Who Are the Real Terrorists in Colombia?

Following 9/11, the justification for U.S. military intervention in Colombia quickly evolved from combating illicit drugs to fighting a war on terror. Despite the fact that all three of Colombia’s irregular armed groups were on the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist organizations, it soon became apparent that the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would be the Bush administration’s principal target. Washington’s focus on the FARC in its war on terror is curious given that pro-government forces have committed significantly more acts of terrorism against the civilian population than have leftist guerrillas.

While the number of homicides in Colombia has dropped significantly in recent years, it is a decrease in criminal killings that accounts for the huge majority of this reduction. There has been little change in the number of civilian deaths related to the country’s civil conflict. Furthermore, according to the Bogotá-based Resource Center for Analysis of the Conflict (CERAC), the Colombian military and its right-wing paramilitary allies have been responsible for 58 percent of Colombia’s conflict-related civilian deaths over the past 16 years. And yet, Washington set its anti-terror sights firmly on the leftist FARC following 9/11.

Less than three weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida initiated a campaign to portray the FARC as a major international terrorist threat: “The FARC are doing the same thing as global level terrorists, that is organizing in small cells that don’t have contact with each other and depend on a central command to organize attacks, in terms of logistics and finance. It is the same style of operation as Bin Laden.”

In October 2001, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Francis X. Taylor, followed Senator Graham’s lead when he declared that Washington’s strategy for fighting terrorism in the Western Hemisphere would include, “where appropriate, as we are doing in Afghanistan, the use of military power.” Taylor left little doubt about the “appropriate” target when he stated that the FARC “is the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere.”

Meanwhile, Taylor’s boss, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the FARC belong in the same category as al-Qaeda: “There is no difficulty in identifying [Osama bin Laden] as a terrorist and getting everybody to rally against him. Now, there are other organizations that probably meet a similar standard. The FARC in Colombia comes to mind.”

In the last week of October, Senator Graham ramped up his accusations, declaring that Colombia should be the principal battlefield in the global war on terror. According to the Florida senator, there were almost 500 incidents of terrorism committed worldwide against U.S. citizens and interests in 2000, and “of those almost 500 incidents, 44 per cent were in one country. Was that country Egypt? No. Israel? No. Afghanistan? Hardly a tick. Forty-four per cent were in Colombia. That’s where the terrorist war has been raging.”

What Graham failed to mention was that the huge majority of “terrorist” attacks against the United States by Colombian guerrillas consisted of bombing oil pipelines used by U.S. companies. In other words, the attacks were designed to hurt U.S. corporate profit margins, not U.S. civilians. In fact, the Florida senator neglected to point out that these attacks did not kill a single U.S. citizen in 2000, the year to which Graham was referring.

The campaign to vilify the FARC proved successful when the U.S. Congress approved a $28 billion counterterrorism bill in July 2002 that included $35 million in supplemental aid for Colombia. The bill also lifted conditions restricting drug war aid to counternarcotics operations, instead allowing it to be used for counterinsurgency operations. The following year, the Bush administration provided Colombia with a further $93 million in counterterrorism aid and deployed U.S. Army Special Forces troops to the South American country.

Clearly, the Bush administration had singled out the FARC as the principal international terrorist threat in Colombia. However, two problems were immediately apparent with regards to the U.S. stance. The first being that the FARC’s military operations are confined to Colombia and, therefore, it is difficult to conceive of the group as an international terrorist organization given that it only poses a threat to U.S. political and economic interests in Colombia and not to the United States itself. The second problem rests in the fact that the Bush administration has virtually ignored the violence perpetrated by the Colombian state and its right-wing paramilitary allies, who are also far more deeply involved in drug trafficking than the FARC.

Generally speaking, the armed actors in Colombia’s conflict can be lumped into two groupings: One grouping is intent on defending the government and the country’s political and economic status quo, while the other is seeking to overthrow the government. The first grouping consists of the Colombian military and the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which are responsible for perpetrating state and state-supported terrorism respectively.

The second grouping contains the FARC and another smaller leftist rebel force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), whose targeting of the civilian population could be considered group terrorism. Based on this simplification of the armed groups involved in Colombia’s conflict, acts of terrorism perpetrated against the civilian population can be broken down into two categories: pro-government and anti-government.

Following the widely used definition that terrorism consists of the use or threat of violence against civilians in order to achieve a political objective, the degree of terrorism perpetrated against the civilian population by each armed actor can be determined. This analysis will focus primarily on the killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions and forced “disappearances” that have occurred since 2002; the year that the Bush administration began providing counterterrorism aid to Colombia and President Alvaro Uribe assumed office. It will not take into account attacks against infrastructure and other economic targets that did not result in civilian casualties. By definition, these attacks fall under the category of arson, not terrorism.

In recent years, according to CERAC, approximately half of guerrilla attacks appeared to be aimed at disrupting the Colombian economy, which “suggests that the guerrillas are not, as is often suggested, just interested in getting rich off drugs. They really do seem to aim for political power; local power in the short run and national power in the long run.” Similarly, UN special envoy to Colombia James LeMoyne warned in May 2003 that, in a country where the inequitable wealth distribution has left 64 per cent of the population living in poverty, it would be “a mistake to think that the FARC members are only drug traffickers and terrorists.”

While the guerrillas have perpetrated attacks against non-combatants, Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries have historically killed more civilians than have the guerrillas. Furthermore, the difference in the number of paramilitary killings of civilians compared to the number committed by the guerrillas has increased since 1998, according to CERAC. The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) has also highlighted the fact that more civilians are killed by paramilitaries than by guerrillas. For example, 6,978 people were killed as a result of the conflict during Uribe’s first year in office, which amounted to 19 people a day. The CCJ determined that paramilitaries were responsible for at least 62 per cent of the killings, more than double the amount committed by the guerrillas.

Meanwhile, a February 2006 United Nations report noted that the number of civilians killed by government forces increased in 2005. Many of these killings were extra-judicial executions by soldiers and police who would often dress the corpses as guerrillas to present them as combat deaths. The UN report stated, “Cases were recorded in which commanders themselves had allegedly supported the act of dressing the victims in guerrilla garments to cover up facts and simulate combat.”

Paramilitary attacks also increased dramatically in 2005 to more than double the number that occurred in each of the previous two years despite a supposed cease-fire and demobilization of some 15,000 paramilitaries. CERAC points out that the increased paramilitary attacks “cannot be attributed to the few paramilitary groups that are not negotiating disarmament and demobilization with the government. On the contrary, this corresponds mostly with those areas where the negotiating groups are located.”

CERAC’s findings that paramilitary violence is continuing despite the “demobilization” process echo those of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations. In September 2005, Amnesty International noted that many “demobilized” paramilitaries have simply restructured their operations and are continuing with their violent activities. This is particularly troubling given Uribe’s recent announcement that 15,000 to 20,000 demobilized paramilitaries will work as “civilian axillaries” to the police and that their responsibilities would include patrolling highways and carrying out other public order tasks.

The aforementioned statistics clearly illustrate that the paramilitaries are the principal perpetrators of lethal attacks against the civilian population—a pattern that is likely to continue given the increase in paramilitary killings last year. And when the increasing number of civilians being killed by government forces is taken into account, state and state-supported terrorism are responsible for approximately two-thirds of civilian deaths in Colombia’s conflict.

Pro-government forces are also responsible for an overwhelming percentage of forced “disappearances.” According to the Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES), 3,593 people were forcibly “disappeared” during 2002 and 2003. Even the U.S. State Department has admitted, “Paramilitaries were responsible for most forced disappearances.”

In contrast, the guerrillas have been responsible for a greater percentage of kidnappings than the paramilitaries. According to the Colombian NGO País Libre, 1,441 people were kidnapped in 2004. País Libre has determined that armed groups engaged in the conflict carried out 41 percent of the kidnappings, while common criminals and undetermined actors were responsible for the remainder. The FARC was responsible for 22 percent of the kidnappings, or approximately 320 cases. The ELN, meanwhile, accounted for nine percent and the paramilitaries for ten percent.

One of the more troubling trends in state terrorism under the Uribe administration has been the dramatic increase in arbitrary detentions reminiscent of those perpetrated by the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1970s. According to the Colombian non-governmental coalition Coordination Colombia-Europe-USA (CCEEU) and the Colombian Observatory for the Administration of Justice (OCA), state security forces committed 6,332 arbitrary detentions between August 2002 and August 2004. They note that many of these detentions and the ensuing interrogations were conducted based on information provided by paid informants and that the Attorney General’s office did not investigate the validity of this information prior to the detentions. Even more troubling is the fact that, because the state had accused them of being “subversives,” detainees were at risk of being killed or “disappeared” by paramilitaries following their release.

In 2005, the director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia, Michael Frühling, announced that his office “has noted with concern that illegal or arbitrary detentions constitute, both in number and frequency, one of the most worrying violations of human rights reported in the country.” Frühling further noted that the UN “is also concerned that mass-scale detentions and individual seizures with no juridical basis frequently affect members of vulnerable groups such as human rights advocates, community leaders, trade union activists and people living in areas where illegal armed groups are active.”

The statistics presented in this article clearly illustrate that state and state-supported terrorism is responsible for the majority of attacks against the civilian population. The government and paramilitaries are responsible for two-thirds of civilian deaths in Colombia’s conflict. And, as even the U.S. State Department concedes, the paramilitaries are also the principal perpetrators of the thousands of forced “disappearances” that occur annually. Meanwhile, the government is responsible for 100 percent of the thousands of arbitrary detentions that have occurred since Uribe assumed office. Kidnapping is the only category in which the guerrillas, primarily the FARC, are the principal perpetrators.

Both the U.S. and Colombian governments have successfully focused the public’s attention on the activities of the FARC, making the guerrilla group the principal target in the war on terror in Colombia. The mainstream media in both the United States and Colombia, primarily due to its over-reliance on official sources, has contributed significantly to the public perception that the FARC poses the greatest terrorist threat.

In reality, however, the United States is providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid annually to the principal perpetrators of terrorism in Colombia. Consequently, given the aforementioned statistics, it is difficult to conclude that the true objective of Washington’s war on terror is to seriously combat terrorism. A more plausible explanation is that the Bush administration is militarily protecting U.S. political and economic interests in Colombia under the guise of the war on terror.


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