Navigation Bar

Home -> UE News -> Feature Archives -> Feature



Colombia: Clinton's Deadly Gamble

Clinton's Deadly Gamble

The Clinton Administration seeks a $1.6-billion military aid package for Colombia to fight drugs. Concerned by atrocious human rights violations and corruption, UE urges an end to U.S. military involvement in the war-wracked South American nation. This special report explains why.

Imagine a country where nearly every working day a union member is assassinated for being a union member. Where opposition political leaders and their supporters are silenced through assassination. Where political violence has forced more than 1.7 million poor farmers to flee their homes since 1985 (more than those displaced from Kosovo).

Imagine your tax dollars being spent to support a military waging war on its own people.

Imagine no more. The country is real. The country is Colombia.


The United States government, which gives the Colombian military more money than any other in the Americas, is now considering a $1.6 billion aid package. More ominously, the Pentagon is considering intervention. One thousand U.S. Marines are already there.

UE is urging the Clinton Administration to end, not increase, U.S. military involvement in Colombia.

Updates and Legislative Action
  • For up-to-date information regarding the Administration's $1.6 billion aid package (including Congressional Action), check the Latin America Working Group's website at The Center for International Policy has also posted a special section on "U.S. Aid to Columbia" at

The Clinton Administration says the money is necessary to fight drugs. Colombia is the world’s largest producer and distributor of cocaine and a major producer of heroin.

Meanwhile, the Colombian military fights a war, not against drugs, but against opponents of the country’s ruling elite. The military opposes ongoing peace negotiations with guerrillas. The Colombian army has a well-documented record of human rights abuses and corruption.

Colombia’s drug trafficking and 40-year-old guerrilla war both have their roots in the country’s poverty and gross inequality. "Guns and helicopters will never stop drugs," writes Ana Carrigan, author and film-maker. "And spraying chemicals will not stop hungry peasants from growing coca."

Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. has already handed Colombia’s military, production of cocaine and heroin are on the rise. Coca cultivation is up 20 percent. The Colombian drug crop has expanded to almost 300,000 acres of coca and 7,000 acres of poppies.

That’s not so surprising: Colombia’s traditional wealthy elite has formed alliances with the mobsters. Despite the best efforts of Colombia’s new president, too many powerful military commanders have links to death squads and drug traffickers.

Colombia’s U.S.-financed military has created and directs a network of paramilitaries whose murderous activity, directed against workers and poor farmers, benefits the drug cartel.

According to Juan Gutierrez, a Colombian lawyer and journalist, not a single paramilitary has been convicted and imprisoned for human rights abuses. Nearly all of those imprisoned under harsh legislation supposedly targeted at drug traffickers are activists in unions and other social movements.


Drug trafficking, which has a widespread and terrible impact on Colombian society, intersects with longstanding political and social problems.

Although Colombia has the appearance of a political democracy, a powerful military has run the country behind the scenes for decades — a military dedicated to defending both the privileges of an old-fashioned South American elite and its own power.

Add to this an enormously profitable drug trade and drug barons who wield considerable economic and political influence, and U.S. corporate interest in exploiting Colombia’s vast natural wealth, and the result is a country in deep, devastating and bloody crisis.


Political violence is not new to this nation of 42 million. In 1928, workers at a banana plantation owned by the U.S. company, United Fruit, organized a union to protest a labor contract system that put them at the mercy of predatory middlemen, and to correct low wages and the lack of insurance. When the workers declared a strike, the Colombian government decided this was nothing more than a Communist plot to overthrow the country. The government declared a state of emergency and appointed a military governor.

When the strikers demonstrated in a town square, they were ruthlessly cut down in a hail-storm of bullets.

"This is the kind of politics that has been in place ever since, under different names," Gutierrez told the UE NEWS.

Squabbling between the ruling factions degenerated into civil strife from 1949-1958, which claimed 200,000 lives. Finally, the two ruling parties, the Liberals and Conservatives — which have no major ideological differences — reached agreement on a power-sharing and spoils-sharing system. Any third-party opposition was eliminated.

The elite who have run the country ever since have used the government as their own private business, using its power to obtain the best agricultural land.


The military has used its might to preserve this system.

"The military... sees as internal enemies those who express opinions critical of the status quo, especially if they belong to an organization of the people or some opposition party," says Rev. Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit and founder of the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace.

This power-sharing arrangement left no room for no real political opposition, encouraging guerrilla activity. Peasant-based guerrilla movements had begun forming as early as the 1930s. In a country where land is the primary basis of wealth, 3 percent of the population owned 70 percent of the arable land.

To obtain the best land, the elite had to first uproot and displace the peasants living on and farming that land, Gutierrez said. In response, the peasants organized militarily — joining or organizing guerrilla bands — having no means of expressing opposition through the political process.

Inequality, and guerrilla activity, both increased in the 1960s, when U.S. military advisors became involved in assisting the Colombian military’s counterinsurgency campaign.

As the only South American country with an east and west coast, Colombia became an ideal transshipment point in the 1970s, as Miami-based gangsters arranged to bring cocaine from Peru and Bolivia to the U.S. Colombian entrepreneurs quickly outdid their Miami partners, however, raising, processing and marketing their own crop.


Ambitious, ruthless drug barons made common cause with brutal, battle-hardened military men. When the sister of a ranking member of the Medellín drug cartel was kidnaped by guerrillas in 1982, the drug-traffickers organized a death squad with the help of hard-line, U.S.-trained military intelligence.

"In this way the drug trade with all its money and power became another factor in the old and vicious Colombian war," writes Ana Carrigan.

A judicial investigation carried out in 1983 by Attorney General Carlos Jiménez Gómez produced evidence of army and police collusion with the drug-financed death squad in hundreds of murders, massacres and disappearances. Then-President Belisario Betancur "soothed the generals by increasing the defense budget, and the army high-command promoted the highest-ranking officer involved and dispatched him to a high-level training course in Washington, D.C.," writes Carrigan.

Worse — much worse — was to follow.

An amnesty declared by the Colombian government in 1985 persuaded sections of the various guerrilla movements to abandon armed struggle. Many of these helped form the Patriotic Union Party (UP). Energetic and extensive grassroots organizing led to extensive electoral success in national and local elections the following year.

As a result of the UP’s phenomenal success, writes Carrigan, "new alliances between the army and large landowners — many of them also drug traffickers — sprang up in all of the conflict zones."


Colombia’s experiment in real democracy proved short-lived. Nearly all of the UP’s elected officials and two presidential candidates were assassinated. Some 4,000 party leaders and workers were killed.

The calculated, systematic elimination of an entire opposition party’s leadership and activists served the purposes of the drug lords. For one thing, the UP officials were honest; they couldn’t be bought with drug money. And by contributing to the destruction of the UP, the drug mafia gained favor with the traditional elite.

The last surviving UP senator, Manuel Cepeda, was murdered in mid-morning traffic in Colombia’s capitol, Bogata, on Aug. 19, 1994. His advocacy of a peaceful settlement to the guerrilla war was a virtual death sentence.

A paramilitary group issued a statement claiming responsibility. The government attributed the assassination to drug traffickers.

Blaming all of the country’s troubles on drug trafficking and an all-powerful drug mafia hides the reality of political violence directed by the state’s security forces against any individuals or organizations that dare challenge the status quo.

Behind some of this political violence is the military’s opposition to the peace process.

Carrigan argues that the timing of Cepeda’s assassination was significant. A new government inaugurated two days earlier had promised to protect human rights. To the military, that sounded ominously like peace.


In Colombia last month, U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey justified the proposed $1.6 billion aid package, by declaring: "Poor Colombia is facing as many as 25,000 heavily armed [members of] narco-terrorist organizations." In arriving at his total, McCaffrey combines leftist guerrillas, some of whom finance their operations with "taxes" on narcotics traffickers, and death squads that operate with the cooperation of the Colombian military.

The influence of narco-profits is so strong and pervasive in Colombia that some political executions are carried out by drug cartels on behalf of the paramilitaries, some by the paramilitaries on behalf of the drug cartels.

In the 1980s the drug mafia began buying farm land; due to their bitter disputes with peasants (and peasant-backed guerrillas), landowners were more than willing to sell. Land gave the drug barons a legal means of laundering their considerable but illegal wealth; it also gave them prestige. Narco-traffickers became agricultural businessmen.

The new landowners had the same problem as the old landholders: disgruntled, landless peasants and guerrillas. "The politicians struck a deal with the drug mafia. The mafia would help the politicians to cleanse these areas of sundry ‘communists,’ radicals, and [peasant] and union leaders. In return, the mafia would be given a free hand to pursue its business interests and develop its properties," says Carrigan.

Today, the drug barons own 42 percent of the Colombia’s best land. "Mafia land investments, and the paramilitary squads which accompany them, have driven some 800,000 peasants from their villages and small farms over the last decade," Carrigan wrote in 1996.


"One of the first highly publicized death squad massacres in Colombia was the March 1988 slayings of 22 workers from the Honduras and La Negra banana plantations in Urabá. Paramilitaries yanked the men from their beds and shot them," reported Leslie Wirpsa in the National Catholic Reporter. "This collective killing was the curtain raiser to a string of horrific massacres that year that claimed more than 600 lives."

The 1988 massacres were so frequent and so brutal that Colombia’s judiciary responded. By September of that year Judge Marta Lucia Gonzalez had completed a preliminary investigation that traced an alliance between the army, drug traffickers, cattle ranchers and death squads. She fled to the U.S. because of death threats; seven months later, her father was murdered. The judge who replaced her was also assassinated.

The paramilitaries, says Cecilia Zarate-Laun of the Colombian Solidarity Network, "receive support from trade organizations and powerful businesses such as export agriculture, cattlemen, oil companies and drug traffickers. They get political support from the military and leaders of the traditional parties. They receive military support from the Army’s local battalion and brigade."

"You cannot separate the drug traffickers from the landowners from the miltary," says Francisco Leal, political scientist and dean of social sciences at Los Andes University.


In the 1980s and 1990s the victims of death squads have included four presidential candidates, thousands of mayors, town councilors, community leaders, union officers, indigenous leaders, regional prosecutors, teachers, priests, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists and many thousands of workers and peasants.

According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Colombia holds the world’s record for assassinated trade unionists. More than 2,500 trade union activists and leaders have been murdered since 1987. Many more have been kidnapped, tortured, threatened and forced to flee their homes. Of every 10 trade unionists around the world murdered because of their trade union activity, four are Colombians.

Last year alone, 179 union activists were assassinated, according to the Central Organization of Colombian Workers (CUT). Among the slain was Jorge Ortega, the director of the labor federation’s Human Rights Department. In December, the general secretary of the banana workers’ union was assassinated; his union represents workers in negotiations with the growers’ association, which includes Del Monte and Chiquita. Approximately 400 members of the teachers’ union have been murdered in the past five years.

A report by the Andean Commission of Jurists concluded that 25,491 non-combatant Colombian civilians had died in political and social violence between June 1986 and June 1994. The jurists reported that almost 70 percent of these identifiable assassinations, massacres and enforced disappearances have been committed by the Colombian army and police, or by paramilitary groups and privately financed death squads operating in partnership with state forces.

Human rights monitors concluded that paramilitaries were responsible for 74 percent of the noncombatant killings from October 1996 through March 1997.


"We all know the military supports the paramilitaries," says Rev. Alonzo Ferro, director of the Bogatá-based Jesuit Program for Peace. "There are enough testimonies, cases where there is clear support. The paramilitaries do the dirty work."

A State Department Report on Human Rights in Colombia in 1996 affirms "the armed forces and police continued to be responsible for serious (human rights abuses) including, according to credible reports, instances of death squad activity within the army." In that year, the report adds, "killings by paramilitary groups increased significantly, often with the alleged complicity of individual soldiers or of entire military units and with the knowledge and tacit approval of senior military officials."

This murderous alliance continues. Human Rights Watch cites Colombian government investigations in 1997, 1998 and 1999 that prove, "Army officers worked intimately with paramilitaries under the command of paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño. They shared intelligence, planned and carried out joint operations, provided weapons and munitions, supported with helicopters and medical aid, and coordinated on a day-to-day basis. Some of the officers involved remained on active duty and in command of troops."

According to Human Rights Watch, "As recently as 1999, Colombian government investigators gathered compelling evidence that army officers set up a ‘paramilitary’ group using active-duty, retired, and reserve-duty military officers along with hired paramilitaries who effectively operated alongside army soldiers and in collaboration with them."

Human Rights Watch has so far documented ties between paramilitaries and half of Colombia’s 18 army brigades.


Government investigators committed to uncovering human rights abuses can make little headway against the power of the military. For example, in 1992-1993, the office of the Defender of the People investigated 1,200 cases of army involvement in the murder and disappearance of civilians; just one percent resulted in disciplinary action. According to Human Rights Watch, "There is credible evidence that this alliance between military intelligence, paramilitary groups and hired killers is national in scope and is able to threaten key investigators in the Attorney General’s office."

Often, says Human Rights Watch, investigators assigned to cases that implicate the army or paramilitaries have been forced to resign or leave the country.

Only one murderer of a trade unionist has ever been brought to justice.

Human rights cases involving military personnel fall under the jurisdiction of military tribunals, which either choose to not prosecute the cases or acquit those accused. In January, President Andres Pastrana — despite his professed interest in human rights — vetoed legislation that would have denied military officers immunity from prosecution in civilian courts.


The judicial "reform" of the early 1990s was supposedly designed to aid in the war against drugs. To protect the lives of judges and witnesses, their identities would be hidden from the accused. The new "faceless courts" effectively eliminated any right of due process. "Financed to the tune of $36 million by U.S. aid, the Colombian criminal justice system has been converted into an instrument of repression against the civilian opposition against which there is no appeal," writes Carrigan.

In 1993, critical police functions were turned over to the military, giving the army, for the first time, a role in the prosecution of civilian cases.

Gutierrez, who has personally defended the accused in the courts, says it’s virtually impossible to mount an adequate defense. The law criminalizes all kinds of protests, he says; while paramilitaries never go to jail, the entire leadership of the oil workers’ union has been detained for "terrorism," as have leaders of the telecommunications union.


Startling evidence of how drug trafficking has influenced the political process in Colombia came to light in the early 1990s through the remarkable investigations of Alfonso Valdivieso, the prosecutor general. A cousin of Liberal Party leader and anti-mafia crusader Luis Carlos Galán, who was assassinated in 1989, Valdivieso exposed the degree to which drug money fueled Colombian politics. By May 1996 the Attorney General and a government minister were behind bars; the Minister of the Interior, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Communications were charged with complicity in the cover-up of drug-mafia contributions to the campaign of then-President Ernesto Samper. Eight members of Congress had been arrested. The army’s commander-in-chief was forced to resign.

Eventually Valdivieso brought charges against Samper’s campaign treasurer, then against the Defense Minister, who had served as Samper’s campaign director, and finally against President Samper himself.

Thirteen of the 15 members of the Congressional commission responsible for investigating presidential impeachment were themselves under investigation for drug corruption. Samper was exonerated, an action ratified by Congress in a secret-ballot vote.

In a major shift in foreign policy, the U.S. decertified Colombia in 1996 and 1997 as a partner in the war against drugs.


Nevertheless, President Clinton signed a waiver in 1997 that gave Colombia $30 million in military aid frozen under decertification. U.S. officials had pressured the Colombian army to sign an agreement that the assistance would be linked to respect for human rights. U.S. Embassy officials would monitor the aid, which the State Dept. said would not be given to units engaged in human rights abuses.

However, the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative body that answers to Congress, asserted in 1991 and 1997 that neither the State or Defense Departments had developed policies or procedures for monitoring assistance.

As recently as Feb. 24, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said measures are in place to prevent human rights abusers from receiving U.S. military aid. Meanwhile, on the same day, Assistant Secretary of Defense Brian Sheridan told a Senate committee that aid should not be tied to human rights.

U.S. policy currently backs President Patrana’s peace initiative, but there is alarming evidence that the U.S. is pursuing a two-track approach which simultaneously pushes a military solution.

Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world after Israel and Egypt.


Ranking U.S. military figures, including General Charles Wilhelm, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, now believe that Colombia, not Cuba, is the principal threat to U.S. security in the western hemisphere. "This, along with a concern over the dimension of Colombia’s humanitarian crisis, makes U.S. intervention seem like a real possibility," writes Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, a political scientist at Colombia’s National University.

Last year, the French news agency Agence France Presse reported that U.S. officials had been seeking support from Latin American leaders for a military intervention force to pacify Colombia.

While the excuse for such intervention would likely be couched in terms of the war against drugs, the real target would be guerrillas and other opponents of the military and ruling elite.


A hearing last month in Washington conducted by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources on the theme "The U.S. Response to the Crisis in Colombia" made crystal clear that U.S. big business has more on its mind than drug trafficking.

Among those testifying was Lawrence Meriage, vice president of Occidental Petroleum, who reminded Members of Congress that Colombia is the eighth-largest supplier of crude oil to the U.S. With the fifth-largest economy in Latin America, Colombia is also the fifth-largest trading partner of the U.S. in the region.

Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R., Fla.) said, "Colombia matters economically and strategically. The United States can ill afford further instability in the region. With 20 percent of the U.S. daily supply of crude and refined oil imports coming from the area and with the vitally important Panama Canal located just 150 miles to the north, the national security and economic implications of Colombian rebel activity spilling over into neighboring countries are enormous."

While a bigger U.S. role in Colombia’s turmoil might ease the minds of oil company executives, it worries Colombians weary of repression and bloodshed.


On Sept. 26, 1999, the Colombian government and leaders of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced the long-delayed opening of peace negotiations. The government ceded to FARC the day-to-day administration of an area in the south the size of California. "The core of Pastrana’s peace strategy," explains Ana Carrigan, "consists of ending the insurgency while simultaneously ending coca production in the guerrilla-controlled territories."

Ending coca production is contingent on massive investment in alternative crop development and access to markets. With a $1 billion price-tag, it’s cheaper than the military alternative.

As UE’s national officers point out in their letter to President Clinton, "Further military aid will undermine the fragile peace process that has been initiated by President Pastrana. Civilians in Colombia have overwhelmingly voted for peace and marched in favor of peace. Massive infusions of military aid will not only increase the number of deaths and massacres carried out by all the armed groups, but will also strengthen hard-liners in Colombia who oppose the peace process."

Only the peace process offers a realistic opportunity to effectively combat the drug trade, by creating the conditions that will encourage replacement of coca with alternative crops.

Further, the peace process could give Colombians a chance to discuss their economic future. A $3 billion loan received from the International Monetary Fund last year was conditional on the country’s acceptance of IMF reforms: a more "flexible" workforce and privatization of the Colombia’s profitable public enterprises. There is widespread public opposition to privatization, Gutierrez says — and the workforce is already too "flexible" with 22 percent unemployment and nearly half the country’s workers unable to adequately sustain their families.

The choices are either a negotiated solution to the armed conflict — in terms of lives and money, the least costly option — or a dramatic escalation of death and destruction.

Current U.S. policy threatens to undermine the long-awaited, risky talks between the Colombian government and its armed opponents. U.S. military assistance, without a plan to eliminate the paramilitaries, will unleash a full-scale civil war, warns Ana Carrigan. "That war will lead to a humanitarian disaster on a scale not yet seen on this continent."

(This report, prepared by UE NEWS Managing Editor Peter Gilmore, is based in part on articles that have appeared in the NACLA Report on the Americas, In These Times, Z magazine and the National Catholic Reporter.)

UE News - 03/00

Home -> UE News -> Feature Archives -> Feature

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links

Copyright ©UE. All Rights Reserved