Phoney War

19 October 1999

The US is planning a massive intervention in Colombia under the pretext of fighting the 'narco-guerrilla'.

Following its attack on the Balkans, the United States is planning a massive intervention in Colombia. The Clinton administration has decided to seek congressional approval for $1bn in military aid to the government of Andres Pastrana in Bogota. This is for a low-level air war, American-planned and "advised", with Blackhawk helicopters, satellite surveillance and cluster bombs. "It is the same policy," says Amnesty International, "that backed, death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s." It is the policy that started the war in Vietnam.

Colombia receives more US arms and equipment than any country in the world, apart from Israel and Egypt. Last May, the Washington Post disclosed that 200 American military personnel were playing key parts in the war against the guerrillas of Colombia's popular resistance, who occupy an area the size of Switzerland. Justifying a frontal attack on the resistance presented difficulties for Washington until the War on Drugs replaced the Soviet Threat, and a new enemy was conjured: the "narco-guerrilla".

The hypocrisy of American anti-drug campaigns in Colombia dates back to the 1970s when congress cut back US aid to repressive Latin American police forces while increasing so called anti-narcotics aid by about the same amount: a sleight of hand barely acknowledged at the time. "To keep the aid coming," wrote Peter Dale-Scott in his book, Cocaine Politics, "corrupt Latin American politicians helped to invent the spectre of the drug- financed narco-guerrilla, a myth." He quotes a senior US military officer who says the way to counter "those church and academic groups that have slavishly supported the insurgency in Latin America" is to put them "on the wrong side of the moral issue".

Because coca was grown by the poorest peasants as their sole means of survival, the guerrillas they supported were attacked, in a bogus "war on drugs" - while the drug cartels and their allies in the military were strengthened. This has been US strategy since the 1960s, when a secret American-led "Force X" infiltrated the guerrillas, carrying out atrocities that would then be blamed on the insurgency. Pioneered in Vietnam by the CIA's infamous Colonel Edward Lansdale, it was also used in Indonesia during the CIA-assisted bloodbath that brought Suharto to power.

What Washington fears most in South America is not drugs, but losing control of the critical north-east corner of the continent when the US military reluctantly withdraws from the Panama Canal at the end of the year. Compounding this is the popular nationalism of the reformist government of Hugo Chavez in oil-rich Venezuela. So far, the Americans have been able to control Panama by the open threat of an invasion similar in ferocity to that ordered by President Bush in 1990 on the pretext of arresting General Noriega, the head of state, drugs dealer and former friend of George Bush when he ran the CIA. At least 20,000 Panamanian civilians were killed in the American assault. If the popular resistance in Colombia can be "pacified", Venezuela may be restored to its traditional submissiveness.

In Colombia, however, matters are getting out of hand. Last month, a general strike all but stopped the cities and towns. Ten thousand Indian people blockaded the south; the majority of high school and university students walked out of their classes. Like most of Latin America, Colombia's economy is prescribed by the International Monetary Fund. Almost half the gross domestic product goes on paying off an unrepayable debt, while the Pastrana government is selling off most of the infrastructure, from telecommunications to the water supply, at well below its true value but at too high a price for domestic capital. The beneficiaries are, as ever, US and other western multinationals. In that respect, it is simply globalisation at work, a war of the rich versus the poor.

V iolence is a constant, with more than 2,000 trade unionists assassinated, and thousands "disappeared" and killed by drug- trafficking paramilitaries who, like their counterparts in East Timor, are often indistinguishable from a military trained for civil repression - many in the US. A Human Rights Watch report says that army officers who planned and took part in paramilitary violence, "have been promoted and rewarded and now occupy the highest positions in the Colombian military".

The British are flying the flag. The Blair government has approved weapons sales to the Colombian military - ammunition, grenades. British Petroleum, whose former chairman, Lord Simon, made the smooth transition to Blair's minister for competitiveness, "is the most aggressive oil company in Colombia", says the national workers' union. An investigation by ITV's World in Action in 1997 revealed that BP had contracted former British SAS soldiers to train paramilitaries. The company denied the allegations.

When the suffering of the East Timorese was finally ordained news and the force of world opinion brought a glimpse of hope and freedom, it was too late for the thousands of victims of policies materially supported, even formulated, by Faustian partners in Washington and London. They ought not to get away with more of the same in Colombia.