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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.