Colombian quagmire

The hidden front in America's 'war on terror' is turning dirty.

Josie Appleton

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While all eyes are turned on Iraq, Colombia has become the hidden front in America’s ‘war on terror’.

After the attacks of 9/11, Colombia’s guerrilla groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which started out as small leftist opposition groups and grew into large-scale territorial armies – were branded enemies in America’s ‘war on terror’. In March 2002, president George W Bush pledged to support the Colombian government in its fight against ‘terrorist organisations’. The US attorney general John Ashcroft described the FARC as ‘the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the western hemisphere’, and said that the guerrillas were ‘engaged in a campaign of terror against Colombians and US citizens’ (1).

US funding and military assistance for the Colombian government has poured in. Back in 1997, US funding to Colombia was at $88.3million, and this was restricted to police counter-drug efforts; by 2003, funding was standing at $650million, and could be used by the Colombian military to take on the guerrilla groups head-on (2). We’ve now seen US-donated helicopters firing on guerrillas, and US Special Forces training Colombian government battalions in assertive warfare.

This US policy has sparked Colombia’s descent into chaos. It has raised the stakes and led to increasing conflict between government and guerrilla forces, leading to an authoritarian government clampdown and more violent guerrilla responses. And it is difficult to see how US ‘interests’ are being realised on its Colombian front. The USA seems to have involved itself in a factious civil war with no end in sight – and to greater cost than gain.

A look at US intervention in Latin America helps to put the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into perspective. These wars are often presented as responses to specific threats from the Middle East, such as al-Qaeda and the attacks of 9/11, or Saddam and his WMD. But the fact that similar wars have played out on the very different field of Latin America shows that events are driven by internal conditions in America, rather than by particular threats in the third world.

The USA’s ‘war on terror’ in Colombia has its precedents in the ‘war on drugs’, which was the basis for US intervention in Latin America in the 1990s. These two wars have a number of similar features. They are both concerned with combating social instability and taking on non-state actors; and they both attempt to project a moral image of America, as battling against sinister threats. They are also both aimless and unwinnable wars, which lack any real rationale – and that fuel the very flames that they seek to extinguish.

In the past, American interventions were driven by political or economic goals. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, America fought off European influence in Latin America, often marching into countries or fixing their leaders to ensure favourable conditions for American companies. For example, Guatemala’s 1930s dictator Jorge Ubico gave the US United Fruit Company special favours, allowing it to set its own prices and to evade taxes. In the second half of the twentieth century, the USA battled Soviet influence, lending support to brutal leaders who took on left-wing and working-class movements, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Hugo Banzer in Bolivia.

These kinds of interventions involved a correspondence between some kind of American interest (such as economic gain or political dominance) and the interests of a local group (such as the landed elite or the business class). However bloody and vicious these affairs were, they at least had an aim and an end-point, and led to some kind of regime that could run things.

The war on drugs was a response to the foreign policy vacuum that opened up after the end of the Cold War. With the ‘Soviet threat’ gone, America had to search around for a new kind of war, a new way of justifying intervention and holding Latin American countries to account. As one American general put it in the mid-1990s, ‘[the drug war is] the only war we’ve got’ (3). During the 1990s, US aid became conditional on countries eradicating coca and cracking down on the drugs trade; and America trained police and army to target narcotraffickers.

America’s new-style wars lack the logic of the old. Rather than being a realisation of national interest, they are externalisations of America’s internal political malaise. By fighting its battles against ‘evil-doers’ on foreign fields, the American elite is attempting to recover a sense of purpose and mission at home.

As a result, these wars tend to be chaotic, running contrary to any discernable US or Latin American agendas. In Colombia, America’s support for the war on drugs in the 1990s broke up a fragile balance of power that had been established between guerrillas, narcotraffickers and the state. America pushed the Colombian government to break up the major Medellin drugs cartel, and to pursue its head, Pablo Escobar. Because the Medellin cartel had maintained security in the areas it controlled, this created a vacuum that the central state was unable to fill – and so the space was quickly taken by a plethora of smaller drugs cartels. It also fuelled an expansion of the FARC guerrilla force, which doubled in size in the 1990s to some 20,000-strong; as well as the growth of vicious paramilitary groups, which acted as proxies for the weak and corrupt Colombian military (4).

Colombia’s particular history makes it inherently unstable. The country has always been something of a tinderbox because the central state never really managed to establish its authority. The conflict that sparked up between liberal reformists and Conservative landowners in the 1940s has remained unresolved; different social factions have tended to maintain their own private armies, and negotiate spheres of influence among themselves.

The USA’s war on drugs inflamed these tensions. No Colombian group has much interest in defeating the drugs trade, at least while the central state remains so weak. In the 1990s, Colombian presidents performed a juggling act, trying to show willing to the USA by spraying coca fields and going after the drugs cartels, while also using US funding to pursue their own political objectives. The war on drugs is also unwinable and irresolvable; the drugs trade is driven by demand from the countries of the West rather than by the growing habits of Latin American peasants. Where there’s demand, there’ll be supply – coca that is eradicated will grow again somewhere else.

By making Colombia part of the war on terror, the USA made a bad situation worse. In an attempt to curry favour, the Colombian government has copied US anti-terrorism rhetoric and compared FARC to Islamic fundamentalists. State power has been bolstered: the government launched major offensives against the guerrillas and brought through new ‘antiterrorist’ powers to give the military a freer hand. Some areas of the country are now operating under a de facto martial law.

But this onslaught isn’t the result of any particular group within Colombia trying to pursue its political aims; nor does it key into US interests in the region. As a result, the government’s crackdown is little more than pure repression, and tends to breed pure reaction. FARC’s tactics have become more vicious – there have been cases of the guerrillas forcing civilians to become suicide bombers, and turning against those, such as journalists, who had before enjoyed immunity.

A low-intensity, negotiated conflict has become increasingly fraught. The death toll in Colombia has nearly doubled over the past five years, reaching some 7000 per year. According to one report, US support for the government crackdown has led to a 55 per cent increase in military combat operations, and a 26 per cent rise in guerrilla attacks on the army (5). And America is becoming increasingly implicated in this. In February 2003, three US military contractors were captured after their plane was shot down by FARC guerrillas; FARC described the Americans as ‘prisoners of war’, and offered to exchange them for the guerrilla group’s own prisoners. FARC guerrillas have also fired mortars at the camps used by US Special Forces soldiers who train the Colombian military.

So it’s not just in Iraq that America’s aimless military interventions are breeding chaos. This isn’t the ‘dollar diplomacy’ of old, but it is none the less destructive for that. The question is, how long can America keep its feet dry in Colombia?

(1) The U.S. War of Terror in Colombia, Colombia Journal Online, 2 December 2002

(2) NACLA, Vol 36, issue 5

(3) NACLA, Nov/Dec 2000

(4) NACLA, Nov/Dec 2001

(5) Washington signals escalation of US intervention in Colombia, World Socialist Website, 26 August 2003

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