In war-torn Saravena, a town of 30,000 in Arauca department in eastern Colombia, soldiers dressed as clowns befriend local children by offering them candy, rides on armored personnel carriers, and the use of the army’s swimming pool in return for the opportunity to pummel them with pro-army and anti-rebel propaganda. Children have become the focal point of Psychological Warfare Operations (PsyOps) being conducted by the Colombian army in this embattled town that is currently home to 40 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who arrived in January as part of the Bush administration’s global war on terror. Like the PsyOps used by the U.S. army as part of the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War, these programs are not only geared to winning over the “hearts and minds” of locals, they are also being used to elicit information from the civilian population, especially children, about rebel activities in Saravena.
While right-wing paramilitaries are prominent in the vicinity of Arauca City—where another 30 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers are stationed—they have yet to gain a foothold in Saravena. Consequently, it is the Colombian army that is challenging the rebels’ decades-long rule of Saravena’s barrios. The 18th Brigade regularly deploys its psychological operations unit into the marginalized neighborhoods, ostensibly to wage a battle to win over the “hearts and minds” of local residents.
In one such operation in February, soldiers from the 18th Brigade’s psychological warfare unit secured several blocks in the barrio of San Luis, which is controlled by a National Liberation Army (ELN) militia. The soldiers alertly stood guard for the next few hours while Sergeant John Fernando Arenas spewed pro-army and anti-guerrilla propaganda interspersed with popular music over a loudspeaker system mounted on top of an army truck:
The general community does not have to be indifferent to the terrorist actions that have been generated in this jurisdiction. Every one of the inhabitants has to be conscious of the situation and denounce the terrorists. The militias are trying to recruit our young people; they are only trying to make bad citizens. Make it to those telephones: 8892031. These telephone numbers are not tapped. The militias only scare people. We have to denounce them through the cooperation network. It is time to finish with the militias in Saravena: call 8892031. You people in Saravena don’t have to be afraid because the telephones are not tapped. It is time to denounce the militias, they are the ones who have caused the most damage to Arauca and also, logically, to the inhabitants of Saravena. Do you think that the people who call themselves the army of the people are really that?
Some locals eyed the soldiers warily, a few people went about their business as usual, but many residents remained hidden behind closed doors. However, there was no escaping the propaganda blitzkrieg. In a bizarre scene that could have been lifted straight out of a Fellini movie, two soldiers dressed in colorful red and yellow clown outfits accompanied by uniformed troops went door to door handing out leaflets offering rewards to residents willing to provide information on rebel activities. Armed with a large bag of candy, the clowns befriended any children they encountered, while nervous parents looked on.
At the same time this military circus was taking place, several soldiers busied themselves painting a colorful mural of a sunset over ELN graffiti on a nearby wall. In the end, this military presence only proved to be a temporary hindrance to the guerrillas who simply melted into the fabric of the community for the few hours the army remained in the area.
While the PsyOp in San Luis targeted the general population, another program currently being implemented by the Colombian army in Saravena specifically targets children. In a program titled Soldier for a Day, children between three and 12 years of age are brought to the army base every Thursday to play soldier. The activities include Colombian troops and uniformed army psychologists placing camouflage headbands on the heads of the children and painting their faces with camouflage make-up. At the same time, two soldiers dressed in clown suits entertain the children; some of who seem to enjoy the charade while others simply appear bewildered. Throughout the ordeal, the “little soldiers” are continuously bombarded with the requisite pro-army and anti-rebel propaganda. Finally, after a dip in the camp pool, the children are trucked around the base on top of an armored personnel carrier fully-equipped with a 50-caliber machine gun for their entertainment.
One army psychologist dressed in camouflage combat fatigues, Paola Alzate Acosta, claims the program is supposed to help the children cope with traumas caused by the violence they frequently experience in Saravena. According to Alzate, the children “dream about learning how to handle a gun to kill the bad guy in the neighborhood. They dream about learning how to drive a tank to be able to destroy the cylinder bombs.” But the program has another, more immediate, benefit: counseling children from marginalized barrios controlled by the rebels provides the army with valuable intelligence on activities not only within the barrios, but also within the children’s own homes and families.
When asked if some of these kids are children of guerrillas, Alzate responded, “In many cases these are children whose parents are in the militias and those children become conflicted about what is right and what is wrong.” She then stated, “In some cases when we put camouflage headbands on them, they say that they can’t take them home because their fathers will yell at them. When those kinds of things happen we try to talk to them to find out what is happening at home.”
Questions have been raised regarding the strategies used by the army to entice children to attend these programs. According to one local woman who requested anonymity for security reasons, she was watching her friend’s children at their house one afternoon when soldiers arrived and said they were taking the kids to see the clowns. The soldiers gave money and candy to the children and accused the woman of being a guerrilla when she refused to let the children go. She said the soldiers “were asking the children about their mother and father,” and then “they came in and checked the house, looking at everything.”
While such psychological warfare and intelligence gathering tactics seem to contravene the Geneva Convention with regard to the involvement of civilians, especially children, in the armed conflict, they appear to have the support of U.S. military advisers in Colombia. One U.S. Army Special Forces soldier stationed in Saravena emphasized the importance of PsyOps when he stated, “This war is not going to be won with bullets. It’s going to be won by winning the people over to the side of the Colombian army. You are not going to defeat the guerrillas by humping through the jungle like in Vietnam.” While the Colombian army may not be having much success against the guerrillas “humping through the jungle,” it is evident in Saravena that Vietnam-era PsyOps are playing an important role in the ongoing counterinsurgency campaign.