What do “narcoterrorism” in Colombia and Islamist terrorism in the Middle East have in common?
Very little, except that since the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, countries that vow to help the United States fight either one find it easier to attract large amounts of U.S. military training and aid.
In the popular understanding, the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” is aimed at hunting down al Qaeda and its allies, the people who “want to attack us again.” But the globe includes South America and in it the heavily Roman Catholic Colombia, home to only a tiny number of Muslims and to the world’s largest cocaine industry. Colombia’s famed drug cartels have spun off both left-wing and right-wing guerrillas who control much of the countryside and spawn endemic corruption, violence and human rights horror stories.
The country’s share of U.S. Foreign Military Financing shot up from zero in the three years before 9/11 to more than $100 million in the three years after. Colombia is also the fifth-largest recipient of the Defense Department’s new Regional Defense Counterterrorism Fellowship Program (CTFP), collecting almost $1.5 million in the three years after 9/11 for the training of the country’s military and security forces — which are still routinely implicated in human rights abuses against their own citizens.
This comes on top of the huge amount of funds the United States has long given under Plan Colombia, the centerpiece of the U.S. effort to curb domestic drug trafficking by choking off supplies at their source. In the three years after the September 11 attacks, Colombia collected close to half a billion dollars from the Pentagon to fight drugs and $1.5 billion from the State Department’s International Law and Narcotics programs, according to a comprehensive global database of military training and assistance programs compiled by the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Colombia is the Latin American country with the closest ties to the United States It has received more military aid from Washington than any other country in the region, and it now sits alongside Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan as the top global recipients of post-9/11 U.S. foreign military training and aid. Further, it has a president who gets along well with President Bush in a region where nation after nation has been veering to the left — and away from the United States.
But Colombia is also constantly under Congress’ microscope when it comes to human rights violations. Human rights groups have reported the involvement of the U.S.-trained Colombian military units in extrajudicial killings, disappearances and torture. The investigations also have accused the Colombian military of involvement in the massacres of scores of civilians by paramilitary groups.
The left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is still Colombia’s biggest internal threat, and it is becoming a bigger player in the illegal drug trade; despite the demobilization of more than 31,000 paramilitary troops, the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) still controls drug and corruption networks that permeate all levels of the Colombian government.
Scandal grows over ties to paramilitary groups, drug traffickers
A sweeping “para politics” scandal linking scores of national politicians and high-ranking Colombian government officials to the paramilitary organizations and narcotraffickers — designated as terrorist groups by the U.S. government — has put Colombian President Álvaro Uribe on the political hot seat. And signs of American frustration with the lack of progress in Colombia are beginning to show.
In April 2007, the U.S. Senate froze some American military aid to Colombia after The Los Angeles Times brought to light allegations that the senior Colombian Army commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, had ties to the AUC. In the same month, former Vice President Al Gore canceled a presentation in Miami because of concerns that President Uribe was speaking at the same seminar; Gore cited an allegation by Gustavo Petro, a Colombian senator, that a paramilitary death squad once used Uribe’s family farms to plan operations.
The “para politics” scandal continues to unfold. More than a dozen Colombian congressmen are under investigation, and the list of those implicated continues to grow. Today, the number of alleged “parapoliticians” runs in the hundreds, with scores of national, regional and local government officials having been fired or arrested for allegedly providing assistance to the various paramilitary groups.
María Consuelo Araújo, Colombia’s young foreign affairs minister, resigned after her brother, a senator, was arrested for alleged AUC links; an arrest warrant was issued for Araújo’s father in the alleged kidnapping of a political opponent during his son’s campaign. Uribe’s former spy chief, Jorge Noguera, has also been charged with collaborating with paramilitary groups and is currently awaiting trial.
Multinational corporations have also come under scrutiny for alleged AUC relationships. Fruit giant Chiquita Brands agreed to a $25 million settlement with the U.S. government after admitting that it paid the AUC for protection of its workers and facilities in Colombia; the Colombian government is also investigating the company for gun smuggling.
In another case, a former Colombian security officer at the U.S. Embassy who went to work for a large American coal company has been accused of being involved with Operation Dragon, allegedly an “extermination plan” against union and left-wing political leaders in the Colombian city of Cali. The State Department first publicly mentioned the Operation Dragon allegations in its annual human rights report in February 2005.
The news broke when a Colombian congressman made public a dossier of documents authorities discovered in a search of the security officer’s home. The dossier contained a contract hiring the officer to conduct “risk analysis.” In addition, it contained files about the family relations and routines of union leaders, politicians and human rights activists.
The accused officer, former Colombian army Col. Julián Villate, told ICIJ by e-mail that “In December [of 2006] I was hired by the U.S. embassy as a safety coordinator inside the embassy. . . . When a position at Drummond was opening . . . as a safety coordinator at the Cienaga Port, I resigned my position at the embassy and went to work for Drummond.” Villate categorically rejects the accusations against him.
Drummond Co., an Alabama-based corporation that operates in Colombia, faces a civil suit in U.S. federal court brought by families of union leaders who were tortured and murdered. The suit alleges that by condoning paramilitary fighters at its facilities, Drummond is responsible for the deaths. The company denies the allegations.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Bogota told ICIJ that, with respect to the embassy’s hiring of Villate, “we followed the normal procedures and didn’t find anything negative.”
Millions spent on P.R., lobbying
The Colombian government has occasionally relied on high-profile public relations firms in the United States to influence news about human rights violations that could endanger U.S. funding to combat the drug trade. From 1999 to 2004, Colombian government agencies and state-owned companies spent more than $87 million in lobbying, public relations, legal counseling and trade promotion in the United States, records filed with the Department of Justice show.
In the mid-1990s, the Colombian government retained BSMG Worldwide to create a “communications and promotion strategy for Colombia’s image,” lobbying records show. The firm, which later merged with Weber Shandwick, a leading public relations company, reached out to the media, including Fox News, CNN, and Business Week, as well as to members of Congress and the Bush administration. One of the BSMG contracts, signed in 1999, stated that one of the firm’s goals was to “make known to both houses of the U.S. Congress the achievements of the Colombian government in … the protection of the rights of Colombian citizens and the war on drugs.” A year later, Plan Colombia became law.
Most recently, the Colombian government hired the Glover Park Group, a Washington lobbying firm with ties to the Democratic Party, to enhance its image with the new Democratic-controlled Congress, the Associated Press reported. According to the AP, the lobbying deal had a price tag of $40,000 a month and includes rescuing a bilateral free trade agreement that Democrats refuse to ratify, as well as maintaining the level of military assistance Colombia receives from the United States. Glover Park officials did not return calls seeking comment.
The AP also reported in May 2007 that public relations giant Burson-Marsteller had been hired by the Colombian government to “educate members of the U.S. Congress and other audiences” about the trade agreement and future funding for Plan Colombia.
Afro-Colombians slaughtered for their land
In its war on drugs, the United States has sought to cut off drug traffickers’ supply of the raw materials to make cocaine by subsidizing indigenous farmers to cultivate crops other than coca. But in the state, or “department,” of Chocó in northwest Colombia, a region inhabited by the descendants of African slaves brought by Spanish colonists, the U.S. strategy almost went badly awry.
Over the past decade, hundreds of the region’s native Afro-Colombians have been killed by the AUC and thousands have been forced to flee. Meanwhile, land the AUC took by subterfuge or by coercing Afro-Colombians to give it up was amassed to create a multi-thousand acre palm oil plantation that is administered by the Uraba Union of Palm Oil Growers, or Urapalma, a Colombian company.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) slated $700,000 in anti-drug funding for the plantation project even though the U.S. government had classified AUC as a foreign terrorist organization. After the AUC’s crimes against the Afro-Colombians became a public embarrassment, the funding was withdrawn.
In a 2003 ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights called on the Colombian government to protect the Afro-Colombians from paramilitary groups, including the AUC. At the same time, Urapalma’s anti-drug funding application was being screened by USAID and by Associates in Rural Development Inc. (ARD), a large USAID contractor based in Burlington, Vt. ARD has contracts to distribute $41.5 million in grants to substitute coca for legal crops as part of Plan Colombia, including the Colombian Agribusiness Partnership Program. CAPP’s specific purpose, according to ARD’s Web site, is to support “private activities to expand the production and/or processing of legal and profitable agricultural commodities produced in or near areas of illicit crop production.”
In an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, USAID and ARD staffers told ICIJ that the area inhabited by the Afro-Colombians had been classified as “under risk” for illicit coca cultivation. But that assessment was contradicted by the Colombian narcotics police, whose analysis of satellite photographs taken over three decades indicates that the area has never been a major source of coca. “There is just one detected young crop of less than a half hectare, to be uprooted by local police,” police Maj. Ricardo Blanco told ICIJ. “None in the past,” he said.
Asked why they would have considered including a company with unsavory connections as part of CAPP, the USAID and ARD representatives told ICIJ that Urapalma never fully completed the paperwork process and so such issues never came up.
“We had controls, and they worked,” said Liliana Ayalde, USAID’s director in Colombia.
The paper trail suggests otherwise. ARD quarterly reports show the Urapalma project moving along a path from “proposal” to “project” over that period, until its inclusion on a list of “about to be signed” projects in 2005. The documents also indicate that ARD had an employee assigned to “fast-tracking” the project to completion.
A March 2005 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found that for the Afro-Colombians, “cases of intimidation, arbitrary threats . . . tortures and murders continue, as well as the armed action against the population by paramilitary groups, aided or allowed by Brigade XVII of the National Army.”
After revelations of the human rights violations and land frauds, USAID put the Urapalma application on hold; the project remains frozen.
ICIJ spoke with Freddy Rendón, also known as El Alemán (“The German”), at Unguía, a two-hour motorboat ride from the area where AUC once terrorized the Afro-Colombians. Rendón, who assumed leadership of an AUC division after AUC leader Carlos Castaño disappeared in 2004, acknowledged that “many atrocities have been done” to the Afro-Colombians. But he insisted that his soldiers, 80 percent of whom he says are black, are blameless. “We cannot betray black people, because this is our skin,” said Rendón, who is white.
In an interview with ICIJ, Urapalma shareholder and spokesman Jairo Alonso, a former Colombian deputy minister for agriculture, insisted that the company had been the “victim of a big lie” and said that it continued to cultivate the palm plantation under the protection of the Colombian army.
Army unit linked to drug protection
The events of May 22, 2006, near Jamundí, a small town about 200 miles southwest of the capital Bogotá, are another grim chapter in the Plan Colombia saga.
At sunset, trucks containing an elite squad of Colombian anti-narcotics police approached a mental institution near Jamundí. The official mission was to gather intelligence to prepare for the seizure of a 136-kilogram shipment of cocaine supposedly hidden inside the facility.
But the mission was not completed. Ten policemen and a ski-masked informant guiding the group were cut down by a machine-gun attack from roadside trenches.
The shooters were members of the Farallones High Mountain Battalion of the Colombian army’s 3rd Brigade. Army generals told the public the incident was the result of friendly fire, of tragic confusion.
Then a different version emerged: Cellular phone text messages between the troops and their commander, published by Colombian media, indicated that the army platoon was trying to protect the drug cache and its owner, Diego Montoya, a drug cartel leader who is on the FBI’s most wanted list.
The policemen killed were part of the country’s most successful anti-drug team. They worked for the DIJIN (the judicial police) and had been trained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, according to Gen. Óscar Naranjo, DIJIN director. Naranjo said that the police unit had captured 205 drug traffickers and seized nearly 4.4 tons of cocaine in the previous two years.
But questions about the police anti-drug mission surfaced. Where was the judge’s order to execute the raid? Why didn’t they take a civil prosecutor along with them, as the law required? Why did they deploy only 10 agents for such a dangerous mission?
Two weeks after the massacre, Col. Bayron Carvajal, commander of the battalion whose members were accused of the killings, was arrested for his role in the debacle.
“[Pull back] the ambush,” Carvajal had written on the morning of the attack in a cell phone text message published in newspapers. “Everything is set for tonight.”
Besides being fighters in the same war on narcoterrorism, the army and the police forces under investigation had something else in common: Both were trained by the United States as part of Plan Colombia.
Carvajal was a 1985 graduate of the School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), the controversial Cold War-era American program that trained tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques; critics accuse many of those forces of then committing atrocities against their own populations.
“For years, Colombian officials have told us that the character and professionalism of their armed forces have changed for the better,” said U.S. Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.). “Yet, each week we learn about more well-documented cases of murder, corruption and direct involvement in the drug trade.”
U.S. aid’s impact marginal
More than six years after the United States began massive military aid under Plan Colombia, hoping that curtailing coca cultivation would make a dent in the U.S. drug problem, and five years after the funding increases from post-9/11 U.S. anti-terrorism programs were added to the flow of money, many view the efforts with disappointment.
On American streets, the price of cocaine is down 11 percent with high levels of purity, a signal that more drugs are entering the country from Colombia. On Colombian streets, labor leaders and innocent citizens continue to be killed and “disappeared” by Colombian security forces. Colombia is the country where judges, prosecutors, union leaders, policemen, soldiers and journalists are routinely killed for taking on the drug trade.
Has Colombia, or the United States, gained anything from the huge infusion of post-9/11 antiterrorism money to Colombia?
“It’s been a largely marginal impact on the ground,” Adam Isacson, director of the Center for International Policy’s Demilitarization/Colombia program, told ICIJ.
Has it improved the human rights situation in Colombia?
“What matters now,” professor Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami, said in an interview with ICIJ, “is the fight against terrorism, not the protection of human rights. Despite the fact that the demobilization of paramilitary groups has contributed to fewer massacres and the kidnapping numbers are down, last year Colombia was still the most dangerous country on the planet for union leaders and activists.”
Has it helped defeat Islamist terrorism?
“There are no links to the Islamists” in Colombia, Isacson said of Colombia’s narcoterrorists. “It’s not terrorism with a global reach.”