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Britain’s Secret War in Colombia

For over half a century, a war against Colombian civilians has been waged alongside the war against Colombia’s guerrilla insurgencies. And the British state has supported it.

A Colombian soldier in Cucuta, October 2016. Mario Tama / Getty

For a country reportedly “at peace,” violence in Colombia continues at an alarming rate. Since the ratification of the 2016 peace accord between the Colombian state and the country’s oldest guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), over four hundred social activists have been murdered. In 2017 alone, the year following the FARC’s formal demobilization, killings of social activists totalled 170 – an increase of 45 percent on 2016. The surge in this violence following Colombia’s peace accord does not, however, represent a paradox.

For over half a century, a war against Colombian civilian life has been waged alongside the war against Colombia’s guerrilla insurgencies. Beginning in 1989, Britain sponsored this “dirty war” under the pretext of the war on drugs. Kept secret on the grounds of “national security,” British intervention did little in the way of reducing drug supply, yet sponsored political violence designed to promote Western capital interests. To this day, neither the British state nor public has addressed the consequences — nor, to a large degree, existence — of this chapter of British foreign policy.

The Dirty War

British military and police intervention in Colombia supplemented decades of US-sponsored political violence in the country.

During the 1960s, the United States began training the Colombian armed forces in counterinsurgency warfare. In an ostensible attempt to arrest the spread of international communism, US officials instructed the Colombian armed forces to target armed and unarmed actors suspected of harboring communist sympathies.

Accordingly, US counterinsurgency manuals stated that “civilians in the operational area” such as trade unionists, students, and community organizers could be targeted with “guerrilla warfare, propaganda, subversion, [… and] terrorist activities.” This tactic became known as “quitarle el agua al pez,” or “draining the tank” to catch the fish.

Much of the violence perpetrated against Colombian civil society was outsourced to paramilitary groups, who received the Colombian state’s tacit and active support by way of arms and personnel exchanges, information sharing, and legal protection through official impunity. They became known as the “sixth division” of the Colombian military.

The arming of civilian paramilitary networks, also upon US counterinsurgency instruction, gave the state a degree of plausible deniability for political violence. Paramilitary organizations soon became complicit in countless massacres, and by the mid-1990s, they were responsible for around 70 percent of all politically motivated assassinations.

The targeting of armed and unarmed social forces in Colombia was consistent with US postwar objectives of containing any threat to US interests. While the official pretext for intervention across Latin America was to confront Soviet-sponsored aggression, the secret record demonstrates that wider economic concerns governed US policy. US planners feared that if Latin American states could successfully reorient their economies away from US control, a precedent might be set for other states to follow suit (the real “domino effect”).

Whether communist or not, Latin American states pursuing independent development policies were considered threats to US hegemony — and therefore to be met with US-sponsored violence. The threat of international communism, nonetheless, provided a key propaganda service in justifying US aggression throughout the Third World.

US-sponsored political violence in Colombia was therefore one facet of a wider policy of fostering, in the words of NSC-68 (a central US Cold War planning paper), “a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish …. a policy which we would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet threat.”

That is what the United States did after the Cold War ended, except the pretext of the “war on communism” was replaced by that of the “war on drugs.” The narrative of confronting the international narcotics trade had, according to a US Interagency Working Group Draft paper published at the fall of the Cold War, “the corollary benefits of helping democratic governments fight growing insurgent movements.” Since the threat of international communism could no longer be invoked to justify foreign intervention, the war on drugs provided a means to continue counterinsurgency assistance in all but name.

Under the pretext of the war on drugs, US assistance to Colombia during the 1990s and 2000s was intensified, and consistently directed to Colombian army units both complicit in political violence and tied to paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, the counter-narcotics narrative became starkly unconvincing given the evidence that paramilitary organizations supported by the Colombian state were among the main players in Colombian cocaine trafficking. The United States was therefore funding the very organizations it was ostensibly trying to combat. This apparent contradiction is reconciled in light of the continuity of US goals: retaining global economic hegemony by suppressing strategic and economic threats to US interests.

It is therefore not surprising that violence against social organizations in Colombia continues today. The collapse of international communism, as well as the FARC’s demobilisation, neither fully eradicated threats to US global pre-eminence nor the legacy of decades of counterinsurgency training. As a result, social leaders, community organizers, and trade unionists continue to be associated with “subversion” — an association tantamount to a death sentence in Colombia.

British military and police assistance to Colombia was also framed within the context of the war on drugs. While this intervention did little to reduce the supply of Colombian cocaine to Britain, it sponsored political violence in Colombia by supporting units and individuals involved in counterinsurgency warfare.

British officials and commentators have presented this as an aberration of an otherwise well-intentioned policy. However, it seems more likely that British involvement in Colombia was foremost bound to economic — and not counter-narcotics — considerations. Britain’s sponsorship of political violence in Colombia therefore appears to be a deliberate strategic objective, and another chapter within a long history of British economic imperialism.

Serious, Gross, and Systematic

British military and police assistance began in 1989 with the stated objective of combating the international trade of narcotics. Over the following two decades, British counter-narcotics assistance was intensified amid a climate of acute political violence in Colombia. This called into serious question whether Britain was respecting its official policy of barring arms sales “to any country which might use them for internal repression.”

The first package of British counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia included military equipment, military training for Explosive Ordnance Disposal, and special forces training. Britain’s Special Air Services (SAS) also began training the Colombian Elite Corps in 1989, described by a former SAS combatant as instruction in “every facet of jungle warfare.” Students from Colombia visited the United Kingdom for military training during the early 1990s, and by 1995, the government revealed that over £13 million of ostensible drug-related assistance had been provided to Colombia.

When New Labour came to power in 1997, their promise of a foreign policy “with an ethical dimension” received wide support. Behind the rhetoric, Tony Blair’s government intensified British support for the Colombian armed forces, which continued to compile one of the Western hemisphere’s worst records on human rights.

In 1998, the UN described violations of human rights and breaches of international humanitarian law in Colombia as “serious, gross, and systematic.” UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland later declared that Colombia was “by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in the Western hemisphere.” During the 1990s and 2000s, trade unionist killings in Colombia regularly totalled more than the rest of the world combined. This pattern of violence was largely reflective of an enduring doctrine of counterinsurgency.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, British officials insisted that violence in Colombia was not structural, and that the human rights situation was improving. As such, there could be fewer moral (and legal) qualms with intensifying British intervention. In 1999, it was revealed in Parliament that Britain was assisting Colombia with “advisory visits and information exchanges […] on operations in urban theaters, counter-guerrilla strategy, and psychiatry.” In the early 2000s, the value of British individual arms export licences to Colombia rose to £2 million, including licenses for heavy machine guns, large-caliber artillery equipment, and components for combat and military utility helicopters.

During 2000 and 2001, Mo Mowlam (the minister in charge of the government’s drug program), as well as high-end British army officers, made official visits to Colombia. In 2003, the Guardian revealed that Britain was training Colombia’s counter-guerrilla high mountain units, helping to configure Colombia’s intelligence infrastructure, and continuing to provide SAS assistance. At this point, Britain was Colombia’s second-largest donor of military assistance.

As British assistance increased, a secret governmental drugs report conceded in 2003 that “over the past 10-15 years, despite interventions at every point in the supply chain, cocaine and heroin consumption [in Britain] has been rising, prices falling, and drugs have continued to reach users.” After fourteen years of ostensible counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia, no discernible progress had been made.

Meanwhile, human rights groups were growing increasingly concerned that British counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia was sponsoring political violence. Their suspicions were deepened by the government’s lack of transparency regarding its Colombian operations.

Details about bilateral British counter-narcotics assistance were kept secret on the grounds of “national security.” British assistance, moreover, was not tied to any conditions regarding human rights. This lack of transparency meant that no credible assurances could be made regarding the Colombian military’s use of British assistance. Meanwhile, its human rights record made it probable that units tied to British support were complicit in abuses.

Britain and the Counterinsurgency

Recent evidence suggests that British military and police assistance actively sponsored counterinsurgency warfare in Colombia. Colombia’s Elite Corps, which received SAS training starting in 1989, was frequently tied to human rights abuses. This unit, moreover, served both as a counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency unit. Regardless of politicians’ claims to the British public, in practice, there could be no clear line between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency assistance to Colombia.

In 2004, General Carlos Ospina Ovalle — then commander of the Colombian armed forces — arrived in Britain on an official visit. According to Foreign Office documents, British officials were aware of Ospina’s human rights record, which included “abundant evidence” linking his Fourth Brigade to paramilitaries that carried out a massacre of “at least eleven people,” including children, in the town of El Aro in 1997.

Colombia’s high mountain battalions also received British assistance. These units were trained in counterinsurgency warfare, and widely linked to human rights abuses. In 2008, Intelligence and Security Committee chair Kim Howells was pictured with a high mountain battalion, among whom sat Colombian general Mario Montoya.

According to a 2007 US House of Representatives report, Montoya had “collaborated extensively with militias that the Department of State considers terrorists.” Montoya later resigned from the Colombian army regarding a human rights scandal, and recently presented himself before Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) on charges of crimes against humanity.

Political violence in Colombia was therefore not only tacitly supported by British military and police assistance, but actively sponsored by way of assisting units and individuals involved in counterinsurgency warfare. And, as British commercial interests in Colombia increased, so too did the need to pursue a failing and destructive war against drugs.

What’s Good For BP…

In 1992, after some years of oil exploration in Colombia’s Eastern Andes, British Petroleum made a historic discovery in the Colombian department of Casanare. It was the largest oil discovery of the decade in Latin America, and the company’s largest for twenty-five years. By the late 1990s, BP’s Cusiana and Cupiagua oilfields were producing over half of Colombia’s total oil output, making BP Colombia’s largest direct foreign investor.

UK prime minister John Major visited BP’s Cusiana and Cupiagua fields in 1992, declaring the discovery would “revitalize our relationship with Latin America as a whole.” Major’s visit to Colombia was characteristic of a longstanding relationship between the British state and British oil interests.

The British state’s ties with British Petroleum became particularly strong during Tony Blair’s New Labour government. Tony Blair shared a close relationship with BP’s CEO from 1995 to 2007, and BP staff frequently exchanged roles with government officials. One MP later claimed, “There is a bit of a revolving door [between the British government and BP], the connections are probably more extensive than with any other UK company.”

British involvement in Colombia comes into sharp focus upon consideration of Britain’s massive stake in Colombia’s oil industry. British sponsorship of political warfare in Colombia seems less an unintended consequence of military and police assistance, than a policy goal tied to British capital interests. Britain’s war on drugs in Colombia might therefore be better described as a war on Colombian social organizations — trade unions, community associations, and human rights groups — deemed threatening to British economic interests.

Scared to Death

British Petroleum’s private security strategy in Colombia also received wide condemnation for its use of counterinsurgency techniques. In line with an internal security review stating “In order to have peace, we must train for war,” BP made significant payments to the Colombian military in exchange for the protection of its oil infrastructure.

Much of this was directed to the army’s sixteenth brigade — a unit specifically created to protect oil interests. Units funded by BP were both linked to paramilitary organizations and massive human rights abuses. BP also provided, in the words of a former Colombian colonel, “very valuable information” on perceived subversives in Casanare.

During the early 1990s, BP also contracted a private British security firm, Defence Systems Limited (DSL), to securitize its oilfields. DSL’s staff in Colombia were largely former SAS personnel that had trained the Colombian military in counterinsurgency during the 1980s and 1990s. And this instruction seems to have continued. According to a former DSL adviser, Casanare residents became “scared to death” after the company offered “military training” to the Colombian police. The security firm, for instance, purportedly provided arms to the Colombian military (including attack helicopters), spied on Casanare residents, and hired a former Colombian general who had been dismissed from the military due to paramilitary collaboration.

In light of BP’s security strategy, it is not surprising that the company’s critics in Colombia were targeted with extreme violence. Carlos Arriguí, a prominent member of the Casanare farmer’s association, was assassinated after organizing work stoppages against BP in 1995. The year after, nineteen BP contractors were reportedly murdered.

After widespread accusations of human rights abuses, BP attempted to clear its name through an extensive public relations campaign. BP’s priority, however, seems to have been to appear to observe human rights, rather than actually observing them. For instance: after sacking its head of Colombian security operations in 1998, BP quickly re-posted the same official to Venezuela; after beginning a dialogue with NGOs about the company’s human rights record, leaked emails revealed that BP was exploiting the same organizations to improve its global image; and after claiming to have terminated payments to the Colombian armed forces in 1998, BP was re-directing the same money through a different company as a conduit.

Despite the company’s spin campaign, abuses against its critics continued. In 2002, Casanare trade unionist Gilberto Torres was kidnapped by paramilitaries after organizing strikes against BP. Both Torres and his kidnappers later testified that the paramilitaries were on the oil companies’ payroll — and that the latter had ordered his death.

By 2007, human rights organizations estimated that three percent of Casanare’s total population had been killed or disappeared during BP’s fifteen years of oil extraction in the region. While the roots of conflict in Casanare — as well as in Colombia — are undeniably complex, they cannot be disentangled from political violence fueled by foreign economic interests. British military and police assistance, as well as BP’s private security operations, sit well within this trend.

Taking Responsibility

By the late 2000s, Cusiana and Cupiagua’s oil production had dropped considerably, and following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, BP decided to sell its Colombian assets. The year prior, Foreign Secretary David Miliband claimed to have terminated British military assistance to Colombia, citing concerns that “there are officers and soldiers of the Colombian armed forces who have been involved in, or allowed, abuses.”

Miliband’s announcement was striking for three reasons. Firstly, the Colombian military’s abuses had already been widely documented and known for decades, so the timing of the about-face was odd. Secondly, Britain hadn’t terminated all military assistance. Miliband’s announcement did not include bilateral counter-narcotics assistance: the more lethal, secret, and costly intervention that had long sponsored political violence in Colombia.

Most importantly, Miliband’s announcement suggested that Britain sponsored the Colombian military and police despite — and not because of — abuses. This is at odds with Britain’s general record of foreign intervention, and its specific record in Colombia.

From 1989 on, British involvement in Colombia was intimately tied to the Colombian armed forces’ violent destruction of potential barriers to British economic interests. British concern for the drugs trade, military abuses, human rights, and democracy promotion were simple propaganda, necessary for sponsoring an oppressive state based on economic self-interest.

Counter-narcotics assistance continued to supply Colombia with British military aid after Miliband’s announcement. But the full extent of Britain’s continued involvement is difficult to ascertain in light of its secretive nature.

Nonetheless, as Britain scrambles for post-Brexit trade deals and Colombia embraces greater neoliberal restructuring of its energy sector, British ties with Colombia are likely to grow. In fact, British prime minister Theresa May met with former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 to discuss possibilities for a post-Brexit trade deal. The latter concluded that Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Mexico represented a “huge opportunity for British business.” What represents a huge opportunity for British extractive businesses abroad, however, often represents a colossal threat to local communities.

The solution to imperialist plundering of natural resources goes deeper than demanding a transformation in domestic foreign policy. The type of non-interventionism and compliance with international law supported by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is welcome. Yet any real solution will require a global shift away from the natural resource extraction that has destroyed whole regions throughout Colombia. And as climate breakdown closes in, the types of poor communities that produced BP’s massive wealth will be worst affected. The full consequences of this global injustice are only beginning to be seen.