Poison War in Colombia

Revolutionary Worker #1090, February 11, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

The clattering sound can be heard from a great distance, reaching the farmers as they bend over their crops in clearings throughout Colombia's southern mountains and forests. And then the aircraft come into view--squadrons of light OVZ-10 and T-65 crop-dusting planes loaded with powerful poisons. Guarding them on each mission are three or four new high-tech Colombian Army helicopters--loud, menacing, bristling with rockets and high velocity machine guns.

Over and over, the airplanes dip down on the fields, leaving behind long blue-white clouds of herbicides. They have started using a new mixture, called Roundup Ultra, which combines the poison glyphosate with a special soap-like ingredient called Cosmoflux which causes the poison to be more quickly absorbed by plants--and human tissues.

At one Indian reservation, a local agricultural engineer videotaped the planes dive-bombing the village spring three times--targeting the waters that keep the villagers and the fields alive. All three water sources in the area were poisoned the same way. In that campaign, last November, the planes came to these Indian lands for 10 days straight.

Killing the Crops, the Soil, the People

"They sprayed away all our harvests. How are we supposed to make a living now?"

A farmer in the targeted zones

Since December 19, an intensified campaign of spraying has been unleashed across two departments of southern Colombia, Caquetá and Putumayo, where Colombian military estimates say over 66,000 acres have been poisoned--concentrated in a triangle marked by La Hormiga, San Miguel and the western edge of Puerto Asís.

After the planes and helicopters fly away, the Roundup is highly effective. Over 90 percent of the plants die with just one spraying. The typical crops of this area--the food crops of yucca, barley, beans, corn and plantain bananas, plus the main cash crop of coca--turn yellow and brown, as do the surrounding forests. The soil and the waters are poisoned. For at least three months after a spraying, the soil is too tainted to support plant life. For a long time afterward, the food crops raised there carry the dangerous chemicals.

For more than ten years, U.S.-backed forces have poisoned crops in Colombia, but never on this scale. In recent weeks, Colombian General Mario Montoya, who commands the crop destruction program, flew with reporters over this vast farming area, proudly showing off miles and miles of fields where the green has faded and the monotonous brown of poisoned earth shows through. In January 1999, the Colombian military said that they intended to target 185,000 acres of cropland. Now, a year later, General Montoya says the government intends to poison 250,000 acres in the two departments.

Officially this is called "eradication of coca"--the plant that is refined to produce cocaine. But the real target is the people themselves--who live in the large areas of Colombia that have remained stubbornly outside of government control for many years.

Leading government specialists admit that after "crop eradication," coca production simply shifts to new areas, often farther into the rainforests and grasslands close to the Brazilian border. But meanwhile, the villages in the sprayed areas have been destroyed. Their resistance to the government has been dealt a heavy blow.

When the crops are poisoned, the people of these villages, especially the children, get sick. The peasants go hungry. And their livelihood is gone.

Nancy Sanches, a health worker in the targeted area, said: "There are complaints about intoxication, diarrhea, vomiting, skin rashes, red eyes, headaches." People suffer from intense and maddening itching of their skin. Local clinics are filled with children suffering from ulcers all over their bodies. And there is a general, ominous rise in deaths. In the Indian reservation of Aponte, 80 percent of the children reportedly became sick. There is only medicine for the most serious cases. Everyone wonders what the long-term effect of the poison will be.

U.S. government spokespeople have denied that the chemicals are endangering anyone's health.

Meanwhile, a flood of people are being driven from these areas where they lived outside government control, into vast camps of refugees at the edge of the cities. There, they have no way to work or feed themselves, but they are more firmly under the thumb of the Colombian military, their rightwing paramilitary allies, and the high-placed "advisers" sent by the Yankee imperialists. And that control is the point of the whole operation.

This tactic is similar to the use of the poison Agent Orange in Vietnam during the 1960s and '70s--which also drove hundreds of thousands of peasants from their anti-government areas into U.S. controlled zones, while poisoning the population and even U.S. soldiers in the process.

The New Counterinsurgency Offensive

As this operation of poison and depopulation goes on, the Colombian military has mobilized counterinsurgency troops to threaten an invasion of Putumayo department, where the main forces of FARC are concentrated and the government has no control.

During January, U.S.-made C-130 planes flew troops and equipment into the area, building up a force of over 3,000 army troops, armed with light tanks, in a wide arc along one border of the guerrilla zone.

With the troops in place, Colombian President Pastrana threatened to end the two-year-old military cease-fire and invade the guerrilla zone after January 31, if the FARC did not return to the negotiating table.

Observers commented that such an invasion would most likely try to seize and occupy the main towns in the zone and force the guerrillas to retreat into the forests. Military and paramilitary death squads would then unleash terror on the masses of people. And meanwhile defoliation is killing the crops--to drive out the peasants who are a base of support for the guerrilla forces.

This aggressive move has been in preparation for years. The military buildup was carried out under the direction of the Clinton administration. And now, with the armed forces in place and the struggle over the White House settled (for now), the new Bush administration has put the guns and helicopters into operation.

This sinister threat of new aggression and mass murder has barely been reported in the U.S. media.

As we go to press, the FARC high command responded to the threat of invasion by agreeing to meet with government officials. However, the Pastrana government has announced that it intends to press ahead with its occupation of this province in 55 days, if the guerrillas do not make major concessions during the negotiations. This clears the way for new threats, and the possibility of a real invasion in the spring.

Made in the USA

Every step of this bloody process is stamped "Made in the USA."

The centerpiece of this build-up has been the creation of three counterinsurgency battalions--altogether 10,000 commandos in highly mobile units directly trained and controlled by the U.S. Two of these units are now in the field, and the third is scheduled to be ready in April.

These Colombian counterinsurgency troops are trained by U.S. Green Beret advisers. Their officers are often graduates of the U.S. Army's "School of the Americas." Their most important armaments--the state-of-the-art helicopters--are arriving from the U.S. About 33 new Hueys are scheduled to be in the field now--with the even more advanced Black Hawk helicopters arriving by summer. These helicopters give the Colombian commandos great mobility in the difficult terrain of southern Colombia, and enable them to defend the poison-spraying planes from ground fire.

In the crop killing campaign, the poisons are from the U.S. In fact, it was the U.S. State Department that confirmed that the new herbicide Roundup Ultra is now being used. The spraying targets are chosen by the U.S. officials pouring over the photographs and maps created by their regional network of satellites and spy planes. Yankee cameras scour Colombia and the neighboring Andean countries--photographing the life of the people, their fields and crop transport--choosing which village will live, and which will die.

In command of this whole operation is a rapidly growing network of U.S. military generals, agents and trainers.

There are now 300 Green Berets in the war zone--twice as many as two years ago. Large covert networks of spies, military supply and death squads are run by hundreds of U.S. agents--from the DEA, NSA and CIA--often disguised as private "military contractors."

The whole military operation is financed by $1.3 billion that the U.S. government is spending on this war--making Colombia's government the third largest recipient of U.S. government funds (after Israel and Egypt).

Pacification in the Name of "War on Drugs"

Colombia is a huge South American country, about one-third the size of the United States. Its government is extremely weak, confined to a few major urban areas, resting on a corrupt and unreliable army. In large parts of the country, the brutal land-owning classes run things using their own rightwing deathsquads, called "paramilitaries"--that are now emerging as a major political (as well as military) pillar of the system. At the same time, large areas of the country are controlled by anti-government forces, including the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC is largely concentrated in an area of southern Colombia that is about twice the size of New Jersey, while the ELN has growing control over a more urbanized region in northern Colombia that is about the size of Delaware.

This situation is extremely unstable--and is unacceptable to the U.S. imperialists who consider South America "their backyard."

The U.S.-backed military operations are conducted in the name of the "war on drugs"--but in practice the guns are aimed at guerrillas and the masses of people.

There are large coca-growing plantations in northern Colombia, but the target of the U.S. operations is in southern Colombia, where anti-government forces are strong and coca is mainly grown by peasant farmers on tiny plots of land. For these peasants, growing coca is the only way to survive. This is not by choice-- they are forced into this situation because of the way the economy and society is organized in this country dominated by imperialism. Colombia is a fertile country that once produced enough food for its people. But under pressure from the U.S., waves of imported North American grain ruined much of the domestic agriculture. Peasants have been forced, more and more, to produce cash crops for export, putting their livelihoods at the mercy of world prices and world markets.

Increasingly, the only cash crop that has produced a living for the impoverished farmers is coca for the world's cocaine market. The Colombian peasants are not the ones controlling the cocaine industry or benefiting from it. The major drug lords are part of the ruling elite in Colombia, the comprador capitalists and semi-feudal landowners who are closely tied to and subordinate to the imperialists--and they, not surprisingly, are not the main target of U.S. operations.

Officials of the Bush administration, including Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, have publicly remarked that they doubt military operations will stop the production of cocaine. And, at the same time, this has not stopped Bush administration support for Plan Colombia and its recent crimes.

A Washington Post editorial expressed views increasingly heard in the U.S. capital: "Mr. Pastrana should shut down the safe zones for the guerrillas and accept that while some negotiations may be useful, sweeping political treaties will not end the conflict. The United States, for its part, should stop pretending that it is only supporting a campaign against the drug traffic in Colombia. If it is to continue training and equipping the Colombian army, the new administration cannot avoid involvement in the larger Colombian conflict."

A Volatile Region within the Empire

"I think this is evolving now into not just a pure Colombia issue, but an Andean regional issue, something it has always been."

Under Secretary of State
Thomas R. Pickering

This intervention is about imperialist interests. The U.S. ruling class needs a unified, stable capitalist nation-state in Colombia. They want to establish conditions for the profitable exploitation of the Colombian people. But, beyond that, they need a pacified Colombia to maintain their control over the whole, highly unstable region--stretching from the Panama Canal deep into the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia.

There is a Maoist people's war in Peru that remains a major threat to U.S. imperialism--especially as the political system of the ruling classes there slides into deeper and deeper crisis. In Ecuador--where five governments have fallen in five years, there is widespread resistance among the masses of people. And meanwhile the current government in Venezuela, Colombia's oil-rich eastern neighbor, has thumbed its nose at U.S. policies--including the Plan Colombia.

In response, the U.S. has built an elaborate new air operation at the Manta Base in Ecuador, established two smaller bases in the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao, and openly encouraged talk of a military coup in Venezuela.

Brazil is moving troops and aircraft to its thousand-mile-long border with Colombia. It is deploying a $1.4 billion radar system in the region, while "sharing data with its neighbors," and is spending billions of dollars on new military aircraft, including transport planes for moving troops.

As its imperialist interests draw the U.S. deeper into a war against the people of Colombia, they openly worry that this whole operation might "bog them down" while causing intensified resistance and revolution in the region.

The guerrilla forces in Colombia are not organized to overthrow the existing social relations and create a new revolutionary society. The U.S. is speculating that these forces can be worn down, separated from their mass base, and divided--by pressuring sections of them to join up with the government in various ways. But in fact, these plans may well not work. Colombia has never been successfully unified under a central government. And, though the existing guerrilla forces are not fundamentally revolutionary--they are large, well-established and have a long history of opposing the central government.

The intensification of fighting in Colombia may intensify the anti-U.S. resistance throughout this region and the world. The fighting itself could well spill over into neighboring countries, especially if large numbers of Colombian refugees and guerrillas are forced across borders.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)