In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States had to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American. In his own words: "if any South American country misbehaves it should be spanked."All US presidents that succeeded him have, in lesser or greater measure, continued to exercise their perceived right over a region often known as “America’s Backyard”. During the Kennedy years and even before then, the increasing activity of militant communist groups in rural Colombia made the US fear that a Cuban-style revolution might take place. This meant that anything should be done in order to liberate Colombia from the influence of communism. With the aim of counteracting the activities of the guerrilla, sectors of the Colombian military joined forces with elite landowners, drug traffickers and US oil corporations operating in Colombia. Together they created right-wing paramilitary groups. And these groups killed and terrorized and even massacred Colombians for 50 years now.
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In the United States of the 19th century, Manifest Destiny was the widely held belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the whole continent.
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that the United States had to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin American.
In his own words: "if any South American country misbehaves it should be spanked."
All US presidents that succeeded him have, in lesser or greater measure, continued to exercise their perceived right over a region often known as “America’s Backyard”.
The partnership between Colombia’s ruling classes and the United States dates back to the 1960s
During the Kennedy years and even before then, the revolutionary movements were on the rise in Latin America and in other parts of the world.
This obviously worried the United States very much, as it meant that Soviet communism was making its way into Latin America.
The increasing activity of militant communist groups in rural Colombia made the US fear that a Cuban-style revolution might take place.
Top Brass US General William Yarborough and a team of experts were sent to Colombia to assess the country’s internal security situation.
In a secret report to the Pentagon, General Yarborough encouraged the creation of a paramilitary force:
“A concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training … to… execute paramilitary, sabotage and terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States."
The United States applied the principle of “the end justifies the means” in all the counter-insurgency activities they carried out. This meant that anything should be done in order to liberate Colombia from the influence of communism.
Yarborough’s recommendations, which included torture techniques, were put into practice by the Colombian top military, most of whom had been trained at the US School of the Americas.
The Colombian officers were taught the doctrine of “draining the swamp” – that is causing terror amongst the civilian population so that they withdraw their support to the guerrilla.
For this purpose they strengthened the paramilitary movements, in association with the mafia and with many others, including some people from the United States. With the aim of counteracting the activities of the guerrilla, sectors of the Colombian military joined forces with elite landowners, drug traffickers and US oil corporations operating in Colombia. Together they created right-wing paramilitary groups. These counted with ample support for the political establishment and the armed forces.
Unfortunately that took place as a consequence of individual acts from some military garrisons, or from army or police commanders.
Either with the full or partial support of the Colombian state, and the billions in military aid given to it by the US, the paramilitaries are said to be responsible for over 60% of the massacres perpetrated in the 50 year old conflict
If you analyse the massacres carried out by the paramilitaries and see everything they did, you’ll realize that the [Colombian Army’s] manual were followed.
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The paramilitaries applied terror tactics on entire populations, with the justification that they were safeguarding democracy and avoiding a takeover of power by the Left, by the communists.
The Colombian armed forces and police are responsible for about eight per cent of all civilian massacres, while the FARC and the other leftists guerrilla movements are behind 17 per cent of these acts of brutality.
To cure the guerrilla “disease”, the paramilitaries were created, but the cure ended up being much worse than the disease.
The paramilitaries regularly applied the principle of “draining the swamp”: Terror tactics were employed in order to make the peasants refrain from supporting the guerilla.
Rural villages were raided and it’s inhabitants tortured, raped, hacked with machetes, mutilated with chainsaws or burnt alive.
Some paramilitaries and, particularly, several of their supporters in the Army, were [former] disciples of the US Special Forces.
Infamous paramilitary leader Rodrigo Doblecero is an ex-alumni of the School of the Americas.
And Coronel Lino Sanchez had finished a training course by the US Army Special Forces stationed in Colombia only days before helping the paramilitaries torture and murder 49 peasants. The paramilitary armies demobilized in 2005.However, their legacy is very much latent, particularly in Medellin, Colombia’s second city.
This is an example of what was left by the paramilitaries. Currently in Medellin we have 12 mafia structures, which all come from the original paramilitary structures and are still paramilitaries themselves, but associated with the mafia.
They run the drugs trafficking business, money laundering, racketeering, extortion, providing security, illegal gambling and so on.
Stripped from all political ideology, the paramilitaries who didn’t demobilize are now running the main criminal organizations in Colombia. The terror tactics from the past are still a trademark of their criminal activities.
Police General Jose David Guzman:
Yesterday, as the farmers were finishing their work shift, three armed men came by and gathered the farmers together over here and began shooting. They murdered nine male tomato-pickers and one lady.
They shot them with rifles and pistols, before tossing a grenade.
The owner of the farm where the crime took place was being extorted by a paramilitary criminal band and had refused to pay the racket money. Because of this, 10 humble farmers of the small town of Santa Rosa de Osos were brutally murdered.
The farm were the murders took place has gone back to business as usual. However, for the relatives of the victims, the grief is still too present.
Nubia Elena Granda:
We heard the shooting, followed by a very loud explosion, so we knew something had happened at the tomato farm but we were too scared to go... Right now I rather not remember anything more… because of how much I miss my son…
Members of the Rastrojos paramilitary criminal band were captured and sentenced to 50 years for this monstrous crime. Despite this, the locals are still wary of even naming those behind the attack.
Nubia Elena Granda:
How can I blame anyone but those who actually killed them?
I don’t know who might have sent those people to do that.
These days the fight between the radical left and the ultra right wing has been mostly replaced for a complicated network of odd alliances. Paramilitary criminals and the guerrilla sometimes work side-by-side in the drug trafficking business. At the other end of the conflict is the Colombian state.
Trapped in the middle of the fight are the impoverished peasants, many of whom have the cultivation of the coca leaf as their only means of subsistence.
It’s incredible to see a soldier putting the barrel of his rifle inside a woman’s mouth, telling her: “start talking you guerrilla, [explicit], snitch”, because they allege she’s not saying where are the guerrilla. But that’s not a job for us, the peasants.
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We the peasants are just a football, being constantly kicked from side to side. And the Public Forces forget that a peasant, in order to reach my age, has to know how to be blind, deaf and dumb.
The widespread army presence in rural Colombia has been a common sight since the implementation of the Washington-sponsored “Plan Colombia”
Plan Colombia was a programme through which the US government supported the Colombian government in the strengthening of our country’s Forces of Law and Order, in order to fight against the illegal armed groups that got their financial support through drugs trafficking.
Undoubtedly, the huge military effort in place since year 2000 has been fundamental in weakening the different illegal armed groups and bringing relative peace to some parts of Colombia. However the plan wasn’t originally envisaged solely as a military effort.
If the funds from Plan Colombia would have been invested in development projects maybe it would have worked, but instead all the money was invested in technology for war. If peace was about getting armed, in countries like Israel white doves would be flying.
During the Clinton administration, the Colombian and US governments had discussed Plan Colombia as "an increase in U.S. aid for counternarcotics projects, sustainable economic development, the protection of human rights, humanitarian aid, stimulating private investment… and promoting Colombia's economic growth". By the time the agreement was ready to be implemented, George W. Bush was already in office.
Instead of focusing on development projects Plan Colombia became a military effort to combat the insurgency and eradicate the coca crops.
It is very important that the United States considers the necessity to advancing in plan Colombia…
Thank you president Bush.
I had a few plants of coca and they were eradicated, and I don’t complain about that. But the peasants who plant coca are not getting rich, they’re only earning the minimum necessary to support themselves, which is something that the government never offered us.
Eradication is not the way to solve the conflict in Colombia. The solution is to invest in agriculture, with legitimate productive projects and not just paperwork and lies.
Coronel Mario Martinez:
In accordance with the eradication strategy from the Presidency of Colombia, we can see the green dots in this map, which represent the different coca fields and, according to the way in which these are distributed, we organize the troops from the army’s 25th Mobile Brigade, in coordination with the National Police.
The peasants plant coca because the illegal armed groups force them to do so. The FARC guerrilla carries out the first stages of the process: planting coca, cultivating it and then processing it into basic paste of cocaine.
No one forces the peasants to plant coca. The only things forcing us are the crisis and abandonment from the government that all peasants suffer.
Thousands of hectares of coca crops have been eradicated by Army operatives. The FARC guerrilla, itself a major producer of coca and cocaine paste, opposes such efforts. The eradication process has hit both the guerrilla and the impoverished peasantry. While the latter can only sit and watch while their means of subsistence is decimated, the former usually confronts the army with brutal violence.
Coronel Mario Martinez:
The FARC’s mission across this territory is the installation of improvised explosive devices, in order to prevent the troops from entering and carrying out the eradication.
These red dots mark all the spots where soldiers have been targeted. Every red dot represents the detonation of an improvised explosive device, which left a wounded or mutilated soldier.
Sometimes the peasants are also injured. We have this video here, from an occasion when a 17-year old boy stepped on a mine that had been placed at the yard in front of his home.
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The guerrilla’s makeshift mines are responsible for such a high number of casualties that in Medellin the military recently opened a medical facility, exclusively for amputees.
Soldier Jairo Perez:
We were at a sector signaled for the eradication of illicit crops, providing security for the ones in charge of the manual eradication.
I was moving forward with my unit. I was fifth in the row, four soldiers were walking in front of me and they were OK, but it was me who stepped on the explosive device.
Thanks God it was only a leg I lost. We’ll keep fighting to get rid of all those crops, and we’ll make sure they don’t grow again.
Back at the 25th Mobile Division’s Headquarters, the helicopter crews are readying for a mission into the eradication area, where they have to resupply the troops on the ground.¬
- From “Comet 21” we proceed to “Eagle 3” with the other 900 kilos of supplies…
- There’s one at 4700 which is known as “Eagle 3”…
With reports of guerrilla attacks on helicopters on an almost daily basis, Colonel Martinez makes no secret of the unease he feels.
Colonel Mario Martinez:
We’re heading to a place where a helicopter received six impacts. The enemy shot at our helicopter six times, so the conditions are difficult in that area but we’ll try to deliver the food and supplies to our troops on the ground, who are the ones in charge of providing the security for the coca eradication efforts.All these young men are humble people and I have a huge affection for them, they are all like my sons.
Due to heightened security protocols we were not allowed to go on board the helicopters.
Up sound Colonel Mario Martinez:
Send me a written message, send me a written message…
Only a few minutes later reports of an attack on one of the aircrafts came through.
Colonel Mario Martinez:
It was shot at around 400 meters south of the destination.
They landed on the first target destination, offloaded the supplies for the soldiers and, when they were heading South again the helicopter was shot at, only 400 meters away from where our soldiers are based. We’re talking in real time; this was only two minutes ago, two minutes ago in real time... Should we head off? Let’s head off on the truck.
Although the FARC’s main source of funding are its coca fields and drug laboratories, many other coca crops that the Army is wiping out only provide for the meager subsistence of the peasantry. Victor and Joimer are coca farmers from the Bajo Cauca region of Colombia. Today they’ve come to meet Soraida Diaz: the leader of the farmer’s community they both belong to.
Four years ago they carried out the crop eradication around here. After that our community was left with many needs. Eradication would be good, if they also gave something in exchange. For example, if all of those who were growing coca were offered some kind of productive project once they quit coca farming for good.
Crop substitution projects implemented in Colombia have been widely criticized, as the alternative crops offered by the government either never reached the peasants, or were not productive enough to allow for a basic subsistence. The farming community where Soraida lives counts on coca as its main source of income. Because of this, many eradication operatives have taken place in these lands.
Most peasants around here have families of seven or eight members living at the same home, and they all live off this
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If the police were to come right now they’d probably try to handcuff us, or fire some shots to the air to see what we do. Because growing this crop is punished with three years in jail.
Before they used to only give jail terms to those who grew it, but now they are also jailing the pickers, the ones who fumigate it and everyone else working at a coca plot.
Each year the results of the eradication operatives are presented to the US government, who demands this in order to send hundreds of millions in aid money.
The Americans shouldn’t fight against the drug here in Colombia, plucking off whatever the peasants have. Instead they should chase those who sell it and those who consume it in the United States, but not to punish everyone but to offer those who consume it a better way to live their lives, because this drug [cocaine] is processed with really bad stuff, which will slowly kill you.
They [the Americans] rule in their country and we should rule in ours. If they want to [fight cocaine] they should begin by giving the example in their own country: don’t consume and don’t buy so much of it.
The eradication process affects the farming communities even more when it’s done through the aerial spraying of glyphosate, a highly toxic chemical pesticide.
The spraying of crops is done from planes, and this has affected not only the illicit crops but also the farmers’ food crops, so many of the families who do not grow illicit crops still have their food crops affected by the spraying, and this has lead to several displacements of populations.
Julian Cabrera is a coordinator for various farmers’ associations across Colombia.
We organized two marches demanding the government to stop the spraying of crops, asking them to look into the possibility of manually eradicating the crops [instead of spraying glyph sate].
We reached an agreement through which they promised that in some areas the eradication was to be done manually, whilst in other parts they were to make an effort not to affect the food crops. Unfortunately the government didn’t honour the agreement.
Julian is meeting the representatives of other farming communities who have suffered the consequences of the crop eradication process, strongly promoted by the United States.
When they spray the illicit crops, they also poison the water from the rivers, so when the people and the animals drink it they fall ill.
We were told that Plan Colombia had two phases, a first phase for coca eradication and a second phase, of social investment. But the only things we’ve seen are the eradication processes and the militarization of the region, while the social investment hasn’t been seen anywhere. There is no public education in this region; there are 14-year old kids who have not yet completed first grade.
Arnobis and many other farmers believe there is a more sinister motivation behind the eradication of crops.
We, as farmers, perceive that what the government really wants is to destroy the peasants’ economy so that we leave the area and they can develop their projects with the multinational companies. There are other regions were coca is being cultivated but, as the multinational companies don’t have any interests there, the government doesn’t eradicate. They only eradicate in the areas where they have specific interests: building mines, hydroelectric damns, etc.
Arnobis theory could be conspiracy or truth, but the fact is that Colombia is hugely rich in resource…
…many of which are not being exploited due to the 50 year-old conflict that could be, finally, coming to an end.
The presence of the guerrilla hampers the possibilities for foreign investment. From wood extraction, to the Amazon’s resources, to gold and emeralds mining, to water resources and so on.
So there is a very strong interest in the pacification of Colombia, in order for the country to become a leading place for business – for the businesses of the United States.
At present industries such as mining are not being exploited to their full potential due to the threat of guerrilla attacks on multinational companies.
Instead, in rural Colombia informal gold mining is sometimes an alternative to growing coca.
Luis Fernando Jaramillo:
Working steadily, I can get about US$ 140 per week, so it’s better than cultivating coca or other things. And it’s better this way, because when you’re planting coca the army can show up and you’ll have to run into the bush. If soldiers show up whilst you’re mining, they won’t bother you.
Although the Colombian authorities seldom persecute informal mining, such practices remain illegal.
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Luis Fernando Jaramillo:
We are operating illegally, whilst the big multinational companies are fully legal. That’s the problem with informal mining – as we’re poor we have to struggle working illegally.
Besides the economic opportunities that a pacified Colombia would bring, the country is of huge strategic importance for the US’ geopolitical interests.
The interest of the United States is, firstly, to strengthen their military presence in what they call their “backyard” and, secondly, to keep a vigilant eye on Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. The United States is worried that the Latin American economies could be looking at other horizons, at other countries – Russia, China or even Iran, which is now manufacturing vehicles in Venezuela.
In October 2009, a military agreement signed between the United States and Colombia was to give Washington seven military bases in the country.
After widespread protests from its regional neighbours and from many Colombians, the Constitutional Court declared the agreement invalid.
The previous government rightly tried to promote the creation of US bases, which would have helped as a great deterrent against any potential foreign threat.
The debate was about the initiative to build US bases. However, I believe that they didn’t have a need for this: all of Colombia’s military airports already are of free access to the Americans, who do as they please in them.
With the negotiations for a Peace Agreement slowly but surely moving forward, the future of this trouble country looks hopeful. At the same time, the long-term marriage between Colombia’s ruling classes and the United States seems more solid than ever.