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How the Washington Post Distorts Colombia

On December 21, 2013 the Washington Post published an article titled “Covert action in Colombia” by reporter Dana Priest. Ms. Priest is a veteran reporter who has over the course of her career produced significant reports on important topics. However, in her report on the role of the United States government in supporting the Colombian state’s war on the FARC guerrillas she has overlooked or ignored some very basic aspects of this relationship.

The most significant of these is that she ignores the nature and history of the paramilitary forces’ activities and the link of these to the United States government. As Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., correctly observed years ago, the paramilitaries in Colombia are a strategy of the Colombian state. Furthermore, this strategy was suggested to the Colombian government by a United States military mission to Colombia in February 1962, in response to fear of the spread of influence of the Castro Revolution in Cuba. The mission was led by Lieutenant General William Yarborough, the Commander of the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center. A Wikipedia entry cites a secret report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff quoting Yarborough as recommending “development of a civilian and military structure…to pressure for 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.” (See this citation and more information at Wikipedia.org/wiki/William_P_Yarborough.) The basic idea behind the reliance upon paramilitaries has been to keep the Colombian military from being involved directly in the Colombian government’s dirty war against the guerrillas and rural noncombatants and thus avoid having “dirty hands”. As Father Giraldo observed back in 1996, “Paramilitarism becomes, then, the keystone of a strategy of “Dirty War”, where the “dirty” actions cannot be attributed to persons on behalf of the State because they have been delegated, passed along or projected upon confused bodies of armed civilians.” (Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, Common Courage Press, 1996, p. 81). There are many examples of the paramilitary death squad actions. One of these was a terrible slaughter by machetes and chainsaws of an estimated 30 civilians in the town of Mapiripan in Meta Department on July 15-20, 1997, in which paramilitary forces under the command of Carlos Castano in northern Colombia were allowed to travel by airplane with Colombian military acquiescence to reach their target community in southeast Colombia. A second example of the vicious attacks of paramilitary forces upon civilians was the slaughter on February 21, 2005 of 8 persons of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in Antioquia Department, including a founder and leader of that Community, Luis Eduardo Guerra. The latter massacre was carried out with the assistance of Colombian Army soldiers from the Seventeenth and Eleventh Brigades.

While Ms. Priest approvingly suggests that Colombia “with its vibrant economy and swanky Bogota social scene” is far removed from Afghanistan, she fails to recognize that most of Bogota’s nearly 8 million residents are very poor, while a great majority of the country’s rural residents are impoverished. To be accurate in her portrayal of present-day Colombia, Ms. Priest should recognize and acknowledge that the distribution of land among Colombia’s population is the second worst in South America, after Paraguay, and the 11th worst in the world. (Oxfam Research Reports, “Divide and Purchase: How land ownership is being concentrated in Colombia”, 2013, p.7. See www.oxfam.org.) In rural areas paramilitary forces, supposedly demobilized in a sham proceeding during Alvaro Uribe’s Presidency, continue to threaten and murder campesinos (small-scale farmers) and force them and their families off their lands, so they can be taken over by large landowners or multinational corporations with mining and petroleum plans encouraged by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. Paramilitary activity also continues to account for murders of labor union leaders and organizers, more of whom are killed in Colombia year after year than in any other country in the world.

It is also disappointing that Ms. Priest makes no mention of the fact that there are some 6 million internally-displaced persons in Colombia, more than any other country in the world. In his December 27-29 article in Counterpunch, titled “Mythmaking in the Washington Post: Washington’s Real Aims in Colombia”, Nick Alexandrov correctly calls attention to Ms. Priest’s failure to take into account these displaced persons. And he also properly focuses criticism upon Ms. Priest’s failure correctly to acknowledge one of the most important links of the United State to Colombia and one of the most damaging: the drug trade and the effects of coca crop spraying (fumigation) upon Colombia’s rural population. Here again the responsibility of the United States government is clear and direct. As Mr. Alexandrov points out, tens of thousands of Colombia’s campesinos have been decimated economically as their legal food crops are destroyed through fumigation under direct control of the United States government. As a Colombia Support Network delegation was told by U. S. Embassy personnel while Anne Patterson was Ambassador there, the crop-spraying campaign using Round-Up Ultra has been controlled from the Embassy itself. Indeed, mayors of towns in Putumayo Department (province) told us they are not informed in advance and have no control over when fumigation of farm fields in their municipalities occurs.

Furthermore, the assertion that the FARC are principally responsible for Colombia’s production of illicit drugs is questionable. Right-wing paramilitaries, protected by the Colombian Army and linked to many Colombian political figures, have been involved in the drug trade for decades, and continue to benefit from this trade, as do their benefactors in the private sector, such as owners of large cattle ranches, merchants, and banana plantation owners. And the United States government has supported and even idealized one of the persons most responsible for corruption of the political process in Colombia, Alvaro Uribe Velez. Before his election as President in 2002, Alvaro Uribe had been identified by the United States government as linked to drug-trafficking. As Virginia Vallejo, a Colombian television journalist and sometime love interest of Pablo Escobar, suggested to me in a telephone conversation and mentioned in her book, Amando a Pablo, Odiando a Escobar (Random House Mondadori, September 2007), Alvaro Uribe was favored by Escobar. He allegedly approved the opening of drug-transit airstrips as Director of Civil Aeronautics. Later, as Governor of Antioquia Department, Uribe promoted the formation of so-called “self-defense” forces, which morphed into cut-throat, illegal paramilitaries who ravaged the countryside. His cousin Mario Uribe, with whom he has been particularly close, was convicted of corrupt actions and spent time in prison, while his brother Santiago Uribe Velez is about to be prosecuted for organizing and training illegal paramilitary forces on a Uribe family ranch. When Alvaro Uribe ran for re-election in 2004, his agents bribed Congresswoman Yidis Medina to get her to change her vote in committee so that Uribe could be re-elected (not permitted at that time by the Colombian Constitution). Yidis Medina went to prison for having received the bribe, but neither Alvaro Uribe nor his staff members who offered the bribe have been convicted and sentenced for the offenses they committed.

What was the reaction of the United States government to President Uribe’s alleged promotion of illegal activities? He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, the highest honor a President can convey upon any person! (For a detailed account of Alvaro Uribe’s purported misdeeds, see the Master’s thesis of Francisco Simon Conejos at the University of Valencia, Spain, of December 2012, titled, in English translation, “Crimes Against Humanity in Colombia: Elements to Implicate Ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez before Universal Justice and the International Criminal Court”.)

No analysis of the United States’ role in Colombia can properly ignore the relationships and responsibilities outlined above. But even beyond these points if one is to consider whether the United States’ actions toward and in Colombia have been beneficial for that country and its people, one must look at the effect of the United States government’s support for corporate interests of companies from this country and their actions in Colombia. The policies of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama in the past two decades have advanced the agendas of mining and petroleum companies— such as Exxon Mobil, Occidental Petroleum, and Drummond— and food companies— such as Chiquita Banana and, most recently, Cargill— while these companies’ activities in rural Colombia have caused environmental damage, massive displacement of residents of these areas and destruction of the campesino economy. One wishes that Ms. Priest had treated the Colombian context much more broadly to provide a much more complete and honest view of how United States government actions and policies have affected the population of this important country, with Latin America’s third largest population (after Brazil and Mexico).

John I. Laun is president of the Colombia Support Network.  

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