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Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror

In March of 2009, my friend Amelia Opalinska and I hitchhiked around Colombia. Despite our parents’ conviction that such behavior was conducive to immediate kidnapping by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the greatest challenge we ultimately faced was the reluctance of motorists to pick us up.

After being informed by a compassionate passerby that this reluctance was probably a result of recent robbery schemes involving female hitchhikers, we attempted to render our appearance as innocuous as possible by designing colorful placards to indicate our intended destination and decorating them with rainbows and flowers. When this did not work, we drew stop signs in red marker and positioned ourselves in the middle of the road, which only caused vehicles to swerve around us.

Appeals to police at anti-narcotics checkpoints for assistance in procuring rides meanwhile proved even less effective, as citizens appeared unconvinced that the representatives of the state had their well-being at heart.

The FARC can’t dance

Amelia and I eventually arrived to the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia, where our activities included attending a dance at an outdoor pavilion in the village of Umbria. Decorative signage in the village consisted of USAID advertisements reminding the population not to grow coca and fliers distributed by the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) threatening to kill prostitutes and anyone else who went outside after 10 PM. The Águilas Negras are the successor group to the superficially demobilized paramilitary organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), historical partner of the Colombian state.

We first learned of the fliers from Milber, an 18-year-old former FARC conscript and dance attendee who had recently returned to Umbria after a four-year stint in the jungle. Although quick to blame the FARC for his unfamiliarity with popular dance forms—as well as for the heartache suffered by his mother, who had witnessed her son’s removal from the family residence at gunpoint—Milber harbored no illusions as to the imperial utility of casting the guerrilla outfit in the role of narco-terrorist enemy. Drawing parallels with other resource-rich regions of the world, he reasoned that Saddam Hussein had also served as a useful menace and facilitator of U.S. corporate profit.

Indeed, in an important new book entitled Cocaine, death squads, and the war on terror: U.S. imperialism and class struggle in Colombia, scholars Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle expose the sinister motivations behind—and manifestations of—the “U.S. war on drugs and terror” in Colombia.

Refuting USAID’s seemingly charitable concern for the cultivation of morally upstanding crops, the authors provide a succinct but detailed history of the United States’ alliances with drug traffickers and paramilitaries and its contributions to Colombian state repression and the institutionalization of the cocaine industry. Notable beneficiaries of the malevolent nexus have included Lockheed Martin and DynCorp, a private mercenary firm which Villar and Cottle note “is the same private company that the Reagan-Bush administration used to run arms and drugs during the cocaine decade [of the 1980s].”

Projecting narco-terror

The book’s argument that “[t]he war on drugs and terror in Colombia is in fact a war for the control of the cocaine trade—in a system of imperial domination—by means of state-sponsored terror” is summarized in the conclusion as follows: “This war as decreed by successive Washington administrations was, is, and remains its opposites: a war for drugs and a war of terror.”

Of course, such assessments are not easily grafted onto the consciousness of a populace conditioned to impute noble—or at least sincere and non-paradoxical—motives to U.S. projects abroad. If the U.S. is to attain the minimum amount of self-awareness necessary for any society that considers itself free, the proliferation of studies like Villar and Cottle’s is a prerequisite.

The scholars explain that, starting in the late 1980s, “the Colombian state commenced efforts to manufacture its image as a defender of democracy at war with narco-terrorists,” enlisting the talents of U.S. public relations firm the Sawyer/Miller Group. The firm earned nearly a million dollars in the first six months of 1991 for its efforts, which included “us[ing] the American press to disseminate Colombian government propaganda, with the routine production of pamphlets, letters to editors signed by Colombian officials, and advertisements placed in the New York Times and Washington Post.”

As tends to happen with even the most diligently manufactured threats, however, the traitorous truth has consistently failed to rise to the occasion, and “in 2001 Colombian intelligence estimated that [the] FARC controlled less than 2.5 percent of Colombia’s cocaine exports, while the AUC controlled 40 percent, not counting the narco-bourgeoisie [the updated incarnation of the Colombian oligarchy] as a whole.”

The exclusive assignment of the “terrorist” label to the FARC is meanwhile not entirely congruent with the fact that it was the Colombian military and not the guerrillas that resuscitated the Vietnam-era collective punishment method of “draining the sea to kill the fish.” According to Villar and Cottle, “[h]uman rights groups contend that the AUC and Colombian armed forces have been responsible for approximately 90 to 95 percent of all politically-motivated killings, which have included massacres by chainsaw and other methods designed to terrorize the campesinos in rural areas under FARC control.”

As for the U.S. request in the 1980s for the extradition of Medellín cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar for “conspiring to introduce cocaine into the United States via Nicaragua,” this allegation might have just as aptly been levied against other characters such as U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, whose activity did not result in a collaborative assassination effort by the CIA, AUC, Cali Cartel, and Colombian police.

You cannot mention Monsanto!

When Amelia and I met Milber in 2009, his parents had just acquired a coca plot after failing to make ends meet with less lucrative crops. Other farming families in the area described additional obstacles to diversifying away from coca, such as repeated U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation of sugar cane, banana, and corn crops. Fumigated children, livestock, and water supplies were also reported.

Journalist Jeremy Bigwood has investigated the toxic effects of fumigation for CorpWatch, drawing attention to a revealing episode in 2001 in which a recalcitrant U.S. senator—who had criticized military aid to Colombia and the dangerous inaccuracy of fumigation—was hauled down to the South American nation for an honorary cropduster flyover that was intended to negate his concerns.

Bigwood quotes the senator’s spokesman on the resulting spectacle: “On the very first flyover by the cropduster, the U.S. Senator, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, the Lieutenant Colonel of the Colombian National Police, and other Embassy and congressional staffers were fully doused—drenched, in fact”—with the herbicide Roundup, a product of the U.S.-based biotech giant Monsanto, former manufacturer of the infamous defoliant Agent Orange.

Remarking on the relevance of the Agent Orange legacy given the deforestation of large sections of Vietnam, the “over 50,000 birth defects and hundreds of thousands of cancers both in Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, as well as in former U.S. troops serving in South East Asia”, and the similarity in post-contact symptoms between victims of Agent Orange and Roundup, Bigwood notes that the lack of transparency with regard to Monsanto’s machinations in Colombia is entirely logical: “[D]uring a meeting with U.S. Embassy staff in Bogotá, the top officer at the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs Section was emphatic and his tone threatening: ‘You cannot mention Monsanto!’ he boomed, spit flying from his mouth.”

Villar and Cottle meanwhile allude to the helpfulness of fumigation policies in “draining the sea”, and emphasize—with regard to Fusarium oxysporum, a fungus whose appeal to proponents of Washington’s multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia presumably had something to do with its success in wiping out a coca plantation in Hawaii in the 1970s—that “the mono-crop drug fincas of the narco-bourgeoisie in Colombia were not sprayed. The fungal spraying was proposed only for the rebel-held areas.”

Addicted to narco-imperialism

As Peter Dale Scott asserts in his excellent foreword to Cocaine, death squads, and the war on terror, the book “shows how in the last half-century the United States has helped to centralize and militarize the class conflict [in Colombia], and above all how cocaine has come to play a central role in financing this oppression.”

Villar and Cottle write:

The cocaine decade saw the consolidation of the Colombian drug trade as a source of profit for U.S. capital via banks that were established to launder and invest drug money in legitimate U.S. corporations. The United States contended it was at war with drugs and terrorists in Colombia, but, in reality, the economic relations between U.S. imperialism and the Colombian narco-bourgeoisie permitted cocaine production to flourish in Colombia, and the cocaine market to expand within the United States and Western Europe.

The authors stress that, though Colombian paramilitary death squads may not constitute a “proxy army for the United States,” they do “function… as a vanguard force of the counterinsurgency strategy” in eliminating obstacles to foreign investment, corporate exploitation of resources, and the continuing economic preponderance of the Colombian elite. These obstacles come in a variety of forms, among them campesinos, human rights workers, journalists, trade unionists, and indigenous citizens maliciously inhabiting resource-rich land.

The AUC, for its part, happens to inhabit the same list of U.S. State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations as Al Qaeda, but one suspects that a more substantive uproar would have been made over the discovery that Chiquita Brands International was funneling millions of dollars to the latter group.

The need for a paramilitary proxy army in the first place is meanwhile called into question by the behavior of the Colombian army itself, recipient of large quantities of U.S. military aid and renowned for its expertise in slaughtering civilians and dressing the corpses up like FARC guerrillas. As for even more direct U.S. contributions to violence and oppression in Colombia, Villar and Cottle note that, when the administration of former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez “stepped up its civil war preparations in 2002, the U.S. government demanded cooperation in shielding U.S. forces stationed in-country from prosecution for war crimes.”

Prior to being hailed in the U.S. as a democratic hero and role model for Latin America on account of his neoliberal enthusiasm for societal repression, Uribe’s claims to fame included appearing on a 1991 Defense Intelligence Agency list of the More Important Colombian Narco-Traffickers and Narco-Terrorists.

Blood and capital accumulation

Cocaine, death squads, and the war on terror is a vital antidote to the fatuous propaganda that functions as mainstream news on Colombia.

In tracing the history of the relationship between imperial America and “its most important client state on the continent,” Villar and Cottle demonstrate that the emergence of the FARC was a direct result of social inequality and CIA-backed class repression. Prospects for conflict resolution thus appear dim given the authors’ note that “Colombia is the only major country in Latin America where the gap between the rich and poor has markedly widened in recent years, according to the UN Commission on Latin America.”

Colombian President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962) may have put it best himself when he commented—in reference to the devastating U.S.-assisted counterinsurgency campaign that followed the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had “promised to end the rule of the landed oligarchy and eliminate mass poverty”—that “blood and capital accumulation went together.”

In conclusion, it is worthwhile to recall the following passage from Glenn Greenwald’s piece “The Wars on Drugs and Terror: mirror images,” which underscores the rhetoric of Villar and Cottle:

It’s the perfect deceit. These wars, in an endless loop, sustain and strengthen the very menaces which, in turn, justify their continuous escalation. These wars manufacture the very dangers they are ostensibly designed to combat. Meanwhile, the industries which fight them become richer and richer. The political officials those industries own become more and more powerful. Brutal drug cartels monopolize an unimaginably profitable, no-competition industry, while Terrorists are continuously supplied the perfect rationale for persuading huge numbers of otherwise unsympathetic people to join them or support them. Everyone wins—except for ordinary citizens, who become poorer and poorer, more and more imprisoned, meeker and meeker, and less and less free.

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Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is an editor at PULSE Media, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications.


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