Yankee Choppers Over Colombia

$1.3 Billion package passed in Congress

Revolutionary Worker #1063, July 23, 2000

One Friday last February, more than 300 armed men-members of a rightwing paramilitary group-marched into El Saldo, a village in northern Colombia. By the time they left the following Sunday, the paramilitary troops had murdered as many as 71 people in cold blood.

The paramilitaries set up tables and chairs in the basketball court that also serves as El Saldo's main square. The rightwing killers brought with them two masked men-deserters from the FARC, the largest armed anti-government group in Colombia. These despicable snitches pointed out villagers who, they claimed, helped the FARC. These villagers were systematically tortured and executed over the next three days. Some were stabbed or hacked by machetes, others were beaten to death or strangled. Most of the victims were men, but among those killed were a six-year-old girl and an elderly woman.

As the paramilitaries tortured and murdered, they drank liquor stolen from a local cantina and turned up the music on radios. They repeatedly raped several women in the village. One survivor said, "To them, it was like a big party. They drank and danced and cheered as they butchered us like hogs."

The paramilitary group was not simply operating on its own. Colombian military and police units were stationed just a few miles away from El Saldo-they knew what was going on in the village but made no attempt to stop the massacre. In fact, as the rampage began, the armed forces set up a roadblock on the road to the village-not to stop the paramilitaries, but to prevent other people from going to the village to rescue the residents. The village is now nearly deserted, as survivors fled in fear of their lives-and many in the surrounding areas also moved away when word of the massacre spread.

The El Saldo massacre is not an isolated incident. The Colombian prosecutor's office estimated that rightwing death squads killed about 1,000 people in more than 125 massacres in 1999. More than 300,000 people have been forced to abandon their homes just in the past two years due to paramilitary activity.

The rightwing paramilitaries are often tied to local landlords and the armed forces. They carry out assassinations of activists and massacres of ordinary peasants to terrify potential supporters of the anti-government movements. The paramilitaries and the government's armed forces work as a deadly tag team-and behind them are the Yankee imperialists. The U.S. finds it useful to have a death squad network that operates somewhat independently of the regular army. The U.S. used the same tactic in the counterinsurgency war in El Salvador in the 1980s.

Now, the U.S. is about to carry out a huge escalation of support for Colombia's reactionary armed forces. Under a plan strongly supported by both the Democrats and the Republicans, the U.S. is greatly increasing aid to Colombia to back a large-scale offensive by Colombia's armed forces against FARC and other armed opposition movements. The centerpiece of the plan is the delivery of new attack helicopters to the Colombian military.

What happened in El Saldo gives an idea of what would happen on an even bigger scale in the countryside of Colombia under the U.S. plan.

A Plan to Reshape Colombia According to U.S. Interests

On June 29, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $1.3 billion in new aid to Colombia's government, military, and police. The next day, the Senate gave its approval to the funding, without a single dissenting vote. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill soon.

The $1.3 billion will fund an aggressive plan by the U.S. aimed at reshaping the whole internal life of Colombia. The heart of this plan is a massive buildup of Colombia's notoriously corrupt and brutal army-by training and arming three special counterinsurgency battalions under close U.S. supervision and preparing them to wage a new war on Colombia's people. The plan features a two-year "Push into Southern Colombia Coca Growing Areas" by the U.S.-backed Colombian military. According to a top Clinton administration official, the plan would "increase government presence on the ground in areas that have been virtual vacuums for civilian authority-police civilian authority-and the military."

It's no accident that these areas-where there are "vacuums" of police and military authority-are regions where anti-government groups, especially the FARC, have a lot of influence.

The U.S. officials say their operations in Colombia follow the "El Salvador model." This means that the war planners do not envision a direct intervention by U.S. ground troops. Instead, their plan calls for expanding the force of U.S. trainers, advisers/commanders, CIA agents, DEA agents, and U.S. Air Force spy planes. While the U.S. directs the war, the Colombian armed forces are supposed to kill and die on the ground for U.S. interests.

Even without the new escalation, Colombia is already the largest recipient of U.S. military aid outside of the Middle East. Under Clinton, U.S. military aid to Colombia has shot up from $65 million in 1996 to almost $300 million in 1999. The focus of the intervention has shifted too-from the Colombian national police to the buildup of a war-ready, U.S.-led Colombian army. Currently, about 300 U.S. military officers, intelligence operatives, and government agents are reportedly active in Colombia at any given time.

The new funding includes:

$600 million for the U.S.-created counterinsurgency battalions called CNBNs. One CNBN already exists, and two more are to be newly created. The existing CNBN includes helicopter-based counterinsurgency brigades, an artillery unit, and units patterned on U.S. Green Berets. It is already being tried out in sweeps, backed by U.S. aircraft, radar, ground movement sensors, satellite systems. Everything about it is "Made in the USA"-its uniforms, equipment, transportation, spare parts, tactics, and strategic plans. The new funding includes about 60 combat helicopters for the CNBNs-divided between Huey attack choppers and the state-of-the-art Blackhawk helicopters (equipped with night vision and special armor).

$96 million for the highly militarized Colombian police.

$341 million for a massive buildup of military forces on Colombia's waterways and airspace. The U.S. is already supplying the Colombian military with Pirana gunboats-and trainers in river warfare from the U.S. Coast Guard, Army, Marines, and Miami police.

Over $200 million for restructuring of the Colombian government and for "alternative" economic development.

The U.S. plan is the military part of an even larger scheme, called "Plan Colombia," which includes $1 billion to the Colombian government for "social programs" from European imperialists and $5 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund and international banks. This injection of money is intended to artificially boost the Colombian economy-as U.S.-trained military forces position themselves to launch a full-scale civil war. Other funds are designed to contain the problems and disorders created by any huge increase in refugees and possibly to create programs to co-opt and "reintegrate" former government opponents into the system.

This is a multi-billion-dollar program for remaking Colombia into a country where the resources, land, and labor can be far more profitably exploited by foreign corporations, and where the countryside and urban shantytowns no longer breed rebellion and resistance. It is a plan that intends to leave Colombia's people even more firmly under the control of exploiters and killers-while burdening them with a whole new layer of debts and payments. In short, this is a plan to put Colombia even more firmly under imperialist domination and reactionary rule.

Truth About the "War on Drugs"

The U.S. escalation in Colombia is being carried out in the name of the "war on drugs." The U.S. government spokespeople claim they are involved in "counter-narcotics operations," not a counterinsurgency war. Colombia is the source of most of the world's coca, the raw material for cocaine. And the U.S. pointman in Colombia is the officially retired General Barry McCaffrey, who heads up the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But it is disinformation for the U.S. to claim to be preparing for war against narco-traffickers. In a recent statement, FARC representatives pointed out: "The narco-traffickers have no military force. So what are the helicopters, the ships and the anti-narcotics battalions for?" This military buildup is being created to threaten, and perhaps invade, the areas of Colombia currently controlled by the FARC and others.

Just a few years ago, it was revealed in great detail that during the U.S.'s 1980s covert war against Nicaragua, the CIA offered to help protect new cocaine trafficking routes into the U.S. from Colombia-in exchange for help in smuggling arms to the rightwing Nicaraguan contras. The "crack epidemic" and the growth of Colombia's big cocaine corporations (called "cartels") were closely connected with these U.S. efforts to tighten its control over Latin America. (See the RW series on the cocaine-CIA connection posted on rwor.org.)

For many Colombian peasant farmers, growing coca crops is the only way to survive. This is not their "choice"-they are forced into this situation because of the way the economy and society is organized in this country dominated by imperialism. This fertile country once produced a wealth of food for its people, including a great deal of wheat. But under pressure from the U.S., waves of imported North American grain ruined much of the domestic agriculture. Peasants were forced, more and more, to produce cash crops for export, putting their livelihoods at the mercy of world prices and world markets. Crops have come and gone. One report says that Colombia-the land of coffee!-is starting to import coffee.

Increasingly, the only cash crop that has produced a living for the impoverished farmers is coca, for the world's huge cocaine market. But the Colombian peasants are not the ones who control the cocaine trade and are getting rich from it. The major drug lords are part of the ruling class in Colombia-the comprador capitalists and semi-feudal landowners who are closely tied to and subservient to imperialism. The narcotics trade deeply permeates the Colombia economy, and drug money flows through the veins of the Colombia ruling classes as a whole. There is widespread government corruption and complicity in the drug trade. In 1994, it was revealed that then-President Ernesto Samper had received $6 million from Colombian drug cartels-and this is just one scandal among many.

Huge profits from the drug trade have gone into investments in cattle ranching, real estate, and the tourist economy. The drug money also flows to the U.S. where it is laundered through major banks and "legitimate" investments. This flow of drug money only benefits a very small section of society. The exploited and oppressed masses in Colombia are victims of this setup.

In short, it is absurd for the U.S. imperialists to claim they are "fighting drugs" by propping up the corrupt and oppressive Colombian government, building up the brutal armed forces, fighting the guerrilla groups, and consolidating their hold on Colombia.

Negotiations and Threats

The escalating U.S. military buildup takes place in the context of a complex series of negotiations and deals between the Colombian government and the two major armed opposition groups, FARC and ELN.

In 1998, the current Colombian president Andres Pastrana came to power with U.S. support. Pastrana started the negotiations process that included recognizing FARC's authority in a "demilitarized zone" in southern Colombia. The zone is about the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined (or the country of Switzerland). More recently, ELN was given a zone of its own in central Colombia. Guerrilla leaders have been taken on tours of Europe to meet heads of imperialist corporations and governments.

The FARC and ELN zones have served to concentrate the core guerrilla forces in specific areas, bring about temporary cease fires, and bring their leadership into the open. The zones are part of the strategy of the U.S. imperialists and the local ruling class to co-opt some of the guerrillas and defeat the rest in all-out war. In other words, the military buildup and threats have accompanied a major campaign to draw the guerrilla forces into a "historic compromise" of some kind. This, too, is part of the "El Salvador model."

The talks and negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC have broken down repeatedly-the U.S. clearly aims to give the FARC "an offer they can't refuse." The U.S. goal is to impose a final solution to Colombia's decades-old civil war-either by forcing the armed groups to capitulate or by defeating them through an all-out attack.

U.S. Out of Colombia!

The U.S. moves in Colombia are part of its goal of pacifying all of Latin America-so that it can more tightly dominate the whole region and more profitably exploit the resources and the people. The U.S. is stepping up the building of bases and other military activity in many countries of Central and South America.

Colombia is a country gripped by a profound and many-sided crisis which has ruined the life of the vast majority of the people. A small but extremely wealthy upper class owns most of the fertile lands and mineral wealth. In the mid-1990s, almost half the land was owned by absentee landowners making up just 1.3 percent of the rural population. Peasants, who are over 60 percent of the rural population, own less than 5 percent of the land.

More than half of Colombia's people are poor, and as many as 30 percent of the people live in acute misery. Their conditions are worsening. Unemployment is officially 20 percent, but estimates of the actual unemployment rate range as high as 60 percent. The economy shrank by 3.5 percent last year.

The streets of Colombian cities are filled with large numbers of homeless and deserted children who live desperately in the sewers and parks-and who are hunted and killed by police-organized death squads. Large sections of the middle classes have also been ruined by the crisis.

Through many years of decline and crisis, hatred has grown toward Colombia's government. Different armed forces have emerged to contest the weak, isolated central state apparatus for control of the countryside. The response of the Colombian ruling class-through their army, national police, and the allied rightwing death squads-has been to wage a dirty war aimed at the country's peasants and opposition groups. Death squads have tried to "dry up the sea to catch the fish" by targeting peasant villages and activists. They have carried out a relentless campaign of assassinations, tortures, abductions, and massacres.

This campaign of atrocities has forced many peasants to flee the targeted areas. Colombia has between one and two million internal refugees crowded into poor urban shantytowns. There are now more refugees in Colombia than in the Balkan area around Kosovo.

The escalating U.S. aggression in Colombia must be opposed and exposed-especially within the U.S. itself. U.S. intervention will only make the problems worse for the people of Colombia. The U.S. can offer no real solutions for the people of Colombia-because U.S. imperialism has everything to do with the crisis that has devastated the lives of the people of this country. The plan being pushed forward by the U.S. can only bring on more El Saldos-more massacres, more oppression, more misery for the people of Colombia.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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