Good Terrorists, Bad Terrorists: How Washington Decides Who’s Who

The U.S. State Department has included Colombia’s two leftist guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), on its annual list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) for the past four years. This year it also listed the right-wing paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), as a terrorist group. However, unlike the two guerrilla groups, the AUC was not included on the FTO list, but rather on a secondary list that, according to the State Department’s acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Edmund J. Hull, means the AUC’s activities have “caught our attention and caused us to look more closely at this organization.” Consequently, the AUC is not subject to the same legal sanctions that apply to the FARC, the ELN and other groups included on the FTO list.

The State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000 report was released last week and the inclusion of the AUC finally acknowledges what human rights organizations and even the State Department’s own annual human rights reports have stated for years: the AUC is responsible for the majority of civilian massacres and human rights abuses in Colombia. The AUC was also included in the report for its involvement in kidnapping and the drug trade.

These are the same activities that have repeatedly landed the FARC and the ELN on the FTO list, which forbids providing funds or material support to FTO groups, denies their members visas to enter the United States, and requires U.S. financial institutions to block the funds of FTO organizations and their members. And yet, despite their engagement in the same terrorist activities, the AUC’s inclusion on the secondary list means these State Department sanctions do not apply to the organization or its members.

The most glaring difference between the AUC and Colombia’s guerrilla groups, according to the State Department report, is that, “The paramilitaries have not taken action against U.S. personnel.” Does the inclusion of this statement mean only groups that target U.S. personnel are considered full-fledged terrorist organizations and, therefore, are subject to U.S. sanctions? Such a categorization scheme is cold comfort for the millions of people in Colombia and around the world who are victims of the AUC and other groups whose goals and objectives, though not necessarily whose means, just happen to coincide with U.S. political and economic interests.

When asked why the Colombian paramilitaries were included in this year’s report, State Department spokesman Hull said, “In the case of the AUC, I think our concern over the past year has been a dramatic increase in their activities and a tendency to change their tactics to more terrorist acts, including kidnappings, for example, or murders of civilians.” But as mentioned earlier, human rights groups and the State Department itself have long known that the AUC has been involved in these activities for years and that there has not been, as Hull claims, a change in their tactics.

A more likely explanation for the AUC’s inclusion in the State Department report is the organization’s growing military strength, which is making it increasingly difficult for Washington to turn a blind eye to its atrocities. However, by placing the AUC on the secondary list, the State Department can sidestep criticism that it repeatedly ignores the paramilitaries, while still implying that the guerrilla groups continue to be Colombia’s principal terrorist organizations.

The AUC is partly funded by sectors of Colombia’s economic elite whose interests are aligned with those of Washington and U.S. corporations. They are fighting the guerrilla insurgency in order to preserve the political and economic status quo in Colombia. The FARC and the ELN are both in opposition to the neoliberal economic model being implemented in Colombia, resulting in part from conditions imposed on Bogotá by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a $2.7 billion loan in December 1999.

By excluding the AUC from the FTO list, the State Department has made it clear that it does not judge terrorism as much by an organization’s violent activities as by who is the target of those activities. Not only do the FARC and ELN target U.S. personnel, they are also fighting against U.S. political and economic interests in Colombia. Consequently, they are on the primary FTO list. Meanwhile, the double standard used to create the State Department’s lists once again illustrates that terrorism serving U.S. interests is not, in Washington’s eyes, really terrorism.


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