Fw: U.S. War on Terrorism in Colombia

U.S. Doesn't Mind Terrorists in Colombia

There's a new group on the State Department's official list of terrorist
organizations. But unlike the ones calling for an Islamic jihad against the
United States, this group says it supports U.S. goals. And it works closely
with the government that is the Western Hemisphere's largest recipient of
U.S. military aid.

The rightwing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) also
happens to be responsible for the bulk of massacres, assassinations and
threats that have forced more than 2 million rural Colombians to flee their
homes since the late 1980s. Secretary of State Colin Powell said September
10 that designating the AUC as terrorist should "leave no doubt that the
United States considers terrorism to be unacceptable, regardless of the
political or ideological purpose." Two leftwing guerrilla groups, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation
Army (ELN), have been on the list since its 1997 creation.

U.S. disapproval of rightwing terrorism may surprise AUC leaders, who say
they're a crucial part of Plan Colombia, the antiguerrilla, antinarcotics
military drive bankrolled by more than $1 billion from U.S. taxpayers. In
the southern province of Putumayo, where Plan Colombia is focused, an AUC
chief known as "Commander Wilson" told reporters in April that the
initiative "would be almost impossible" without paramilitary forces. Wilson,
a former army soldier, told the San Francisco Chronicle that AUC leaders and
military officials together mapped out Plan Colombia strategies and that he
reports daily to the military about his units' movements.

The AUC's terrorist designation also will interest top Colombian military
commanders, taught by U.S. advisors over the years that paramilitary
surrogates are highly effective against guerrillas. A 1996 report by Human
Rights Watch described Colombia's military-paramilitary partnership as "a
sophisticated mechanism, in part supported by years of advice, training,
weaponry and official silence by the United States, that allows the
Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny

The U.S. role in that strategy dates back almost four decades. The Human
Rights Watch report quotes a 1962 U.S. Army Special Warfare School
recommendation that Colombia "execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or
terrorist activities against known communist proponents" and that the
partnership with paramilitary groups "be backed by the United States."

In the 1980s the paramilitary groups forged tight alliances with the heads
of Colombia's burgeoning drug industry, who snapped up huge rural tracts and
joined cattle ranchers and other rural entrepreneurs in Colombia's
landholding elite. Leftwing guerrillas, especially the FARC, waged
kidnapping and extortion campaigns in the same areas. Responding to this
harassment, drug traffickers such as Pablo Escobar and Gonzalo Rodríguez
Gacha showered funds on paramilitary networks. To enhance their firepower
and skills, paramilitary chiefs recruited Israeli and British mercenaries.

In 1990 a team of representatives from the U.S. Embassy's Military Group,
the U.S. Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA
helped reorganize Colombia's "intelligence" networks, according to the Human
Rights Watch report. The DIA attaché in Bogotá at the time admitted U.S.
officials knew from news accounts and military reports that Colombian
military members "were still working with paramilitaries." Based on
recommendations from the U.S. team, according to Human Rights Watch, the
Colombian military ordered commanders to set up 41 secret networks and avoid
leaving any paper trail.

In the 11 years since, paramilitary groups have grown to an estimated 8,000
members from less than 1,000. They engage more directly in battle with
guerrillas for control of territory and drug profits. They travel freely by
helicopter and plane. They have organized openly into a national
association, complete with a Web site, and are demanding the ability to run
in local elections and participate in national peace talks. In parts of
Colombia, they have built broad support for the antiguerrilla cause.

These paramilitary groups also routinely assassinate unionists, campesino
leaders, human rights activists, judges, progressive politicians and
journalists; attack residents of resource-rich or strategic rural areas; and
slaughter and displace entire communities of unarmed civilians. In the late
1980s and early 1990s, paramilitaries obliterated the leftwing Patriotic
Union party, systematically assassinating thousands of its candidates and

This year has been as bloody as ever. Paramilitary squads killed an average
of 132 people per month between January and April, according to the
Colombian government. Some of the worst violence came Easter week, when
paramilitary attacks killed 128 people. In one of those attacks, government
forces failed to stop 400 chainsaw-wielding paramilitary members from
butchering 40 campesinos and indigenous people near the southwestern hamlet
of Alto Naya. U.S. and Colombian human rights groups have methodically
documented the massacres, and Colombian judicial investigations have
corroborated military complicity.

Yet U.S. military aid to Colombia has ballooned from an average of $60
million a year between 1992 and 1995 to the $567 million President George W.
Bush is requesting for 2002. That's on top of the $1.3 billion for Plan
Colombia that President Bill Clinton signed last year.

The U.S. Congress did seek to pressure the Colombian military to sever its
paramilitary links and curb their attacks, hinging the Plan Colombia aid on
human rights protection. The Clinton administration waived the human rights
conditions and disbursed the aid, citing U.S. "national security" interests.
Still, Colombian President Andrés Pastrana's administration has felt
compelled to take unprecedented steps against paramilitary networks. In the
past year, his government has dismissed hundreds of members of security
forces, arrested a retired general and lieutenant colonel for allegedly
organizing paramilitary militias, captured dozens of paramilitary fighters
and raided the offices and accounts of some northern ranchers believed to
fund them.

The State Department designation of the AUC as terrorist could have
pressured Colombia to go further, but we may never know. The equation
changed on September 11. Now the Bush administration is pressing Congress to
waive human rights restrictions on aid to countries allied with the U.S. war
against terrorism. If history is any guide, no matter how the State
Department classifies the AUC, the United States won't be forcing the
Colombian government to cut its bloody paramilitary ties anytime soon.