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Colombia's 'Narco-Presidente'

By Jerry Meldon
June 1, 2006

Across South America, voters – fed up with what many see as deep-seated economic inequality and political injustice – have rejected Washington’s preferred candidates and elected populist or center-left alternatives. But Colombia’s reelection of President Alvaro Uribe Velez has bucked that regional trend.

Winning about 60 percent of the vote on May 28, Uribe now stands as South America’s last right-wing head of state, a lonely voice siding with George W. Bush. Diminutive and thin-skinned, the 53-year-old Uribe also remains an anti-communist hard-liner fighting an insurgency dating back to the Cold War.

Uribe’s reelection sets the stage, too, for a new round of confrontation between the Bush administration and the populist government of Hugo Chavez from oil-rich Venezuela, which borders Colombia to the east and which has spearheaded the region’s drive for greater independence from the policies of Washington and the International Monetary Fund.

Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have threatened to boil over in recent years, with Colombian officials accusing Venezuela of supporting leftist guerillas known as the FARC and Venezuelans suspecting Colombia of aiding U.S. efforts to destabilize and eliminate the Chavez government, which has withstood several coup attempts.

In the past few months, evidence has emerged to support some of those Venezuelan suspicions. Rafael Garcia, a cashiered official of Colombia’s federal police agency (DAS), alleged that the DAS plotted to assassinate Chavez.

Garcia, the former DAS chief of information systems, was accused of taking bribes to erase police files that incriminated right-wing paramilitary leaders. He then went public describing the Colombian plot to kill Chavez, as well as DAS help for narco-traffickers connected to a right-wing “death squad,” the United Self-Defense Forces, known as the AUC.

Garcia also alleged that the AUC murdered union activists and engineered voter fraud four years ago to help Uribe get elected.

Uribe lashed out at the press for printing Garcia’s accusations, but other Colombian officials vowed to clean up DAS corruption. The new DAS director Andres Penate boasted of firing 49 DAS officials suspected of wrongdoing.

But Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said Penate faces a tough challenge because “the DAS has been fully penetrated by drug traffickers and paramilitary mafias.” [Reuters, April 20, 2006]

Landslide Victory

In the May 28 election, despite these allegations, Uribe won a landslide victory over left-of-center Democratic Pole candidate Carlos Gaviria. Despite a late surge in popularity at the expense of a centrist candidate, Gaviria came in a distant second with 20 percent. But public enthusiasm for Uribe was less than overwhelming, with 55 percent of eligible voters abstaining from voting.

To many of these Colombians, Uribe has failed to live up to his press clippings, at least those common in the mainstream U.S. news media, hailing him as a popular, Harvard-educated, free-market stalwart and Washington’s No. 1 ally in the “drug war.”

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and its Colombian counterparts, Colombia remains the dominant source for cocaine and heroin in the U.S. market. Some estimates indicate that Colombia produces 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States and 60 percent of the heroin (much of the rest coming from Afghanistan since Washington ousted the Taliban government after 9/11 and restored power to Afghan warlords. 

DEA and other drug authorities also believe that the biggest share of Colombia's multibillion-dollar northbound drug trade is controlled by the paramilitary AUC, the violent right-wing group with which Uribe’s government has allegedly collaborated.

Garcia, the former DAS official, alleged that AUC thugs used intimidation and fraud to give Uribe 300,000 of his 5.3 million votes in the 2002 election. During Uribe’s first term, the AUC also appears to have increased its penetration of key government agencies, including the DAS, roughly the equivalent of Colombia’s FBI.

In its reliance on Washington’s advice and in its continuing counterinsurgency war, Colombia also seems stuck in a Cold War political/economic model. Yet, despite U.S. investment of billions of dollars, most of it through what was known as “Plan Colombia,” the problem with the political violence and the drug trafficking never seems to get much better and arguably gets worse.

As author Peter Dale Scott notes in his 2003 book, Drugs, Oil and War, “U.S. involvement in Colombia has escalated by stages since the original commitment to a counterinsurgency program under the Kennedy administration… At every stage, U.S. programs have aggravated the problem they are attempting to deal with.”

History of Violence

Colombia’s long history of violence – the origins of which Scott lays at the doorstep of a feudalistic oligarchy that dispossessed peasants and subjugated laborers with impunity – predates the first U.S. intervention in the early 1960s. (The 15-year-long “La Violencia” period began with the 1948 assassination of a popular presidential candidate.)

Furthermore, the crystallization of what had previously been a fragmented left-wing underground into an armed revolutionary guerilla movement, occurred in response, not prior, to U.S. intervention.

Washington intervened in Colombia after the Indochinese and Cuban revolutions of the 1950s. Throughout the Cold War, but particularly then and in the Reagan era, the U.S. government viewed political developments through red-tinted glasses, seeing evidence of Soviet expansionism in every revolutionary movement.

Determined to block another revolution in Latin America, Washington applied new CIA counterinsurgency techniques in Colombia.

“In February 1962,” Scott writes, “a U.S. Special Warfare team, headed by General William Yarborough, visited [Colombia] for two weeks.” Following that visit, “the Special Warfare experts at Fort Bragg rushed to instruct the Colombian army in …counterinsurgency techniques…

“[Gen. Yarborough] recommended development of a ‘civil and military structure… to perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execution, sabotage, and/or terrorist activities [emphasis added] against known communist proponents. … In the wake of Yarborough’s visit, a series of training teams arrived, contributing to the Colombian Army’s Plan Lazo, a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan implemented between 1962 and 1965.”

As result, according to counterinsurgency historian Michael McClintock, “The banditry of the early 1960s…was transformed into organized revolutionary guerilla warfare after 1965, which has continued to date.”

Worse yet, Plan Lazo also spawned the paramilitary death squads that today control much of the narcotics traffic and about 30 percent of the Colombian legislature.

A key element of Fort Bragg’s concept of counterinsurgency, according to training manuals cited by Scott, was “the organization of ‘self-defense units’ and other paramilitary groups, including ‘hunter-killer teams.’ The thinking and nomenclature of these field manuals were translated and cited in the Colombian army’s counter-guerilla manual, Reglamento de Combate de Contraguerillas.

“It defined the self-defense group (junta de auto-defensa) as ‘an organization of a military nature made up of select civilian personnel from the combat zone who are trained and equipped to carry out actions against groups of guerillas.’ The autodefensas [as the paramilitaries became known] have been a scourge ever since.”

More Fires

In the 1970s, Washington continued to pour fuel onto Colombia’s fires.

The CIA, Scott writes, “offered further training to Colombian and other Latin American police officers at its so-called bomb school in Los Fresnos, Texas. There AID [the Agency for International Development], under the CIA’s so-called Public Safety Program, taught a curriculum including ‘Terrorist Concepts; Terrorist Devices; Fabrication and Functioning of Devices’ Improvised Triggering Devices; Incendiaries,’ and ‘Assassination Weapons: A discussion of various weapons which may be used by the assassin.’ During congressional hearings, AID officials admitted that the so-called bomb school offered lessons not in bomb disposal but in bomb making.

“Trained terrorist counterrevolutionaries thus became assets of the Colombian security apparatus. They were also employed by U.S. corporations anxious to protect their workforces from unionization as well as in anti-union campaigns by Colombian suppliers to large U.S. corporations. Oil companies in particular have been part of the state-coordinated campaign against left-wing guerillas.”

According to more mainstream versions of how the “death squads” were born, rich landowners living in fear of kidnapping by leftist guerillas paid protection money to right-wing militias. By 1981, the right-wing militias had morphed into civilian-murdering squads operating alongside the Colombian army.

Scott notes that the leftist guerillas also kidnapped drug kingpins, who joined with the army and established a training school for a nationwide counterterrorist network, Muerte a Sequestradores (MAS, Death to Kidnappers).

The traffickers put up the money and the generals contracted for Israeli and British mercenaries to come to Colombia to run the school. A leading graduate was Carlos Castano, who later became head of the AUC, which carried out the murders of hundreds of civilian opposition leaders and peace activists.

The Colombian legislature outlawed the autodefensas in 1989. But, according to a 1996 report by Human Rights Watch, the CIA and Colombian authorities cloned new ones.

Writing in the Progressive in 1998, Frank Smyth reported that “In the name of fighting drugs, the CIA financed new military intelligence networks [in Colombia] in 1991. But the new networks did little to stop drug traffickers. Instead, they incorporated illegal paramilitary groups into their ranks and fostered death squads.

“These death squads killed trade unionists, peasant leaders, human-rights workers, journalists and other suspected ‘subversives.’ The evidence, including secret Colombian military documents, suggests that the CIA may be more interested in fighting a leftist resistance movement than in combating drugs.”

Implicated Americans

Some U.S. Army personnel also appear to have been corrupted by the easy drug money. Laurie Hiatt, wife of Col. James Hiatt, the Army’s top counter-narcotics official in Colombia, was arrested for smuggling cocaine to New York City.

Hiatt, who was regularly briefed the U.S. military’s anti-drug spy flights, was himself convicted for helping his wife launder drug profits.

While FARC guerillas have financed their operations by taxing coca farmers in the south, right-wing AUC paramilitaries in the north have controlled actual cocaine production and transportation to the U.S. – in partnership with Colombia’s corrupt armed forces.

In November 1998, a military plane that never left the Colombian air force’s hands landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with 1,600 pounds of cocaine. Just last week Colombian soldiers ambushed and wiped out an elite 10-member police counter-narcotics team and their informer, as they were about to make a major drug seizure.

Other evidence also points to links between drug lords and Uribe’s inner circle.

Between 1997 and 1998, U.S. Custom agents in California seized three Colombia-bound ships carrying 25 tons of potassium permanganate, a key precursor chemical in the production of cocaine, NarcoNews reported in 2002. The 25 tons were enough to produce 500,000 kilos of cocaine with a U.S. street value of $15 billion.

All three shipments were headed for GMP Productos Quimicos in Medellin, whose owner according to the DEA was Pedro Juan Moreno, Uribe’s former campaign manager, chief of staff and right-hand man.

While chief of staff to Uribe, Moreno set up armed vigilante groups known as CONVIVIRS (Rural Vigilence Committees). According to Amnesty International, CONVIVIRS was a cover for government-funded training camps and recruiting agencies for paramilitary death squads.

They committed so many bloody massacres that Colombia’s government was forced to ban CONVIVIRS in 1997. But instead of turning in their weapons, they were allowed to join Carlos Castano’s AUC paramilitary organization.

Under Uribe, the Colombian military has focused on subduing FARC, especially in regions where Occidental Petroleum and other U.S. companies are extracting oil. It also helped Uribe’s re-election that, at least partly as result of that focus, kidnappings and other crimes went down sharply.

The Drug Apple Cart

However, six years later, after Washington's investment of $4 billion in Plan Colombia and additional hundreds of millions in its wake, the supply of cocaine to the North American market has hardly been dented. That’s because Uribe has done little to upset the AUC apple cart.

Uribe did push through legislation called the “Justice and Peace Law,” which ostensibly was designed to demobilize the AUC.

In a May 26, 2006, editorial, the New York Times wrote that the law “was supposed to offer paramilitary fighters incentives to put down their guns… [but] instead… let them continue their criminal activities undisturbed…

“Now the Constitutional Court has strengthened the demobilization law … [requiring that AUC members] confess in full to their crimes and provide the authorities with the information necessary to dismantle these criminal gangs. The court also struck down a provision that would have given prosecutors a cripplingly short time to prepare cases.”

Significantly, the editorial continues, “Uribe’s administration has twice written bills that restrict the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court, which is the most important remaining check on the president’s power. Uribe may try again if he is elected to a second term on Sunday.

“He enjoys the backing of Washington, which considers him a counterweight to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The American ambassador, William Wood, has enthusiastically supported Mr. Uribe’s sweetheart deal for the paramilitaries.”

Now Colombians have re-elected Uribe who, like his good friend and fellow Ivy Leaguer, George Bush, models himself after absolute monarchs like Louis XV of France who is said to have declared, “Après moi le deluge” (after me, the flood; his heir, Louis XVI, was toppled by the French Revolution and ultimately decapitated).

Uribe, before the May 28 vote, simply warned his countrymen, “it’s either me or catastrophe.”


Jerry Meldon is an associate professor (chemical and biological engineering) at Tufts University in Massachusetts.


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