Colombia's Dirty War Is America's War Too
Now that the plebiscite has narrowly rejected a peace deal between the government of Colombia and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), those on on the frontlines of the country’s 52-year-old war are grappling with an uncertain future.
The triumph of the “no” campaign emboldens the right-wing alliance forged by Senator Ãlvaro Uribe, the former president who oversaw an escalation in military killings of civilians and mass surveillance of human rights defenders during one of many dark periods in the country’s war. Meanwhile, the breaking news that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, an active participant in the process, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, signals international support for an end to the conflict, albeit via a one-sided endorsement of a man with a harrowing human rights record. Still reeling from the referendum, social movement organizations are calling for a national dialogue, in which indigenous communities, peasants and victims of the war are granted a seat at the table—and a chance to salvage peace.
Amid this climate, a key party to the country’s war—the United States—has largely avoided scrutiny. The biggest outside player in Colombia, the U.S. government has spent decades bankrolling the Colombian military and directly intervening in the country, securing access to seven military bases and maintaining close relationships with heads of state as they committed gross war crimes.
“In terms of the process we are facing now, as we move towards a real justice with peace, it will be important to know the truth, to understand what happened,” Lyda Fernanda Forero, a Colombia-based researcher with the Transnational Institute, told AlterNet. “The history has been monopolized from one side to minimize the role of the United States. It is important to rebuild the truth, rebuild our memories, so that we can start the process of reconciliation.”
Cold War, War on Drugs, War on Terror
Mario Murillo, the author of the book Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization, told AlterNet that the U.S. “has a direct hand” in driving the past half-century of war in Colombia. “The U.S. policy in Colombia has focused on the military strategic alliance with armed forces, the security apparatus and intelligence services in the name of U.S. national security,” he said. “First this was done under the Cold War, then there was the War on Drugs and then, since 2001, it became part of the War on Terror.”
As part of his declaration of a War on Drugs, former President George H.W. proclaimed in 1989: “The besieged governments of the drug-producing countries are fighting back, fighting to break the international drug rings…We have a responsibility not to leave our brave friends in Colombia to fight alone.”
According to Murillo, Bush kept his word. “That drug war not only involved targeting the FARC, but also the expansion of the paramilitary groups, that worked in alliance with the Colombian military and large landowners that were threatened by the FARC,” said Murillo. “This led to the expansion of the dirty war that massacred people all over the country. This also led to the militarization of the FARC, which is not to embrace what they did.”
However, such policies were not limited to republicans in the White House. In the late 1990s, while the Conservative president AndrÃ©s Pastrana was engaged in peace negotiations with the FARC, President Bill Clinton passed a $1.3 billion military aid package known as “Plan Colombia.” In championing the plan, Clinton proclaimed at a May 2000 address to the Council of the Americas that “Colombia's drug traffickers directly threaten America's security.”
Human rights and labor lawyer Dan Kovalik told AlterNet that Plan Colombia “helped derail the peace process” and ultimately “ushered in the Uribe years”—which would last from 2002 to 2010. The Uribe administration was known for its cozy relationship with rightwing paramilitary organizations responsible for perpetrating rapes and massacres on a large scale. In the early 2000s, his administration granted sweeping amnesty to paramilitary groups, which continue to play a significant role in Colombia today.
President Uribe also oversaw the mass surveillance of human rights defenders and dissidents, as well as a dramatic rise in the Colombian military’s extrajudicial killings of civilians. Under Uribe’s watch, between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian military carried out at least 3,000 “false positive” killings, in which state forces killed civilians and reported them as combatant killings, in order to boost numbers for their war against guerillas. Notably, Santos was defense minister under Uribe starting in 2006, and the organization “Mothers of Soacha,” which campaigns for victims, says he had a hand in the mass killings.
Throughout this period, Uribe maintained close ties with U.S. President George W. Bush, even receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 2009. The award outraged human rights organizations, including Latin American Working Group and Refugees International, which wrote a joint statement declaring: “The Bush administration has consistently turned a blind eye to Colombia’s serious human rights violations. Its selection of Uribe to receive this award only further tarnishes the Bush administration’s own reputation on human rights issues in the region.”
Meanwhile, Plan Colombia—initiated under Clinton and continued under Bush and Obama—continued to escalate the country’s war.
The Latin America Working Group estimates, “Since the start of Plan Colombia, more than 6 million people were victimized, more than 4 million people were displaced, more than 4,300 civilians were murdered allegedly by government security forces to up the body count, more than 1,000 trade unionists and 400 human rights defenders were murdered, and countless women suffered sexual violence.” A report released in 2010 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the U.S. Office on Colombia identifies “alarming links between Colombian military units that receive U.S. assistance and civilian killings committed by the army.”
According to an investigation published in 2013 by Washington Post journalist Dana Priest, Plan Colombia has handed over more than $9 billion in mostly military aid. Some of that cash was funneled to a covert CIA program “that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders” and conduct surveillance, writes Priest. This program was initiated under President George W. Bush and continued by Obama.
Yet, the Obama administration does not appear to have reckoned with this troubling legacy. As recently as February 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Plan Colombia as “a great success story.” He said: “In the 1990s we worked very hard on Plan Colombia, and it was controversial at the time, but it resulted in assisting this transformation to take place, together with the extraordinary courage of the people of Colombia, who really fought to reclaim their country.”
"A great deal of the repression, dirty war tactics, and strength of paramilitary groups in Colombia has to do with the United States," Alirio Uribe Munoz, Congressman for the left opposition party Polo Democratico Alternative, told AlterNet. "In the worst years of dirty war in Colombia, when President Uribe was persecuting social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition politicians, when the para-politics scandal emerged, when extrajudicial executions were commonplace, he had the unconditional support of the United States."
A Militarized Plan for Peace
Now, the Obama administration publicly says it is supporting Colombia’s peace process. In February, Obama announced what he called a “new framework for bilateral cooperation in the event of a peace accord with the FARC: Peace Colombia.” A fact sheet released by the White House states:
Peace Colombia will focus future U.S. assistance under three pillars: 1) consolidating and expanding progress on security and counternarcotics while reintegrating the FARC into society; 2) Expanding state presence and institutions to strengthen the rule of law and rural economies, especially in former conflict areas; and 3) Promoting justice and other essential services for conflict victims. As part of that framework and to support the peace accord implementation, the President will request more than $390 million in FY 2017 bilateral foreign assistance. The Administration will also request funds in FY 2017 for other ongoing programs that would contribute to Peace Colombia goals such as humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations and Department of Defense counternarcotics programs that, if enacted by the Congress, would increase our overall level of effort to over $450 million.
While the details are scarce, Obama’s statement indicates that Peace Colombia, which shares a name with a separate civil society initiative, will carry forward some of the militarized, security state policies from Plan Colombia. Such measures are included despite the fact that human rights organizations, including Amnesty International USA, have repeatedly called for a complete halt to U.S. military aid to Colombia over the state’s role in human rights abuses.
Lisa Haugaard, executive director for Latin America Working Group, told AlterNet that “after funding the war, the United States should be funding a peace process.” But, she added, “we would obviously want to see a more dramatic reorientation of U.S. assistance than is in Plan Colombia. This still contains too much military aid. It should be aid for peace.”
Given the outcome of Colombia’s referendum, the future of Peace Colombia is unclear. On October 5, in the aftermath of the referendum, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “I’m not aware of any significant changes that will be made to this peace proposal based on the outcome of the plebiscite.”
Yet, at the very least, the Obama administration does not appear to be pivoting away from longstanding policy in the country. Meanwhile, there are signs that a future administration could continue the trajectory of Plan Colombia. Speaking at a campaign stop in New Hampshire last year, Hillary Clinton said:
We have an example of how effective the United States can be. When my husband was president, as you remember, there was a war going on in Colombia by drug traffickers and insurgent rebels. ... And we did something called Plan Colombia. Where we helped the government figure out how to secure their country from drug traffickers and rebels. And it took a number of years but now it’s a success story.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, has said little about the U.S. role in the country.
'Peace With Social and Environmental Justice'
While the Obama administration has publicly support the peace deal, Kovalik called this support tepid, noting that the U.S. did not appoint its Envoy, Bernard Aronson, until February 20, 2015. According to Kovalik, this was “pretty late in the game.”
Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers have openly allied themselves with Uribe’s “no” campaign.
“The U.S. should continue to support Colombia's efforts to eliminate narcoterrorists and traffickers, but the Obama Administration should not use any of this money to support a peace deal rejected by the Colombian people,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) said in the immediate aftermath of the referendum.
And U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., cheered Colombians for rejecting a deal that she calls “weak.” She proclaimed that “FARC members must be held accountable for their horrific crimes and give up the fortune they have accumulated from drug trafficking, extortions and kidnappings.”
Curiously, the organization Human Rights Watch emerged during the weeks leading up to the vote as an ally of the “no,” with ï»¿ JosÃ© Miguel Vivanco, the head of HRW’s Americas Watch division, vocally opposing “justice” provisions in the deal. “
ï»¿“Vivanco agreed with Uribe by offering the most dire reading of the agreement possible, saying that perpetrators—in the FARC and the military—of human-rights violations would receive immunity,” Greg Grandin writes for the Nation. “Vivanco was all over the press in Colombia, with his comments used to build opposition to the accords.”
Neil Martin, executive director of the Colombia-based organization PASO International, told AlterNet that “Vivanca could not stomach the possibility of FARC leaders going free, and his short-sighted criticism of the peace agreement helped the far right win a major political victory on Sunday. It really calls the intelligence of Human Rights Watch’s strategies into question. This is particularly sad coming from a U.S.-based organization given that, in spite of the longtime U.S. role funding the war in Colombia, the Obama administration ostensibly supported the peace agreement and was committed to helping fund its implementation.”
Forero argues that, given the U.S. role in Colombia, “people in the United States should support the demands for peace with social and environmental justice from the social movements in Colombia. And when possible, come to our communities. And support demands like continuing the agreement with the FARC, the ELN [National Liberation Army] and other other guerilla groups.”
In light of the gargantuan task they now face, Forero says the Nobel prize should have gone to the peasants, indigenous people and human rights defenders who have been forced to endure a brutal war, and are on the front lines of trying to secure real peace. Victims of the U.S., Colombian government and FARC were among those campaigning for a yes vote to the peace deal. “I know that the international community is trying to support the peace process in Colombia,” she said, “but perhaps Santos is not the best person to receive the prize.”
Dan Kovalik, quoted in this article, contributed research to this report.