The U.S. War of Terror in Colombia

by Doug Stokes

Dissident Voice

December 9, 2002



In the aftermath of September 11th, a counterterror orientation developed within U.S. foreign policy that has led to a blending of the war on drugs with an alleged “war on terror.” U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stated, “The State Department has called the FARC the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere,” and that Colombia’s leftist guerrillas have “engaged in a campaign of terror against Colombians and U.S. citizens.” The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Otto Reich, has argued that the “40 million people of Colombia deserve freedom from terror and an opportunity to participate fully in the new democratic community of American states. It is in our self-interest to see that they get it.” As a result, the Bush administration, which has committed $514 million to Colombia for the year 2002—with 71 percent of the grant in the form of military aid—is now set to commit some $700 million for 2003 for what it argues is an extension of its international “war on terror.”


While all the armed actors within Colombia conduct terror campaigns against civilians, right-wing paramilitaries that maintain close ties with drug traffickers and the Colombian military—the primary beneficiary of U.S. military aid—are consistently responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths. Leading human rights organizations attribute over 80 percent of all civilian killings to these death squads. Human Rights Watch, together with Colombian human rights investigators, conducted a study that concluded that half of Colombia’s eighteen brigade-level army units have extensive links to the narco-paramilitaries. This collusion is national in scope and the units include those receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid.


In its 1999 Human Rights Report on Colombia, the U.S. State Department concluded, “Paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police, as well as local civilian elites in many areas.” The latest Human Rights Watch report states that there has been an almost complete failure on the part of the Colombian government to effectively address “the problem of continuing collaboration between its forces and abusive paramilitaries and military impunity has contributed to a continuing, serious deterioration in human rights guarantees.” The report also points out that “the United States has violated the spirit of its own laws and in some cases downplayed or ignored evidence of continuing ties between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups in order to fund Colombia’s military and lobby for more aid.”


The role of the United States in Colombia’s paramilitary terror against the Colombian civilian population escalated when U.S. military advisers traveled to Colombia in 1991 to reshape Colombian military intelligence networks. This secret restructuring was supposedly designed to aid the Colombian military in their counternarcotics efforts. However, Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the order and nowhere within the order is any mention made of drugs. Instead, the secret reorganization focused solely on combating what was called, “escalating terrorism by armed subversion.”


The reorganization solidified linkages between the Colombian military and narco-paramilitary networks that in effect further consolidated a ”secret network that relied on paramilitaries not only for intelligence, but to carry out murder.” Once the reorganization was complete, all “written material was to be removed” with “open contacts and interaction with military installations” to be avoided by the paramilitaries. This strategy has allowed the Colombian government to plausibly deny links to, or responsibility for, paramilitary human rights abuses that “dramatically increased” after the U.S. reorganization.


In effect then, U.S. military aid is going directly to the terrorist networks throughout Colombia primarily responsible for trafficking cocaine into U.S. markets in order to fund their activities. Moreover, the United States has been instrumental in helping develop what Human Rights Watch termed a “sophisticated mechanism...that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it.” While the so-called wars on drugs and terror are being waged in Colombia, they are merely components of a much wider and more significant war against the FARC—the largest leftist insurgency in Latin America—and Colombian civil society.


Targeting the coca plantations within FARC territory serves a dual purpose: It allows Washington to continue claiming that Plan Colombia is an anti-drug plan, while at the same time pursuing its counter-insurgency objectives. But more importantly, by concentrating all of its militaristic drug war efforts on coca plantations within FARC territory, Washington aims to cut off significant tax revenue for the rebel group, thereby making the insurgency harder to fund and thus sustain. In short, the Bush administration has chosen to wage a war on terror in Colombia by allying itself with the terrorist narco-paramilitaries that share Washington’s political and economic objectives.


The United States has substantial economic interests within Latin America in general and Colombia more specifically. Vast oil reserves have been discovered in Colombia and as a result this South American country has become the U.S.’s seventh largest oil supplier. In an interview with the Bogotá daily, El Tiempo, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, explained that the September 11 attacks have made the “traditional oil sources for the United States” in the Middle East “less secure.”


According to Ambassador Patterson, sourcing U.S. energy needs from Colombia would allow “a small margin to work with,” which would mean the United States could “avoid price speculation.” Such a strategy necessitates the elimination of any regional threat to U.S. oil interests, which is clearly illustrated by the Bush administration’s request for $98 million in aid for a specially trained Colombian military counterinsurgency brigade devoted solely to protecting the U.S. multinational Occidental Petroleum’s 490-mile-long Caño Limón oil pipeline in Colombia.


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that the money will be used to “train and equip two brigades of the Colombian armed forces to protect the pipeline” in order to prevent rebel attacks which are “depriving us of a source of petroleum.” Ambassador Patterson noted that although this money is not being provided under the pretext of a war on drugs, “it is something that we must do,” because it is “important for the future of the country, for our oil sources and for the confidence of our investors.”

Colombia’s war fits into the classic mode of counterinsurgency that emerged under President Kennedy’s reorganization of Latin American militaries as part of the National Security Doctrine. Counterinsurgency involves focusing on internal enemies that, during the Cold War, were accused of being communist subversives. For U.S. counterinsurgency experts, communism was typically manifested through political demands for reforms or popular organizations that sought a more egalitarian distribution of national resources.


In the case of Colombia, civil society organizations, especially those that seek to challenge prevailing socio-economic conditions, are construed by the U.S. government as potentially subversive to the social and political order, and in the context of counter-insurgency, legitimate targets for “paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist” attack. As outlined above, the 1991 post-Cold War U.S. reorganization of Colombian military and paramilitary networks and the massive levels of post-Cold War U.S. funding of the Colombian military serves to underline the continued relevance of counterinsurgency for destroying movements that may threaten a stability geared towards U.S. interests.


The primary weapon in a strategy that has been called “counterterror” in U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency—but what can be more accurately described as “terror”—has been the use of paramilitaries. In the Colombian context, the link between the paramilitaries, the Colombian military and the United States is clear. As a result, in the last fifteen years, an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries, some 151 journalists have been killed, and 2.7 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Also, 4,000 activists were murdered in the 1980s; three out of four trade union activists assassinated worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries; and so far this year, there have been over 8,000 political assassinations in Colombia with 80 percent of these murders committed by paramilitary groups. Paramilitary death squads also regularly target human rights activists, indigenous leaders, community activists and teachers.


This repression serves to criminalize any form of civil society resistance to U.S.-led neoliberal restructuring of Colombia’s economy and stifle political and economic challenges to the Colombian status quo. According to right-wing militia leader Carlos Castaño, he and his paramilitaries “have always proclaimed that we are the defenders of business freedom and of the national and international industrial sectors.” Amidst this repression, according to the World Bank, over half of Colombia’s population live in poverty, with those most vulnerable being “children of all ages.”


During the Cold War, anti-communism served as the ideological vehicle to justify the repression of any attempt to change the prevailing socio-economic structure of Colombian society. In the post-Cold War era anti-drugs and the “war on terror” have served as the latest justifications for the continued U.S. backing of a terror war in Colombia. There has thus been a major continuity in Washington’s Colombian policy that has crossed from the Cold War to the post-Cold War period. Furthermore, this policy continues to have terrible human rights implications and leads to the death of significant numbers of Colombia’s civilian population, while maintaining structural inequalities and destroying any democratic alternatives.


Doug Stokes is an academic at Bristol University, UK. His research is on the continuity of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy in the global South, in particular those policies that continue to lead to large-scale civilian suffering. He has published extensively on U.S. counterinsurgency in Latin America with a strong emphasis on Colombia. Read more of his work at This article first appeared in Colombia Report. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work:






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