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The U.S. War for Drugs of Terror in Colombia


I just had the pleasure of reading an important new book entitled, Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia.  This book, which was ten years in the making, is written by Oliver Villar & Drew Cottle and published and published by Monthly Review.  The premise of the book is that, despite the U.S. claims that it is engaged in a war against drugs in Colombia, it is in fact engaged in an anti-insurgency war against the left-wing FARC guerillas – a war which does not seek to eradicate coca growing and cocaine production in Colombia at all.

Rather, the U.S. war effort (which has cost U.S. taxpayers over $7 billion since 2000) is designed to ensure that the allies of the U.S. in Colombia — that is, the Colombian state, paramilitaries and wealthy elite who are favorable to U.S. business interests and to the U.S.’s desire for exploitation of Colombia’s vast resources — are themselves able to monopolize the drug trade so critical to their survival.

This thesis is well expressed in the Forward by Peter Dale Scott:

The CIA can (and does) point to its role in the arrest or elimination of a number of major Colombian traffickers.   These arrests have not diminished the actual flow of cocaine into the United States, which on the contrary reached a new high in 2000.  But they have institutionalized the relationship of law enforcement to rival cartels and visibly contributed to the increase of urban cartel violence.   The true purpose of most of these campaigns, like the current Plan Colombia, has not been the hopeless ideal of eradication.   It has been to alter market share:  to target specific enemies and thus ensure that the drug traffic remains under the control of those traffickers who are allies of the Colombian state security apparatus and/or the CIA.  This confirms the judgment of Senate investigator Jack Blum a decade ago, that America, instead of battling a narcotics conspiracy, has in a subtle way . . . become part of the conspiracy.

These may seem like wild claims at first blush, but the authors put this in context by reminding the reader of the history of U.S. war efforts since World War II, many of which have been financed, at least in part, through alliances with drug traffickers.   The litany of this is a long one, with the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) forming a strategic alliance with the Sicilian and Corsican mafia after World War II to prevent possible communist uprisings in Europe and to smash left-wing unions; the CIA’s assisting the Kuomintang with its opium trafficking operations to fund their joint anti-communist efforts in Asia; the CIA’s actual trafficking of opium out of Laos, Burma and Thailand to help fund the U.S. counter-insurgency effort in South East Asia; the CIA’s support of “the chief smugglers of Afghan opium, the anti-communist Mujahedin rebels in Afghanistan” in their efforts against the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, leading ultimately to Afghanistan becoming one of the largest opium suppliers in the world (a status only briefly interrupted when it was under Taliban control); and the Reagan Administration’s funding the Nicaraguan Contras (after such funding was outlawed by Congress) by, among other things, cocaine smuggling operations.

The book quotes the United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) which concludes that, today, “the biggest heroin and cocaine trading institutions in the world are the militaries of Burma, Pakistan, Mexico, Peru and Colombia – ‘all armed and trained by U.S. military intelligence in the name of anti-drug efforts.’”   In the case of Colombia, while the U.S., to justify its massive counterinsurgency program, vilifies the FARC guerillas as “narco-terrorists,” this title is more befitting of the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies.

Indeed, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who had been both the darling of the Bush and Obama Administrations, had himself been ranked by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency as number “82 on a list of 104 ‘more important narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotics cartels . . . .”

As the book explains, the U.S.’s own Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has concluded that the “FARC involvement in the drug trade mainly involves the taxation of coca, which does not involve cocaine manufacturing, trafficking, and transshipment.”   As the UNDCP explains, some FARC fronts are not involved in even the taxation of coca, and still others “’actually tell the farmers not to grow coca.’”   In terms of the actual trafficking in drugs, it is the friends of the U.S. who are largely responsible for this.  Thus, as the book notes, quoting the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, while there is “no evidence of FARC involvement in drug trafficking,” there is indeed “extensive drug smuggling to the United States by ‘right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy drug barons, the [U.S.-funded] armed forces, key financial figures and senior bureaucrats.”  And yet, the U.S. war in Colombia is focused upon destroying the FARC, and, to the extent it is aimed at the manual eradication of coca crops, this eradication takes place almost solely in areas under FARC control, leaving the big-time drug traffickers alone.

As for the right-wing paramilitary death squads, which carry out the vast majority of terrorist acts against civilian targets in Colombia, while the U.S. has accurately designated them as “terrorists,” these paramilitaries are an integral part of the military and government which the U.S. is funding and an integral part of the U.S. effort to defeat both the guerilla insurgency as well as any peaceful resistance to U.S. imperial aims.  And so, not only is the paramilitaries’ drug running tolerated by the U.S., but also their very terror.   And, what terror it is.

The book, citing Colombian investigative journalist Azalea Robles, claims that 250,000 Colombian civilians have been “disappeared” in the last two decades in Colombia, dwarfing the “disappearances” carried out (also with U.S. support by the way) by the fascist juntas of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay in the 1970’s.   According to Robles, these numbers have been “systematically reduced” (that is, hidden) by mass graves, like the one discovered in Meta in 2009, and even crematory ovens.

The murder and “disappearance” of such vast numbers of people is part and parcel of the U.S.’s policy — used most famously by the U.S. in Vietnam, El Salvador and Guatemala – to “drain the sea [the civilian population] to kill the fish [the insurgents]” which represent a continued impediment to the U.S.’s designs of super-exploitation of Colombia’s vast natural resources.  And, the U.S. view is that, if this policy also forces us to collaborate and even protect forces which are deeply involved in the drug trade, then that is acceptable as well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to carry out such a duplicitous policy in the interest of a “war on drugs and a war on terror.”  As the book properly concludes, this war is, in fact, “a war for drugs and of terror.”

Daniel Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers (USW) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at dkovalik at


Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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