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Date: Tue, 27 Jul 1999
"Eat the State!": The next big War (Colombia)

The Next Big War
by Justin Delacour

The days of overt U.S. support for counter-insurgency warfare in Latin America have returned. According to recent statements from U.S. officials, the Clinton administration has, for the first time, begun sharing sensitive intelligence on Colombian guerillas with the Colombian military. Such U.S. assistance for counter-insurgency operations reportedly entails the immediate sharing of satellite images and communications intercepts.

As the recent guerilla offensive against Colombian military targets seemed to come to an end, U.S. authorities declined to comment publicly on whether they had tipped off the Colombian military about the impending offensive and the locations of rebel columns. However, according to journalist Karl Pernhaul of Reuters, one U.S. military source said it would be an “educated supposition” to suggest that U.S. intelligence operatives had been of assistance. Douglas Farah of the Washington Post Foreign Service claims that, until recently, only limited intelligence directly related to counter-drug activities had been shared with the Colombian army. In the words of Farah, this supposed policy "reflected a desire to avoid getting involved in counterinsurgency operations and concern over the army's history of human rights abuses." Judging from past U.S. counterinsurgency policy throughout Latin America, where the human rights records of U.S.-supported armies have rarely been taken into consideration, it would not seem far-fetched that the administration has provided the Colombian army with sensitive intelligence for some time. In any case, the recent statements clearly indicate that the administration is now giving up all pretense about only supporting counter-narcotics operations.

The Clinton administration defends its newly announced position with claims that--given the guerillas' involvement in the drug trade--military aid used for counter-insurgency operations is synonymous with counter-narcotics aid. The administration's interchangeable use of the terms "military aid" and "counter-narcotics aid" is also parroted in the mainstream press. In his July 10 article, Farah, for example, writes that Colombia "will receive $300 million in U.S. counter-drug aid this year, making it the third-largest military aid recipient in the world, after Israel and Egypt."

After listening to the administration's claims as well as those of much of the mainstream press, some might find the case put forth by the administration to be convincing. The story begins to fall apart, however, when inconvenient little facts emerge about the collusion of broad sectors of the Colombian military with brutal right-wing paramilitary organizations that are deeply immersed in the drug trade, even more so than the guerillas. While guerillas of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are known to tax local cocaine traffickers and protect coca-growing and refining by peasants, it is clear that many of the leaders of the paramilitary organizations are outright traffickers.

Even some mainstream publications, such as the New York Times and The Economist, have pointed out that the paramilitaries are more directly involved in the drug trade than the guerillas. In regards to military aid to Colombia, the February 20 editorial in the Economist states, "Strangely, no such hardware is being aimed at these guerillas' bitter foes, the right-wing paramilitary groups. Yet they and the traffickers they protect are far deeper into drugs--and the DEA knows it." According to The Economist editorial, the paramilitaries are seen by the administration as the only people remotely capable of containing the guerillas. Of course, the administration denies this, and publicly states that it wants the paramilitary leaders to be captured. But if the purpose of military aid to Colombia is to end drug-trafficking, why isn't there any talk of providing the Colombian army with satellite images of paramilitary encampments in Northern Colombia, where paramilitaries and big drug traffickers operate with relative impunity? Why doesn't the administration wage a propaganda war against "narco-paramilitaries," just as it does against "narco-guerillas"?

With the exception of editorials in The Economist, The New York Times (May 15), and The Christian Science Monitor (June 22), the mainstream coverage of the situation in Colombia has been generally poor. While paramilitaries are guilty of the vast majority of human rights abuses against civilians, that is not the picture that is presented in most of the mainstream press. Most articles pertaining to human rights in Colombia are about kidnappings carried out by the guerillas. Such kidnappings are prevalent, and certainly should be condemned, but the relative absence of articles about army and paramilitary abuses gives one an extremely skewed view of what is happening in Colombia. Stories within the mainstream press about army and paramilitary repression against trade unionists, for example, are few and far between.

Colombia is, by far, the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 98 of the 123 trade unionists who were murdered in 1998--and more than a third of all unionists assassinated over the past decade--were Colombians. The Colombia Labor Monitor claims that over 400 Colombian teachers have been murdered in the past five years, and that most of the murders of unionists have been linked to right-wing death squads and the security forces of Colombia. Only one suspect was ever charged by the Colombian state for any of these assassinations. In addition to the outright murder of many unionists, the repression against unions involves threats, torture, police raids, phone tapping, destruction of union headquarters and permanent violations of collective bargaining agreements. The fact that the above-mentioned information is virtually impossible to find in mainstream press accounts demonstrates the anti-labor and pro-administration biases of much of the mainstream media.

The overall picture provided by the administration and much of the mainstream press is of a counter-drug war in Colombia. The emphasis on guerilla kidnappings might also give one the impression that the administration is supporting a fight against human rights abuses. The whole story is exposed as a farce, however, when one learns that the U.S.-supported Colombian army routinely colludes with paramilitaries who are implicated in drug-trafficking as well as the bulk of human rights abuses. Whether or not the Clinton administration and much of the mainstream press can keep up the farce about a so-called "counter-narcotics" operation depends upon whether or not workers, teachers, and people of conscience take it upon themselves to mobilize and expose the fact that the American government is assisting in the brutal repression of Colombian civil society. The lives of thousands of Colombians are at stake.

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