Winning about 60 percent of the vote on May 28,
Uribe now stands as South America’s last right-wing head of state, a
lonely voice siding with George W. Bush. Diminutive and thin-skinned,
the 53-year-old Uribe also remains an anti-communist hard-liner fighting
an insurgency dating back to the Cold War.
Uribe’s reelection sets the stage, too, for a new
round of confrontation between the Bush administration and the populist
government of Hugo Chavez from oil-rich Venezuela, which borders
Colombia to the east and which has spearheaded the region’s drive for
greater independence from the policies of Washington and the
International Monetary Fund.
Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have
threatened to boil over in recent years, with Colombian officials
accusing Venezuela of supporting leftist guerillas known as the FARC and
Venezuelans suspecting Colombia of aiding U.S. efforts to destabilize
and eliminate the Chavez government, which has withstood several coup
In the past few months, evidence has emerged to
support some of those Venezuelan suspicions. Rafael Garcia, a cashiered
official of Colombia’s federal police agency (DAS), alleged that the DAS
plotted to assassinate Chavez.
Garcia, the former DAS chief of information
systems, was accused of taking bribes to erase police files that
incriminated right-wing paramilitary leaders. He then went public
describing the Colombian plot to kill Chavez, as well as DAS help for
narco-traffickers connected to a right-wing “death squad,” the United
Self-Defense Forces, known as the AUC.
Garcia also alleged that the AUC murdered union
activists and engineered voter fraud four years ago to help Uribe get
Uribe lashed out at the press for printing Garcia’s
accusations, but other Colombian officials vowed to clean up DAS
corruption. The new DAS director Andres Penate boasted of firing 49 DAS
officials suspected of wrongdoing.
But Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human
Rights Watch, said Penate faces a tough challenge because “the DAS has
been fully penetrated by drug traffickers and paramilitary mafias.” [Reuters,
April 20, 2006]
In the May 28 election, despite these allegations,
Uribe won a landslide victory over left-of-center Democratic Pole
candidate Carlos Gaviria. Despite a late surge in popularity at the
expense of a centrist candidate, Gaviria came in a distant second with
20 percent. But public enthusiasm for Uribe was less than overwhelming,
with 55 percent of eligible voters abstaining from voting.
To many of these Colombians, Uribe has failed to
live up to his press clippings, at least those common in the mainstream
U.S. news media, hailing him as a popular, Harvard-educated, free-market
stalwart and Washington’s No. 1 ally in the “drug war.”
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration and its Colombian counterparts, Colombia remains the
dominant source for cocaine and heroin in the U.S. market. Some
estimates indicate that Colombia produces 90 percent of the cocaine
consumed in the United States and 60 percent of the heroin (much of the
rest coming from Afghanistan since Washington ousted the Taliban
government after 9/11 and restored power to Afghan warlords.
DEA and other drug authorities also believe that
the biggest share of Colombia's multibillion-dollar northbound drug
trade is controlled by the paramilitary AUC, the violent right-wing
group with which Uribe’s government has allegedly collaborated.
Garcia, the former DAS official, alleged that AUC
thugs used intimidation and fraud to give Uribe 300,000 of his 5.3
million votes in the 2002 election. During Uribe’s first term, the AUC
also appears to have increased its penetration of key government
agencies, including the DAS, roughly the equivalent of Colombia’s FBI.
In its reliance on Washington’s advice and in its
continuing counterinsurgency war, Colombia also seems stuck in a Cold
War political/economic model. Yet, despite U.S. investment of billions
of dollars, most of it through what was known as “Plan Colombia,” the
problem with the political violence and the drug trafficking never seems
to get much better and arguably gets worse.
As author Peter Dale Scott notes in his 2003 book,
Drugs, Oil and War, “U.S. involvement in Colombia has escalated
by stages since the original commitment to a counterinsurgency program
under the Kennedy administration… At every stage, U.S. programs have
aggravated the problem they are attempting to deal with.”
History of Violence
Colombia’s long history of violence – the origins
of which Scott lays at the doorstep of a feudalistic oligarchy that
dispossessed peasants and subjugated laborers with impunity – predates
the first U.S. intervention in the early 1960s. (The 15-year-long “La
Violencia” period began with the 1948 assassination of a popular
Furthermore, the crystallization of what had
previously been a fragmented left-wing underground into an armed
revolutionary guerilla movement, occurred
in response, not
prior, to U.S. intervention.
Washington intervened in Colombia after the
Indochinese and Cuban revolutions of the 1950s. Throughout the Cold War,
but particularly then and in the Reagan era, the U.S. government viewed
political developments through red-tinted glasses, seeing evidence of
Soviet expansionism in every revolutionary movement.
Determined to block another revolution in Latin
America, Washington applied new CIA counterinsurgency techniques in
“In February 1962,” Scott writes, “a U.S. Special
Warfare team, headed by General William Yarborough, visited [Colombia]
for two weeks.” Following that visit, “the Special Warfare experts at
Fort Bragg rushed to instruct the Colombian army in …counterinsurgency
“[Gen. Yarborough] recommended development of a
‘civil and military structure… to perform counter-agent and
counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execution, sabotage,
and/or terrorist activities [emphasis added] against known
communist proponents. … In the wake of Yarborough’s visit, a series of
training teams arrived, contributing to the Colombian Army’s Plan Lazo,
a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan implemented between 1962 and
As result, according to counterinsurgency historian
Michael McClintock, “The banditry of the early 1960s…was transformed
into organized revolutionary guerilla warfare after 1965, which has
continued to date.”
Worse yet, Plan Lazo also spawned the paramilitary
death squads that today control much of the narcotics traffic and about
30 percent of the Colombian legislature.
A key element of Fort Bragg’s concept of
counterinsurgency, according to training manuals cited by Scott, was
“the organization of ‘self-defense units’ and other paramilitary groups,
including ‘hunter-killer teams.’ The thinking and nomenclature of these
field manuals were translated and cited in the Colombian army’s
counter-guerilla manual, Reglamento de Combate de Contraguerillas.
“It defined the self-defense group (junta de
auto-defensa) as ‘an organization of a military nature made up of
select civilian personnel from the combat zone who are trained and
equipped to carry out actions against groups of guerillas.’ The
autodefensas [as the paramilitaries became known] have been a
scourge ever since.”
In the 1970s, Washington continued to pour fuel
onto Colombia’s fires.
The CIA, Scott writes, “offered further training to
Colombian and other Latin American police officers at its so-called bomb
school in Los Fresnos, Texas. There AID [the Agency for International
Development], under the CIA’s so-called Public Safety Program, taught a
curriculum including ‘Terrorist Concepts; Terrorist Devices; Fabrication
and Functioning of Devices’ Improvised Triggering Devices;
Incendiaries,’ and ‘Assassination Weapons: A discussion of various
weapons which may be used by the assassin.’ During congressional
hearings, AID officials admitted that the so-called bomb school offered
lessons not in bomb disposal but in bomb making.
“Trained terrorist counterrevolutionaries thus
became assets of the Colombian security apparatus. They were also
employed by U.S. corporations anxious to protect their workforces from
unionization as well as in anti-union campaigns by Colombian suppliers
to large U.S. corporations. Oil companies in particular have been part
of the state-coordinated campaign against left-wing guerillas.”
According to more mainstream versions of how the
“death squads” were born, rich landowners living in fear of kidnapping
by leftist guerillas paid protection money to right-wing militias. By
1981, the right-wing militias had morphed into civilian-murdering squads
operating alongside the Colombian army.
Scott notes that the leftist guerillas also
kidnapped drug kingpins, who joined with the army and established a
training school for a nationwide counterterrorist network, Muerte a
Sequestradores (MAS, Death to Kidnappers).
The traffickers put up the money and the generals
contracted for Israeli and British mercenaries to come to Colombia to
run the school. A leading graduate was Carlos Castano, who later became
head of the AUC, which carried out the murders of hundreds of civilian
opposition leaders and peace activists.
The Colombian legislature outlawed the
autodefensas in 1989. But, according to a 1996 report by Human
Rights Watch, the CIA and Colombian authorities cloned new ones.
Writing in the Progressive in 1998, Frank
Smyth reported that “In the name of fighting drugs, the CIA financed new
military intelligence networks [in Colombia] in 1991. But the new
networks did little to stop drug traffickers. Instead, they incorporated
illegal paramilitary groups into their ranks and fostered death squads.
“These death squads killed trade unionists, peasant
leaders, human-rights workers, journalists and other suspected
‘subversives.’ The evidence, including secret Colombian military
documents, suggests that the CIA may be more interested in fighting a
leftist resistance movement than in combating drugs.”
Some U.S. Army personnel also appear to have been
corrupted by the easy drug money. Laurie Hiatt, wife of Col. James
Hiatt, the Army’s top counter-narcotics official in Colombia, was
arrested for smuggling cocaine to New York City.
Hiatt, who was regularly briefed the U.S.
military’s anti-drug spy flights, was himself convicted for helping his
wife launder drug profits.
While FARC guerillas have financed their operations
by taxing coca farmers in the south, right-wing AUC paramilitaries in
the north have controlled actual cocaine production and transportation
to the U.S. – in partnership with Colombia’s corrupt armed forces.
In November 1998, a military plane that never left
the Colombian air force’s hands landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with
1,600 pounds of cocaine. Just last week Colombian soldiers ambushed and
wiped out an elite 10-member police counter-narcotics team and their
informer, as they were about to make a major drug seizure.
Other evidence also points to links between drug
lords and Uribe’s inner circle.
Between 1997 and 1998, U.S. Custom agents in
California seized three Colombia-bound ships carrying 25 tons of
potassium permanganate, a key precursor chemical in the production of
cocaine, NarcoNews reported in 2002. The 25 tons were enough to produce
500,000 kilos of cocaine with a U.S. street value of $15 billion.
All three shipments were headed for GMP Productos
Quimicos in Medellin, whose owner according to the DEA was Pedro Juan
Moreno, Uribe’s former campaign manager, chief of staff and right-hand
While chief of staff to Uribe, Moreno set up armed
vigilante groups known as CONVIVIRS (Rural Vigilence Committees).
According to Amnesty International, CONVIVIRS was a cover for
government-funded training camps and recruiting agencies for
paramilitary death squads.
They committed so many bloody massacres that
Colombia’s government was forced to ban CONVIVIRS in 1997. But instead
of turning in their weapons, they were allowed to join Carlos Castano’s
AUC paramilitary organization.
Under Uribe, the Colombian military has focused on
subduing FARC, especially in regions where Occidental Petroleum and
other U.S. companies are extracting oil. It also helped Uribe’s
re-election that, at least partly as result of that focus, kidnappings
and other crimes went down sharply.
The Drug Apple Cart
However, six years later, after Washington's
investment of $4 billion in Plan Colombia and additional hundreds of
millions in its wake, the supply of cocaine to the North American market
has hardly been dented. That’s because Uribe has done little to upset
the AUC apple cart.
Uribe did push through legislation called the
“Justice and Peace Law,” which ostensibly was designed to demobilize the
In a May 26, 2006, editorial, the New York Times
wrote that the law “was supposed to offer paramilitary fighters
incentives to put down their guns… [but] instead… let them continue
their criminal activities undisturbed…
“Now the Constitutional Court has strengthened the
demobilization law … [requiring that AUC members] confess in full to
their crimes and provide the authorities with the information necessary
to dismantle these criminal gangs. The court also struck down a
provision that would have given prosecutors a cripplingly short time to
Significantly, the editorial continues, “Uribe’s
administration has twice written bills that restrict the jurisdiction of
the Constitutional Court, which is the most important remaining check on
the president’s power. Uribe may try again if he is elected to a second
term on Sunday.
“He enjoys the backing of Washington, which
considers him a counterweight to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The American
ambassador, William Wood, has enthusiastically supported Mr. Uribe’s
sweetheart deal for the paramilitaries.”
Now Colombians have re-elected Uribe who,
like his good friend and fellow Ivy Leaguer, George Bush, models himself
after absolute monarchs like Louis XV of France who is said to have
declared, “Après moi le deluge” (after me, the flood; his heir,
Louis XVI, was toppled by the French Revolution and ultimately
Uribe, before the May 28 vote, simply warned his
countrymen, “it’s either me or catastrophe.”
Jerry Meldon is an associate
professor (chemical and biological engineering) at Tufts University in