Biowarfare in Colombia

Hostile intentions toward the people of another country. Deployment of chemical weapons and biological agents. Pursuit of a scorched earth policy. Sound like Saddam’s Iraq? Think again. This neatly capsulizes the Bush administration’s ongoing depredations in Colombia, all under the shady banner of the war on drugs.

The big difference is that Saddam’s hideous use of poison gas against the Kurds and, most likely, against Iran occurred more than 15 years ago. Since the Gulf War, Saddam’s mad pursuits have been more on the order of chemistry experiments in bombed out basements. But the Bush administration’s toxic war on Colombian peasants is happening now, day after day, in flippant violation of international law.

Indeed, as Bush offers pious homilies on Iraq’s possible hoarding of so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, his administration and its backers from both parties in congress are poised to unleash a new wave toxins in the mountains of Colombia, including a dangerous brew of biological weapons its proponents rather quaintly call mycoherbicides. Let us call it: Agent Green.

The leading germ war hawk in the congress these days is Rep. Bob Mica, a Republican from Florida. In mid-December, Mica called on his pals in the Bush administration to uncork a currently banned batch of killer fungi and begin a campaign of saturation spraying. “We have to restore our mycoherbicide,” Mica fumed. “Things that have been studied for too long need to be put into action. We found that we can not only spray this stuff, but we found that we can also deactivate it for some period of time-it will do a lot of damage-it will eradicate some of these crops for a substantial period of time.”

Of course, Agent Green also kills everything else it touches. There’s not even a pretense to call these germ bomblets “smart fungi.” This is the drug war as it might be waged by Dr. Mengele. Mica’s bracing call for an unfettered germ war on Colombia should jotted down by junior legal eagles with dreams of becoming future prosecutors of war crimes.

But Mica is far from a lone crazed voice. Even the perpetually conflicted Colin Powell is on record supporting the use of biological agents as a key part of Plan Colombia. Indeed, Anne Peterson, the US ambassador to Bogota, testified recently that she believed bio-weapons had already been deployed in Colombia. Bizarrely, she later retracted this chilling observation, saying that it had been made under duress. Ms. Peterson didn’t say who had applied the thumbscrews.

Then there’s Rand Beers, one of the few holdovers at the State Department from Clintontime. It’s easy to see why this biowar zealot appealed to the Bush crowd. Back in the late 90s, Beers was all for using germ weapons on crops in drug-producing countries. Now, as Assistant Secretary of State for narcotics, Beers trots across the globe to various international conferences where he invariably is forced to defend this toxic footnote to Plan Colombia against critics who charge that it violates, among other treaties, the Biological Weapons Convention. Beers often says that the toxic weapons are needed to fight international crime syndicates. This heady bit of sophistry is hardly an exemption from the prohibitions, which, it must be pointed out, the Bush administration doesn’t believe in anyway, even though they are trigger-happy to invoke its provisions against enemy states, such as Iraq.

So, as in Macbeth, sin plucks on sin.

Agent Green is a genetically engineered pathogenic fungi, conjured up by the US Department of Agriculture’s experiment station in Beltsville, Maryland. It is now being produced with US funds by Ag/Bio Company, a private lab in Bozeman, Montana and at a former Soviet bioweapons factory in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The labs are brewing up two types of killer fungi, Fusarium oxysporum (slated for use against marijuana and coca plants) and Pleospora papveracea (engineered to destroy opium poppies).

The problem is that both fungi are indiscriminate killers, posing threats to human health and to non-target species. Add to this the fact that when sprayed from airplanes and helicopters, Agent Green will be carried by winds and inevitably drift over coffee plantations, fields, farms, villages, and water supplies.

Agent Green also threatens the ecology of the Colombian rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse on the planet. These forests harbor a greater variety of species per acre than any country’s. But the Colombian forests are already under frightful siege from gold mining, oil companies, logging outfits and cattle ranching. By one count, Colombia has already lost more than a third of its primary forest and continues to lose forest at a rate of 3000 square miles (or nearly 2 million acres) a year. It’s possible that the Agent Green operation may saturate more than a million acres of Colombian rainforest, with potentially devastating ecological consequences for endemic wildlife and plants.

So it’s likely that Amazonia could become collateral damage in the Bushites’ bio-war adventurism.

This grim prospect may place the US in squarely in violation of yet another international treaty with which Bush, the former cocaine tooter, is charmingly unacquainted: the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques (ENMOD). ENMOD grew out of the worldwide outrage sparked by the use of Agent Orange and other environmentally malign potions plastered across Southeast Asian during the Vietnam war. Adopted by the UN in 1976 and signed by the US, ENMOD prohibits any signatory nation from using the environment as a weapon of war, which the spraying of Colombia constitutes by definition.

The US bio-bomblets can’t even be made to stay in Colombia, but, like the pesticides and fumigants already dropped, will inevitably stray across the Colombian border into Ecuador and Peru. Both nations vehemently oppose the US biowar plan and charge that it violates international law. Specifically, they cite a non-proliferation section of the Biological Warfare Convention that prohibits the transfer of germ weapons and technology from one nation to another. Presumably, the Bush administration now considers Colombia a wholly owned colony, where even remote Andean valleys are in the toxic grip of the US empire.

“If Agent Green is used anywhere, it will legitimize agricultural biowarfare in other contexts,” says Edward Hammond, director of The Sunshine Project, the anti-biowar group that has done excellent work in exposing the environmental consequences of toxic spraying in Colombia. “Reasoning in a similar manner as the US, others might prepare a biological attack on the US tobacco crop, which poisons millions worldwide, or those opposed to alcohol might target grapes or hops.”

Eradication programs are a foolhardy way of addressing problems associated with drug consumption. It doesn’t work, it oppresses the weak, and merely plays into the pockets of the drug profiteers, from the cocaine generals to the drug cartels and the banks who launder the money.

“In much of rural Colombia, there is simply no way to make a legal living,” says Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy. “Security, roads, credit, and access to markets are all missing. The most that many rural Colombians see from their government is the occasional military patrol or spray plane. When the spray planes come, they take away farmers’ illegal way of making a living, but they do not replace it with anything. That leaves the farmers with some bad choices. They can move to the cities and try to find a job, though official unemployment is already 20 percent. They can switch to legal crops on their own and risk paying more for inputs than they can get from the sale price. They can move deeper into the countryside and plant drug crops again. Or they can join the guerrillas or the paramilitaries, who will at least keep them fed.”

Of course, the drug war has little do with the real motives of this ghastly program. The truth of this can be divined in the numbers. Billions in US aid and thousands of gallons of chemical pesticides have been poured on Colombia with little dent in coca production. In fact, the flow of drugs from Colombia is increasing at a rapid clip.

Back when the Clinton administration was pushing a somewhat reluctant congress to approve its multi-billion project dubbed Plan Colombia, none other than Rand Beers swore that the spray and burn tactics would “eliminate the majority of Colombia’s opium poppy crop within three years.” Congress bought Beers’ song and dance, approving $1.3 billion dollars. (As a pre-condition for receiving the money, Congress required Colombia to begin operational testing of bioweapons. Bowing to world pressure, President Clinton waived the requirement.)

In the past five years, nearly a million acres of land in Colombia has been blitzed by pesticides and fumigants, rendered as sterile as the fields of Carthage after Scipio Africanus’ last cruel visit. But over the same period production of cocaine in Colombia has more than tripled. Opium production is also soaring, increasing by more than 60 percent since 2000. Colombia now accounts for more than 30 percent of the heroin consumed in the US.

The reason for this will be obvious to anyone who has read our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press. War, especially covert ones, and drugs go hand in hand. Colombia is mired in a three-way civil war, with each side, guerillas, paramilitaries and the government troops, funding their operations from proceeds from the sale of drugs. The bloodier the conflict, the greater the flow of drugs.

But from the beginning Plan Colombia was only ostensibly about drugs. It was really a way to use the drug war to underwrite the Colombian military’s savage war against the FARC and other rebel groups and secure US control over Colombian oil, gas and mineral reserves. The so-called eradication programs have targeted areas controlled by the FARC, rather than even larger swaths of land held by paramilitaries, serving as vicious proxy-warriors for the Colombian government.

According to Rep. Bob Barr, since the implementation of Plan Colombia at least 22 US helicopters have been shot down by Colombian rebel groups-a figure the Pentagon coyly refuses to confirm or deny. However, the State Department confirmed that last month 3 US planes were struck by groundfire on the same day.

The US presence in the war is being waged under the jurisdictional banner of the State Department, so often in the past a sign of the darker presence of the CIA and other covert warriors. In December, Colin Powell revealed his intention to up the permanent fleet of US attack helicopters in Colombia to 24. The State Department informed congress that new pilots were being trained at “a classified location” in New Mexico.

Now, it appears that the Bush administration has given Congressman Mica the greenlight to work his dark magic on the reauthorization of Plan Colombia, where he would insert language once again requiring the use of Agent Green as condition of the Colombia government getting its hands on US billions. These days they don’t even go to the bother of trying to hide the strings.

There’s plenty of evidence that Colombian government is now totally under the sway of Washington and will be only too happy to oblige, even if that means allowing the US to launch biological warfare attacks on its own peasants.

In a bracing irony, Colombia now presides over the UN Security Council, which is poised to clobber Iraq for hiding its history of bioweapon development. Indeed, it was the Colombian delegation that made the controversial call to hand over an early copy of Iraq’s weapons declaration, which the US generously returned a week later-minus 8,000 pages.

This scandalous project drones on under the radar of the mainstream press, ever loath to tackle seriously any topic wrapped in the holy robes of the drug war. Yet, what it really adds up to is a form of environmental terrorism. The toxic wasteland and human suffering left in the wake of these operations is not accidental, not, to use the fetching term of the economists, a uncomfortable externality of an otherwise benign project. Instead, it is a calculated tactic, designed to evoke fear and terror-the carpetbombing of the drug war.

Don’t say the toxic warriors in the Bush administration aren’t bibliophiles. Obviously they’ve read Silent Spring. Only not as the stark warning Rachel Carson intended, but as a war plan which they are now bent on putting into global action.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR can be reached at:


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3