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A Different War on Terror,
But the Same Old Propaganda

by Garry Leech
July 7, 2004
First Published in Colombia Journal

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A recent op-ed by Thomas W. O’Connell, assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, is yet another example of the Bush administration distorting facts in order to sell its war on terror to the U.S. public and Congress. In this case, it is not an attempt to justify the forceful imposition of “democracy”—naturally, a U.S.-devised neoliberal democracy—on Iraq, but a good old self-congratulatory pat on the back for the “successes” of U.S. military intervention in Colombia at a time when Congress is debating a Bush administration request to increase the number of U.S. troops and contractors permitted in that South American country. In an ideal democracy, U.S. government officials would fully and accurately inform the public about the administration’s policies so as to allow citizens to effectively participate in the democratic process, especially crucial in an election year. O’Connell clearly fails to do this. In fact, by distorting the realities of the Bush administration’s war on terror policies in Colombia he has grossly misinformed and misled the U.S. public and Congress, and thus, undermined democracy in the United States.

In the opening paragraph of his July 1 Washington Times op-ed titled A Different War on Terror, O’Connell wastes little time before distorting the historical reality of the Colombian conflict. He writes, “For nearly 50 years, terrorist organizations have attacked Colombia, the second-oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere, using narcotics trafficking, extortion and kidnapping to fund their activities.” In actuality, the United States only began applying the terrorist label to Colombia’s illegal armed groups 20 years ago, and even then the term was used sparingly until September 11, 2001.

Almost all Colombia experts agree that, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, the country’s leftist guerrillas were ideological revolutionary movements responding to political, social and economic injustices. Some observers believe components of Colombia’s guerrilla forces are still struggling against these injustices. Only last year, UN special envoy to Colombia James LeMoyne warned that, in a country where the inequitable wealth distribution has left 64 percent of the population living in poverty, it would be “a mistake to think that the FARC members are only drug traffickers and terrorists.” Furthermore, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Colombia’s armed groups began profiting from the illegal drug trade. O’Connell’s phrasing insinuates that Colombia’s illegal armed groups have been narco-traffickers and terrorists for almost 50 years.

The oft-repeated statement—used by U.S. government officials and the mainstream media—that “Colombia is the second-oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere” implies that the country has been continuously democratic for almost 200 years, which is not true. Among the more recent non-democratic episodes in Colombia’s history is the period from 1953 to 1957 when the country was ruled by the military dictator General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. And between 1958 and 1974 the country existed under the “limited democracy” of the National Front, during which the two elite political parties agreed to alternate four-year terms in the presidency to the exclusion of all political opposition. Local officials were not elected to office in Colombia until the 1980s and the government has repeatedly implemented “states of siege” over the past 40 years. Consequently, at the very least, the United States, Canada and Costa Rica are older continuously functioning democracies.

In keeping with past rhetoric from the Bush administration, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are the only illegal armed group named by O’Connell. He fails to make mention of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), whose paramilitary fighters are closely-allied with the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Also, according to human rights groups and the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights reports, it is the paramilitaries that have been responsible for the majority of Colombia’s human rights abuses. O’Connell singles out the FARC on three occasions in the article, while in the remainder of the piece he generically labels Colombia’s illegal armed groups as “terrorists” or “narco-terrorists” in an attempt to neatly fit Colombia’s complex conflict into the war on terror paradigm. The repeated references to the FARC imply that the guerrillas are the narco-terrorists mentioned throughout the article. In fact, a reader who is not familiar with Colombia would not even realize that the right-wing paramilitaries exist.

O’Connell refers to the environmental consequences of the conflict by noting that “narco-terrorists have stripped lush forests to grow their deadly crops,” and pointing out that “more than 240 million acres of jungle—an area 1.5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park—have been clear-cut in the last 15 years to grow coca crops.” Colombia’s rainforest has not been cleared by “narco-terrorists,” or even narco-traffickers for that matter. A substantial percentage of the destruction has been caused by impoverished farmers in remote regions seeking to grow the only profitable crop available to them because the Colombian and U.S. governments have failed to provide any viable economic alternatives.

Not coincidently, the 15-year period referred to by O’Connell began in 1989 when President George Bush Sr. dramatically increased U.S. military aid to Colombia in return for economic reforms based on “market-driven policies.” This led to the neoliberal reforms that devastated Colombia’s economy during the 1990s and forced many unemployed urban residents to flee to the countryside and cut down rainforest in order to grow coca. Needless to say, O’Connell fails to make mention of such details, instead mindlessly labeling impoverished farmers as “narco-terrorists.” Furthermore, rhetoric that irresponsibly links civilians to armed groups can result in the Colombian military and other armed actors committing gross human rights abuses against innocent Colombians.

O’Connell also neglects to point out another cause of environmental destruction: U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation campaigns that pollute rivers and forests and force coca farmers deeper into the jungle to replant their crops. And while he rightfully notes that the chemical waste from more than “250 million gallons and 240 million pounds of toxic chemicals” used in cocaine processing has damaged Colombia’s fragile ecosystem, he brushes under the rug the fact that many of these chemicals are purchased from U.S. companies. Referring in part to the environmental damage caused by drug production, O’Connell claims there is “growing progress in Colombia’s battle against these terrorist actions.” However, he does not discuss Bush administration policies (or lack thereof) that target U.S. chemical corporations making hundreds of millions of dollars in profits as a result of these “terrorist actions.”

One of O’Connell’s most blatant exaggerations of U.S. successes is his assertion that, due to U.S. military aid and training, and for the first time in decades, “nearly 100 percent of the towns in Columbia [sic] have military or police forces providing security and enforcing the law.” The Colombian government did finally establish a police presence in every municipality by the end of last year, but this is a far cry from “re-establishing” a state presence in every town. Many of these municipalities have a handful of police officers only in the largest town, and not “for the first time in 40 years,” as O’Connell states, but for the first time ever. Throughout Colombia’s history, many of the country’s remote towns have been neglected by the national government and thousands of them continue to lack any official state presence, remaining firmly under the control of illegal armed groups that function as de-facto governments.

With regard to human rights, O’Connell claims, “The Colombian military has greatly improved its record on human rights and continues to make progress.” This statement stands in stark contrast to the harsh criticisms of the Uribe administration by human rights groups that have accused the Colombian military of conducting mass round-ups of union leaders and human rights workers, and of being responsible for “disappearing” record numbers of people. Also, a UN report issued last year said the direct involvement of the Colombian military in human rights violations had increased under President Alvaro Uribe. Interestingly, O’Connell claims that the “new emphasis on respecting human rights is due to the hands-on leadership of Mr. Uribe and his minister of defense.”

O’Connell points out that “U.S.-supported counter-narcotics programs to Colombia have resulted in a 33 percent reduction over the last two years of illegal coca cultivation.” He prefers to ignore the fact that these incredible “successes” have failed to affect the price, purity and availability of cocaine in U.S. cities, which is supposedly the primary goal of the U.S. war on drugs in Colombia. “Continuing these programs is essential to Colombia’s security,” says O’Connell, “Since proceeds from the drug trade finance terrorist activities of groups like the FARC.” Once again the leftist FARC is the only illegal armed group mentioned, even though the right-wing AUC has long been involved in narco-trafficking.

It is clear that O’Connell’s piece is not intended to accurately portray the on-the-ground realities of Colombia. Rather, this propaganda piece was clearly conceived to convince the U.S. public and Congress that the Bush administration’s policies are an unqualified success and deserve continued support. Given all that is going on in the world, Colombia is not high on the priority lists of either the U.S. public or Congress. Consequently, it is even more important than ever that government officials provide accurate information to those citizens who simply do not have the time to research the situation in great depth. Unless, of course, the administration’s intent is to further its own agenda rather than participating in a democracy in which citizens can trust their government to help them make informed decisions at the polls.

Garry Leech is the editor of Colombia Journal, where this article first appeared (, and author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention.

Other Recent Articles by Garry Leech

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* The Indigenous Struggle in the Chocó
* Ghosts of the Past
* Displacing Development in the Chocó
* US Policies Consistently Undermine Human Rights
* Bush Places Corporate Interests Over Human Rights
* Politicizing Human Rights in Cuba and Colombia