Roaming Charges: How Bio-Warfare Came to Colombia

Aerial herbicide being sprayed from a helicopter.

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. After the Gulf War, Saddam’s mad pursuits had 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 offered pious homilies on Iraq’s possible hoarding of so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, his administration and its backers from both parties in Congress unleashed 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 at the time was Rep. Bob Mica, a Republican from Florida. In mid-December of 2001, 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 be jotted down by junior legal eagles with dreams of becoming future prosecutors of war crimes.

But Mica was far from a lone crazed voice. Even the perpetually conflicted Colin Powell went on record supporting the use of biological agents as a key part of Plan Colombia. Indeed, Anne Peterson, the US ambassador to Bogota, testified in early 2002 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 never disclosed who had applied the thumbscrews.

Then there’s Rand Beers, one of several 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. Then in his slot as Assistant Secretary of State for narcotics, Beers trotted across the globe to various international conferences where he invariably was forced to defend this toxic footnote to Plan Colombia against critics who charge that it violates, among other treaties, the Biological Weapons Convention. Beers repeatedly claimed that the toxic weapons were needed to fight international crime syndicates. This heady bit of sophistry was hardly an exemption from the prohibitions, which, it must be pointed out, the Bush administration never believed in anyway, even though they were trigger-happy to invoke its provisions against enemy states, such as Iraq.

So, as in Macbeth, sin plucked 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 was 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 were 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 is 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 the US’s bio-war adventurism.

This grim prospect placed the US in squarely in violation of yet another international treaty with which Bush, the former cocaine tooter, was 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 opposed the US biowar plan and charge that it violates international law. Specifically, they cited 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 considered 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,” warned 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. They don’t work, they oppresse the weak, and merely play 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,” said 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 had 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 eventually 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.)

Over the next five years, nearly a million acres of land in Colombia was 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 more than tripled. Opium production also soared, increasing by more than 60 percent. Colombia soon accounted 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 indigenous tribes to secure US control over Colombian oil, gas and mineral reserves. The so-called eradication programs 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.

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 2001, Colin Powell revealed his intention to up the permanent fleet of US attack helicopters in Colombia to 24 and the State Department informed congress that new pilots were being trained at “a classified location” in New Mexico.

The Bush administration gave Congressman Mica the greenlight to work his dark magic on the reauthorization of Plan Colombia, where he inserted language once again requiring the use of Agent Green as a 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 presided over the UN Security Council, which as it debated clobbering 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 added up to is a form of environmental terrorism. The toxic wasteland and human suffering left in the wake of these operations was not accidental, not, to use the fetching term of the economists, an uncomfortable externality of an otherwise benign project. Instead, it was 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 weren’t bibliophiles. Obviously they’d read Silent Spring. Only not as the stark warning Rachel Carson intended, but as a war plan which they schemed to put into global action.

+++

“There’s always more misery in the lower classes than humanity in the upper.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

+ There’s a theory that Israel controls US politics, that the most powerful war-making state the world has ever known is a mere puppet of Israel, institutionally incapable of asserting its own agenda in the Middle East. This is a convenient myth for both parties, since it makes Israel seem more powerful than it is and it tends to exculpate the US from direct complicity in ergregious human rights abuses. But in fact the US finances Israel. It is dependent on us. Its crimes are ours. We paid for them.

+ Bari Weiss, the doyenne of the anti-cancel culture movement,  has written a column on how canceling the lives of Palestinian children is merely an unfortunate necessity in the quest to preserve the dream of Zionism…

+ Some might call this an invocation of lebensraum, the idea, put into homicidal action by Nazi Germany, that adjacent territories must be absorbed to feed the natural growth of the state, regardless of the consequences for indigenous populations.

+ Not to be outdone, Bret Stephen, the neocon pundit who became the darling of liberals because he didn’t think Trump bombed enough people, penned a depraved column for the New York Times calling on Israel to “rout Hamas” in the “name of peace.” Stephens secretes his racial hatred for Palestinians with every syllable.  It’s truly one of the most repulsive screeds that the paper’s run in years, amid stiff competition for that ignoble distinction.

+ “Home Country”? How to reinforce the “dual loyalties” trope even as you endeavor to justify the unjustifiable…

+ The candidates come and go, but the essential ingredients of NYC politics don’t change much across the decades …

+ “Liz Cheney truth-teller” is one of those tricky word combinations that so many undergraduates fail to disentangle in the final exam for Logic 101….

+ Come join our Forever Wars and we’ll use your troops as our human shields! British troops were twice as likely to be killed in Afghanistan as US forces.

+ Just because Edward Snowden exposed what they were doing, doesn’t mean they’ve stopped doing it

+ Unlike autocracies, America doesn’t have political prisoners, except for Mumia, Leonard, Chelsea, Julian (by proxy), Reality and (fill-in-the-blank)….

+ Finally Bernie gets a little payback for his otherwise bewildering support for Biden…more F-35s for Burlington! In fact, more F-35s for everyone than under Trump!!

+ Biden himself shot down MSDNC’s latest conspiracy that the Russian government hacked the Colonial pipeline. You could scarcely blame the Russians if they had, given the US’s efforts to block the NordStream II pipeline’s entry into Germany. Of course, I support blocking them all. The pipeline companies have held all of us hostage for long enough…

+ If ever a pipeline was asking to be hacked, it was the Continental, which only weeks before it went “offline” had just experienced one of the worst underground spills of gasoline in history.

+ Infrastructure weeks have come and gone, while the crack in the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi continues to grow…

+ Sean Hannity, who is the living rebuttal of his own debased assertion: “We don’t want the extended unemployment benefits. We’re all designed to provide goods and services for our fellow human beings.”

+ So Project Veritas, with the aid of Erik Prince and a former British spy named Richard Seddon, was running a honey trap to catch Trump enemies in indiscreet talk out of a $10,000 a month pad in DC, which seems fairly low-rent for the Georgetown real estate market. Of course, low-rent pretty much defines the whole Trump zeitgeist.

+ “Volunteer” the new “slave labor” for the post-pandemic stage of late-capitalism…

+ This is a strange kind of populism…”Nearly 900,000 Americans in Alabama, Mississippi and 11 other Republican-led states are set to see their unemployment checks slashed dramatically starting in June, as GOP governors seek to restrict jobless benefits in an effort to force more people to return to work.”

+ I call “Malarkey” on this, Joe!

+ If there really is a labor shortage in the US, three things will help shrink it: raise wages, make the workplaces safe and open the borders.

+ When politicians say “government should be run like a business,” what they mean is that government should be run for businesses.

+ Taxing the super rich has the support of about 75 percent of the electorate and the Democrats are scared to death to pull the trigger.

+ A new study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that more than 900,000 people have died of COVID-related disorders in the US and more than 7 million worldwide, nearly double the official count.

+ On the same day the CDC caved to political pressure (rejecting the advice of 100s of epidemiologists) and relaxed mask guidelines, seven fully-vaccinated members of the New York Yankees tested positive for COVID.

+ Just how closely is Biden “following the science” and how many similar moves in the name of political expediency will he make on climate change, toxic waste or food safety?

+ Cuba now has several COVID vaccines and is ready to begin mass vaccinations, but because of the Trump-era, which Biden still hasn’t lifted in order to please South Florida Democrats and Robert Menendez, there is a syringe shortage. Cuba needs roughly 30 million syringes for their mass Covid vaccination campaign and they’re short 20 million.

Global Health Partners (GHP) is heading up the campaign in the U.S. to send millions of syringes to Cuba to supplement what they have and we want to save lives and reopen the county as quickly as possible. Global Health Partners is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization and your donation is tax-deductible. They have also obtained a license from the U.S. Commerce Department to send the syringes. You can donate here.

+ In interviews with the New York Times, New York City mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan estimated the median cost to buy a home in Brooklyn is $100,000, and candidate Ray McGuire surmised that it is between $80,000 to $90,000. The median price is actually $900,000.

+ If wages had increased at the same rate as productivity over the past forty years, workers would be earning $10 an hour more in pay.

+ The obvious took a year to determine….an internal review found that Louisville cops shouldn’t have shot into Breonna Taylor’s apartment.

+ The Dallas Morning News, which should know better, suggested this week that George Bush’s portraits of immigrants reflect his “lifelong kindness to strangers.” A million Iraqis (and the 235 people on Texas’ death row he executed with a smirk) would beg to differ, if they were alive to do so…

+ Ralph Nader: “George W. Bush’s book of portraits of immigrants is a bestseller. Yet he refused to let in Iraqi immigrants. Many of them were drivers and interpreters for the U.S. military. Defenseless, they were later slaughtered by militias. He’s shameless and remorseless.”

+ A two-year got ahold of an “unsecured” gun and shot both of his parents. The toddler could be tried as an adult and eligible for the electric chair in South Carolina, as the state did the young George Stinney, who was almost certainly innocent …

+ Researchers have found Cesium 137, a radioactive isotope left by the fallout from open air nuclear weapons testing, in honey throughout the eastern US.

+ Still winning….With Zeta re-categorized as a Class III at landfall, 2020 has now tied the mark for the most major Atlantic hurricanes in a year.

+ It seems increasingly likely that we are living in the best possible place inhabited by the worst possible people…When the managers at Grand Canyon National Park announced 12 slots to kill bison that wandered from the park’s boundaries, 45,000 people applied to take a shot.

+ A recent study identified roughly 2 million acres of suitable habitat in Arizona and New Mexico that could host up to 150 jaguars. Reintroducing a population here is probably the last shot at saving this extraordinary species in the US.

+ Air pollution from industrial feed lots causes about 17,900 premature deaths a year in the US.

+ People: if you insist on using a plastic bag to haul your gasoline, at least recycle it.

+ The last 12 months in California from May 2020-April 2021 were the hottest and the 2nd driest May-April period on record in in the state.

+ It’s also the driest year on record for Sequoia National Park, a really bad omen for the planets oldest, and largest, living trees…

+ Alexander Cockburn is featured in the new Netflix documentary on the Son of Sam murders in 1977. The clips show Alex going after Jimmy Breslin and the NY tabloids for their flirtations with Berkowitz and exploitation of the murders. He was a devilishly handsome man then, even with that tie.

+  Cockburn baited Breslin about his “healthy interest” in the Son of Sam murders. The the more irate Breslin got, the quieter and more deadly Alex’s responses became. A good lesson in how TV rewards cool over hot. Of course, Jimmy had probably thrown back a few by that point…

+ So not only is Cockburn featured in the Netflix doc on Son of Sam, but so is longtime CounterPunch contributor Ed Sanders, co-founder (RIP Tuli) of The Fugs, publisher of Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts, and author of The Family, the best book on the Manson cult. It’s almost feels like a CounterPunch production…

+ Ed told me he vaguely remembered being filmed by Maury Terry, the conspiratorialist reporter the documentary follows, and that Terry had some weird rightwing ideas but knew a lot about 50s and 60s rock n roll, which is a very Ed Sanders thing to say…

+ The genius of Ed’s book on the Manson Family is that it was written in real time, as the investigation and trial were unfolding. And the writing is electric.

+ The documentary itself is an addictive mess. The premise that the murders were part of a cult killing spree seems far-fetched and just the kind of sensationalized speculation Alex warned against. What the film-makers leave out is Alex’s central role years later in exposing the whole Satanic Panic epidemic, including the McMartin preschool Case.

+ The two greatest lost endings to films: the pie fight in the War Room for Dr. Strangelove and the planned denouement of Hitchcock’s Saboteur (yet another movie “sabotaged” by David O. Selznick), where all of the disparate threads from the dizzying spy plot were meant to converge inside a movie theater showing Abbott and Costello’s “Ride ‘Em Cowboy,” a shrewd American parody of the ending of The 39 Steps, where Londoners and European potentates had gathered to watch Mr. Memory do his thing.

+ Saboteur is the film where Selznick brought in Dorothy Parker to work on the script. Most of what she churned out was patriotic drivel. Still Hitchcock apparently got on with Dorothy Parker better than he did with Raymond Chandler, who wrote the original script for Strangers on a Train, which, after reading parts of it aloud to his inner circle, Hitchcock pitched into the trash can while pinching his nose…

+ I watched Jean Vigo’s “Zéro de Conduite” last night and was so blown away that I immediately watched it again to make sure I’d actually seen what I thought I saw and on second viewing the film seemed even stranger, more energetic and subversive. I don’t know why I’d never watched it before, though I’m not sure where I would have seen it in the pre-streaming era. It’s 46 minutes of riotous fun, surreal and dreamlike one moment, madcap lunacy the next. It’s as if the French Revolution or the Paris Commune had erupted inside of a sadistic boarding school for young boys, where Luis Buñuel had given a camera to the Artful Dodger and said make as much mayhem as you can and film it all. We’ll put it together in the cutting room. (In fact, Vigo handed the camera to the gifted young Russian-American cinematographer Boris Kaufman, brother of Dziga Vertov, director of the ground-breaking I Am a Camera.) Vigo made the film in 1933, when he was 27, and it was almost immediately banned. You can see why, since it’s a frontal assault on almost every aspect of state authority. The film didn’t surface again until 1945 and then in mutilated form, by which time the TB-ridden Vigo had been dead for 11 years. Like Bunuel, Vigo was an anarchist, who had interacted with surrealist poets and artists, whose ideas and techniques he put to subtle and insidious effect in the film. He was the son of the French radical journalist, Miguel Almeryeda, who was murdered in Fresnes Prison in 1917, where he’d been jailed for his antiwar writings during WW I in his journal Le Bonnet Rouge, which had also earned the wrath of Clemenceau and the French right for publishing editorials by Lenin, who the French government viewed as an agent of the Kaiser. When the film was finally restored, Zéro de Conduite was celebrated by the New Wave, especially by Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut. The debt can be seen most explicitly in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, though that film, which I adore, is much more conservative in both content and style. It’s almost as if the cinematic doors that Vigo flung open have been steadily narrowing ever since. I watched it on Criterion, but you can watch it here on Youtube.

 

+ I admire the versatility of Pat Smear (the Germs, et al), but he got inducted to the rock hall for being the touring guitarist for Nirvana for a year and now again for the Foo Fighters? Talk about a ticket to ride.

+ 112: average number of beats per minute for the songs that were most popular among students trying to study.

+ Soli Sorabjee, the noted Indian jurist and jazz fan, died this week at the age of 91. When he served as India’s Attorney General, he attended a reception for Bill Clinton. Sorabjee walked up to Clinton and said he wanted to talk about a common friend who was also a “president”: saxophonist Lester Young, nicknamed “Pres.” Clinton reportedly “looked at Sorabjee in amazement,” an anecdote which precisely captures Clinton’s patronizing demeanor.

See Them Big Plantations Burning, Hear the Cracking of the Whips…

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution
Mitchel Dean and Daniel Zamora
(Verso)

Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man
Thomas Mann
Trans. Walter D. Morris
(NYRB)

Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse
Shane Burley
(AK Press)

Sound Grammar
What I’m listening to this week…

NOW
Damon Locks and the Black Monument Ensemble
(International Anthem)

Boogie Shoes: Live on Beale Street
Alex Chilton and the Hi Rhythm Section
(Omnivore )

When God Was Great
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
(Hellcat Records)

You Are Forced to Make a Decision

“There is something nightmarish about the scaffold when it is standing there ready. It is possible to feel a certain indifference about the death penalty, not to declare yourself, to say yes and no, so long as you have not seen a guillotine with your own eyes. But if you do come across one it has a violent impact. You are forced to make a decision, to take sides, for or against…The guillotine is the law made concrete. Its name is retribution. It is not neutral and does not allow you to remain neutral. Whoever sees it shudders with the most mysterious of shudders. All social problems raise question marks around this blade.”

(Victor Hugo, Les Misérables)

Part of this column is adapted from a chapter in Been Brown So Long, It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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