Tag Archives: US Ambassador to Colombia

Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez “trashes” Democracy in Bogotá, ousts Mayor

plaza-de-bolivar The Bolivar Plaza during one of the mobilizations in support of Petro. Photo credit: http://thellamadiaries.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/petro-and-the-challenges-of-colombian-democracy/

Today the Inspector General of Colombia, Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, ignored appeals by Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro Urrego to stay his suspension from public office for 15 years.

This is a significant development in Colombian politics – in a politically conservative nation, the progressive former-guerrilla Mayor occupied what is commonly referred to as the most important job in the country after the Presidency. Ordóñez’s destitution now has given a major political blow to Colombia’s divided Left.

Petro must now leave the office of Mayor.

The Inspector General (IG) accused Petro of violating the right to free enterprise and threatening the health of bogotanos by trying to deprivatize the Bogota’s garbage collection services. In December 2012, the reluctance of the elites who own the extremely profitable garbage collection business to help with the Mayor’s project (and some argue, mistakes made by Petro on the procurement of new garbage trucks) effectively left the 8 million people of Bogota without garbage collection services for a few days.

The IG has become a very symbolic figure in Colombian politics; he is a fierce defender of former President Alvaro Uribe Velez, a staunch social conservative known for his anti-gay views, a devout Catholic, and a vocal opponent to the government’s peace talks with the FARC in Havana. Ordóñez has been criticized in his role as Inspector General for being soft on politicians close to Uribe or implicated in the ‘parapolitics’ scandal/being accused of having ties to paramilitary groups.

Others have pointed out how Ordóñez’s destitutions are perhaps an example of a flaw by design within Colombia’s institutions, or an overreach of the IG’s mandate. In the last few years, Ordóñez has destituted several mayors and dozens of other politicians, most notable Sammy Moreno (former Mayor of Bogota) for corruption scandals, Alonso Salazar, the former Mayor of Medellin for denouncing his electoral opponents as having ties with paramilitaries, and Piedad Cordoba Ruiz for allegedly having ties to the FARC. Some see these destitutions as cleaning up corruption in Colombian politics. However, in the cases of Salazar, Cordoba, and now Petro many more are arguing that Ordóñez is using his authority of being able to dismiss politicians from their offices for misconduct as a form of Inquisition against progressive and left-leaning leaders.

Petro was a divisive Mayor – during his time, reactionary elements within the city were organizing a petition campaign to re-call him from office. Petro is also a former member of the M-19 guerrilla movement.

However, others see him as a progressive force in the capital city. He helped support LGBT rights, set up an office for attention/service to displaced people and victims of the armed conflict, introduced a gun ban leading to Bogota having one of the lowest murder rates in Latin America (comparable to that of Chicago in the states), and made the deprivatization of the garbage services his flagship battle against the city’s economic elite. Petro, originally a member of the Left-wing Polo Democratico, distanced himself from the party after a corruption scandal with Mayor Sammy Moreno Rojas (who is a member of the Polo).

In the debate around Petro’s destitution, the idea (with some reason) has come up that Ordóñez’s destitution of Petro is a plot to oust the left from the Mayor’s office, and to open the job up for Francisco (Pacho) Santos, former Vice-President of Alvaro Uribe.

Petro’s destiution has been received by many Colombians as yet another sign that either by legal means or violence, some reactionary elements within Colombia’s traditional political classes (or within Uribismo/followers of Uribe) will continue to repress any attempts by the Left or seemingly progressive elements to take power in Colombia. This old story of Colombia’s exclusionary, repressive, generally undemocratic and conservative political system sends a very dangerous signal to the FARC: One of the premises of the peace negotiations is a political opening in which the Left (or at least, whatever the FARC thinks they represent) will be given a “fair” shot in the ballot box/the peace talks are predicated on a supposed political transformation (in theory) which would end what the guerrillas see as a need for ‘armed political struggle’. Petro’s destitution throws all of that in the air.

At best, since his destitution in mid-December, and all throughout the holidays, social movements and everyday bogotanos have been filling the Bolivar Plaza (Bogota’s equivalent to Hyde Park where the Supreme Court and Congress are), and he is again calling for a peaceful and popular revolution/uprising/movement against the IG’s decision (although it’s coming to light today that there is no legal recourse for the destituted Mayor). For only tepid supporters, what seems like an attack by the IG Ordóñez on the popular vote of Bogotanos/Bogotan democracy has martyred Petro as a symbol of the reactionary attempts to block democracy in Colombia.

Below is Petro’s op-ed in the New York Times appealing to democracy.

Here is also an instructive (Spanish-language) piece by Daniel Coronell on Diego Bravo, a civil servant in the middle of the controversy (according to Coronell, Petro voted Ordonez’s re-election to do a political favour for Bravo).

Gerson Martínez, a rapper, graffiti artist, social activist and Petro supporter was murdered last week in what some are calling a politically-motivated killing (Martínez’s body was found with a flag of “Bogota Humana”, Petro’s city slogan/branding material).

‘Don’t Trash Colombia’s Democracy

By GUSTAVO PETRO URREGO
Published: December 26, 2013

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — On Dec. 9, I was giving a talk at City Hall on the need to fight corruption when, suddenly, my cellphone alerted me to this message: Colombia’s inspector general had decided to remove me from my job as mayor of the nation’s capital and to bar me from holding office for 15 years.

My alleged sin: bungling a project to bring trash collection — run by an oligopoly of private contractors — under direct city management.

Startled, I told the audience what I had just learned. They were irate; the country’s minister of justice and a United Nations representative in Colombia, seated at the head table with me, both hugged me in a show of solidarity. Tens of thousands of Colombians have rallied in the Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of the capital, in my support. More protests are planned.

For now, I am the mayor. I am challenging the inspector general’s decision, which I consider arbitrary and politically motivated. (In an interview on Sunday, the nation’s chief prosecutor urged President Juan Manuel Santos to postpone the decision.)

I was elected mayor of this city of eight million in 2011, after two terms in the Chamber of Representatives and one in the Senate. My administration has focused on helping the poor, readying the city for the effects of climate change and strengthening the public sphere.

My political career is not one I could have predicted. In the 1970s, I joined a leftist guerrilla organization, the April 19th Movement, or M-19, and was imprisoned and tortured from 1985 to 1987 for my participation. But by 1990, our movement had laid down its arms and made peace with the government — even though our party’s presidential candidate was assassinated that year. Indeed, in 1991, we helped revise the Constitution to make it more democratic.

The M-19 was never part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with whom the Colombian government is engaged in peace talks, in Cuba, to end nearly a half-century of armed conflict. But the effort to remove me has become inextricably tied up with the issue of whether and how to end the longstanding struggle with the FARC.

Those who support the talks with the FARC have said that removing me would demonstrate that former guerrillas could not safely lay down their arms and be assured a role in a fair and democratic government — a concern shared by Kevin Whitaker, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Colombia.

At a Senate confirmation hearing on Dec. 11, Mr. Whitaker said of the decision to remove me, “There’s a fundamental question that’s raised by this, it seems to me, and that is one of political pluralism,” which he described as the challenge of “how to integrate into the legal, unarmed, democratic process individuals of the left.” He added, “If individuals in Colombia were to conclude, based on this action or any other action, that that space doesn’t exist, then the basic conditions for peace are going to be, in some ways, eroded.”

As a Colombian senator, I supported the appointment of the inspector general, Alejandro Ordóñez, because of my belief in the importance of political pluralism, even though he is a close ally of the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe (who has criticized his successor, Mr. Santos, for talking with the FARC).

While the inspector general has power, under the Constitution, to remove certain officials, in my case Mr. Ordóñez has overstepped and abused this authority. In attempting to disqualify me from participation in politics on the flimsiest of pretexts, Mr. Ordóñez is trying to end my political career and weaken the political left. He is also trying to deal a blow to the peace process with the FARC.

It is precisely because of this overreach that many in Colombia are calling for a reform of the inspector general’s powers, so as to require judicial review before an elected official can be removed. This would bring our Constitution into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that Colombia has ratified. It provides that elected officials may be removed only after being convicted by a competent judge in criminal proceedings.

The grounds for my removal are preposterous. Last December, I tried to break the oligopoly of private companies that held the contracts for garbage removal. My administration estimated that these companies had overcharged the city some $300 million in the decade before I took office. Those companies, previously concession holders, are now contractors with the city.

I acknowledge that my government made mistakes that are not uncommon when changing the model for provision of a public service as complex as trash collection in a city with millions of residents. But Mr. Ordóñez has accused me of no crime. He says, among other things, that my administration mishandled our effort to bring trash collection under public control, and in so doing attacked the system of “free enterprise.” He also says that the accumulation of several thousand tons of garbage on Dec. 18-20, 2012, threatened public health. He does not demonstrate how this justified the removal of the democratically elected mayor of the nation’s capital.

Mr. Ordóñez’s background shows a pattern of intolerance. As a student in the northern city of Bucaramanga more than 30 years ago, he participated in the mass burning of books considered “impious” from a public library. These included Protestant translations of the Bible (Mr. Ordóñez is an ultraconservative Catholic) and works by Gabriel García Márquez. As inspector general, Mr. Ordóñez interfered with the construction of a women’s clinic in Medellín, on the theory that abortions might be performed there. He also threatened to remove judges and notaries who performed same-sex marriages, even though the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that same-sex couples could join in “solemn union.”

President Santos now faces a choice: He can back Mr. Ordóñez, which I believe would violate democratic principles and international law and defy the will of the voters of Bogotá, while also setting back the peace process, or he can pursue a democratic resolution to this situation, one that respects our nation’s longing for peace, democracy and human rights.

Respect for the popular vote must be the basis of democracy.

Gustavo Petro Urrego is the mayor of Bogotá. This article was translated by Charles H. Roberts from the Spanish.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 28, 2013, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Don’t Trash Colombia’s Democracy.

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Filed under Colombia, English, The Peace Talks, Uncategorized

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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