In November 2011, the Colombian military achieved one of its greatest successes when it killed Alfonso Cano, the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the southwestern department of Cauca. Cano was quickly replaced by secretariat member Timoleon “Timochenko” Jiménez. With Timochenko believed to be operating in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander, in a remote, drug-producing area known as the Catatumbo region, the primary focus of Colombia’s military operations shifted northward. This part of Colombia is unique because, in addition to the FARC, two other guerrilla groups—the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL)—operate here.
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Marco Tulio Pérez arrived in the remote Afro-Colombian community of Libertad in 2000. One of his first acts was to organize a beauty pageant for local girls between 15 and 18 years of age. But this pageant was to be much more than just another example of a community engaging in one of Colombia’s favorite pastimes because Pérez, also known as “el Oso” (the Bear), was the new leader of the right-wing paramilitaries in Libertad. The “prize” for the 15 highest-ranking girls in the pageant was a two-week stay on the small farm that the Bear and his troops had commandeered for their living quarters. The mass rape that occurred during that two weeks signified the beginning of a brutal four-year siege that the residents of Libertad would be forced to endure at the hands of the paramilitaries. It is a violent legacy that the community is now struggling to overcome.
Less than two weeks after 9/11, President George W. Bush and Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill held a joint press conference to announce that the war on terror would not only target terrorist groups, but also those who fund terrorism. Bush declared, “If you do business with terrorists, if you support or sponsor them, you will not do business with the United States of America.” O’Neill followed Bush to the podium and announced, “We will succeed in starving the terrorists of funding and shutting down the institutions that support or facilitate terrorism.” And yet, despite these grandiose declarations, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International evidently will not be shut down and will continue to do business in the United States despite pleading guilty last week to providing more than $1.7 million in funding over seven years to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing group on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In early August 2006, while driving on the highway that links the northern Colombian cities of Bucaramanga and Santa Marta, a uniformed officer with a sidearm signaled for us to pull over to the side of the road. The officer was speaking into a walkie-talkie as he approached our vehicle and I noticed the words “private security” emblazoned on his uniform and a name badge hanging from his breast pocket identifying him as an employee of the Drummond Company. My Colombian driver and I had just passed the entrance to Alabama-based Drummond’s open-pit coalmine near the town of La Loma in the department of César. The guard said he had orders to detain us until the mine’s chief of security arrived on the scene. Ten minutes later, Drummond’s security chief pulled up with a truckload of Colombian soldiers to question us about our activities in the region. It was then that it hit me; we had just been detained and interrogated on a public Colombian highway by the private armed security force of a U.S. mining company.
The U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, announced last week that the United States will provide Colombia with counterterrorism aid as part of Washington’s new war on terrorism. But many critics are concerned the new aid signifies an escalation of U.S. involvement in Colombia that might result in direct military intervention. Patterson’s announcement followed on the heels of a declaration by the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Francis X. Taylor, that Washington’s strategy for fighting terrorism in the western hemisphere will include, “where appropriate, as we are doing in Afghanistan, the use of military power.” Taylor left little doubt about who would be the “appropriate” target when he stated that Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), “is the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere.”