S. has trained more officers for the Colombian army than for any other army in Latin America, excluding Israel and Egypt, which are in a class by themselves. Colombia is also currently the largest recipient of U.S. military aid. Under cover of "war on drugs" (President Bill Clinton's ploy) and "war on terror"(more favoured by President George W. Bush), the Colombian state has received massive infusions of foreign largesse since 2000 when Plan Colombia was first devised by the Clinton administration. This has not only come from the U.S., but also from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and so on - totalling between $7 billion and $10 billion, depending on how you calculate it. During this period, U.S. military aid has averaged $500 million per annum and has increased each year. Indeed, 80 per cent of all U.S. aid has been for military purposes, which includes high technology weapons transfers and equipment for an armed force of roughly 270,000, nursing paramilitary squads of the type used previously in Nicaragua and El Salvador, stationing not only the U.S. military but also a large number of privately contracted U.S. personnel for military purposes.

All this is ostensibly for controlling the traffic in narcotics and defeating the domestic insurgencies. However, Colombia, which shares a porous 1,370-mile border with Venezuela, has also served as the staging-ground for infiltration and destabilisation attempts in that country. It is quite clear that, if and when the U.S. decides to invade Venezuela, Colombia shall serve as a key advance base.

Funding the Colombian state is the other face of the existing and potential role of transnational corporations in the Colombian economy, not to speak of the converging interests of Colombian and transnational traffickers of heroin and cocaine. In an indifferently industrialised country, the U.S. foreign direct investment already amounts to about $5 billion and the roster of the transnational corporations, mostly American, which are active in Colombia includes Exxon-Mobile, Occidental Petroleum, Canon-Limon, Birmingham-Alabama, Coca-Cola (with 17 plants), Chiquta, Dole and Del Monte, as well as British Petroleum.

U.S. military aid alone provides immense profit-making opportunities for U.S. companies. Early in 2003, the U.S. Department of State reported that there were 17 primary contracting companies active in supplying for military and biochemical operations in Colombia, initially receiving $3.5 billion. Among these, DynCorp, a U.S. military contractor and a Fortune 500 company, has a $600 million contract for aerial spraying to eliminate coca crops, the source for cocaine - an activity that also contaminates food crops and leads to skin diseases among the population in affected areas. The herbicide that is sprayed is manufactured by Monsanto.

In a similar vein, $98 million were offered to Colombia for the purchase of surveillance and attack helicopters for the single purpose of protecting the pipelines owned by the U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum against guerilla attacks. What is given as "aid" by the U.S. government thus returns to the coffers of the U.S. arms manufacturers that supply the helicopters for safeguarding a U.S. oil company.

As elsewhere in much of Latin America, class polarisation in Colombia is extreme and getting worse under the more recent neoliberal dispensation dictated by the IMF and carried out enthusiastically by what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calls the "rancid oligarchy" that passes for the government of Colombia. In 1990, when the most severe phase of neoliberal policies began, the ratio of income between the richest and the poorest 10 per cent of the population was already 40:1. Ten years later, in 2000, that disparity doubled to 80:1. Thirty-seven landed magnates own half of Colombia's farmland, and the richest 3 per cent own three-fourths of it, while roughly 60 per cent of the population subsists on mere 3 per cent of the arable land. Indeed, 61 per cent of registered rural property is owned by less than half a per cent of the population. President Uribe as well as 70 per cent of the Congressmen belong to that select group.

No wonder that the current government is in the process of passing legislation that will eject 3 million more people off the lands (in a country of 44 million, of which one million are of indigenous origin) and will allow the establishment of privately owned plantations of African palm on the ancestral lands of Afro-Colombians. This kind of plantation agriculture, combined with large-scale cattle ranching and direct exploitation of forests, does little to create rural employment and forces masses of people into rural destitution and/or jobless migration into the urban slums.

The power of the landed oligarchy converges with and is often indistinguishable from the power of what we have termed the narco-bourgeoisie, those who make billions of dollars from the production and trans-border trade of narcotics and who wield enormous political and financial power in Colombia. The U.S. government has claimed for many years that its military aid to Colombia, and to Peru and Bolivia as well, is part of its "war on drugs" which it is waging in order to eliminate the production and sale of narcotics at its very source, and that Colombia is the largest recipient of military aid because it is also the largest producer of the cocaine available on the U.S. market. Tens of thousands of hectares of land in the Andean and Amazon regions have been "fumigated" on the pretext of eradicating the production of coca-leaf used to manufacture the narcotics. The Bush administration has gone further and claims that the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" are one and the same, since the armed guerillas and the popular movements of landless peasants and indigenous peoples who resist the U.S. military and corporate power in Colombia are themselves, in the parlance of the U.S. government "narco-terrorists." This would seem implausible, even on the face of it, and the idea that the U.S. is waging a war against narcotic drugs in Latin America is just about as credible as the idea that the U.S. is bringing peace and democracy to West Asia, notably Iraq, Palestine and Iran.

The so-called "war on drugs" got going seriously in the mid-1990s and then rose to spectacular proportions with the promulgation of Plan Colombia in 2000. Ten years and ten billion dollars later, the price of cocaine on the streets of the U.S. has only gone down, which is the surest sign that the supply is more plentiful than ever. At the other end of the world, the Taliban had successfully halted the cultivation of the poppy crop in Afghanistan but under the puppet Hamid Karzai regime foisted there by the U.S., Afghanistan has again become the world's primary supplier of heroin. It has also been well documented that the U.S.-sponsored mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union supplemented the funds they received from the U.S. and the Gulf Sheikhdoms with production and sale of heroin, to the tune of $2 billion annually. Furthermore, thanks to Pakistan's own involvement in that jehad, a large network of heroin factories cropped up in the North West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and even Karachi, where heroin addiction became a vast social menace. Between Colombia at one end and Afghanistan at the other, Kosovo has also become a notable producer of narcotics after the forces of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) battered and occupied that little corner of the former Yugoslavia. In short, there is no historical evidence that allies and clients of the U.S. have ever moved to eradicate production and trade in narcotics. Plenty of evidence exists to the contrary.

We also know that the drug barons of the Andean countries were a great covert source for the U.S. to fund the "contras" and other paramilitary forces that the U.S. fielded against the Central American revolutions, principally in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Similarly, and closer to home, drug barons are intimately connected with the entire power structure of the Colombian state, as well as its military and paramilitary forces, upon whom the U.S. relies for counter-revolutionary warfare inside the country as well as the region as a whole. Significantly, the military and paramilitary operations which are supposedly serving the "war on drugs," and now the "war on terror," are largely concentrated not in the northern region where the power and production facilities of the narco-bourgeoisie are mainly located but in the southern regions, closer to the Venezuelan border, where much of the anti-government and anti-U.S. guerilla activity is concentrated. The so-called "war on drugs" would then seem to be mere smokescreen, first of all, for a fully fledged and classic war of counter-insurgency against the guerilla armies and the anti-imperialist mass movements. Secondarily, the spraying of vast tracts of cultivated land with chemicals that destroy not only the coca fields but also all other crops while spreading skin diseases among the farming populations can also be understood as a kind of biological-chemical-bacteriological warfare against the farming communities, forcing them to evacuate the land so that the great landed magnates and the U.S.-based agribusinesses may occupy them at some future date. A technologically induced mass eviction of the peasantry, as it were. The ravaging of land and people alike is thus part and parcel of a counter-revolutionary strategy as well as a most ferocious form of class warfare. Why this counter-revolution?

Unlike Brazil which has a massive and politically very mature movement of the landless, and unlike Bolivia where movements of the impoverished indigenous people have now succeeded in capturing the government, any large-scale popular alliance of poor peasants, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, outside the umbrella of the guerilla movements, is in Colombia still very much in the early stages of formation. However, Colombia does have the western hemisphere's oldest and largest guerilla movement, which has functioned continuously since the mid-1960s. It is now said to administer half of the national territory and to have varying levels of presence in virtually all the municipalities of the rest of the country. At the centre of it all is of course the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP) but there are other groups as well, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). FARC is, however, by far the largest, and we shall therefore concentrate on this one.

FARC has its origins in the communist-led movements and "self-defence groups" of the 1940s but in its present form it dates its own origins to May 27, 1964, to be precise - when the Colombian army, armed and instigated by the U.S. through the Latin American Security Operation Plan, began its operations against those rural collectives in the south western zone of the country. The Security Operation Plan was itself part of a continental - and indeed global - offensive that led to U.S.-inspired military coups in countries as diverse as Brazil and Indonesia during the 1960s as well as Chile in 1973. Initially, FARC grew slowly but with the advent of the brutal neoliberal policies of the 1990s it began to expand very rapidly so that, by the end of the decade, its power extended to perhaps as much as half the country. It concentrated on the main productive areas, such as the coffee, banana and petroleum regions, while also penetrating the urban centres and building up forces in rural districts surrounding those centres. Within the guerilla territory, FARC runs schools, medical facilities and popular judicial institutions while providing protection to peasants, trade unions, women's associations, and so on. A remarkable feature of its base among the peasants is that tens of thousands of such peasants are said to have migrated into the FARC-controlled but embattled guerilla zones, seeking protection against the savagery of the state in the zones that the state controls.

In 2002, peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian state broke down as a result of changed U.S. policy and the latter resumed its countrywide military offensive against FARC. FARC was said to have well over 100 military fronts, with each front having 300 to 600 combatants. Some two-thirds of these combatants are of peasant origin while over 40 per cent of its fighters and commanders are said to be women. The hardening of the U.S. position at that point was itself significant, and it brought to bear even greater military and paramilitary force upon the guerillas. Plan Colombia, initiated in 2000 while the negotiations were still going on, had concentrated on an all-round building up of the Colombian armed forces but had also restricted the number of U.S. personnel who could be stationed on Colombian territory. The idea was to press the guerillas very hard militarily, force them onto the negotiating table and offer to include them in the existing political system in lieu of their agreement to disarm.

A study by RAND Corporation then criticised the Clinton administration and the Colombian government for trying to contain and even perhaps accommodate the guerillas who were negotiating at the time for land reform and democratic transformation. Instead, the study urged an all-out attack to eliminate the guerillas as well as their social base through a scorched earth policy against the civilian population living in guerilla territory. Under Bush, then, a new Plan Patriota was announced, the guerillas were now dubbed "narco-terrorists," and the U.S.-Colombian forces were ordered to eliminate physically all high officers of FARC and force the escapees into the forests of the Amazon. If Mao Zedong had once likened the guerilla to a fish who swims in a sea of people, the Bush policy in Colombia, like the earlier U.S. policy in Vietnam, was to "drain the sea" by waging war against the broad populace of the guerilla-held regions.

Before proceeding any further we need to comment briefly on the implications of the term "narco-terrorists." The official position of the U.S. systematically ignores the role of the drug barons, the paramilitary forces, the ruling oligarchy and the numerous officials of the Colombian state producing narcotics and running clandestine trafficking networks. Instead, it claims that the FARC guerillas are the main source of cocaine and thrive on profits from the drug trade.

The fact of the matter is that in the FARC strongholds of the south coca production was quite widespread among small farmers hit hard by the legacies of civil war and petty scale of the landholdings. Some of those farmers are certainly involved in small-scale production of cocaine and its sale to larger networks. However, as the cocaine trade became more lucrative, coca production spread to all parts of the country. The northern and central regions, which are the stronghold of the U.S.-sponsored paramilitaries, are the main zones for cocaine factories and drug-trading cartels, from which the whole of the Colombian power structure benefits. In reality, even U.S. military personnel is known to have sometimes participated in smuggling cocaine out of Colombia. FARC, on its part, makes no secret of the fact that it allows farmers in its areas to do with their coca what they wish, including the production of cocaine locally; as with all other businesses in its zones, it collects a tax on cocaine production. No reliable figures on the scale of this tax are available but it is sometimes suggested that it may amount to several hundred million dollars annually.

Some high U.S. officials have challenged the claims of their own government. For instance, Donnie Marshall, the former Administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and James Milford, the former Deputy Administrator, have said that there is no evidence that the guerillas participate in the drug trade by producing it or by selling it to the smuggling syndicates, while they have confirmed that the U.S.-sponsored paramilitary personnel raise their funds through extortion and by protecting cocaine factories in areas under their control.

Similarly, Klaus Nydholm, the Director of the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) has said of the guerrillas that, "In some areas they are not involved at all. And in others they actively tell the farmers not to grow coca." Briefing the media in 2001, Nydholm explicitly said, "We do not consider the FARC drug traffickers. We believe that it is still a matter of guerilla organisation with political objectives." By contrast, he says of the government-controlled zones that, "In some of the coastal towns it can, sometimes, be hard to tell whether a man is a paramilitary chief, a big coca planter, a cocaine laboratory owner, a rancher, or a local politician. He may be all five things at a time."

Indeed, the forces that got recruited into the paramilitary units in more recent years, in a clandestine operation conducted but never acknowledged by the Colombian army, arose out of much older structures dating back to the 1960s. At that time the landed magnates organised death squads against the peasant rebels and by the 1980s, those very death squads had been transformed into the private armies of the narco-barons. Reorganised into paramilitary units, they now coordinate closely but secretly with the regular army and methodically kill not only the guerillas but also trade union personnel, peasant leaders, left-wing intellectuals and so on. In fact, these units form a key link between the narco-bourgeoisie and the regular armed forces.

Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected group, compiled a study of human rights violations in Colombia that concluded that half of Colombia's 18 brigade-level army units were directly linked with these paramilitaries in a regime of widespread terror. The report called the paramilitaries the additional "Sixth Division" of the Colombian Army. This covert role of the armed forces has been confirmed by a leading figure in this parallel organisation who told Le Monde Diplomatique: "We were born paramilitaries. The weapons sent to us in June 1983 . . . had government stamps on them."

Colombia no longer has a mass party of the democratic left thanks to this terror. About 4,000 political activists get killed in Colombia every year, a number that includes priests, teachers, journalists, lawyers, indigenous community leaders, directors of agricultural cooperatives, members of women's groups, and members of a wide array of trade unions, from hospital workers to electrical workers. Of all the trade unionists killed around the world each year, two-thirds tend to be from Colombia. Even The New York Times was constrained to say: "Colombia is by far the world's most dangerous country for union members." The war against guerilla armies and political activists has taken perhaps as many as 300,000 lives and has created the third largest refugee problem in the world. It has also displaced over a million people within Colombia itself in addition to over three million peasants displaced from their lands through other means and who now wander through Colombia's cities. It is in this climate of terror and dispossession that hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in guerilla-administered areas.

The U.S.-sponsored counter-insurgency operations have used such forces across Latin America, and indeed across the world, in its operations for over half a century or more. As Noam Chomsky points out, "In 1962, John F. Kennedy in effect shifted the mission of the Latin American military from `hemispheric defence', a residue of World war II, to `internal security', a euphemism for war against the domestic population." Chomsky then goes on to quote the distinguished diplomat Alfredo Vazquez Carrizosa, the President of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights: "Washington took great pains to transform our armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads," decisions that "ushered in what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine." This was not "defence against an external army, but a way to make the military establishment masters of the game . . . with the right to combat the internal enemy, as set forth in the Brazilian doctrine, the Uruguayan doctrine, and the Colombian doctrine: it is the right to fight and exterminate the social workers, trade unionists, men and women who are not supportive of the establishment."

More recently, President Uribe (the only President in Latin America to participate in Bush's "coalition of the willing" for the invasion of Iraq) has got Colombia's Parliament to pass a Bill which will integrate the paramilitaries into the official structure of the Armed Forces while offering them near-immunity for their murderous crimes and permitting them to keep their loot and drug profits. The U.N. and other organisations have condemned this law. The New York Times has said in its editorials that, "It should be called the immunity for mass murderers, terrorists and major cocaine traffickers law." The power of these paramilitaries, headed by a coalition that calls itself that calls itself the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), can be gauged from the fact that, according to Le Monde Diplomatique, they control 35 per cent of the Colombian Parliament and, according to the Colombia's government accounting office, at least a million hectares of land. They continue to seize more and more land, in collusion with drug barons and army units, and, thanks to the new law, are now openly moving into the cities to prepare for the next elections in which Uribe shall again be a candidate. The U.S. government, meanwhile, fully endorses such actions of the Colombian government. Colin Powell, the then Secretary of State, declared that his government is "firmly committed to President Uribe and his new national security strategy." Brent Scowcroft, a former U.S. National Security Advisor, has argued that, "Colombia's oil reserves of 2.6 billion barrels - only slightly less than OPEC [Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] members Qatar, Indonesia and Algeria - could serve as a major source but will remain untapped unless stability is restored." He was of course referring to only the known reserves. Much of the oil-rich region remains uncharted and the eventual size of the reserves is likely to be much greater.

U.S. military expenditure and training is concentrated largely in the oil rich areas of Colombia, particularly Aruaca and Putumayo, which are in the guerilla heartland. The paramilitaries have also been very actively engaged in the oil regions, effectively running a number of towns, and working closely with the oil trans-national corporations. British Petroleum, for example, financed the paramilitaries for protection of their pipelines, and was condemned for this by the European Parliament.

For his part, Uribe has passed new legislation greatly lowering the royalties trans-national corporations have to pay for Colombian oil, down to 8 per cent, has extended leases indefinitely, and has effectively privatised the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, leading to a situation where the Colombian government buys oil from foreign companies such as Occidental Petroleum at market rates. The guerilla armies have carried out over 2,000 attacks on those pipelines over the past decade, and the confrontation between them and the U.S.-sponsored Colombian army escalates continually.

We thus see that narco-trafficking meshes with the giant oil company interests, the regular armies converge with formally covert paramilitaries, and "war on drugs" serves as a cover for an elaborate and brutal war of counter-insurgency against the western hemisphere's largest and most enduring guerilla armies. Since much of it happens near the Venezuelan border and military bases in Colombia pose a dire threat to all its neighbours, mainly Venezuela but also Ecuador which too is seething with popular movements. It is only a matter of time before this combustible combination leads to an explosion of massive proportions.

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