Colombia’s Civil War and the US

Colombia’s civil war is the United States war in the Western Hemisphere. Each year the US provides over a half billion dollars to the Colombian police and military, and trains thousands of Colombian soldiers. Colombia is the largest recipient of US aid outside the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq. The US has nurtured the war in Colombia over many years, for the specific purpose of controlling the resources and politics of this rich nation.

Civil war has been the history of Colombia for over 40 years – poverty and/or dislocation remains the condition of the majority of its people. There are over 3 million internally displaced people in Colombia and many more have fled the country for the US, Canada, Europe and other nations in South America. Every day, 20 are killed for political reasons, and hundreds become refugees in a war that simmers and boils over periodically in massacre. When I was living in Colombia, I was fascinated by the weekly map of the war published in El Tiempo, with symbols showing the assassinations and massacres of the week, much like the weather maps in our daily papers.

Since 1964, the government has been fighting Las FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a guerrilla army that began with dozens of peasants in ragtag groups that barely survived the initial combat, but that today number 17,000 under arms. Las FARC has been labelled a terrorist group by the US, or, more recently, “narco-terrorist”. It used to be “communist”, but communism has lost its evil edge in terms of inflaming revulsion in the US masses and Congress. There have been other armed guerrilla groups over the years, some assimilated into legal society, such as M-19, and some that still fight, like the ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional).

While there has been a guerrilla army since 1964, there has been a counter-insurgency effort, sponsored by the US Army, since 1962. In the years following World War II, Colombia was identified by US foreign policy makers as a key American element in the Cold War. Its keystone geostrategic location in South America, proximity to the Panama Canal, and natural resources made it a crucial area to control. In 1948, the popular Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was primed to become the next President of Colombia. During the Pan American Conference of that year, held in Bogotá, he was assassinated in the street. The United States press and leaders incorrectly labeled the subsequent spontaneous uprising “communist”.

The social upheaval triggered by Gaitán’s murder lasted for ten years, cost an estimated 200,000 deaths, and is now known as La Violencia. During this period, the Liberals and Conservatives fought a dirty war, which saw the rise of death squads and massacres as political tools. In 1958, a power sharing agreement was reached by the elites of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. The social dynamic did not change, and many self-declared autonomous regions of the country did not cede power to the federal government. This has been a theme throughout the history of Colombia: the central government has never controlled this entire nation of a million square kilometers of rich mountain, plain and jungle. There was a great concern in the Eisenhower administration after the successful Cuban revolution in 1959. Would Colombia follow Cuba?

In 1959, a survey team was sent to Colombia by Eisenhower to investigate whether the US should start a counter-insurgency effort. The team concluded that the societal violence that remained was largely “banditry”, and that military aid was necessary. The survey team also recommended a change in doctrine, from conventional warfare to counter-insurgency. In 1961-1962, helicopters were being deployed with US instructors accompanying Colombian pilots during “Public Order” missions.

In February of 1962, General William Pelham Yarborough conducted a mission to Colombia. General Yarborough was the Commander of the US Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was responsible for obtaining approval from President Kennedy to grant special warfare units the right to wear a Green Beret. He introduced foreign troops into the training cycles at the school and unconventional warfare and anti-terrorist tactics into the curriculum. His report in 1962 stated:

“[A] concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view toward development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

General Yarborough went on to advocate the use of sodium pentothol, polygraph tests, and “exhaustive” interrogation of suspected insurgents. The Colombian military adopted his doctrine, and codified it in six manuals of counterinsurgency published in 1962, 1963, 1969, 1979, 1982, and 1987. These manuals focus on the civil population as both the source of conflict and the battlefield. For example, the 1963 manual states, “the citizen, inside this battlefield, is found in the center of the conflictwhether he/she wants it or not, they are obliged to participate in the battle, in some form to become a combatant”. The 1979 manual gives advice to the soldier: “it has to be understood that, in an irregular war, the enemy is in all places at all times.” The 1987 manual concludes: “the civil population, therefor, is one of the fundamental objectives of Army units”, and. “the conquest of the mind of the person, of control of his activities, the improvement of the standard of living and of the ability to organize against threats are respectively the objectives of the psychological and control operations of civic action and organization that are developed through all phases of counter-insurgency”. (“Deuda con la Humanidad”, published by Banco de Datos, CINEP, 2004).

Since 1962, the United States has trained and equipped this paramilitary effort, and given it cover to fight, in the name of anti-communism, any social reforms that have been proposed by Colombian civil society. Colombians form the single largest group trained at the School of the Americas, and the largest group trained in-country by US units. Military aid has been provided consistently through the decades and very vigorously since Plan Colombia began in 1999.

In the 1980’s, the cocaine economy took hold, fuelled by the huge northamerican appetite for the drug. The drug trade is dominated by the paramilitary groups, who were mobilized, increased and eventually became the drug barons who required their own private armies for protection, and who very quickly became enemies of the guerrilla groups. Billions of dollars in fast cash mutated Colombian society and corrupted every level of the economy and government. Paramilitary units became institutions, called “Blocks”, and ruled entire regions of the country. They formed alliances such as the AUC (Las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), led by multimillionaire drug dealers such as the Castaño brothers and Salvatore Mancuso. Soldiers pass between paramilitary and military service easily, and it is common for paramilitary and military units to act in concert, with the paramilitary units entering a region first with maximum brutality, leaving the land and the control to the military.

Las FARC also profitted from the drug dollars. It acts largely as a middle buyer between the campesino farmer and the drug refiner and exporter. It grew in power with the influx in cash, which enabled the purchase of arms, and the ability to pay for more soldiers. Las FARC began to challenge the Colombian Army militarily, and there were waves of negotiations through the 80’s and 90’s, none with serious intent or result.

There were also waves of repression. An entire political party, the Patriotic Union, a political offshoot of Las FARC much as Sinn Fein is of the IRA, was destroyed by the paramilitaries in what is now being investigated as a “political genocide”. Paramilitary groups through the mid-1980 assassinated thousands of Patriotic Union members, who had been assured of their rights to participate in the political process. This massacre ended a real opportunity to end non-violently the civil war, and created increased scepticism in the leadership of the armed groups of any hope for a real negotiation.

Colombia is a very dangerous nation for union organizers, journalists, human rights workers, anyone trying to organize in civil society for social change or an end to the war. The assassinations continue daily and the United States support for this system has remained constant over the decades. The US/Colombia program of military action and violence as a solution to the civil war culminated in the Clinton Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia pumped over $4 billion in military aid in 5 years into the conflict, caused enormous environmental and human damage with a misguided fumigation policy, and failed miserably in controlling the civil war, the violence, or the drug trade. Cocaine in the US is actually cheaper today than in 1999, when Bill Clinton ushered his murderous policy through Congress.

Bush’s friend, President Alvaro Uribe, leads Colombia in 2007. As Governor of the Department of Antioquia during the 90’s, Uribe implemented a classic and sinsister paramilitary program known as Convivir that armed and equipped civilians to aid the Army in its fight against insurgents. He is in his second term as President, and is popular among elite voters who appreciate his “hard hand’ policies. He is linked to Colombian legislators, military officers and bureacrats who have aided paramilitaries, as revealed in recent news from Colombia. While he has yet to be directly identified as a paramilitary, it is the difference in Colombia between a nod and a wink as to whether he has paramilitary support and connections or is just surrounded by others who do.

Much has been made of the recent paramilitary negotiations and demobilizations, sponsored by the Uribe administration. As Javier Giraldo points out in his book, Guerra o Democracia (War or Democracy), the phemonomon of governmental dialog or negotiation with the paramilitary institutions is not new. It has happened before, for example, in 1995, under the Samper government. The government and the system are based on the power of the extrajudicial ability of the paramilitaries to protect wealth and maintain themselves in power. Giraldo correctly points out this is a form of “state schizophrenia”. A government claims to be negotiating with an outside party, believes it is negotiating with an outside party, when in reality it is making deals with itself.

As the United States continues its occupation in Iraq, can we recognize the similarities in policy and result? Very quickly, US policies in Iraq have created a huge internal and external refugee population and are creating a series of paramilitary solutions and institutions in Iraq, some intentionally organized, some in opposition to our brutal actions. As the resistance to the occupation deepens in Iraq and becomes more costly in troops’ lives, the US seeks to deflect its responsibility for its actions, to deny its own brutality, to project the conflict onto unseen, unknown enemies. The citizenry allows our President to openly violate national and international law, to wiretap, to lie, to steal, to waste, without consequence. As Blackwater guards our military leaders, and war is privatized for the benefit of corporate profit centers, we can see the paramilitary influence in the United States, as the contradictions mount– War or Democracy?

Certainly, US policies in the Americas have provided some measure of a template for the war in Iraq (see “Empire’s Workshop, by Greg Grandin, or the various articles about the “Salvador Option”, some published in these pages). A question for US peacemakers is: can we combine our activism against the war in Iraq to include policies in the Americas? There are efforts to do so. This year, the American Friends Service Committee nominated the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó and the Indigenous Communities of the Northern Cauca for the Nobel Peace Prize. These communities of nonviolent resistance to the civil war in Colombia stand out in the their courage and sacrifice to end the war and change the society. Support for this award is support for a strong and nonviolent solution to the conflict in Colombia.

In early May of this year, dozens of United States individuals and groups active in Colombia, including the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Angela Berryman of the American Friends Service Committee, the Lutheran Peace Fellowship, Kathy Hoyt of the Nicaragua Network, Global Exchange, School of the Americas Watch, and the US Office on Colombia (for a complete list, see, made an appeal to Congress to end military aid to Colombia. Currently, 25% of aid to Colombia is contingent on State Department certification on human rights. The last $55 million certification was held up for ten months, till April 2007– it should have been stopped. Congress should end all military aid. This idea is taking hold in the Congress, as Senators and Representatives recognize the toxic nature of the para-scandal in the Uribe administration, and the contradiction in our support for a paramilitary government, as our government rails against “terror”.

Also, right now Congress is considering giving fast track authority to President Bush to sign trade agreements with Colombia, Peru, Panama and Korea without Congressional oversight. This is an outrage, to grant this President the right to further codify Free Trade Agreements that will penetrate markets and destroy local economies. There is a campaign ongoing in Colombia to defeat the Free Trade Agreement, and a concurrent campaign in the US to not allow Bush to fast track anything. The son of a Bush should be facing impeachment, not negotiating for the US to exploit more markets. Check it out at

The United States has been the architect of much of the Colombian dynamic that we see today. Military historian Dennis M. Rempe states the matter clearly in “Small Wars and Insurgencies”, as he acknowledges “the unique role played by the United States in facilitating the development of all aspects of Colombia’s internal security infrastructure”. This half-century of United States policy has failed. We can put it to rest by ending the misguided fumigation and military policies of Plan Colombia, by cutting off military aid to the Uribe government, by addressing drug addiction with treatment, and by defeating, with Colombian civil society, the Free Trade Agreement currently under consideration.

JOE DeRAYMOND can be reached at: