Under the new presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez paramilitarism is once again legal. His network of a million paid informants essentially makes overt what has long been a joint covert US-Colombian strategy of brutal counter-insurgent paramilitary warfare. To fully grasp the relationship between US military training and aid, paramilitarism, and human rights abuses in Colombia today it is necessary to examine the evolution of US counter-insurgency doctrine.
Counter-insurgency was firmly wedded to US foreign security policy goals with former US President Kennedy’s authorisation of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. This act sent US aid to developing nations to increase bilateral ties and encourage capitalist orientated economic development. It also encompassed a wide ranging security dimension which aimed at:
improving the ability of friendly countries and international organizations to deter or, if necessary, defeat Communist or Communist-supported aggression, facilitating arrangements for individual and collective security, assisting friendly countries to maintain internal security and stability in the developing friendly countries essential to their more rapid social, economic, and political progress.
Throughout the Cold War, Latin America was viewed as both the US’s primary sphere of influence and as fundamentally related to US security through its territorially close proximity to US borders. The primary means for US assistance in maintaining "internal security and stability" became counter-insurgency assistance. Recipient militaries were organised to police their own populations and prevent internal social forces from challenging a status-quo geared towards the prevention of independence and the preservation of countries open to US capital penetration.
US policy frequently led to the mass violation of human rights and large-scale civilian death. The US was linked to these practices not only through the installation and support of abusive governments, but also through the very doctrines and practises passed on through US training.
Counter-insurgency campaigns often relied on mass civilian displacement to deny guerrilla forces a civilian base within which to work and the terrorisation of civil society. A 1962 US Army Psychological Operations manual outlined that:
An isolation program designed to instil doubt and fear [among civilians] may be carried out . . . it may become necessary to take more aggressive action in the form of harsh treatment or even abductions. The abduction and harsh treatment of key enemy civilians can weaken the collaborators’ belief in the strength and power of their military forces.
Counter-insurgency also frequently relied upon clandestine paramilitary forces to carry out political assassinations, disappearances and the terrorisation of those considered inimical to state interests. This form of warfare was considered necessary both to create a plausible deniability for state terror, and to install fear into target populations.
Colombia was one of the largest recipients of US counter-insurgency aid. General William Yarborough headed the original US Special Forces team sent to Colombia in 1962 to organise the Colombian military for counter-insurgency. He argued that a "concerted country team effort should now be made to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training". These paramilitary teams were to be used to perform "counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents" and were to be "backed by the United States".
Torture was routinely practiced by US-backed counter-insurgency states and was taught by US experts. The School of the Americas, the US’s pre-eminent Latin American military academy, used training materials which the US’s Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) argued "appeared to condone practices such as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment". During the US-backed Contra insurgency in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the CIA distributed an updated version of its 1963 KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual, renamed the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, which included extensive guidelines on the most effective means of torture including the use of drugs, sleep deprivation, physical violence, and solitary confinement.
The targeting of civil society also formed a cornerstone of US counter-insurgency training and doctrine. A 1985 Tactical Intelligence manual from US Southern Command (Unified Command for Latin America) explained that "’battlefield preparation’ means collecting information on civil society: who stands for what, which groups or individuals can be mobilized for counterinsurgency and which must be neutralized". Counter-insurgents must watch for any "refusal of peasants to pay rent, taxes, or loan payments or unusual difficulty in their collection," an increase "in the number of entertainers with a political message," or the intensification of "religious unrest".
Civil society organisations, especially those that seek to challenge prevailing socio-economic conditions are viewed as subversive to the social and political order, and in the context of counter-insurgency, become legitimate targets. This security orientation has had devastating consequences for Latin America with hundreds of thousands of civilians murdered by US-backed counter-insurgency states. With the ending of the Cold War a rhetorical shift has occurred in US policy from anti-communism to a war on drugs and now a war on terror. However, US objectives have essentially remained the same; the prevention of a workable hemispheric alternative that may challenge US hegemony, and the continued suppression of civil society.
The primary means for repression has been the use of paramilitaries. In the last fifteen years in Colombia an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries; 4,000 activists were murdered in the 1980s; 151 journalists have been shot; 300,000 civilians have been killed; three out of four trade union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries. Paramilitary groups also regularly target human rights activists, university lecturers and teachers, indigenous leaders, and community activists. Uribe’s new legal death-squads will serve to further increase the repression in Colombia.