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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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Colombia: The Only Risk Is Having To Stay – Canadian Mining in the South of Bolívar and the Release of Jernoc Wobert

On Tuesday, August 27, Jernoc Wobert was freed by Colombian guerrillas. The Canadian geologist and Vice-President of Braeval Mining Co. had been kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (or El Ejército de la Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN had kidnapped him seven months ago with 3 other Colombians and 2 Peruvians.  The Latin Americans were released a few weeks after they had all been taken from Norosí in the Serranía de San Lucas in the south of Bolívar, but the Canadian remained.

As a condition to his release, the ELN demanded that the Canadian and Colombian government investigate the company in question for having allegedly taken land illegally from communities in Bolívar. On the other hand, the Colombian government, who has been negotiating a peace deal with the largest rebel group (the FARC), since November, predicated any negotiations with the ELN on his release. The ELN had previously expressed interest in negotiating with the national government, and the FARC had called on the government to also negotiate with the second largest guerrilla group. A few months ago when the eleños tried to enter the peace talks in Havana, they were turned away. Today, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that “everything is ready” for talks with the ELN.

Wobert’s release by the ELN to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, who is a neutral party in most high-profile hostage hand-overs in Colombia), was seen as a “humanitarian gesture” on the part of the rebels in order to demonstrate good faith in what could be a peace process. However, Wobert’s kidnapping (and release) are actually microcosms of much larger dynamics of the Colombian armed conflict, and of the mining investment that largely defines Canada’s relationship to Colombia.

Who are the ELN?

The ELN began in the early 1960s by radical University students who organized peasants. They were inspired by Marxism, the Cuban Revolution, and Liberation Theology. The ELN, unlike the FARC, actually have been slow to get as involved in drug trafficking. Nevertheless like the FARC, they commit crimes against humanity and war crimes such as kidnapping and killing civilians, recruiting minors/practicing forced conscription, planting land mines (which is against the Ottawa Treaty) and forced displacement. However, the ELN are most well known for their attacks against infrastructure (particularly attacking oil pipelines), which have increased this year. They are Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.

The ELN’s political discourse and military actions against multinational investment in Colombia, particularly in the extractive sector, is part of what scared foreign investment away during much of the 1990s when guerrillas retained significant control over large parts of the country.  Like the FARC, The ELN would charge “revolutionary taxes” on businesses (vacunas), threaten and kidnap large-land owners and company executives, and would carry out infrastructure attacks.

A significant proportion of the counterinsurgency campaign of the paramilitaries and the army directly preceding and during the government of ex-President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was to “pacify” regions so as to make them safe enough to encourage foreign investment. For example, a main focus of Plan Colombia was securing the Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline which had been attacked on several occasions by the guerrillas.

The ELN is currently in dire straits; it was weakened by the counterinsurgency much more than the FARC and they have currently between 2-3,000 fighters. There are few parts of the national territory  where they are the dominant armed group (oil-rich Arauca, for example), and many see the ELN now as a spent force who is desperate for a negotiated settlement out of the armed conflict.

The Serranía de San Lucas, where Wobert was taken, has been disputed by the ELN, the army, and the paramilitaries for decades given its geostrategic significance.  Over at the Tyee, Colombian journalist Sebastian Salamaca writes:

“[The ELN] decided a good place to start a revolution was the Serranía de San Lucas. Its rugged geography and lack of state presence made it ideal for organizing and gathering strength.

It took 20 years for them to control the area. By the 1980s, the ELN dominated the region. Their mixture of Marxism, liberation theology, and community activism helped them win the partial support of the population. They also regularly violated international law by blowing up pipelines and taking hostages.

In the late 1990s the ELN faced a potent foe, as Carlos Castaño, head of the far-right paramilitary forces in Colombia, or AUC, made it his obsession to take back the territory from the guerrillas.

The AUC knew about the strategic importance of the Serranía: whoever controlled it would profit from the massive cocaine traffic to the Caribbean and the huge gold deposits that were being discovered. Moreover, seizing the Serranía would ensure access to the largest watercourse in Colombia, the Magdalena River.”

What is Canada’s history in the South of Bolívar?

The Coastal department of Bolívar

In an earlier post I remarked how the Canadian government, through funding the Canadian Energy Research Institute, helped re-write and liberalize Colombia’s mining code in 2001.

In Francisco Ramírez Cuellar’s “The Profits of Extermination”, he also outlines how in the Serranía de San Lucas in the South of Bolívar, in land that was initially titled to a local elite family, over 90 mining associations started to work the land through artisanal practices. Under Colombian law, if land is unused by the owner but is being used by someone else, technically, artisanal miners for example have up to two years to ask for titles to that land. Around the early 1990s, a Canadian mining company (then called Conquistador mines) became interested in the gold-rich area.

According to Ramírez, they hired a lawyer to negotiate the land with the small-scale miners on behalf of the Illeras-Palacios (the family who claimed the land). This same lawyer, interestingly, helped draft the 2001 mining code with CERI. After a visit from the Minister of mines, the artisanal miners backed away from negotiations and they gave the land to the mining company.

In 1997, the paramilitaries of the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá or the ACCU, who would later become the AUC, came to the Serranía. Their stated reasons for doing so were to control the mines, to get rid of miners who were “collaborating with the guerrillas”, and “guarantee the entrance of multinationals who would create jobs”. The paramilitary incursion destroyed over 10 towns in the region, massacred over 400 people, raped both men and women, and left several supposed “guerrilla collaborators” dismembered. Until 2008 over 94,000 people were displaced from the region because of the violence.

It is also worth noting that the Congressman representing the region at the time of the deal and the drafting of the new mining code has since been investigated for having ties to paramilitary groups.

Braeval and Conquistador mines are not the only Canadian companies with interests in the south of Bolívar. B2Gold, a Canadian gold company in the region, claims that it can only operate there with guarantees of security from the Colombian army. As mentioned in a report by Interpares and Mining Watch Canada, the Vice-President of B2Gold has said that non-indigenous communities have no right to reject mining projects on their territory, and alarmingly, that FEDEAGROMISBOL had been “contaminated” by guerrillas. As any student of Colombian history will know, these kinds of accusations can lead to violence against FEDEAGROMISBOL by state security and paramilitary forces (which is what has occurred).

What do the locals think? 

This informative report from Colombia Informa which interviewed community members and associations in the south of the Bolívar state gives an idea into what perceptions were on the ground of the kidnapping and the release of the Canadian executive.

The Agro-Mining Federation of the South of Bolívar (FEDEAGROMISBOL) is an umbrella organization which represents 34 associations of small-scale farmers and artisanal miners in the region has for years been stigmatized as being sympathetic to the guerrillas by the army and the paramilitaries (and has consequently suffered violence against its members). Nevertheless, the group actually had put out a communiqué which rejected the kidnappings carried out by the ELN of the miners and emphasized the release of the Colombians who appeared to be members of FEDEAGROMISBOL. They also said that the kidnappings were “a direct consequence of the indiscriminate natural resource exploitation policy  promoted by the Colombian government, affecting the south of Bolívar and of the handing over of our natural resource to large transnational capital”.

The locals they interviewed emphasized how the kidnapping of the Canadian by the ELN made life more difficult in the region as it invited increased repression from the government security forces. Some community members say that they supported the actions of the ELN, as it “halted the [government’s] mining development plans”, and who felt that this development plan is more for the benefit of multinational companies than their communities who have always been marginalized by the national government.

Other community members expressed their opposition to the kidnapping, saying that it furthers the stigmatization of local community organizing as being complicit or supportive of the guerrillas. Others mention how one of the reason two FEDEAGROMISBOL members were kidnapped was because they were helping the foreign miners behind the backs of the community.

Other community members mention how FEDEAGROMISBOL was able to win more than 10,000 hectares of land from the Lleras-Palacios (the local elite family mentioned earlier) through “pure social struggle”, but that speaking out was extremely difficult given the intense military and paramilitary repression to community organizing and dissidence.

Why was Wobert kidnapped and why does it matter?

Whereas the Colombians and the Peruvians were let free relatively soon, Wobert was kept by the ELN until Tuesday (he had been kidnapped since January), because he could have been a bargaining chip at any eventual peace talks (or even, the key to starting a dialogue). At the same time, the ELN rejects the presence of foreign extractive companies in Colombia, who they see as imperialists, and therefore wanted to retain Wobert until Braeval gave up its mining titles in the region.

Braeval actually has since renounced its four titles in the region; the company’s press release however did not mention the kidnapping.

The ruthless paramilitary expansion in the early 2000s in the region left many with the impression that the region had effectively been pacified, and that although in the most remote areas the ELN remained, the Serranía was perceived to be relatively safe for investment.

Despite the fact that a Colombian government report study which says that industrial mining should not occur in zones of armed conflict (such as the Serranía) junior-based mining companies (who are often Canadian, and are the most likely to take on very risky projects) continue to explore Colombian communities that exist in a context of extreme physical and social vulnerability.

The Canadian government, with its naming of Colombia as a priority for CIDA aid, and the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), is keen on having a stable (or “pacified”) Colombian countryside in which our companies can extract resources without being threatened. By the same token, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has made resource extraction a pillar of his national economic development strategy. Wobert’s kidnapping is  a reminder that despite the strength of the paramilitaries and the Washington-funded Colombian army, the guerrillas, despite their losses, can still be a threat to multinational investment, and that Colombia is not as “safe” or “open” for business as it might seem. Kidnappings did not end with Uribe’s “Democratic Security”, and they probably won’t end with Santos.

The logical inverse of this premise (that the guerrillas are still a threat to investment), is that more pacification/repression of the guerrillas is necessary. Indeed, when Wobert was kidnapped, the Colombian government responded by sending 600 troops to the region. Wobert’s kidnapping reminds us that the steps of foreigners in Colombia’s most fragile and violent parts may provoke actions and counter-reactions by armed groups looking to show their dominance in any given region. And more of then than not, these struggles will take place on the backs of civilians (and sometimes in the name or interest of investment). As this Semana report notes, they allege that some companies have signed security/protection deals with the Colombian army, and that artisanal mining opponents to the investment of multinationals, particularly members of FEDEAGROMISBOL, have been systematically murdered.

Therefore, in this context, it must be asked whether Canadian mining investment in Colombia is worth the risk both that it poses to the Canadians who go to Colombia in search of resource riches, but more importantly, to the Colombians who call those communities home and ultimately have to live with the consequences of the instability and repression that mining investment might provoke.

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