U.S.-Colombia “Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation”

September 3, 2014

During a trip to Mexico and Colombia, U.S. Ambassador William R. Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, met with the Colombian Vice Minister of Defense. On August 1st Brownfield and Mr. Vizcaya signed off on a new strategy for “bilateral and multilateral law enforcement” called the “Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation for 2015.” 

In an earlier speech about the plan Colombian President Santos announced: “Our countries have moved from being just good friends and partners to become real allies. We are allies in building a new world order – the world of the 20th century is behind; it is in the past. Now there is a new international reality and we cannot simply be passive observers of this reality. Only joint work of those who share the ideals of freedom and democracy makes sure of a peaceful transition towards a better world. And we feel that we must work together.”

Santos also said that he “agreed with President Obama to work together so as to help Central American countries in fighting against organized crime and drug trafficking. The experience that we have gathered through Plan Colombia together with the United States is something that we have the obligation of sharing with our brothers in Central America who are going through difficult times. So that is the reason why we have decided to strengthen and improve joint assistance mechanisms for these countries.”

Sometimes billed as part of a “war on drugs” and sometimes billed as part of a “war on terror,” “Plan Colombia” is a project of interventionist war by the United States against the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.  It was drawn up during the Clinton administration. “Plan Colombia” has been used to militarize the entire Andes region – to establish military bases and dispatch U.S. advisers to Colombia, Peru, to El Salvador and other countries.

Over the last several years Obama has dramatically expanded “Plan Colombia.”  According to a U.S. Department of State press release (4/15/2012), “The United States and Colombia already provide direct operational support and indirect capacity building efforts to countries throughout the hemisphere and West Africa. One example of direct combined U.S. and Colombian operational efforts is OPERATION MARTILLO, where the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF-S) and Colombian Navy and Air Forces are coordinating air and maritime detection, monitoring, and interdiction efforts to detect and disrupt transnational organized criminal elements...

“An example of complementary capacity building efforts includes the Central America Regional Police Reform Project. With funding from the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the Colombian National Police provides training and assistance in such topics as community policing, police academy instructor training, and curriculum development in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama. To complement this police training by Colombia, the United States trains prosecutors in these countries, resulting in holistic capacity building across the entire rule of law spectrum. Both countries are working to identify new areas for collaboration and committed to coordinate more closely with partner nations throughout the hemisphere.”

For decades, the Colombian military has been supported and organized by U.S. imperialism. Today it is notorious as one of the most violent and repressive regimes in the world. In return, the Colombian military serves to protect the strategic and economic interests of U.S. monopoly capital such as domination of the entire Andes region, including its vast mineral and oil wealth as well as control over the Panama Canal. In addition, Colombia itself is a source of super-profits for the U.S. monopoly capitalists. U.S. agric-business interests have long bolstered the power of the Colombian landed oligarchy and, in turn, dominated the market for Colombian coffee, beef, and other products (40% of Colombia’s import and export trade is with the U.S.). U.S. multi-national corporations are also the biggest foreign investor in the country, and, in recent years, have been dramatically increasing their investments in Colombia’s growing oil industry as well as other sectors.

Below we provide some background information on U.S. militarism in Colombia.

Throughout the 1990’s Colombia was the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid and training in Latin America. From 1990-98, Colombia received $830 million in military assistance; hundreds of millions more were provided for Colombia’s police. Over the last 15 years the number of people the Colombian government has under arms increased from 250,000 to 444,000.  (Today there are 171,000 Colombian police and 273,000 in the military.)

The massive quantities of U.S. arms shipped to Colombia have equipped the army for counter-insurgency war and included helicopter gunships and counter-insurgency jets which have been repeatedly used to bomb guerrilla-controlled areas as part of “softening up” civilian population centers. U.S. funds and U.S. military “advisers” have also been used to build a network of military bases with “the goal to increase the battlefronts against the guerillas. . . .” (former U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby).

Since 1984, Colombia has also had the largest International Military Education and Training program (run by the U.S. military) in Latin America. From 1984-92, 6,844 soldiers were trained through IMET and used to form the core of various “elite,” counter-insurgency units. In addition, special urban police units were set up to suppress the trade unions and other urban movements. Colombian units organized and trained by the U.S. included the notorious “Mobile units” composed of professional soldiers and used as the primary counter-insurgency strike force. The tactics of these “Mobile units” are similar to the “strategic Hamlet” program used by U.S. imperialism in Vietnam. International human rights groups have documented repeated bombings of civilian areas, wholesale arrest, torture and massacre of civilians, burning and destruction of entire villages, etc. The terror unleashed by these “Mobile units,” combined with the terror of the para-military forces (see below), have turned 4.9 million Colombians into internal refugees – forcibly displaced from their homes and left to wander the country with no means of livelihood, no shelter, etc.

Colombia's counter-insurgency war is directed, in person, by U.S. military “advisers” and “trainers.” Several hundred U.S. military personnel are already stationed in the country. They are mainly Green Berets and other elite units which are part of U.S. Special Operations Command directed by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.

Under a special law (Section 2011, Title 10) most of the U.S. military personnel in Colombia operate under the “Joint Combined Exchange and Training” program which places them outside of any Congressional oversight. In fact, even during the years 1995-97, when U.S. law banned aid to the Colombian military due to its human rights record, the Special Operations forces continued to train Colombian soldiers in “shoot and maneuver tactics,” intelligence gathering and counter-insurgency warfare. U.S. “trainers” regularly took part in operations against the guerrilla forces. One senior U.S. military officer in Colombia admitted. “We decide on the ground how far we can go. We can call anything counter-drugs. If you are going to train to take out a target, it doesn't make much difference, if you call it a drug lab or a guerrilla camp. There's not much difference between counter-drugs and counter-insurgency. We just don't use the [language] much anymore because it is politically too sensitive.” (quoted in the “Washington Post,” July 13, 1998). The U.S. Southern Command admitted that Special Operations forces, numbering several hundred, took part in 28 joint operations with Colombian forces in 1996 and 29 operations in 1997.

U.S. Support for Paramilitaries

As part of its operations in Colombia, the U.S. government has helped set up an extensive network of paramilitary death squads as a shock force in its counter-insurgency war. Such paramilitary groups include off-duty and retired soldiers as well as civilian spies and mercenaries. They are often partially funded by big drug-dealers as well as by U.S. corporations. There are thousands of armed paramilitaries operating in Colombia, directly linked with the Colombian military and its U.S. “advisers.” 

Paramilitaries became a key component of U.S. counter-insurgency especially during the Cold War when in Colombia (and throughout the world), the U.S. army organized civilian “self-defense forces” as part of its strategy against the national liberation movements. In 1955, Colombia was the first Latin American country to set up a U.S.-initiated counter-guerrilla center and begin training such “self-defense forces.” In 1962, a U.S. Army Special Warfare team recommended that Colombia “select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training . . . to be used to perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary executive paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.” (from U.S. Army report, quoted in “Colombia’s Killer Networks,” published in 1996 by Human Rights Watch). These U.S.-authored tactics were adopted by Colombia’s army in its “Plan Lazo.” Human Rights groups have documented innumerable instances of how such paramilitary groups were used not only against guerrilla movement but also against the political opposition and civilians generally. In fact, U.S. and Colombian military training manuals instruct the “paras” to target all social protest movements, on how to test the loyalties of civilians. Those with “suspicious” loyalties are blacklisted, terrorized or killed by the paras.

In 1991, on the recommendation of a U.S. team including representatives from the CIA and U.S. Southern Command, the Colombian military re-organized its paramilitary operations on the basis of Order 200-05/91. This order authorized the army to set up thirty paramilitary networks in urban and rural areas. In the words of a retired Colombian army major the paramilitaries “principal action. . . . is to collect intelligence, in addition to serving as an extermination group.” All the networks set up under Order 200-05/91 were placed under the direct command of the army which also took responsibility for selecting the targets.

The paramilitary groups are equipped with arms diverted from the Colombian military which, in turn, is aided by the U.S. The U.S. has given direct military aid to such units as the first and second mobile brigades, and dozens of other divisions and brigades involved in organizing the paras and implicated in major human rights violations. In fact, many high-ranking Colombian officers who are implicated in the terrorism of the paras are graduates of the U.S. army’s infamous School of the Americas.

While the U.S. and Colombian governments both try to hide their connections to the paramilitaries, the truth is that these death squads are directly organized by U.S. imperialism and part of its war against the Colombian people.