During the 1980s, US counter-insurgency took on a new form, and became what is today known as Low Intensity Conflict (LIC).
With the Vietnam experience behind them, US military planners recognised two crucial lessons that led to this change. First, the American public was not prepared to tolerate heavy US casualties in its imperial wars. Second, and more crucially, US strategists recognised that military victory is no longer the primary objective in these new LIC. The new objective is the political delegitimisation of the enemy and the management of public opinion. Simply stated, destroy popular support for the enemy by discrediting them and the victory will follow. In Colombia today, this new form of LIC has found an active application.
Opinion polls conducted in 1987 found that 76% of all Americans thought that the Colombian government was corrupt, and 80% wanted sanctions imposed upon it. In response to this, the Colombian state embarked on its own LIC to win the hearts and minds of the American people. It employed the services of a PR company, the Sawyer/Miller Group, to transform the perceptions of the Colombian state as a corrupt and brutal abuser of human rights, to a staunch ally of the US in its so-called ‘war on drugs’. Sawyer/Miller explained that "the main mission is to educate the American media about Colombia. The message is that there are ‘bad’ and ‘good’ people in Colombia and that the government is the good guy." In 1991 alone, Colombia gave over $3.1 million to an advertising campaign. The campaign placed newspaper adds and TV commercials asking the American people to remember the bravery of the Colombian military in its war against drugs.
Sawyer/Miller regularly use the American press to distribute pro- Colombian government propaganda with the routine production of pamphlets, letters to editors and ads. However, it is the transformation of the armed protagonists in Colombia’s conflict that has had the most effect. In recently declassified documentation, the US Ambassador to Colombia in 1996, Myle Frechette, admits that the perception of the FARC as narco-guerrillas, ‘was put together by the Colombian military, who considered it a way to obtain U.S. assistance in the counterinsurgency’. The PR job seems to have worked as the US has now made Colombia the third largest recipient of US military aid in the world today.
The ‘anti-terror’ orientation
With the election of Bush, and after September 11th, a new ‘anti-terror’ orientation has occurred in US policy toward Colombia, the US Attorney General, John Ashcroft stating that ‘the State Department has called the FARC the most dangerous international terrorist group based in the Western Hemisphere’. US policy was originally sold as an anti-drug campaign, but has now switched to an anti-terror justification. In fighting their anti-drug and anti-terror wars in Colombia, Washington has given Colombia $1.3 billion in 2001-2002 and another $700 million has been lined up for 2003. The US has instructed the Colombian military to concentrate its war against the leftist FARC rebel insurgents in the South of Colombia. These ‘narco-terrorists’ are to be targeted, presumably because these are the primary ‘terrorists’ and drug-traffickers.
In 1997, James Milford, the former Deputy Administrator with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), stated that Carlos Castaño, the chief of the paramilitary AUC is a "major cocaine trafficker in his own right" and has close links to the powerful North Valle drug syndicate. Milford went on to say "there is little to indicate the insurgent groups are trafficking in cocaine themselves". Donnie Marshall, the current Administrator of the DEA, stated in 2001 that "the FARC controls certain areas of Colombia and in those regions generate revenue by "taxing" local drug related activities". Marshall goes on to state categorically that "at present, there is no corroborated information that the FARC is involved directly in the shipment of drugs from Colombia to international markets". Like Milford, the US’s DEA Director, also stated that unlike the FARC, the right-wing paramilitary groups "The Carlos Castano organization appears to be directly involved in processing and exporting cocaine".
The rebels then are clearly not international drug traffickers and the narco-guerrilla myth serves a useful propaganda pretext for US interventionism within Colombia’s conflict. More importantly however, by associating the rebels with drugs, the US obscures the role that the drug-funded paramilitaries play in its dirty war against Colombia’s civil society. The role of the US in Colombia’s paramilitary terror is made all the more stark considering the fact that US military advisers travelled to Colombia in 1991 to re-shape Colombian military intelligence networks. This restructuring was supposedly designed to aid the Colombian military in their counter-narcotics efforts. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the order. Nowhere within the order is any mention made of drugs.
Instead the secret re-organisation focussed solely on combating what was called "escalating terrorism by armed subversion". The re-organisation solidified the secret network between the Colombian military and paramilitary "not only for intelligence, but to carry out murder". Stan Goff, a former US special forces trainer in Colombia stated that he was in Tolemaida in 1992 "giving military forces training in infantry counterinsurgency doctrine" and knew "perfectly well, as did the host- nation commanders, that narcotics was a flimsy cover story for beefing up the capacity of armed forces who had lost the confidence of the population through years of abuse".
The US and the Dirty War
The US then, has clearly participated in strengthening the ties between the leading terrorists in Colombia, the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies, who are responsible for over 80% of all human rights abuses committed in Colombia today. The US has been instrumental in helping make more effective in creating what Human Rights Watch termed a ‘sophisticated mechanism’ that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it. During the Cold War, the US sold its counter-insurgency campaigns as part of a global struggle against the Soviet Union.
In the post-Cold War era, the US has switched to new PR mechanisms to sell its imperial policy. The narco-guerrilla and counter-terrorist pretexts serves as a useful PR mechanism for conflating US ‘official enemies’ with drugs and terrorism. Underlying these myths is the reality that the Colombian state and its privatised arm, the paramilitaries, combined with overt US support, continues to lead directly to the death and disappearances of thousands of Colombian civilians.
Why is the US doing these things?
Underlying US policy are a number of factors which include the importance of Colombian and Venezuelan oil to US energy needs. The regional destabilisation that may occur as a result of a potential rebel victory could seriously alter the balance of forces within the region and threaten the interests of the US’s big oil transnationals.
The Bush administration’s new request for $98 million for a specially trained Colombian military brigade devoted solely to protecting Occidental Petroleum’s 500-mile long Caño Limon oil pipeline in Colombia makes this even clearer. Paul D. Coverdell, a Republican Senator explained that the "oil picture in Latin America is strikingly similar to that of the Middle East, except that Colombia provides us more oil today than Kuwait did then".
The war on the rebels then, forms part of a classic counter-insurgency strategy of destroying nationalist forces that threaten US hegemony and elite interests throughout Latin America. The military aid strengthens the repressive apparatus of the Colombian state and its clandestine arm, the paramilitaries. In so doing, the Colombian state can continue to silence and murder those who dare question the status-quo in Colombia, a status-quo that currently sees the majority of Colombia’s people in absolute poverty. In prosecuting the war the US and Colombian elites rely on both coercive and consensual means. For US and international audiences there are vast PR propaganda campaigns to manage perceptions. In Colombia however it is a very different story where to get off you knees and stand on your feet is a risky business which all too often leads to a bullet made in the USA.