Category Archives: War On Terror

Who is and is not a ‘paramilitary’? Erasing the changing nature of Colombia’s conflicts over land

A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program recently ran an interesting 20-minute investigative piece on the struggles of community leaders with respect to the Land Restitution process, which raises some questions about whether or not paramilitarism continues, or has changed in Colombia.

colombia-ley-de-tierras “Land & Life”, photo credit: InfoLatAm

Some context The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

Since the 1920s (and arguably, since the 16th century), disputes over who owns land, whether land can be ‘owned’, who gets to benefit off of the land, have been deeply influencing Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

Although the FARC, the ELN, drug cartels, and the army/all armed actors in Colombia have displaced people off of their land and terrorized communities in order to exert social and territorial control over them, right-wing paramilitary groups working often on behalf of narcotraffickers and large land owners have been particularly tied to the question of displacement. Colombia is said to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (the Norwegian Refugee Council puts it at 5.5 million, and this documentary puts it at around 6 million). This is not  even counting those who were displaced outside of Colombia. Many in Colombia say that throughout the war, as much as 10 million hectares have changed hands.

What’s interesting here is that many analyses concerning Colombia’s Land Restitution Law follow a common, and relatively accurate, narrative – Colombia’s land restitution process is at serious threat because of the continued threats by armed groups to community organizers leading land claims. However, the Al-Jazeera documentary probes deeper into the ideological and semantic questions of these threats, which arguably, are of tremendous significance to the political moment in which the land restitution process occurs.

Firstly, the confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia) demobilized in 2003-6 in a highly-criticized process which some victim’s groups saw as a granting of impunity    Many of the middle-rung paramilitary leaders who demobilized under the law (and were not extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges) will start to be released this year.

Thousands of the former paramilitaries granted legal benefits under the demobilization process with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), re-armed into groups that have been characterized by the government and some analysts as “criminal bands” or BACRIM, or armed groups that are primarily focused on narcotrafficking, and not actors in the armed conflict.

In the documentary, a functionary of the national government says that the BACRIM are not paramilitaries, for example, because they do not engage in combat with the FARC or the ELN.

Others, such as opposition Congressman Ivan Cepeda have argued that the BACRIM are neo-paramilitaries, or a continuation of powerful interests defending themselves with private armies. What is undoubted is that the human costs of paramilitarism, and the tactics of repression, threats, and cruelty imposed by these groups on the civilian population are very similar to the ‘old’ paramilitaries and are devastating. It is important to note however that the ‘old’ paramilitaries in the 1990s committed many large, atrocious massacres, and these are much less common now, although the selective murders of activists continue at an alarming rate in Colombia. It’s also worth nothing that violence perpetrated by the neoparas/BACRIM accounts for the majority of forced displacement currently.

At the heart of the question is what is the ideological motivation (if any) behind these paramilitary successor groups – if they have, like the Castaños – a clear anti-subversive, right-wing and seemingly fascist ideological motivation, or if they are “merely” criminal groups or drug traffickers and pistols-for-hire for powerful landed interests. This raises some questions about history – one of Uribe’s main challenges in beginning negotiations with the AUC in the early 2000s was that to do so they needed to have legally recognized political status (which they did not). Moreover, some have argued that even the AUC did not necessarily have a coherent guiding ideology as many groups were the private armies of (seemingly apolitical) narcotraffickers. However, in relation to land, it is clear that the AUC did have a clear pro-business, pro-land owner and anti-dissident agenda.

“Neoparamilitarism” in the Current Political Moment – Moving toward “peace”?

SantosRestitucion President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon giving land titles in Mampujan, Cesar at a land restitution ceremony. Photo credit: Caracol.com.co

The important point here is the political interests behind this seemingly abstract distinction – if the they do have an ideological motivation, then perhaps the “neoparas” are a continuation of paramilitarism in Colombia, but if they are not, this validates the official discourse that paramilitarism in Colombia ended in 2006 with the demoblization of the AUC. Under this logic, which is the government narrative and is often reproduced in Colombian media, the only groups left to negotiate with for “peace” in Colombia are the guerrillas.

Within this narrative is the conjecture of the “historic” 2011 Victim’s and Land Restitution’s Law and the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. Both initiatives by the Santos government are aimed at ending Colombia’s conflict (although, a conflict defined in certain ways) and providing ‘reparations’ for “moving forward” or establishing a so-called “peace”.

Although the Victim’s Law is a useful tool and has some interesting mechanisms for Victim’s (such as a reverse-onus for land-owners accused of having ‘dirty’ land to prove that they obtained it legally), the law, as explained by the Al-Jazeera documentary, is actually quite tepid in how much land can be redistributed, and in how much time (the law stops after a decade, and the backlog on land claims is enormous). Furthermore, according to one interviewee, the law won’t touch the land of large companies or land-owners who have their paper work in order. In other words, the Victim’s Law is not an agrarian reform to respond to not only the violent, largely paramilitary and narco-trafficker-driven, counter-agrarian reform/displacement crisis of the last 30 years, but it also leaves out the historic question of land inequality in Colombia (rooted in colonialism). Finally, there are questions about whether those displaced by the BACRIM/neo-paras (as these aren’t deemed as political actors in the armed conflict) will be eligible for restitution.

Therefore, the political categorization of Colombia’s armed groups in institutional and political terms shapes conceptualizations of the conflict, and subsequently, divergences between how the state wants to frame the war (or ignore it) and how people experience it in human and material terms (killings of leaders continue, land isn’t given back).

Ideologically, the Colombian state, the international community, and particularly academia, seems to prioritize political violence (as this threatens the state, and is more “sexy”/associated with mass and sensationalized violence). Prioritizing this violence also prioritizes its victims. However, that begs the question – what is an armed conflict, what is political violence, and what does it matter? Arguably, Mexico is currently experiencing a brutal civil war.  Politics also currently colours the mass wave of violence in Venezuela, which in recent years has had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

It makes little senses to create a hierarchy of violences, and of  its’ victims, according to rigid and problematic intellectual definitions of an ‘armed conflict’ needing to have a certain relationship to discourses (groups needing explicit political goals) and to the state (protecting or challenging its monopoly on violence).

Kyle Johnson in a guest piece over at Colombia Reports on the “neo-paras” offers a much more useful conceptualization:

The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.

…..

Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. …

Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.

So in the Colombian context (and many others) the contention that is politics is largely rooted in land, and therefore the BACRIM/neoparamilitaries are definitely political actors as they are trying to close political space for actors wanting to claim it, using a language of ‘cleansing’ that harks back to the days of the AUC.   They also  seem to be in favour of business interests and against activists/community leaders and progressive sectors.

By re-defining the nature of politics to be something broader than explicit ideology or threats to the state, and armed political conflict, or by not creating a hierarchy of victims, hopefully this would open more institutional spaces for victim’s to have access to memory, reparations, justice, and restitution on their terms. However, as things currently stand, questions of whether paramilitarism continues in Colombia are seemingly being ignored by the state and some sectors of the media in their language and characterization of paramilitary successor groups as ‘criminal bands’ disconnected from the past paramilitaries. What the thesis of ‘neoparamilitarism’ does is throw a wrench in the the assumptions behind the Land Restitution process, the peace process, and notions of transitional justice in Colombia : the Justice & Peace Law was not just an abject failure in providing justice, but it also provided no peace and no transition. At a local level, conflicts over land continue in the same nature as during the height of the war and paramilitarism/paramilitarism was not stopped by the demobilization.

Validating the official discourse – that paramilitaries are over, land is being given back, and soon, the guerrillas and the war in general will be history, erases not only the current lived experiences of people in regions like Jiguamiando and Curvarado and the Urabá region, but also more structural, historical, and political underpinnings of Colombia’s conflict (land inequality and the brutal repression of peaceful dissidence). It also erases how Colombian democracy was shockingly co-opted by paramilitary groups, and that the alliances between certain businesspeople, politicians, and armed groups who displace and threaten peasants, Afro-Colombians, popular sectors, and indigenous people are something that has been overcome.

In other words, at this course, violence against Colombia’s peasantry will long continue after the FARC give up their arms, but the victim’s of Colombia’s war will be even more invisible; the war will be further denied.
PS – The International Criminal Court is looking at one paramilitary group, the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’, popularly referred to as “Los Urabeños“.

Further reading: York University Professor Jasmin Hristov’s “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era” is strongly recommended.

For another perspective, InsightAnalysis has a wealth of information on Colombia’s BACRIM.

At a local level, according to Ariel Avila,  it also seems that ‘parapolitics’, or alliances between neoparas/BACRIM are still occurring, reminiscent of the ‘parapolitica’ scandal that touched over a third of Congress, intelligence agencies, the military, and civil cervants.

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Filed under Colombia, Contradictions, English, Land/Tierra, Paramilitarismo, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional, War On Drugs, War On Terror

The CIA’s support for Colombia’s counterinsurgency

A really informative (yet problematic) piece from Dana Priest, Elyssia Pachico and Jude Tate from the Washington Post, on the CIA’s covert support for Colombia’s smartbombing campaign against the FARC leadership.

The article makes some interesting points, but largely ignores the paramilitarization of Colombian democracy under ex-President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) who led this counterinsurgency, and seems uncritical or at least does not really mention the cruel repression and abuse inflicted on the Colombian population in the name of Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. For example, there is the case of the “false positives”, in which over 3,000 mostly young peasants were extrajudicially executed and dressed up as “guerrillas” so as to increase kill counts. There are also the chuzadas (wire-tappings) of opposition politicians, supreme court judges, and opponents of the government; it would be interesting to see how much the CIA knew about or enabled Uribe’s threats to freedom of speech, privacy, and other civil liberties.

The article also seems to lack a serious political analysis, and takes it for granted that the US’s support for Colombia was about mainly counter-narcotics, and not the War On Terror, nor about protecting American investments (such as the Caño Limón–Coveñas pipeline and other key pieces of energy infrastructure) from guerrilla attacks. A key myth this report buys into is that the FARC are the main narco-traffickers in Colombia (and that fighting the FARC is therefore fighting drug-trafficking). The vast majority of investigations and scholarship on Colombia has shown that the state-backed paramilitaries were much more involved in drug trafficking than the guerrillas (for example over a dozen paramilitary leaders are now the in the US facing drug trafficking charges).

This report also seems ignorant to one of the main dynamics of the war in Colombia -territorial control. Yes, the blows against the FARC’s leadership have been decisive (and are good for public opinion), however, what has really won the war for the State was the government-backed paramilitary expansion of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In a similar vein, Priest is mute on the humanitarian crisis of internal displacement in Colombia. At 5.5 million displaced according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, Colombia has the highest number of IDPs in the world (to say nothing of those who have left). Many of these IDPs, most of whom are peasants, indigenous people, or Black/Afro-Colombian, have been displaced by the FARC, but many have also been pushed off of their land by the paramilitaries and the state in order to make way for economic projects such as agribusiness and mining. The idea therefore that the CIA contributed to a general improvement of security under Uribe by helping win the war against the guerrillas buys into the myth that “the problem” in Colombia was the FARC, and not a variety of violent actors, some of whom co-opted state institutions. This assertion also ignores the great human cost of these security improvements; what’s happened in Colombia over the last 10-12 years was more of a violent pacification than “peace”.

However, the report does shed more light on the extent of the US’s influence and support for Colombia’s counterinsurgency against the guerrillas, and how Colombia, after Afghanistan in the early 2000s, was one of the US’s security priorities.

An interesting addendum is that opposition congressman and human rights activist Ivan Cepeda is now asking the Colombian government to answer for the US’s support, so at least Priest’s findings have been put to good use.

This was originally published at the Washington Post on Dec 21 2013

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The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation’s battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.

In March 2008, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials, the Colombian Air Force, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.

The covert action program in Colombia is one of a handful of enhanced intelligence initiatives that has escaped public notice since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Most of these other programs, small but growing, are located in countries where violent drug cartels have caused instability.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Pais Libre, Colombian Defense Ministry and the Air Force. Research and data compiled by Elyssa Pachico. Graphic by Cristina Rivero. Map by Gene Thorp.

The roster is headed by Mexico, where U.S. intelligence assistance is larger than anywhere outside Afghanistan, as The Washington Post reported in April. It also includes Central America and West Africa, where trafficking routes have moved in response to U.S. pressure against cartels elsewhere.

Asked to comment on U.S. intelligence assistance, President Juan Manuel Santos told The Post during a recent trip to Washington that he did not wish to speak about it in detail, given the sensitivities involved. “It’s been of help,” he said. “Part of the expertise and the efficiency of our operations and our special operations have been the product of better training and knowledge we have acquired from many countries, among them the United States.”

A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.

Colombia and the FARC have been in peace negotiations in Havana for a year. They have agreed so far on frameworks for land reform, rural development and for allowing insurgents to participate in the political process once the war ends. The two sides are currently discussing a new approach to fighting drug trafficking.

Police outside El Nogal nightclub after the FARC destroyed it with a car bomb in February 2003. More than 20 people were killed. The bombing further united Colombia against the insurgents. (Javier Galeano/AP)

Instability in Colombia

Over the past decade, many indicators of insecurity have improved . . .

. . . as terrorist group strength has weakened and extraditions to the United States for criminal trials have increased.

2004, 2005 and 2010 not available.

*Includes FARC-related kidnappings and killings.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Pais Libre, Colombia Defense Ministry, Colombian Air Force, compiled by Elyssa Pachico

On the verge of collapse

Today, a comparison between Colombia, with its vibrant economy and swanky Bogota social scene, and Afghanistan might seem absurd. But a little more than a decade ago, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. Random bombings and strong-arm military tactics pervaded daily life. Some 3,000 people were kidnapped in one year. Professors, human rights activists and journalists suspected of being FARC sympathizers routinely turned up dead.

The combustible mix of the FARC, cartels, paramilitaries and corrupt security forces created a cauldron of violence unprecedented in modern-day Latin America. Nearly a quarter-million people have died during the long war, and many thousands have disappeared.

The FARC was founded in 1964 as a Marxist peasant movement seeking land and justice for the poor. By 1998, Colombia’s president at the time, Andres Pastrana, gave the FARC a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone to encourage peace negotiations, but its violent attacks only grew, as did its links with the narcotics trade.

By 2000, the emboldened insurgency of 18,000 took aim at Colombia’s political leaders. It assassinated local elected officials. It kidnapped a presidential candidate and attempted to kill a presidential front-runner, hard-liner Alvaro Uribe, whose father the FARC had killed in 1983.

Fearing Colombia would become a failed state with an even greater role in drug trafficking into the United States, the Bush administration and Congress ramped up assistance to the Colombian military through Plan Colombia.

By 2003, U.S. involvement in Colombia encompassed 40 U.S. agencies and 4,500 people, including contractors, all working out of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, then the largest U.S. embassy in the world. It stayed that way until mid-2004, when it was surpassed by Afghanistan.

“There is no country, including Afghanistan, where we had more going on,” said William Wood, who was U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 2003 to 2007 before holding the same post in war-torn Afghanistan for two years after that.

When Bush became president, two presidential findings were already on the books authorizing covert action worldwide. One allowed CIA operations against international terrorist organizations. The other, signed in the mid-1980s by President Ronald Reagan, authorized action against international narcotics traffickers.

A presidential finding is required for the CIA to do things other than collect and analyze overseas intelligence. Giving spy equipment to a partner, supporting foreign political parties, planting propaganda, and participating in lethal training or operations all require a finding and a notification to congressional intelligence committees.

The counternarcotics finding had permitted the CIA and a technical unit of the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to provide support to the years-long hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, killed by Colombian forces 20 years ago this month. It also made possible CIA-supported operations against traffickers and terrorists in Bolivia and Peru years ago.

Under the Colombian program, the CIA is not allowed to participate directly in operations. The same restrictions apply to military involvement in Plan Colombia. Such activity has been constrained by members of Congress who had lived through the scandal of America’s secret role in Central America’s wars in the 1980s. Congress refused to allow U.S. military involvement in Colombia to escalate as it had in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama.

In February 2003, the FARC took three U.S. contractors hostage after their single-engine Cessna, above, crashed in the jungle near La Esperanza. A covert CIA program was launched to find them. (El Tiempo via AP)

The FARC miscalculates

The new covert push against the FARC unofficially began on Feb. 13, 2003. That day a single-engine Cessna 208 crashed in rebel-held jungle. Nearby guerrillas executed the Colombian officer on board and one of four American contractors who were working on coca eradication. The three others were taken hostage.

The United States had already declared the FARC a terrorist organization for its indiscriminate killings and drug trafficking. Although the CIA had its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush “leaned on [CIA director George] Tenet” to help find the three hostages, according to one former senior intelligence official involved in the discussions.

The FARC’s terrorist designation made it easier to fund a black budget. “We got money from a lot of different pots,” said one senior diplomat.

One of the CIA officers Tenet dispatched to Bogota was an operator in his forties whose name The Washington Post is withholding because he remains undercover. He created the U.S. Embassy Intelligence Fusion Cell, dubbed “the Bunker.”

It was a cramped, 30-by-30-foot room with a low ceiling and three rows of computers. Eight people sat at each row of consoles. Some scoured satellite maps of the jungle; others searched for underground FARC hiding places. Some monitored imagery or the movement of vehicles tagged with tracking devices. Voice intercepts from radio and cellphone communications were decrypted and translated by the National Security Agency.

Bunker analysts fused tips from informants and technically obtained information. Analysts sought to link individuals to the insurgency’s flow of drugs, weapons and money. For the most part, they left the violent paramilitary groups alone.

The Bunker’s technical experts and contractors built the Colombians their own nationwide intelligence computer system. They also later helped create regional fusion centers to push tactical intelligence to local commanders. The agency also paid for encrypted communications gear.

“We were very interested in getting the FARC, and it wasn’t so much a question of capability, as it was intelligence,” said Wood, “specifically the ability to locate them in the time frame of an operation.”

Outside the Bunker, CIA case officers and contractors taught the art of recruiting informants to Colombian units that had been vetted and polygraphed. They gave money to people with information about the hostages.

Meanwhile, the other secret U.S. agency that had been at the forefront of locating and killing al-Qaeda arrived on the scene. Elite commandos from JSOC began periodic annual training sessions and small-unit reconnaissance missions to try to find the hostages.

Despite all the effort, the hostages’ location proved elusive. Looking for something else to do with the new intelligence equipment and personnel, the Bunker manager and his military deputy from the U.S. Special Operations Command gave their people a second mission: Target the FARC leadership. This was exactly what the CIA and JSOC had been doing against al-Qaeda on the other side of the world. The methodology was familiar.

“There was cross-pollination both ways,” said one senior official with access to the Bunker at the time. “We didn’t need to invent a new wheel.”

At the urging of President George W. Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, left, the CIA program to find the U.S. hostages began targeting FARC leaders with U.S.-provided intelligence and smart bombs. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

A request from Colombia’s president

Locating FARC leaders proved easier than capturing or killing them. Some 60 times, Colombian forces had obtained or been given reliable information but failed to capture or kill anyone senior, according to two U.S. officials and a retired Colombian senior officer. The story was always the same. U.S.-provided Black Hawk helicopters would ferry Colombian troops into the jungle about six kilometers away from a camp. The men would creep through the dense foliage, but the camps were always empty by the time they arrived. Later they learned that the FARC had an early-warning system: rings of security miles from the camps.

By 2006, the dismal record attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force’s newly arrived mission chief. The colonel was perplexed. Why had the third-largest recipient of U.S. military assistance [behind Egypt and Israel] made so little progress?

“I’m thinking, ‘What are we killing the FARC with?’ ” the colonel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview.

The colonel, a cargo plane expert, said he “started Googling bombs and fighters” looking for ideas. Eventually he landed on the Enhanced Paveway II, a relatively inexpensive guidance kit that could be strapped on a 500-pound, Mark-82 gravity bomb.

The colonel said he told then-defense minister Santos about his idea and wrote a one-page paper on it for him to deliver to Uribe. Santos took the idea to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In June 2006, Uribe visited Bush at the White House. He mentioned the recent killing of al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. An F-16 had sent two 500-pound smart bombs into his hideout and killed him. He pressed for the same capability.

“Clearly this was very important” to Uribe, said retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who had taken over as CIA director just months earlier.

First, there was the matter of fitting the smart bombs onto a Colombian aircraft. Colombia did not have F-16s. Raytheon, the kit manufacturer, sent engineers to figure out how to mount the equipment on a plane. First they tried mounting it on a Brazilian-made Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft designed for low-flying counterinsurgency missions. But affixing the cable that ran from the bomb’s computer brain to the cockpit meant drilling too close to the fuel cell. Instead, they jerry-rigged it to an older Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, a light attack aircraft first developed by the U.S. Special Operations air force for Vietnam and later used in the Salvadoran civil war.

Then the engineers and Colombian pilots tested the first of three PGMs in a remote airfield near the Venezuelan border. The target was a 2-by-4 stuck in the ground. The plane launched the bomb from 20,000 feet. “It landed about a foot from it,” the colonel said. The results were so good, he thought, “why waste two more kits?” The smart bombs were ready for use.

But White House lawyers, along with their colleagues from the CIA and the departments of Justice, Defense and State, had their own questions to work through. It was one thing to use a PGM to defeat an enemy on the battlefield — the U.S. Air Force had been doing that for years. It was another to use it to target an individual FARC leader. Would that constitute an assassination, which is prohibited by U.S. law? And, “could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?” said one lawyer involved.

The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel and others finally decided that the same legal analysis they had applied to al-Qaeda could be applied to the FARC. Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia. Also, none of the FARC commanders could be expected to surrender.

And, as a drug-trafficking organization, the FARC’s status as a threat to U.S. national security had been settled years earlier with Reagan’s counternarcotics finding. At the time, the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height, and the government decided that organizations that brought drugs to America’s streets were a threat to national security.

There was another concern. Some senior officials worried that Colombian forces might use the PGMs to kill their perceived political enemies. “The concerns were huge given their human rights problems,” said a former senior military officer.

To assure themselves that the Colombians would not misuse the bombs, U.S. officials came up with a novel solution. The CIA would maintain control over the encryption key inserted into the bomb, which unscrambled communications with GPS satellites so they can be read by the bomb’s computers. The bomb could not hit its target without the key. The Colombians would have to ask for approval for some targets, and if they misused the bombs, the CIA could deny GPS reception for future use.

“We wanted a sign-off,” said one senior official involved in the deliberations.

To cut through the initial red tape, the first 20 smart bomb kits — without the encryption keys — came through the CIA. The bill was less than $1 million. After that, Colombia was allowed to purchase them through the Foreign Military Sales program.

Secretly assisting Colombia against rebels

Raytheon’s Enhanced Paveway II is a laser-guided bomb upgraded with a GPS-guided capability, which works better against targets in the thick jungle. An encryption key inserted into the guidance system allows the bomb’s computer to receive military-grade GPS data used to guide a bomb to its target.

Anatomy of Lethal Air Operations in Colombia

First strike: In a typical mission, several Cessna A-37 Dragonflys, a light attack aircraft first developed by the U.S. Special Operations for Vietnam, fly at 20,000 feet carrying smart bombs. They can be launched once the planes get within three miles of the target. The bombs communicate with GPS satellites to know where they are at all times and to hit the target.

Bombardment: Several Brazilian-made Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos, a turboprop aircraft flown at a much lower altitude, follow the A-37s. They drop conventional gravity bombs in a pattern near the smart bombs to flatten the jungle and kill other insurgents in the FARC camp.

Gunship strike: Low-flying Vietnam era AC-47 gunships, nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon, strafe the area with machine guns, shooting the survivors, according to one of several officials who described the scenario.

Ground units Finally, if the camp is far into the jungle, Colombian army troops are usually ferried in by U.S.-provided Black Hawk troop-carrying helicopters. Troops would collect the remains of the killed FARC leader if possible, round up survivors and gather electronic equipment like cellphones and computers that could yield valuable information about FARC operations.

A first strike

Tomas Medina Caracas, also known as Negro Acacio, the FARC’s chief drug trafficker and commander of its 16th Front, was the first man the U.S. Embassy Intelligence Fusion Cell queued up for a PGM strike.

At about 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2007, pilots wearing night vision goggles unleashed several Enhanced Paveway II smart bombs into his camp in eastern Colombia as officials in both capitals waited. Troops recovered only a leg. It appeared by its dark complexion to belong to Acacio, one of the few black FARC leaders. DNA tests confirmed his death.

“There was a great deal of excitement,” recalled William Scoggins, counternarcotics program manager at the U.S. military’s Southern Command. “We didn’t know the impact it would have, but we thought this was a game changer.”

Six weeks later, smart bombs killed Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias Martin Caballero, leader of the 37th Front, while he was talking on his cellphone. Acacio’s and Caballero’s deaths caused the 16th and 37th fronts to collapse. They also triggered mass desertions, according to a secret State Department cable dated March 6, 2008, and released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in 2010. This was just the beginning of the FARC’s disintegration.

To hide the use of the PGMs from public discovery, and to ensure maximum damage to a FARC’s leaders’ camp, the air force and U.S. advisers developed new strike tactics. In a typical mission, several A-37 Dragonflys flying at 20,000 feet carried smart bombs. As soon as the planes came within a three-mile “basket” of the target, a bomb’s GPS software would automatically turn on.

The Dragonflys were followed by several A-29 Super Tucanos, flying at a much lower altitude. They would drop a series of dumb bombs in a pattern nearby. Their blast pressure would kill anyone close in and also flatten the dense jungle and obscure the use of the smart bombs.

Then, low-flying, Vietnam-era AC-47 gunships, nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon, would strafe the area with mounted machine guns, “shooting the wounded trying to go for cover,” according to one of several military officials who described the same scenario.

Only then would Colombian ground forces arrive to round up prisoners, collecting the dead, as well as cellphones, computers and hard drives. The CIA also spent three years training Colombian close air support teams on using lasers to clandestinely guide pilots and laser-guided smart bombs to their targets.

Most every operation relied heavily on NSA signal intercepts, which fed intelligence to troops on the ground or pilots before and during an operation. “Intercepts . . . were a game changer,” said Scoggins, of U.S. Southern Command.

The round-the-clock nature of the NSA’s work was captured in a secret State Department cable released by WikiLeaks. In the spring of 2009, the target was drug trafficker Daniel Rendon Herrera, known as Don Mario, then Colombia’s most wanted man and responsible for 3,000 assassinations over an 18-month period.

“For seven days, using signal and human intelligence,” NSA assets “worked day and night” to reposition 250 U.S.-trained and equipped airborne commandos near Herrera as he tried to flee, according to an April 2009 cable and a senior government official who confirmed the NSA’s role in the mission.

The CIA also trained Colombian interrogators to more effectively question thousands of FARC deserters, without the use of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques approved for use on al-Qaeda and later repudiated by Congress as abusive. The agency also created databases to keep track of the debriefings so they could be searched and cross-referenced to build a more complete picture of the organization.

The Colombian government paid deserters and allowed them to reintegrate into civil society. Some, in turn, offered valuable information about the FARC’s chain of command, standard travel routes, camps, supply lines, drug and money sources. They helped make sense of the NSA’s voice intercepts, which often used code words. Deserters also sometimes were used to infiltrate FARC camps to plant listening devices or beacons that emitted a GPS coordinate for smart bombs.

“We learned from the CIA,” a top Colombian national security official said of the debriefing program. “Before, we didn’t pay much attention to details.”

FARC commander Raul Reyes in 2002 in Los Pozos, Colombia. In 2008, Colombia, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs into Ecuador, killing Reyes, considered to be the group’s No. 2 leader. (Scott Dalton/AP)

Ecuador and the not-forgotten hostages

In February 2008, the U.S.-Colombian team got its first sighting of the three U.S. hostages. Having waited five years, the reaction was swift at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, which began sending JSOC commandos down, said a senior U.S. official who was in Colombia when they arrived.

The JSOC team was headed by a Navy SEAL Team Six commander. Small units set up three operational areas near the hostages and conducted long-range reconnaissance, the senior official said. The NSA increased its monitoring. All eyes were on the remote jungle location. But as initial preparations were underway, operations were heating up elsewhere.

Just across the Putumayo River, one mile inside Ecuador, U.S. intelligence and a Colombian informant confirmed the hideout of Luis Edgar Devia Silva, also known as Raul Reyes and considered to be the No. 2 in the seven-member FARC secretariat.

It was an awkward discovery for Colombia and the United States. To conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a U.S.-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.

The Air Force colonel had a succinct message for the Colombian air operations commander in charge of the mission. “I said, ‘Look man, we all know where this guy is. Just don’t f— it up.’ ”

U.S. national security lawyers viewed the operation as an act of self-defense. In the wake of 9/11, they had come up with a new interpretation of the permissible use of force against non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the FARC. It went like this: If a terrorist group operated from a country that was unable or unwilling to stop it, then the country under attack — in this case, Colombia — had the right to defend itself with force, even if that meant crossing into another sovereign country.

This was the legal justification for CIA drone strikes and other lethal operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and, much later, for the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

So minutes after midnight on March 1, three A-37 Dragonflys took off from Colombia, followed by five Super Tucanos. The smart bombs’ guidance system turned on once the planes reached within three miles of Reyes’s location.

As instructed, the Colombian pilots stayed in Colombian airspace. The bombs landed as programmed, obliterating the camp and killing Reyes, who, according to Colombian news reports, was asleep in pajamas.

Above: The 2008 bombing of Raul Reyes’s camp in Ecuador sparked a diplomatic dispute. Ecuador moved troops to border towns such as Puerto Nuevo. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP via Getty Images; Dolores Ochoa/AP)

Colombian forces rushed across the border into Ecuador to retrieve Reyes’s remains and also scooped up a large treasure trove of computer equipment that would turn out to be the most valuable FARC intelligence find ever.

The bombing set off a serious diplomatic crisis. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez called Colombia “a terrorist state” and moved troops to the border, as did Ecuador. Nicaragua broke off relations. Uribe, under pressure, apologized to Ecuador.

The apology, while soothing relationships in Latin America, angered the small circle of U.S. officials who knew the back story, one of them said. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe they’re saying this,’ ” he said. “For them to be giving up an important legal position was crazy.”

But the flap did not damage the deep ties between U.S. and Colombian forces or deter the mission to rescue the hostages. In fact, the number of JSOC troops continued to mount to more than 1,000, said the senior official then in Colombia. Officials thought for sure they would be spotted, but they never were. A U.S.-Colombian military exercise provided sufficient cover when the International Committee of the Red Cross showed up at isolated bases and stumbled upon some burly Americans, said two U.S. officials.

After six weeks of waiting to find the hostages, most of the JSOC troops left the country for pressing missions elsewhere. One unit remained. On July 2, 2008, it had the role of unused understudy in the dramatic and well-documented Operation Checkmate, in which Colombian forces pretending to be members of a humanitarian group tricked the FARC into handing over the three U.S. hostages and 12 others without a shot fired. The JSOC team, and a fleet of U.S. aircraft, was positioned as Plan B, in case the Colombian operation went awry.

A Colombian pilot boards a Super Tucano in Bogota in 2006. Recently, Colombia has fitted smart bombs onto some of its Super Tucanos, which have been largely used to drop dumb bombs during airstrikes. (Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters)

Santos continues the smart-bomb war

As a sign of trust, in early 2010 the U.S. government gave Colombia control over the GPS encryption key. There had been no reports of misuse, misfires or collateral damage from the smart bombs. The transfer was preceded by quick negotiations over the rules of engagement for smart-bomb use. Among the rules was that they would be launched only against isolated jungle camps.

President Santos, who was defense minister under Uribe, has greatly increased the pace of operations against the FARC. Almost three times as many FARC leaders — 47 vs. 16 — have been killed under Santos as under Uribe. Interviews and analysis of government Web sites and press reporting show that at least 23 of the attacks under Santos were air operations. Smart bombs were used only against the most important FARC leaders, Colombian officials said in response to questions. Gravity bombs were used in the other cases.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who was Colombia’s defense minister when the CIA covert program ramped up, has increased efforts to weaken the FARC. (Jose Cendon/Bloomberg)

Colombia continues to upgrade its air capabilities. In 2013, the air force upgraded its fleet of Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets, fitting them with Israeli-made Griffin laser-guided bombs. It has also fitted smart bombs onto some of its Super Tucanos.

Having decimated the top FARC leadership and many of the front commanders, the military, with continued help from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, appears to be working its way through the mid-level ranks, including mobile company commanders, the most battle-hardened and experienced remaining cadre. One-third of them have been killed or captured, according to Colombian officials.

The Santos administration has also targeted the financial and weapons networks supporting the FARC. Some critics think the government has been too focused on killing leaders and not enough on using the army and police to occupy and control rebel territory.

Killing an individual has never been a measure of success in war, say counterinsurgency experts. It’s the chaos and dysfunction that killing the leadership causes to the organization that matters. The air operations against the FARC leadership “has turned the organization upside down,” said a senior Pentagon official who has studied the classified U.S. history of Colombia’s war.

Some have fled to Venezuela. One member of the secretariat hides out intermittently in Ecuador, according to senior Colombia officials, breaking the important psychological bond with ground troops and handicapping recruitment.

For fear of being located and targeted, units no longer sleep in the same place two days in a row, so camps must be sparser. “They know the government has so much information on them now, and real-time intelligence,” said German Espejo, security and defense counselor at the Colombian Embassy. Worried about spies in their midst, executions are common.

The FARC still mounts attacks — a car bombing of a rural police station Dec. 7 killed six police officers and two civilians — but it no longer travels in large groups, and it limits most units to less than 20. No longer able to mount large-scale assaults, the group has reverted to hit-and-run tactics using snipers and explosives.

The weariness of 50 years of transient jungle life has taken its toll on the FARC negotiating team, too. Those who have lived in exile seem more willing to continue the fight than those who have been doing the fighting, said Colombian officials. The negotiations, Santos said in the interview, are the result of the successful military campaign, “the cherry on the cake.”

On Dec. 15, the FARC said it would begin a 30-day unilateral cease-fire as a sign of good will during the holiday season. The Santos administration rebuffed the gesture and vowed to continue its military campaign. Later that day, security forces killed a FARC guerrilla implicated in a bomb attack on a former minister. Three days later, the army killed another five.”

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