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Half Century of US Military Presence in Colombia
BOGOTA - In the 1960s, it went by
the name of Latin American Security Operation, or Plan LASO; today it
is known as Plan Colombia. Back then, the aim was to weed out
communism; now it is to combat drug trafficking, while at the same time
dealing a blow to the guerrillas.
But at that time or today, the interests of the United States are at stake, although the killing takes place in Colombia – whether in the fight against communists, guerrillas, drug traffickers, or all of them together.
In May 1964, the teletype machines were clicking as a United Press International (UPI) cable arrived from Washington about "a group of special forces technicians of the United States Army…sent to Colombia with (the) purpose of instructing soldiers and police in counter-guerrilla tactics."
The advisers formed part of a campaign started by President Alberto Lleras (1945-1946 and 1958-1962) and continued by his successor Guillermo León Valencia (1962-1966).
The UPI cable goes on to say that "one of the principal tactics employed in the counter-guerrilla operations was the implementation of psycho-warfare which brought about the cooperation and trust of the indigenous population."
The tactics used in the June 1964 attack on Marquetalia, a remote mountainous region in central Colombia, left no doubt as to who provided the advisers and training for the Colombian troops that, commanded by Colonel José Joaquín Matallana, started their offensive by dropping leaflets from the air urging local peasant farmers not to support the guerrillas.
At the same time, loudspeakers from helicopters blasted messages calling on local residents to support the army, and announcing the imminent fall of the communist leaders operating in the region, who founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – the main rebel group today - that year.
A few days later, the bombing and machinegun fire began in areas where the communists were reportedly hiding. Shortly afterwards the helicopters brought in troops. As FARC founder Jacobo Arenas later recalled, 800 airborne troops were flown in and began to take control of the highland area, in combination with troops who were advancing on the ground.
The tactics, similar to those used in the Vietnam war (1964-1975), were coordinated from Neiva, the nearest large town, by U.S. military advisers.
According to then president Lleras, the country needed the help, due to the inadequate training of Colombian troops and the magnitude of the communist threat.
Today, Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt.
That was then, this is now
Trying to play down the significance of the Colombian government's decision to give the U.S. Department of Defence access to between three and five military bases – the number is not yet clear – government spokespersons have said in the last few weeks that it is merely an extension of Plan Colombia, the anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy financed by Washington since 2000 – which is partially true.
Over the last 50 years, the U.S. military presence in Colombia has taken on different shapes and gone through different phases, but it has remained steady.
After a Colombian Battalion took part in the Korean War (1950-1953), this country's commitment to the fight against communism became irreversible. Successive governments and the army were involved in the U.S.-led defence of the continent against the "communist threat" until a new danger emerged: drug trafficking. With the same enthusiasm, they aligned themselves with the U.S. in the fight against the drug traffickers.
Colombia became a U.S. military objective after several developments coincided.
One was a confidential memo from Peter Bourne, special adviser on drug abuse to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), which charged that prominent politicians, including Liberal Party President-elect Julio César Turbay (1978-1982), had connections to the drug trade.
The left-wing Colombian magazine Alternativa went even further, portraying Turbay on its cover as a Mafia boss.
The influential U.S. magazine Esquire reported that even high-level Colombian officials were involved in the trafficking of marijuana.
It was also reported that thanks to surveillance flights by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), under Operation Stopgap, the U.S. Coast Guard was intercepting Colombian shipments of marijuana at sea.
To that was added pressure from Carter and then DEA Administrator Peter Bensinger, who in the name of Colombia's "national security" raised the need for counter-drug military action.
The U.S. military or police presence has been a constant factor in the Colombian army's involvement in the fight against drugs.
It has also been a factor in the campaigns for the eradication of coca and poppy crops by aerial spraying of herbicides, and in the fight against nationalistic opposition to the extradition of Colombians to be tried on drug charges in the United States. A record number of 800 people were extradited during the two terms of current right-wing President Álvaro Uribe.
At other times, the U.S. military presence had to do with the installation of radars, nominally to carry out surveillance of drug flights, but actually to gain effective control over the airspace from strategic points.
To these forms of influence are added different operations, like naval manoeuvres with which the U.S. navy and air force make their presence felt around the world.
President Virgilio Barco (1986-1990) complained about anti-drug manoeuvres in Colombian waters by the nuclear cruiser USS Virginia and the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, which caused tension with the administration of George Bush (1989-1993).
Shortly before that incident, then Defence Secretary Richard Cheney (1989-1993) declared the war on drugs a "high-priority national security mission."
Then Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said at the time that the United States was prepared to send troops to Colombia, if the Barco administration requested it.
The Colombian newspaper El Espectador reported on Feb. 10, 1989 that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would create specialised anti-drug commandos.
Former Los Angeles County District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi went so far as to write that invasion was not only a right, but a duty because of the threat that the drug trade posed to U.S. sovereignty.
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich seconded the idea of invading countries with serious drug trafficking problems. At a congressional hearing in October 2000, Republican Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana said "Colombia's fate is a national security threat to the United States." Against that backdrop, the scandal that broke out in 1994 when U.S. marines disembarked and built a school in Juanchaco, a fishing village on Colombia's southwest Pacific coast, was at the very least overblown.
When U.S. resources and advisers shifted their focus and instead of going after drug traffickers began to pursue guerrillas, the U.S. military presence in Colombia took on new connotations.
As clearly stated by former Colombian Foreign Minister Alfredo Vásquez in 1991: "The military assistance is aimed at fighting the guerrillas."
More dramatic evidence of that was when FARC insurgents shot down a small plane in February 2003 transporting U.S military contractors who were carrying out surveillance in a rebel-controlled area. The three were held hostage in the jungle until their rescue in a July 2008 army operation.
U.S. military action in Colombia has gone beyond more limits than are readily apparent. The United States government has demanded legal immunity for U.S. military personnel, obtained information that it has not shared, caused mistakes like a bombing of civilians in Candelaria in the north of the country, and is now jeopardising this country's relations with the governments of neighbouring countries.
The negative reaction by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and others to the announcement that the U.S. would be given access to Colombian military bases did not receive any reassuring response, but only a vague promise by Uribe that they would only be used to go after "drug traffickers" and "terrorists."
In his report to Congress, the Colombian president tried to calm worries over the decision. But neighbouring countries and Colombians who have followed with concern the foreign armed presence in their national territory for half a century are anything but calm.