December 22, 1999
Inside U.S. Counterinsurgency:
A Soldier Speaks
Editor's Note: Stan Goff served in the U.S. military for two decades, much of the time with Special Forces training Third World armies. His first-person account of these counterinsurgency projects comes as policy makers in Washington press for major increases in military aid to Colombias government in its war with leftist guerrillas.
By Stan Goff
Tolemaida is hot. The whole Sumapaz River Valley is hotter than hell.
Steep, semi-arid, plenty of thorns and mosquitoes, it's the perfect place for the Lancero School, where the Colombian military runs its toughest course of training and assessment.
About 70 miles south of Bogota, Tolemaida is also home of Colombian Special Forces, kind of like the Fort Bragg of Colombia.
I'd been married for the second time for only 10 days on Oct. 22, 1992, when 7th Special Forces sent me there.
Bill Clinton was campaigning for the presidency against George Bush, and I remember the Delta guys who were billeted alongside us shrieking and carrying on when the election results came through. "That faggot lovin' draft dodger! Shit!"
Delta was there training a select group of Colombian soldiers for "close-quarter battle," which means fighting inside buildings during hostage situations and the like. We were training two battalions of Colombian Special Forces in night helicopter operations and counterinsurgency tactics.
Of course, we were there helping the Colombian army to defend democracy against leftist guerrillas who were the foes of democracy. It mattered not that only a tiny fraction of the population had the means to recruit and promote candidates or that terror stalked the population.
I'm not being cynical. I'm just awake now. It took a couple of decades.
Growing up, I lived in a neighborhood where everyone worked in the same plant, McDonnell-Douglas, where F-4 Phantoms were built to provide close air support for the troops in Vietnam.
My dad and mom both riveted, working on the center fuselage assembly. I just understood that it was my duty to fight the godless collectivist menace of communism.
So, I joined the Army seven months after I squeaked through high school. In 1970, I volunteered for the airborne infantry and for Vietnam.
In the years that followed, I found out that I didn't know communism from cobblestones. All I saw in Vietnam was a race war being conducted by an invading army, and very poor people were taking the brunt of it.
I left the Army after my first hitch, but poverty coaxed me back in in 1977. Soon, I had stepped onto the slippery slope of a military career. But I didn't like garrison soldiering and I did like to travel.
So, it was inevitable that I ended up in Special Operations, first with the Rangers, later with Special Forces.
In 1980, I went to Panama. The fences there separated us from the Zonies -- the slum dwellers who lived in the Canal Zone. After that, I went to El Salvador, Guatemala and a host of other dirt-poor countries.
Over and over, the fact that we as a nation seemed to take sides with the rich against the poor started to penetrate -- first my preconceptions, then my rationalizations, and finally, my consciousness.
Now I am the Viet Cong.
The former Special Forces guy posing as a political officer didn't even try to hide his real job at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala.
"You with the political section?" I asked. I knew what he did. I was trying to be discreet.
"I'm a fuckin' CIA agent," he responded.
The CIA man had adopted me out of friendship for a mutual acquaintance, one of my work associates with whom he had served in Vietnam. The CIA man told me where to get the best steak, the best ceviche, the best music, the best martinis. He liked martinis.
We stopped off one afternoon at the El Jaguar Bar in the lobby of the El Camino Hotel, a mile up Avenida de la Reforma from the U.S. Embassy. He drank eight martinis in the first hour.
The CIA man began spontaneously relating how he had participated in the execution of a successful ambush "up north," two weeks earlier.
"North" was in the Indian areas: Quiche and Peten, where government troops were waging a scorched-earth campaign against Mayans considered sympathetic to leftist guerrillas.
He was elated. "Best fuckin' thing I got to do since Nam."
"You're talkin' kinda loud," I reminded him, thinking this must be pretty sensitive stuff.
"Fuck them!" he shot a circumferential glare. "We own this motherfucker!" The other patrons looked down at their table tops. The CIA man was big and manifestly drunk.
I should have known better, but I mentioned a Mayan schoolteacher who had just been assassinated by the esquadrones de muertos. It had been in the newspapers. The teacher had worked for the Agency for International Development.
My point was that it made the United States look bad, when these loose cannons pulled stunts like that. The impression was left that the U.S. government tacitly approved of assassinations by continuing to support Guatemala's government.
"He was a communist," stated the CIA man, without even pausing to toss down his dozenth martini. His eyes were getting that weird, stony, not-quite-synchronized look.
So that's how it was. I never thought to thank him for peeling that next layer of innocence off my eyes.
I had to take the CIA mans car keys from him that night. He wanted to drive to some whorehouse in Zone 1.
When we left the bar, he couldn't find his car in the parking lot, so he pulled his pistol on the attendant and threatened to shoot him on the spot. He accused the attendant of being part of a car theft gang.
"I know these motherfuckers," he glared. The attendant was almost in tears, when I wrested the pistol from my colleagues hand.
We proceeded to find his car in the lot one block away. That's when he started talking about driving to his favorite bordello.
"Gimme the keys!" he bellowed, as I danced away from him.
"I'll kick your ass," he said.
I reached into my pocket and grabbed three coins. When he lunged at me again, I tossed the coins into a street drain with a conspicuous jingle.
"There's the keys," I said.
He peered myopically into the drain for a moment, then tried to train his eyes on me. I dodged his staggering assault like he was a child. He almost fell, and I found myself wondering how I could possibly carry him.
He turned abruptly, like he'd just forgotten something, and tottered quietly away. I dropped his keys off at the political section the next day, with a note explaining where his car was.
Fred Chapin was the U.S. ambassador in Guatemala. He was famous for his ability to drink a bottle of Scotch and still give a lucid interview in fluent Spanish, before his bodyguards carried him up to his room at la residencia and poured him into bed.
Chapin was credited with a well-known quote in Foreign Service circles: "I only regret that I have but one liver to give for my country."
Embassies are collections of these idiosyncratic characters.
Mauricio, another one of these exotic individuals, was the chief Guatemalan investigator assigned to work with the Security Section at the embassy.
Dissipated to a fault, even the thugs on the bodyguard details gave him a wide berth. His reputation as a sadistic former death squad member was well known.
His history was on him, like an aura of impersonal decay. He made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. "If you need to find something out, just send Mauricio" was the provincial wisdom at Security.
Langhorn Motley, Reagan's special ambassador to Central America, came to Guatemala to see what was being done with U.S. money, other than aboriginal genocide and the elimination of Bolshevik school teachers, of course.
I was assigned as a member of his security for a trip to Nebaj, a tiny Indian hamlet near the Mexican border. We were going to inspect a hospital.
There were no roads into Nebaj, so a helicopter was coordinated. When we finally arrived in Nebaj, the pilot and crew chief were in an animated conversation, both referring again and again to the fuel gauge.
Out of the helicopter, we were escorted through the dirt streets to an open-bed 2 1/2-ton truck by a corpulent, European-looking Guatemalan lieutenant colonel. The villagers stood in silence as we passed.
Two small children, maybe three years old, burst into hysterical tears when I walked too near them with my CAR-15 assault rifle. I tried not to speculate about their reaction or its antecedents.
The truck took us to a dusty stone foundation. Nothing more. No rooms, no walls, no nothing. This was the hospital. Motley turned to me and said, "This is a fuckin' white elephant."
Later, the lieutenant colonel sat us in a room at his headquarters and trotted in two "former guerrillas." One was a skinny old man.
The other was a pregnant woman, around 25 years old.
They told us dutifully that they had been reformed by their new-found understanding of the duplicity of the communists and by the humanitarian treatment they had received at the hands of the soldiers.
It was a flat-eyed, canned recital, but it seemed to please the lieutenant colonel who sat there with a benevolent half-smile, glancing from them to us and back, judging their performance, assessing our reaction.
The skin of the two demonstration Indians almost moved from underneath with an arid, copper-tongued terror. The whole place smelled like murder to me.
Reporters in El Salvador tended to hang out at the pool in the Camino Real Hotel, with transistor radios pressed to their ears.
I was chatting up a member of the press corps one day, having lunch at the Camino. Around 30, she worked for the Chicago Tribune.
She was just terribly excited because she had been allowed aboard a helicopter the week before, that flew into Morazan, a stronghold of leftist guerrillas. She got to see some bang-bang and was eternally grateful to the Embassy for arranging it for her.
Would I mind, she asked, taking her out for coffee or a drink somewhere in the barrios sometime? She would never think of doing it alone.
I was disillusioned. With her anemic weariness, she annihilated my concept of reporters as eccentric fearless old salts, obsessed with getting at the real story.
Bruce Hazelwood was a member of the Milgroup at the U.S. Embassy, like me a former member of the counter-terrorist unit at Fort Bragg. Hazelwood oversaw training management in the Estado Mayor, army headquarters.
Over the past five years, he had earned an enviable reputation as a productive liaison with the Salvadoran military. He told me off the cuff once that his biggest problem was getting the officers to quit stealing.
Good-looking, strawberry blonde, freckled, charming, Hazelwood also was a favorite of the young women with the press corps.
I went with him and an Embassy entourage to visit an orphanage at Sonsonate. The women from the press pool absolutely doted on him. He rewarded them with tons of mischievous magnetism.
Billy Zumwalt, also with the Milgroup, a fellow with Elvis-like looks, did the same thing at a party. The women from the press would skin up alongside him, asking how he thought progress was coming with the human rights situation. He would ask them how it seemed to them.
Well, theyd say, there were only a few battlefield executions of prisoners still taking place, according to rumors, but they'd heard nothing else. We can't expect them to come around overnight, now, can we?
Would you like to go dancing at an all night club later? You know where one is? I know where they all are, hed tell them.
Zumwalt told me at a bar once that he was training the finest right-wing death squads in the world.
The reporters at the Camino Real hired Salvadoran rich kids as informants and factotums. It was very important that they be educated, English-speaking kids, 20 to 25 years old, who could keep the reporters abreast of rumors and happenings in the capital.
But the rich kids were as far from the lives of average Salvadorans as were most of the reporters.
In the street, I saw an old woman dragging herself down the sidewalk with a gangrenous leg, a crazy man shrivelled in a corner, bone-skinny kids who played music for coins with a pipe and a stick.
On the bus one day in downtown San Salvador, a blind man came begging, and people who could ill afford it gave him a coin.
These people were callused, very modestly dressed, with Indian still in their cheeks.
To the slick, manicured, round-eyed, well-to-do, the poor and the beggars were invisible, as invisible as the blackened carboneros, the worm-glutted market babies, the brooding teens with raggedy clothes, prominent ribs and red eyes glaring out of the spotty shade on street corners.
They have to be invisible so they can be ignored. They have to be sub-human so they can be killed.
I was reminded of the goats at the Special Forces Medical Lab. When I was training to be a medic, we used goats as "patient models."
The goats would be wounded for trauma training, shot for surgical training, and euthanized over time by the hundreds for each 14-week class.
Nearly every student upon arrival would begin expressing his antipathy for the caprine breed. "A goat is a dumb creature, hard-headed, homely," wed say.
A few acknowledged what the program was actually doing without seeking these comfortable rationalizations. A few even became attached to the animals and grew more depressed with each day.
But most required the anti-caprine ideology to sustain their activity.
As a member of 7th Special Forces, I went to Peru in 1991. The reasons we went there were manifold and layered, as are many of our rationales for military activity.
We were committed, as a matter of policy, to encouraging something called IDAD for Peru. That means Internal Development and Defense.
We were involved in a nominal partnership with Peru in the "war on drugs." Peru was in our "area of operational responsibility," and we (our "A" Detachment) were performing a DFT, meaning a Deployment for Training.
So, we went to Peru to assist in their internal development and defense, to improve their "counter-drug" capabilities, and to train ourselves to better train others in our "target language," Spanish.
Those were the official reasons. No briefing mentioned another part of the mission: unofficial wars on indigenous populations.
The course of training we developed for the Peruvians was basic counterinsurgency. Drugs were never discussed with the Peruvian officers. It was a sensitive issue -- if you get my drift.
We were quartered in an ammunition factory outside the town of Huaichipa, for the first few weeks. Later, we moved into DIFE, the Peruvian Special Forces complex at the edge of Barranco district in Lima.
During the middle of the mission, we camped at the edge of an Indian village called Santiago de Tuna in the sierra four hours out of the capital.
Tuna is the Spanish word for prickly pear cactus fruit. Blessed with Cactus Fruit would be the direct translation. Local Indians did bring us two sacks full of cactus fruit, which was delicious and which kept everyone regular.
We became very chummy with the Peruvian officers, some of whom were easy-going fellows, and some of whom were aggressively macho. They stuffed us full of anticuchos (spicy, charbroiled beef heart) and beer every night.
Sometimes the combat veterans would get very drunk and spit all over us as they relived combat. One major couldn't shut up about how many people he had killed, and how the sierra was a land for real men.
A lot of drinking went on. Beer with the officers and soldiers. Cocktails in the bars; pisco with the Indians, who the soldiers tried to run off because they were considered a security risk.
One Indian man, in particular, toothless and dissipated, his blood-red eyes swimming with intoxication, astonished me with his knowledge of North American Indian history. He even knew the years of several key battles in our war of annihilation.
Geronimo was a great man, he said. A great medicine man. Great warrior. A lover of the land.
A Peruvian captain said a strange thing to me, as we walked past an Indian cemetery during the gut-check forced march out of Santiago de Tuna.
"Aqui hay los indios amigos." Here are the friendly Indians. He opened his hand toward the little acre of graves.
When I was training Colombian Special Forces in Tolemaida in 1992, my team was there ostensibly to aid the counter-narcotics effort.
We were giving military forces training in infantry counterinsurgency doctrine. We knew perfectly well, as did the host-nation commanders, that narcotics was a flimsy cover story for beefing up the capacity of armed forces who had lost the confidence of the population through years of abuse. The army also had suffered humiliating setbacks in the field against the guerrillas.
But I was growing accustomed to the lies. They were the currency of our foreign policy. Drugs my ass!
Drug czar Barry McCaffrey and Defense Secretary William Cohen are arguing for massive expansion of military aid to Colombia.
Already, Colombia is the third largest recipient of U. S. military aid in the world, jumping from $85.7 million in 1997 to $289 million last fiscal year. Press accounts say about 300 American military personnel and agents are in Colombia at any one time.
Now, the Clinton administration is seeking $1 billion over the next two years. The Republican-controlled Congress wants even more, $1.5 billion, including 41 Blackhawk helicopters and a new intelligence center.
The State Department claims the widened assistance is needed to fight "an explosion of coca plantations." The solution, according to the State Department, is a 950-man "counter-narcotics" battalion.
But the request is strangely coincident with the recent military advances of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionario Colombiano (FARC), the leftist guerrillas who already control 40 percent of the countryside. [For details on FARCs history and goals, see iF Magazine, July-August 1999.]
In the United States, there is a different kind of preparation afoot: to prepare the American people for another round of intervention.
McCaffrey -- not coincidentally the former commander of Southcom, the Theater Command for the U.S. armed forces in Latin America -- is "admitting" that the lines between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency are "beginning to blur" in Colombia.
The reason? The guerrillas are involved in drug trafficking, a ubiquitous claim that it is repeated uncritically in the press. There is no differentiation between the FARC and a handful of less significant groups, nor is there any apparent preoccupation with citing precise evidence.
When this construct first began to gain wide currency, former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Miles Frechette pointed out that there was no clear evidence to support the claims. His statement was soon forgotten.
We were to be prepared.
In Colombia, it is well known that those who profit the most from the drug trade are members of the armed forces, the police, government officials, and the "big businessmen" of the urban centers.
The FARC taxes coca, a far cry from trafficking. The FARC also taxes gas, peanuts and furniture.
Coca also is the only crop left that keeps the campesinos' heads above water. The peasant who grows standard crops will have an average annual income of around $250 a year. With coca, they can feed a family on $2,000 a year. These are not robber barons.
They are not getting rich.
Once the coca is processed, a kilo fetches about $2,000 in Colombia. Precautions, payoffs and the first profits bring the price to $5,500 a kilo by the time it reaches the first gringo handler.
The gringo sells that kilo, now ready for U.S. retail, for around $20,000. On the street in the United States, that will break out to $60,000. There are some high rollers at the end of the Colombian chain, but the real operators are the Americans.
Still, drugs can fill in for the World Communist Conspiracy only so far. Drugs alone won't justify this vast military build-up. For that, we also must believe we are defending democracy and protecting economic reform.
[For more background on Colombia, see Human Right Watchs Colombias Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, November 1996.]
The rationales have become more sophisticated since I was in Guatemala in 1983, way more sophisticated than the blunt instrument of open war in Vietnam.
Democracy wasn't the goal then. We were stopping communists. Drugs are a great rationale, too. But with the FARC, we can have our drug war and our war against communists.
Yet, behind the democratic facade in Colombia are the most egregious and systematic human rights violations in this hemisphere. Except in the 40 percent of the country where the FARC holds sway, right-wing paramilitaries, supported and coordinated by the official security forces, are involved in a process that would have made Roberto D'Abuisson or Lucas Garcia or Rios Montt proud: torture, public decapitations, massacres, rape-murder, destruction of land and livestock, forced dislocations. Favored targets have been community and union leaders, political opponents, and their families.
This July, Commander of the Colombian Army, Jorge Enrique Mora Rangel intervened in the Colombian judicial process to protect the most powerful paramilitary chief in Colombia, Carlos Castano, from prosecution for a series of massacres. Castano's organization is networked for intelligence and operations directly with the security forces.
That network was organized and trained in 1991, under the tutelage of the U.S. Defense Department and the CIA. This was accomplished under a Colombian military intelligence integration plan called Order 200-05/91.
The cozy relationship between the Colombian army and Castano raises another little problem for the drug-war rationale. Castano is a known drug lord. Not someone who taxes coca growers, but a drug lord.
There is also the U.S. governments troubling history of fighting with -- not against -- drug traffickers. Indeed, the CIA seems to have an irresistible affinity for drug lords.
The Tibetan contras trained by the CIA in the 50's became the masters of the Golden Triangle heroin empires. In Vietnam and Cambodia, the CIA worked hand in glove with opium traffickers.
The contra war in Nicaragua was financed, in part, with drug profits. The CIAs Afghan-Pakistani axis employed in the war against the Soviets was permeated with drug traffickers. Most recently, there were the heroin traffickers of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
It might make more sense for McCaffrey to find $1 billion dollars to declare war on the CIA.
I was in Guatemala in 1983 for the last coup. In 1985, I was in El Salvador; 1991, Peru; 1992, Colombia.
People don't generally hear from retired Special Forces soldiers. But people need to hear the facts from someone who cant be called an effete liberal who never "served" his country.
A liberal will tell you the system isn't working properly. I will tell you that the system is working exactly the way it's supposed to.
As an insider on active duty in the armed forces, I saw the deep dissonance between the official explanations for our policies and our actual practices: the murder of schoolteachers and nuns by our surrogates; decimations; systematic rape; the cultivation of terror.
I have concluded that the billions in profit and interest to be made in Colombia and neighboring nations has much more to do with the itch for stability than any concern about democracy or cocaine. After reflection on my two decades plus of service, I am convinced that I only served the richest one percent of my country.
In every country where I worked, poor people's poverty built and maintained the wealth of the rich. Sometimes directly, as labor; sometimes indirectly, when people made fortunes in the armed security business, which is needed wherever there is so much misery.
Often the companies that need protecting are American. Chiquita is a spiffed up version of United Fruit, the company that pressed the United States for the coup against Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Pepsi was there for Pinochet in Chile in 1973.
But the top interest now is financial. The United States is the dominant force in the dominant lending institutions of the world: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
What the United States exports, more than anything else, is credit. So the money is made from squeezing the interest out of those loans.
What that means in the Third World is that the economic elites borrow the money, with the government as their front, then bleed the population to pay the interest. Thats done through higher more regressive taxes, by cutting social services, by selling off public assets, by co-opting or crushing labor unions, and so forth.
If the governments dont do enough, Washington pressures them to do more. At home, the American people are told that these countries need "structural adjustment" and "economic reform," when the reality is that U.S. foreign policy often is being conducted on behalf of loan sharks.
The big investors and the big lenders also are the big contributors to political campaigns in this country, for both Republicans and Democrats. The press, which is run by a handful of giant corporations, somberly repeats this rationale again and again, economic reform and democracy.
Pretty soon, just to sound like we're not totally out of touch with current events, we catch ourselves saying, yeah ... Colombia, or Venezuela, or Russia, or Haiti, or South Africa, or whomever ... they need "economic-reform-and-democracy."
Though phrased differently, this argument is not new. In 1935, two-time Medal of Honor winner, retired Gen. Smedley Butler accused major New York investment banks of using the U.S. Marines as racketeers and gangsters to exploit financially the peasants of Nicaragua.
Later, Butler stated: The trouble is that when American dollars earn only six percent over here, they get restless and go overseas to get 100 percent. The flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to defend some lousy investment of the bankers. We should fight only for the defense of our home and the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.
There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It had its finger men to point out enemies, its muscle men to destroy enemies, its brain men to plan war preparations and a Big Boss-supernationalistic capitalism, Butler continued.
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service in the Marines. I helped make Tampico, Mexico, safe for the American oil interests in 1914; Cuba and Haiti safe for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue; helped purify Nicaragua for the International banking house of Baron Broches in 1909-1912; helped save the sugar interests in the Dominican Republic; and in China helped to see that Standard Oil went its way unmolested. War is a racket.
Like Gen. Butler, I came to my conclusions through years of personal experience and through the gradual absorption of hard evidence that I saw all around me, not just in one country, but in country after country.
I am finally really serving my country, right now, telling you this. You do not want some things done in your name.
Stan Goff retired from the U.S. Army in February 1996, after serving in Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Somalia and Haiti. He lives in Raleigh, N.C.