Washington’s Counter-insurgency Laboratory—from Mexico to Afghanistan

by Bill Weinberg, NACLA News

The Merida Initiative, Washington’s new security program for Mexico and Central America, was immediately dubbed “Plan Mexico” by its critics—implying it is a new version of Plan Colombia.

In fact, from its origins ten years ago, the multi-billion dollar aid package and militarized anti-narcotics program dubbed Plan Colombia was seen as a model to be applied elsewhere in the hemisphere. The first steps were down the Andean chain to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, in an expanded version of the program, the Andean Regional Initiative. But unanticipated gains for popular movements and the left in Bolivia and Ecuador have largely halted Washington’s integrated program of drug war cooperation and military aid in these nations. Peru continued to follow the model—and violence is fast escalating there. Now, with growing fears in Washington of Mexico’s destabilization, a similar program has been developed for the Mesoamerican isthmus.

Simultaneously, Pentagon planners have been explicitly evoking Plan Colombia as a model for the war in Afghanistan—where counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts have likewise become inexorably entwined.

Ironically, Colombia itself has seen rising cocaine production as well as continued horrific violence and rights abuses throughout the years the Plan has been in effect. There is a sense of policy-makers creating what they ostensibly fear.

The Merida Initiative and the specter of intervention
In March 2007, some 20 were arrested and several injured in protests against the visit of President George Bush to the southern Mexican city of Mérida. Meeting with Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón and Central American leaders in the historic Yucatan city, Bush won agreement for a regional security program to be known as the Merida Initiative.

The Bush administration called the Merida Initiative “a new paradigm” of bilateral cooperation in the war on drugs and terrorism, calling for a $1.4 billion, multiyear “security cooperation package.” Some 40% of the funds were slated for new helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the Mexican army, with large chunks for the federal police and the security forces of the Central American republics. Mexican leaders were quick to emphasize that, in contrast to Plan Colombia, the Initiative did not call for stationing US military troops and advisors south of the border.

The Merida Initiative made its way through Congress in 2008. As part of an emergency appropriations bill, the Senate in May approved the first installment: $350 million in drug war aid to Mexico, with an additional $100 million for Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Reducing the Bush administration’s request for $500 million to Mexico and $50 million to Central America, the Senate also adopted language that would hold up a quarter of the funds until the State Department rules that Mexico is meeting human rights markers. The House approved $400 million for Mexico, with similar provisions.

At the 47th US-Mexico Interparliamentary Commission, held June 6 in Monterrey, Mexican politicians from all of the three leading parties protested the imposition of human rights conditions on the aid package as patronizing and hypocritical.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) stuck up for Mexico’s rejection of human rights conditions. “Our friends in Mexico needed to vent and explain how this issue was not handled well,” the senator told a reporter. “Anything that smacks of certification is a nonstarter.” Dodd was likewise a champion of Plan Colombia back in 2000, and critics point out that he was a big donation recipient from United Technologies, the Connecticut-based company that produces the Blackhawk helicopter—several of which were provided to Bogotá under the aid package.

Later in June, the House and Senate worked out a compromise that reduced the human rights conditions to a consultative process between Mexico and the US. The “conditions” were downgraded to “guidelines.” This concretely meant that the amount of the aid which can be withheld was reduced from 25% to 15%.

Under pressure from US human rights and labor activists—who openly called the initiative “Plan Mexico”—Congress officially expressed concern about specific claims of rights abuses, such as the harsh repression of 2006 protests in Oaxaca.

In a propaganda piece plugging the Merida Initiative, Ray Walser of the right-wing Heritage Foundation was quick to dismiss the analogy with Plan Colombia: “Unlike Plan Colombia, which helped to rescue Colombia from the throes of a narco-war, the Merida Initiative will provide assistance in equipment, technology, and training without a significant US military footprint in Mexico.”

The RAND Corporation took a more distanced view, writing in an analysis after the passage of the Merida Initiative:

In Colombia, strategic cooperation and large amounts of U.S. aid failed to stem the production of narcotics. Nearly two-thirds of global cocaine continues to be produced in Colombia. Yet it is undeniable that Plan Colombia, an eight-year strategic initiative providing $6 billion in U.S. aid, succeeded in depriving the FARC rebels of drug profits by strengthening the Colombian military and police to target violent traffickers. While trafficking itself remains a problem, Colombia is no longer in danger of becoming either a “failed state” or an anemic, low-growth quasi-democracy—an outcome that is yet possible for Mexico.

There was no doubt of the urgency of Mexico’s crisis. The near-daily assassinations, along with the cartels’ growing habit of decapitating their victims and issuing threats using posters and the Internet, “have a clear objective to intimidate, frighten, paralyze society and, with that, force the federal government to retreat,” said Government Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino. He hailed the approval of the aid package as “a concrete expression of the principle of shared responsibility” in the drug war.

The US released the first $197 million of the $400 million package in December. At a signing ceremony in Mexico City, US Ambassador Tony Garza called the package “the most significant effort ever undertaken” by the US and Mexico to fight drugs. Carlos Rico, Mexico’s undersecretary for North American affairs, expressed his confidence that the Barack Obama administration will remain committed to the program, and that any human rights concerns can be resolved.

But US leaders were soon discussing the Initiative in terms certain to alarm Mexican nationalists. President Barack Obama was briefed March 7 by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen about Mexico’s drug wars. “They have an urgent need,” Mullen told reporters as he returned from his first official visit to Mexico, adding that tactics used against militant networks in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be employed in Mexico: “They need intelligence support, capabilities and tactics that have evolved for us in our fight against networks in the terrorist world. There are an awful lot of similarities.”

During his meetings with Mexico’s military leadership, Mullen said he discussed how Washington could help in the battle against the cartels, especially citing “ISR,” for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—a term that often refers to the use of unmanned drones.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, speaking in back-to-back hearings of his committee and the Homeland Security Subcommittee March 10, said the Defense Department must make Mexico as big a priority as Afghanistan. Lewis asserted, “one of our problems is that the Department of Defense somehow puts Afghanistan ahead of the challenges on the Mexican border.”

Officials from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection bureau defended the success of border security measures. Officials said the escalating cartel violence in Mexico is evidence that the US border security plan is working. “They are fighting for territory,” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said of the drug cartels.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) thanked Aguilar for his service: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what all of you do. You truly are in our prayers on a daily basis. You’re on the front lines of an undeclared war unlike any we’ve ever seen on the southern border probably since 1916.”

Elaborating on the 1916 reference, Culberson said: “I think we are at the point today that we need to send the Black Jack Pershing into the Southern United States and put it in command of a true, fast-reaction military force that can move up and down that border on the US side.” Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing led an expedition into Mexico with 10,000 troops to hunt down Pancho Villa after the famous revolutionary had carried out a raid across the US border.

Meanwhile, some 7,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police arrived in Ciudad Juárez in a bid to restore order amid an escalating bloody turf war between rival drug cartels. In what some called Mexico’s internal “surge,” masked soldiers patrolled the streets in long convoys of military vehicles, throwing up checkpoints.

Weeks later, a delegation of political leaders from Juárez and the state of Chihuahua visited Colombia, where they won commitments from the Colombian government to send National Police officers to train the Chihuahua police.

As in Colombia, where the military’s collaboration with the ostensibly outlawed paramilitaries remains a source of controversy, there appears to be a degree of inter-penetration between Mexico’s security forces and drug cartels. The notorious May 16, 2009 jailbreak at a state prison in Zacatecas was but the latest in a string of incidents in which apparent cartel paramilitary forces wore the uniforms of elite federal police agencies. Footage from security cameras show that a convoy of 17 vehicles, backed by a helicopter, approached Cieneguillas state prison, meeting no resistance from guards. About 30 men—some in the uniforms of the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI) and Federal Preventive Police (PFP)—entered the facility, rounded up 53 prisoners, loaded them into the cars and sped away. Most of the escapees were said to be affiliated with the Zetas.

A 2008 year-end report by the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command named two countries as likely candidates for a “rapid and sudden collapse”: Pakistan and Mexico. The report, code-named JOE 2008 (for Joint Operating Environment), stated: “In terms of worse-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico. The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.”

In a RAND study released nearly simultaneously with the Pentagon report, “Could Mexico Fail?,” analyst Brian Michael Jenkins explicitly invoked the memory of the Revolution. Read the abstract:

The Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1920, engulfed the entire border region, and political turmoil in Mexico precipitated a crime wave in the United States. Thus, current concerns about the growing lawlessness in northern Mexico and its consequences for U.S. national security are not without precedent.

As President-elect Barack Obama and President George Bush met Jan. 12 in Washington with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Gen. (ret.) Barry McCaffrey—who as President Bill Clinton’s drug czar was a key architect of Plan Colombia—held a press conference to issue dire warnings: “Mexico is on the edge of the abyss—it could become a narco-state in the coming decade… However, President Calderón and Mexico’s senior leadership have launched a serious attempt to reclaim the rule of law from the chaos of the drug cartels.” McCaffrey called for increased US military aid to Mexico, calling the Merida Initiative “a drop in the bucket compared to what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan ($700 billion to date). We cannot afford to have a narco-state as a neighbor.”

Mexican officials were quick to deny the ominous claims. Mexican President Felipe Calderón labeled talk of his country’s collapse as “false, absurd,” and challenged the US to clean up its own act by curbing drug use and arms trafficking.

The US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dennis Blair, speaking to reporters in Washington March 26, also downplayed the notion that narco-violence has brought Mexico to the brink of collapse: “Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. Repeat that. Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The violence we see now is the result of Mexico taking action against the drug cartels… The Mexican campaign is our campaign.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also clearly had mending fences in mind on her trip to Mexico that week. In Mexico City, at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Espinosa, Clinton said: “We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States to Mexico. We see this as a responsibility to assist the Mexican government and people.” Clinton also joined Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna for a visit to the Federal District’s new Iztapalapa headquarters for Mexico’s Federal Preventative Police, where she was briefed on missions undertaken by US-supplied Blackhawk helicopters.

The Obama administration has requested $66 million in additional 2009 assistance to Mexico through the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE). The bill passed by the House of Representatives in May actually goes well beyond this request. It would provide Mexico with $470 million: $160 million in INCLE funding and $310 million in military and police aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF). If the House version of the bill is approved, Mexico would surpass Colombia as the Western Hemisphere’s top recipient of US military and police aid.

The Andean Regional Initiative: Bolivia, Ecuador break ranks
There is a sense of deja vu here. Upon taking office in 2001, President George Bush inherited the $1.6 billion five-year Plan Colombia aid package, which had been passed the previous year. But he immediately expanded the program to include coordinated aid packages for Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Dubbed the Andean Regional Initiative, this program incorporated Plan Colombia.

Speaking to a House subcommittee in 2004, Robert B. Charles, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, called the Andean Regional Initiative “a bulwark against the threat of terrorism in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru… In short, it is a regional hemispheric and national security program, with direct implications, for homeland security and for our well being here in the continental United States… In Colombia, and elsewhere in the hemisphere, the link between drug money and terrorism is incontrovertible.”

But before the Colombian model could be replicated throughout the Andes, Washington’s design succumbed to the wave of change sweeping the South American continent—especially the 2005 election of an Aymara coca grower as South America’s first indigenous president: Evo Morales of the Movement to Socialism (MAS).

In 2008, Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivian territory, charging that the agency was actually involved in the drug traffic, and “did not respect the police, or even the [Bolivian] armed forces.” In January 2009, Bolivian voters approved a new constitution that explicitly recognizes coca leaf as a cultural heritage of the country’s indigenous peoples.

Morales, in Washington for an OAS meeting last November, drew parallels between himself and US President-elect Barack Obama, and said he looked forward to improved relations—but added: “The DEA will not return while I am still president.”

The 2006 election of the populist Rafael Correa similarly drew a halt to that country’s integration into the ARI. Correa quickly made it clear that he would not renew the US Southern Command’s 10-year usage rights for Manta air base when they expire in 2009. In September 2008, Ecuadoran voters approved a new constitution expressly forbidding foreign military bases.

Bolivia and Ecuador are slated to receive $30 million and $7 million, respectively, under the State Department’s Andean Counterdrug Initiative in FY 2009—but with a greater emphasis on non-military aspects of the program than in previous years.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its 2008 annual report found a “shock” rise in coca production in Colombia of 27% in the previous year. By contrast, coca cultivation was up 5% in Bolivia and 4% in Peru. In contrast to the situation 20 years ago, when Bolivia led world production, Bolivia was now the third producer after Colombia and Peru. This was, to say the least, counterintuitive news for Plan Colombia’s supporters.

In the UNODC’s annual report for 2009, the agency did register an 18% decline in Colombian coca cultivation—partially offset by continued rises in Bolivia and Peru. But this still represents a significant net gain since Plan Colombia took effect.

Meanwhile, the human rights situation in Colombia remains grave. Amnesty International’s 2008 annual report on Colombia found: “All parties to the 40-year-old conflict committed violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity… Fewer people were killed by paramilitary groups than in previous years. However, reports of killings of civilians by the security forces rose… The number of people forced to flee their homes by the conflict also rose.”

Peru follows militarized model
The turn-around that brought the post-populist Alan García back to power in Peru after 16 years out of office in 2006 has done nothing to slow Peru’s advancement on the militarized ARI model. With Peru and Colombia now the only full-fledged members left, the ARI name was dropped after 2004, although aid to Peru continued to be administrated through the Andean Counterdrug Initiative.

Indeed, in Peru’s Andean interior, a new counterinsurgency campaign has emerged in the past year, redolent of the dark days of the ’80s and early ’90s, when the nation was convulsed by a brutal struggle with the Shining Path guerillas.

In March 2009, local human rights groups reported that more than 300 families were displaced from their lands by the armed forces’ “Plan Excelencia 777,” launched earlier that month to take control of Vizcatán zone, considered a stronghold of narco-trafficking and “terrorist” organizations—meaning resurgent Shining Path remnants—in the Valley of the Apurímac and Ene Rivers (VRAE). The reports were denied by the armed forces. But Nolberto Lamilla of the Asociación Paz y Esperanza in Ayacucho, the regional capital, told the local media that arbitrary detainments and even “disappearances” by the military had residents in a state of fear.

Guerillas killed at least 26 people in Peru in 2008, including 22 soldiers and police officers—the bloodiest year since the late 1990s. In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, coca cultivation in Peru increased by 4%, the highest level in a decade. Estimated cocaine production rose to a 10-year high of some 290 tons.

In October 2008, forensic examinations determined that five bodies found in Ayacucho’s remote Río Seco village were relations of a peasant woman who reported the disappearance of 11 family members after the National Police had conducted a “counter-subversive” operation in the area. The bodies are reportedly those of the woman’s husband, brothers and a sister-in-law, who had been pregnant. Two children and four adults remained missing. Ironically, some of the disappeared were apparently members of the rondas, a peasant self-defense militia established to defend local communities against Shining Path attack at the height of the insurgency.

Peruvian opposition Congress members called for a special commission to investigate the disappearances, and the national human rights ombudsman sent a team of investigators to Río Seco. The disappearances took place while US troops were in Ayacucho on an ostensible “humanitarian” mission, building clinics and schools. This occasioned much speculation in Peru’s press that Washington is seeking military bases in the country—which was denied by the US embassy.

Ominously, the violence is re-emerging just as forensic investigations are underway in Ayacucho region, investigating atrocities carried out by the security forces in the bloody struggle with the Shining Path in the ’80s and early ’90s. An exhumation in the village of Huanta in March 2009 revealed the remains of 49 people from a mass grave—victims of a massacre by the Peruvian armed forces in 1984.

The US currently provides Peru with some $100 million in aid annually. The DEA maintains vigorous operations in the country.

There is the potential that Peru will follow Bolivia and Ecuador out of the US orbit. At a People’s Summit in Lima last May, Peru’s indigenous organizations launched a new alliance to defend their collective rights—and win power in the 2011 presidential elections. The National Association of Peruvian Coca Producers (CONPACCP) has already launched a political party, Kuska (“united” in the Quechua language), with a support base in the VRAE, where it has won mayoral elections in seven municipalities.

The Merida Initiative thus closes a grim circle. In the years since NAFTA was passed, the narco economy and attendant violence have exploded horrifically in Mexico, with the drug trade filling the economic vacuum created by the dropping of traditional public supports for the country’s campesino sector. Just as Mexico is adopting a militarized “anti-drug” program based on Plan Colombia, Colombia is moving towards a free trade agreement with Washington based on NAFTA. Peru signed a similar agreement last year. It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will wake up to the vicious cycle seemingly at work here.

Plan Colombia as model for Afghanistan
In recent years, Pentagon planners have come to see Colombia as a model for their war across the planet in Afghanistan. Despite obvious differences—an arid rather than lush terrain, and the ultra-conservative Taliban insurgency rather than ostensibly leftist FARC guerilla movement—there is a clear parallel between the two countries. In both, illicit crops—opium in Afghanistan—provide both a source of funds for the insurgency and a means of winning peasant loyalties: protecting growers from government eradication efforts. In both, the US has nonetheless aggressively pushed for eradication.

In 2007, the US brought in a corps of Colombian National Police to train the Afghan police force’s National Interdiction Unit (NIU) in counter-narcotics tactics. The exchange was worked out after Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics minister Habibullah Qaderi visited Bogotá in 2005—with US encouragement. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Bogotá told the BBC that the “educational exchanges had fostered greater co-operation and understanding in countering global drug-trafficking.”

Just as the training program got underway, the Washington appointed its ambassador in Bogotá, William Wood, as its new envoy to Afghanistan.

Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his comment on the exchange, said Afghanistan could learn from Colombian social projects aimed at breaking the hold of the rural narco economy, and demobilization of illegal paramilitaries. “I think those kinds of outreach programs by the Colombian government are good models for President Karzai to consider as he looks at how to reduce the amount of drug trafficking in his country and promote instability,” he told reporters in Bogotá.

But the US applied more pressure for Afghanistan to adopt a more controversial aspect of Plan Colombia—the aerial spraying of herbicide to eradicate drug crops. Even as the Colombian training program in Afghanistan was getting underway, President Hamid Karzai rebuffed Washington’s proposal for a program to spray poppy fields. Karzai voiced his concern for the health impacts, and the destruction of legal crops.

Karzai’s Counter-narcotics Ministry issued a statement that “traditional techniques” would be used for eradication—that is, sending teams of laborers backed up by NIU agents to trample and plough under the crop. However, an unnamed US official told Reuters he believed Karzai would agree to spraying if manual eradication failed to cut production.

In 2004, US-contracted aircraft apparently did a test run for the fumigation program, secretly spraying a placebo of plastic granules over poppy fields in Afghanistan to gauge public reaction. The test spray sparked harsh protests from poor farmers, tribal chiefs and government officials up to President Karzai, who demanded to know details of the incident. US officials up to the level of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad denied any knowledge.

Speaking to McClatchy news service, US officials declined to identify the agency that oversaw the test spraying, but noted that the State Department oversees counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan (as well as the spray program in Colombia). The department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement declined to comment.

Today, there are signals that the Obama administration is reconsidering an aggressive eradication strategy for Afghanistan. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke, speaking at the opening of the G8 meeting in Italy in June, said the eradication policy has been “a failure” and that crop-substitution programs should be pursued instead.

“Spraying the crops just penalizes the farmer, and they grow crops somewhere else,” Holbrooke said. “The hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on crop eradication has not had any damage on the Taliban. On the contrary, it has helped them recruit.”

But aggressive eradication and (largely ineffectual) crop-substitution programs have co-existed in Colombia for years; peasants in inaccessible regions have no means of getting legal crops to market, while drug lords helpfully pick up illicit harvests themselves. The White House Drug Czar’s office admits: “The remote location and rugged terrain of poppy growing areas are major obstacles to establishing crop-substitution programs.”

The Colombian government’s recent gains against the FARC—coupled with the current US reversals in Afghanistan—have led Pentagon leaders to return to the theme of replicating Plan Colombia in the Hindu Kush. “I think many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia,” Adm. Mullen said this March. “As in all plans, there are parts of it that would be very applicable in other parts of the world and specifically to Afghanistan…”

Unfortunately, “success” against the FARC in Colombia has not been reflected in an improvement in the country’s human rights climate. Amnesty International in its most recent annual report on the country noted: “Fewer people were killed by paramilitary groups than in previous years. However, reports of killings of civilians by the security forces rose… The number of people forced to flee their homes by the conflict also rose.”


This article first appeared July 9 on NACLA News.

From our Daily Report:

US signs military base plan with Colombia
World War 4 Report, Oct. 31, 2009

US military bases for Peru?
World War 4 Report, Sept. 4, 2009

Leahy blocks State Department rights report on Mexico
World War 4 Report, Aug. 9, 2009

Colombia to train Baja California state police
World War 4 Report, July 6, 2009

US shifts Afghan opium strategy
World War 4 Report, July 28, 2009

See also:

by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, June 2009

by Daniel Leal Diaz, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, January 2005

See related story, this issue:

The Free-Trade Roots of Mexico’s Narco Crisis—And Philadelphia’s
by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, November 2009


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Planet Watch

Our readers write: Whither World War 4 Report?

Three months ago we polled our readers on whether World War 4 Report should continue publication, and what we can do to broaden our audience. We received the following responses…


Al-Qaeda passport Pakistan’s propaganda ploy?

The apparent discovery of a 9-11 suspect’s passport in a mud hut in South Waziristan just as Hillary Clinton was scolding Pakistan for harboring al-Qaeda smells a little too convenient.


Federal Courts Dismiss Workers’ Case

by Paul Wolf, World War 4 Report

On August 11, 2009, the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta affirmed the dismissal of a case against the Coca-Cola Company and its Colombian subsidiaries, brought by a Colombian labor union and several of the union’s leaders. The plaintiffs alleged that Coca Cola and its local bottlers collaborated with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a right-wing terror organization, to torture and murder the unionists, in violation of international law. The lawsuit was brought suit under the Alien Tort Claims (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection (TVPA) Acts.

The case is noteworthy, not only because Coke has been the target of boycotts and protests in relation to its labor practices, but also because the decision itself helps clarify a particularly muddy and controversial area of law. In recent years, liberal activists have sought to hold US corporations liable in US courts for their actions overseas, which either constitute war crimes, or some other conduct universally prohibited under international law.

While the outcome may be disappointing, once the details are understood, it is hardly surprising, and should not be seen as a setback for advocates of corporate responsibility. The Coke case was really a stretch. The plaintiffs did not allege that Coca-Cola USA was directly responsible for any of the murders. Instead, liability was premised on a complex chain of relationships. In the words of the Court:

Plaintiffs attempt to connect the Coca-Cola Defendants to the local facilities’ management through a series of agency and alter ego relationships. For example, in the [Isidro Segundo] Gil case, the plaintiffs’ layered theory of agency and alter ego liability is as follows: the bottling facility, Bebidas [y Alimentos, in Carepa, Antioquia], is responsible for the acts of its employees, including conspiring with local paramilitaries to rid the facility of unions. Bebidas, in turn, is an alter ego or agent of Richard Kirby, Bebidas’ owner and manager, such that Kirby is liable for any wrongful conduct by Bebidas employees that resulted in the murder of Gil. Bebidas and Kirby, in turn, are the alter egos or agents of Coca-Cola Colombia because Coca-Cola Colombia is responsible for manufacturing and distributing Coca-Cola products to Bebidas and all other bottlers in Colombia. Coca-Cola Colombia, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Coca-Cola USA, in turn, is an alter ego or agent of Coca-Cola USA because Coca-Cola Colombia is under the management, control, and direction of Coca-Cola USA to the extent that its separateness is illusory.

With such a convoluted and indirect theory of liability, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the court dismissed the claims against Coca-Cola USA. The court found that the parent company did not have the requisite control over its Colombian counterparts to be held liable for theirs acts. Then, in a subsequent decision, the court found the allegations of conspiracy between the bottlers and the AUC to be insufficient, and dismissed the case entirely.

The plaintiffs appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the ATS and TVPA claims. First, it considered whether the Colombian paramilitaries (AUC) could be considered agents of the Colombian state. State action is required for torture (TVPA) claims, and for ATS claims that are not closely related to a war (i.e., are not “war crimes”). The court found the plaintiffs contention that the “regular military and the civil government authorities in Colombia tolerate the paramilitaries, allow them to operate, and often cooperate, protect and/or work in concert with them” insufficient to transform the paramilitaries into “state actors.” Relying on the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in the Twombly and Iqbal cases, which have raised the bar to sue in federal court, the Court of Appeals rejected the allegations as being without factual support and lacking in detail. This is unfortunate, since the relationship between the Colombian government and the AUC is now the subject of numerous legal proceedings in Colombia. In the last two years, dozens of legislators and military officers have been prosecuted for supporting the AUC. In fact, one of Coke’s bottlers is located almost directly across the street from the Colombian army’s notorious 17th Brigade headquarters in Carepa. General Rito del Rio Alejo, who commanded this brigade at the height of the AUC’s reign of terror, is currently in the brig awaiting his trial. But because of the particular way the relationship between the government and AUC was described in the Coke case, the TVPA and non-war-crime ATS claims were dismissed for lack of state action.

The court then evaluated the plaintiffs’ alternative theory that the murders did constitute war crimes. War crimes, unlike other violations of international law, can be committed by state actors and non-state actors alike. The court rejected the plaintiff’s war crimes claims for other reasons, though. According to the court, the plaintiffs had argued that it was sufficient for the purposes of ATS jurisdiction that the crime merely occur during an armed civil conflict. “In this case there is no suggestion the plaintiffs’ murder and torture was perpetrated because of the ongoing civil war or in the course of civil war clashes,” wrote Judge Black in the decision. “The civil war provided the background for the unfortunate events that unfolded, but the civil war did not precipitate the violence that befell the plaintiffs.” In other words, the court considered the company’s alleged murder of its unionists to have been a crime committed for its own personal reasons, rather than as part of a war. This is also unfortunate, because although Coke may have had its own reasons to commit the murders (if Coke did in fact order them), the murders do fit into a widespread pattern in Colombia. In Colombia, guerrillas and their rivals battle for union influence and control, and the murder of union leaders is no different from the murder of city councilmen and business leaders, who are all prime targets for assassination in Colombia’s dirty war.

Finally, the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims were dismissed for vagueness and lack of factual support. “The scope of the conspiracy and its participants are undefined,” the court held, and “plaintiffs’ attenuated chain of conspiracy fails to nudge their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” This again was in reference to the Iqbal and Twombly decisions, and is more indicative of an overall trend in conservativism in the Supreme Court, rather than hostility towards international cases.

The Coca-Cola case, then, stands as a benchmark for the factual basis needed to sue a corporation for war crimes or other violations of international law committed abroad. It is not enough that the corporation takes advantage of a lawless situation to murder its enemies, nor is it enough to say, without proof, that the foreign government tolerates or encourages the lawlessness. Moreover, Coke was a tough case from the start. The long and complex chain of liability proposed by the Coke plaintiffs would be hard to prove even if the case was a domestic one. Taken with the heightened pleading standard articulated in Twombly and Iqbal, a plaintiff really needs to have all his ducks in a row before trying to bring a case like this into court.

The death of the “Killer Coke” case may come as a disappointment to those concerned about corporate responsibility, or about the astronomically high murder rate of trade unionists in Colombia. However, this case was dismissed because of its own idiosyncrasies, with a good measure of bad luck thrown in. Had the Coke plaintiffs been able to predict the Supreme Court’s heightened pleading standard, and had the plaintiffs been a little more aggressive in alleging that the murders were part of a broad counterinsurgency campaign to rid Colombian labor unions of guerrilla influence, Coke might very well be preparing for a gruesome trial. Not to mention the fact that anyone involved in these kinds of incidents could potentially face criminal charges, particularly in Colombia, where the extradition of drug traffickers to the US is such a politically charged issue. The lesson, then, is the same. Corporations doing business in war zones are not entitled to play by the local rules.


Paul Wolf is a lawyer in Washington, DC practicing international human rights law.

For more on Alien Tort Claims Act:

Federal court rules Iraq murder case can proceed against Blackwater
World War 4 Report, Oct. 25, 2009

For more on Coca-Cola’s crimes in Colombia:

Colombia: para scandal threatens trade deal
World War 4 Report, April 20, 2007

For more on litigation against corporate criminals in Colombia:

Colombia: lawsuit accuses Dole of funding paramilitaries
World War 4 Report, May 27, 2009

For more on the grisly career of Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio:

Lands cleansed by paramilitaries returned to Afro-Colombians
World War 4 Report, March 24, 2009


Special to World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur

The following story, filed October 4 by the independent news service Frontera NorteSur, is a report on the US War on Drugs conference held in El Paso, Texas, on September 21 and 22 of this year. The event was initiated by faculty from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and supported by a host of local organizations and agencies.

The struggling corn fields of northern Chihuahua and the shuttered textile plants of North Philadelphia might seem worlds apart. Although nationhood, language and culture separate the two places, a history of globalization, deindustrialization and drug culture shape both entities.

As part of the landmark US War on Drugs Conference held in El Paso late last month, speakers examined the complex political economy that underlies the production, distribution and use of illegal drugs.

In a presentation at the University of Texas at El Paso, Chihuahua state lawmaker Victor Quintana delved into the socio-economic backdrop to the extreme violence raging away in northwestern Chihuahua, where rival cartels have turned entire zones into battlefields. Quintana took the audience back to 1982, when Mexico‚s ruling PRI party began instituting what later became known as a neo-liberal, or free market, economic policy.

In line with the project popularized by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, as well as the International Monetary Fund, state subsidies and supports for farmers were steadily eliminated, pressuring small growers off the land and into the migrant stream stirred up by the North American Free Trade Agreement and (NAFTA) and Mexico’s 1994-95 economic crisis.

An economic vacuum in the countryside was then filled by an illegal and profitable drug economy, which was marked by three stages, Quintana said. First, migrants returning from the US helped implant a drug culture that was initially controlled by locals who were well-known in their own communities and shared the proceeds of their illicit trade.

Later, outsiders with an eye on northwestern Chihuahua’s fertile lands and strategic highways leading to the US border moved in and replaced the “community narcos.” The result was the bloody orgy of violence that now destabilizes Chihuahua, Quintana said, adding that drug gangs have consolidated so much control that local police warn only air operations can penetrate certain zones.

The Philadelphia Story
Though the particulars were different, urban historian Dr. Eric Schneider separately told a similar story about North Philadelphia, a place he described as “the badlands” of the City of Brotherly Love. For Schneider, the closing of Philadelphia‚s Stetson Hat Company, which once produced the emblematic hat of the American West, was a watershed for a community with a once-thriving industrial base.

A University of Pennsylvania professor interested in globalization, Schneider recounted how he asked his students to examine the labels where their clothing was made, and then took the pupils on a tour of largely African-American North Philadelphia.

As in Chihuahua, an illegal business filled an economic void in de-industrialized Philadelphia, according to Schneider. High unemployment, marginalization of communities of color, a landscape of abandoned homes and plants and easy highway access all create a “perfect place” for a drug market, he said.

In the post-industrial US, North Philadelphia represents the prototype of an urban drug market. Such urban markets, or “drug enterprise zones,” in the words of Schneider, acquire a life of their own, providing employment not only for marginalized youths but for police, other agencies of the criminal justice system and even rehabilitation centers charged with suppressing or controlling illegal activities. Urban drug markets are conducive to graft, Schneider insisted, citing the case of the infamous “Gold Coast” of Harlem during the 1970s which inspired corruption within the ranks of the New York Police Department.

With the official US unemployment rate nudging 10%, and with some economists predicting a long, jobless “recovery” from the 2008 economic crash, the type of urban drug markets chronicled by Schneider could have new, urgent meaning.

Schneider later told Frontera NorteSur that he hadn’t studied the specific links between drug trafficking and free trade agreements like NAFTA, but he observed how both legal and illegal commodities often follow the same trade routes. “The pathways are the same and frequently the entrepreneurs are the same-at least on the underground side,” Schneider said.

Institutionalizing the Drug Culture
Dr. Michael Agar, researcher for the Santa Fe-based Ethknoworks, detailed how the popularity of imported drugs like opium and heroin have waxed and waned over the decades, infiltrating different social classes and groups—from middle-class white women at the turn of the 20th century to working class immigrants in the 1940s and to suburban white youth at the end of the last century.

Despite decades of the drug war, the US market remains brisk. Even though some reductions in cocaine and methamphetamine use have been reported in recent years, large numbers of people still consume old drugs of fashion as well as newer ones like Ecstasy.

Also appearing at the El Paso conference, Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the US Health and Human Services‚ Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, the Center told a session at the historic Fox Theater in downtown El Paso that the 2008 National Drug Survey reported that there were at least 23 million US residents who needed treatment for alcohol and illicit drugs abuse. The huge population grouping, more or less the equivalent of the number of people residing in greater Mexico City, represents about 7% of the US population, Clark said. In the United States, eight million children lived with a drug dependent parent last year, he stressed.

Carolyn Esparza, director of Community Solutions of El Paso, a border non-profit that helps children of imprisoned adults, expanded on Clark’s points. A six-year-old organization, Esparza‚s organization has assisted 7,000 children of prisoners in El Paso. “We are just the tip of the iceberg,” Esparza said. The child advocate blamed much of the problem of families divided by the correctional system on lawbreakers who commit crimes due to drug and drinking habits but don’t receive treatment while incarcerated. One in seven school children in the US have a parent on probation, on parole or in jail, she said.

Mexico, meanwhile, is headed down the same path. Quoting sources from the federal attorney general’s office who participated in a national meeting at the beginning of October, Mexico‚s La Jornada newspaper reported that drug consumption among youths has risen 127 percent since December 2006, with addictions beginning at 10 years of age instead of 12 years of age as was previously the case.

In Mexico, the number of people addicted to illegal drugs is variously estimated between 600,000-900,000 individuals, though the country’s 2008 National Drug Addiction Survey reported that an estimated 4.5 million Mexicans used some kind of illegal drug that year.

A Cross-Border Laboratory for Substance Abuse
Straddling a common border, the binational metroplex of El Paso-Ciudad Juárez was an early laboratory where the multiple ingredients of war, trade, violence, drugs and vice were mixed together in a potent combination. An invited speaker at the El Paso conference, Dr. Oscar Martinez of the University of Arizona has written a classic book on the history of Ciudad Juárez.

“The destiny of Ciudad Juárez is tied to the destiny of the US,” Martinez said. “And it’s been that way for a long time.”

While much of the US media acts as if it has just discovered Mexico and its long-simmering social problems, Martinez‚s research documents how contraband smuggling, vice, drugs, corruption and arms trafficking emerged as significant issues in El Paso-Ciudad Juarez and other border cities more than a century ago.

A careful reading of Martinez shows how much of the underworld activity moved from north to south, especially but not exclusively during the Prohibition Era, in contrast to the contemporary media stories of violence and mayhem threatening to spill across the US border from Mexico.

For example, the ABW company founded by North Americans was at the center of the liquor and gaming industries in Baja California, financing the Tijuana race track on property owned by US rail and sugar businessman John D. Spreckel in the early part of the 20th century. In a prelude to the runaway textile and electronics plants of latter years, two Kentucky distilleries as well as sectors of US bar business simply relocated to Ciudad Juárez during Prohibition.

Conversely, El Paso and other US border cities have benefited from turmoil south of the border then and now. For more than 100 years, the US city has served as the recipient of migrant waves and capital infusions during economic and political upheavals across the Rio Grande, Martinez’s research reveals. Today, a new group of middle-class migrants is fleeing the carnage of Ciudad Juarez and putting its resources to work in El Paso.

“El Paso is benefiting tremendously from all this,” Martinez maintained, “and it reminds me of what happened during the Mexican Revolution.”

Antidotes to Crisis
The presenters of the El Paso conference expressed different opinions on how best to address the drug issue: many tended to agree that it is a complicated, multi-faceted phenomenon which eludes simple, one-size-fits all answers, whether it is blanket prohibition or outright legalization.

“I think people are beginning to see that we need to come up with some kind of complex balance and approach that takes all these things into consideration,” said Dr. Joe Heyman, UTEP professor of anthropology and conference co-organizer.

A fair bit of talk focused on community outreach and treatment programs. Federal official Clark insisted that the Obama administration is pursuing a different strategy than the “war on drugs” approach of the last 40 years, favoring instead a combination of strong public safety and strong treatment.

Ethnographer Agar spoke about grassroots-oriented, semi-spontaneous recovery movements in which communities discover the harm drugs do and begin breaking away from addiction cycles on their with little government-encouragement. An example of this has been witnessed with heroin in certain US communities, Agar said.

“We need to learn a lot more about when that happens and how to stimulate that, how to stimulate positive feedback processes in communities,” Agar added.

Both Quintana and Schneider contended that the state and society have to re-examine and change the economic roots of the drug crisis. Quintana advocated a new development policy for the Mexican countryside, which includes removing highly vulnerable basic grain crops from NAFTA, while Schneider proposed a new US urban economic policy as an alternative to the drug economy.

Without bigger changes, Schneider insisted, drug reform policies are practically “irrelevant.” Conceding that it’s difficult to reopen long-closed plants, Schneider nonetheless said, “We need to think about an economy of the 21st century that will employ people.”

UTEP Professor Heyman said that he hoped the intellectual sparks flying at the conference would ignite broader interest in the drug reform issue. For borderlands historian Oscar Martinez, El Paso represented an opportunity to consider the formation of a new organization that could take th conference on the road to other cities.

Addressing a crowd, Martinez called on people to show more empathy for the residents of Ciudad Juárez, reiterating that the city’s inhabitants are bound together with our own lives in myriad ways. Martinez received hardy applause when he urged people to take a stand. “We need to reach into our hearts and say: I too am from Juárez.”


This article first appeared Oct. 4 on Frontera NorteSur.


War on Drugs Conference, UTEP


Community Solutions of El Paso

From our Daily Report:

Mexico: massacre in Juárez, assassination in Michoacán
World War 4 Report, Sept. 3, 2009

See also:

A Textbook Case in Drug War Failure
from Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, July 2009


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Criminalization and Death for Indigenous Struggle

by José Quintero Weir, El Libertario, Caracas

The editorial collective of the Caracas anarchist journal El Libertario denounces the criminal attack that took place on Oct. 13, 2009 against the Yukpa people in the Sierra de Perijá in western Venezuela, resulting in two indigenous persons dead and several wounded. The following article—about the tactics and strategy of “Revolutionary Venezuelan” ethnocide—describes the events.

Old man Antonio used to say that the struggle is like a circle.
One can start anywhere
But it never ends.

—Subcomandante Marcos

This past October 12, what we have been denouncing for a long time as the ethnocide and ethno-devouring strategy of the current state-government of Venezuela reached a culmination: Chávez’s ministerial team came to award so-called title deeds to three indigenous Yukpa communities in the Sierra of Perijá, with the pretense to finish the process of land demarcation in the habitat belonging to these people. The absence of President Chávez was noteworthy in an event long awaited in the Sierra since the year 2002, when, by constitutional mandate, the State was supposed to finalize the process of land demarcation in all the indigenous territories in the country. Instead, an enormous deployment of soldiers blanketed the event, supposedly for the security of the ministers (Interior and Justice, Indigenous Peoples, among other functionaries present). Yet these soldiers, at the slightest sign of protest by those communities not favored by the event, went immediately into action to repress their demands. It was, in the end, an event by which the Yukpa had to forcefully accept the receipt of nothing.

It was known for weeks before that something was going to happen on the Yukpa side of the Sierra of Perijá. The Regional Demarcation Commission announced the date for awarding the title deeds, but said that it was for three communities: Aroy, Sirapta and Tinacoa, places where the government had already made a deal with the land owners who were in fact spared from giving land to the Yukpa—who received nothing but mountain and rocks, not arable lands, which were legally left in the hands of the land owners.

During this period, in coordinated actions, ministerial commissions headed by Diosdado Cabello (Chávez’s plenipotentiary Minister) and Tarek El Aissami (Interior and Justice) among others, got busy distributing bags of food, promising infrastructure works: schools, roads, hospitals and agricultural projects for those who would accept the give-away of October 12, and threatening those who would oppose it. At the same time, a military base was built in undemarcated Yukpa territory, which was loudly protested by the indigenous people who were repressed by the very same Diosdado Cabello, commissioned by Chávez for the task—since the base is linked to plans that we will discuss later in this article.

Meanwhile, the Chaktapa community and its leader Sabino Romero have become the pebble in the “transnational-Chavista” shoe, as it is the community that didn’t want to wait for the government’s demarcation that condescendingly recognizes the living spaces of these peoples, but instead…decided to reclaim their ancestral territories, occupying and controlling as communal land some six haciendas. For Chávez’s state-government and for the mining transnationals and land owners, this act has turned Sabino and his Chaktapa community into an enemy to defeat. For his daring, has been condemned to death—not as an indigenous warrior who is not for sale, but as a vulgar cattle rustler, a delinquent ready to kidnap and kill, someone linked to foreign military forces and an enemy of the state-government.

Thus, the act of giving land to the Yukpas on October 12 sealed the process by which Chávez’s state-government swallowed up part of the Yukpa communities headed by Efrain Romero of Sirapta and the cacique Olegario Romero—giving them a free hand to act against their own Yukpa brothers of Chaktapa headed by Sabino Romero. The excuse: a charge of cattle theft (120 head) by an ad hoc rancher in which Sabino Romero, the true leader in the struggle for Yukpa territory in the Sierra of Perijá, is directly accused.

Today, October 13, as I write these lines, Sabino is being rescued from Chaktapa with three gunshot wounds inflicted by Olegario’s people who, with the support of ranchers and the “revolutionary” government, attacked him, killing one of his sons-in-law, wounding two of his sons and a grand-daughter, while another of his sons has disappeared. All of this is the result of a grand strategy by the “Bolivarian revolution” regarding the demarcation of lands and indigenous habitats in the Sierra of Perijá.

Therefore, we responsibly denounce that President Hugo Chávez knew what was going to happen. That is why he didn’t attend the shameful act of October 12. We make this denunciation as we already begin to see the news on the state-owned channel trying to confuse the facts. Likewise, we read and listen to confusing reports by traditional opposition journalists and land-owners from Fegalago justifying the actions against Sabino and the Chaktapa community, paradoxically joining the state-government in this policy… Therefore we denounce that everything that happened or may happen is just the tactical execution of a political strategy of ethnocide and ethno-devouring, the policy by a government that continues to cling to the language of the poor to maintain what is truly essential: its power.

Within this strategy of permanence in power, Chávez has opted for the continuation of development projects combined with the exploitation of non-traditional minerals such as uranium—which is known to exist in the Yukpa region of the Perijá. Therefore, the state-government builds a military base contested by the Yukpa but defended, in the president’s name, by Diosdado Cabello as part of a Chávez-Iran project to exploit the uranium. At the same time, it gives a free hand to other mining projects and assures for the land-owners the territorial despoliation of the indigenous people.

We’ve had enough with honest comrades in solidarity with the indigenous struggle who continue to justify Chávez and place the guilt for the foolish policies against people on his bureaucracy. The guilty ones are the guilty ones, and in this case they are Chávez, Diosdado Cabello and Tarek El Aissami. These three will someday have to account for whatever happens to Sabino Romero and his community that, against all odds, continues in the struggle because they have decided that is their path and the path of all indigenous communities in the country.


This article first appeared Oct. 13 in El Libertario. Our translation is adapted from one provided by El Libertario’s Luis J. Prat.

From our Daily Report:

Hugo Chávez: Iran aids Venezuela uranium exploration
World War 4 Report, Oct. 18, 2009

Survival International: Colombian guerillas threaten Yukpa indigenous people
World War 4 Report, Feb. 6, 2008

Venezuela to militarize Colombian border
World War 4 Report, Nov. 10, 2008

Venezuela: indigenous people salute Zapatistas
World War 4 Report, July 26, 2007

See also:

Resource Wars on Venezuela’s Indigenous Frontier
from El Mundo/Libertario, Caracas
World War 4 Report, March 2009

See related story, this issue:

The Bolivarian Government Against Union Autonomy
by Rafael Uzcategui, Tierra y Libertad
World War 4 Report, November 2009


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution



The Bolivarian Government Against Union Autonomy

by Rafael Uzcategui, Tierra y Libertad

Orlando Chirino, a revolutionary Venezuelan labor leader, has recently denounced the Bolivarian government as “anti-worker and anti-union.” It would be difficult to accuse Chirino of being a “golpista” or an “ally of imperialism.” In the year 2002, he condemned the coup, mobilizing to defend the state oil industry from the work stoppage driven by management leadership. In each occasion presented him, he supported and accompanied workers’ attempts to control factories closed by their bosses. He is rooted among the workers and was made a leader in the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), the labor union promoted by his own president Hugo Chávez.

If Orlando has been part of the so-called Bolivarian movement for many years, what has happened in 2009 to get him to make these kinds of statements about the government he once defended? The main part of the answer is: because Chirino is an iron defender of the unions’ autonomy.

The attempt to control the workers’ movement from above began as soon as Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela. In 1999 a clash began with the traditional Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), a labor union created in 1947 by the influence of Acción Democrática [a center-left political party—AD], and changed, since 1959, into the main negotiator of the labor policies developed by the state. Nevertheless, in spite of Chavistas’ questions about the irregularities and vices of this organization, in the absence of their own labor movement, they participated in its internal elections in October 2001. The Bolivarian candidate, Aristóbulo Isturiz, was defeated by the AD candidate Carlos Ortega, who became the president of the CTV. A year and a half later, repeating the same history of the CTV, the government created by decree what it called “the real labor union”: the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT), which quickly reproduced the corruption that it claimed to fight.

One Marxist organization that participated in its foundation, Opción Obrera, says it more clearly than us: “The UNT was born under agreements from above, and was ridden for a show for the rank and file; few authentic union leaders had power in it…” The UNT was born with governmental protection, which lifted it up. The criticized ‘perks’ of the old CTV unionism are now granted to the leaders of the UNT, who are staunch supporters of the government.” Paradoxically, faced with the limited acceptance of the new labor union among the mass of workers, and the resistance of some sectors of the union to their cooptation, the Bolivarian power promoted new organizations in order to displace the UNT, as is the case of the Frente Socialista Bolivariano de los Trabajadores (FSBT).

A second milestone, justified with the argument of weakening the CTV bureaucracy, was the promotion of the so-called “union parallelism” [paralelismo sindical] from the seat of government, creating unions artificially, from outside, in the principal industries of the country. In this way Chavismo would be able to boast that with almost 700 registered unions, the Bolivarian process has promoted the organization of workers like nothing has before. However, this rise of the unions has not meant their greater influence on labor policies. One indicator is the end of the discussion of collective contracts in the public sector, with 243 expired, paralyzed and unsigned contracts at the end of 2007, in a sector that in May 2009 employs 2,244,413 people, a quarter of those employed by the private sector.

The decisions on salaries, labor conditions, and labor law are made unilaterally by the institutions of the state, after which they are mechanically ratified by the spokespersons of the UNT. In addition to the fragmentation and loss of capacity for pressure and negotiation, union parallelism has exacerbated the disputes for control of workplaces in the areas of oil and construction—in which the union can place 70 out of 100 recruits. This has increased the cases of assassination of union leaders and workers in inter-union strife. Between June 2008 and when this text was written, there have been 59 murders, that spread with the greatest impunity.

A third element is the creation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), a partisan body that, in president’s own words, should absorb all organizations that support the Bolivarian process, including the unions. A few defended the independence of the workers’ organizations, but dissent from the official line was not tolerated. In March of 2007 Chávez affirmed in a speech: “The unions should not be autonomous… We must end with that.” This was followed by successive declarations in the same line, reaching a zenith in March of 2009, when after ridiculing the demands of the basic industries of Guayana—the biggest industrial belt of the country—Chávez threatened to use the police to crush any attempts at demonstrations or strikes there. For a revolutionary like Orlando Chirino, it was unbearable. He stated at the time that it “constituted a declaration of war against the working class.”

Various initiatives are currently being developed to increase control over the country’s workers. For one thing, laws have been passed that limit and criminalize protest, requiring people to report periodically to the courts, in addition to prohibiting them from participation in meetings and demonstrations—such as occurred this past July 13 to five union leaders of the oil refinery of El Palito, in the west of the country. [The five refinery workers received a judicial order barring them from “promoting or initiating assemblies, gatherings or meetings that place in risk the normal functioning of installations of the petroleum complex.”]

According to spokespersons of the affected communities, at least 2,200 people would be currently subject to this scheme. It must be brought out that, curiously, more than 80% are part of the movement to support the national government. This detail is significant because since 2008 there has been increasing social unrest in the face of the miseries and limitations of material life for workers on the ground. The protests for social rights have displaced the mobilizations for political rights, that set the scene during the years 2002 and 2006. The failure to meet the expectations generated by Bolivarian rhetoric, the weakening of patronage networks by declining oil revenues, and the stagnation and decline of populist social policies (known as “missions”) have catalyzed the accumulated discontent in the absence of profound transformations to significantly improve the quality of life for the majority of the country.

Another initiative underway, again by decree from above, is the replacement of unions with “workers’ councils” for discussing working conditions in companies, a proposal entered in the reform of the Organic Labor Law (LOT) that has been discussed in secret in the National Assembly, a body that is promoted around the world as a champion of “participatory democracy.”

Other laws, that seem to have no connection to the world of work, have also been restricting workers’ rights. That’s the case with the reformed Law of Land Transit, which in its article 74 prohibits the closure of streets to obstruct pedestrian and vehicle traffic—the historical practice of protest by the popular sectors, especially in demanding their labor rights.

Meanwhile, on August 15 an Organic Law of Education was passed, which has provoked protest by opposition groups for its secularism and for establishing strict regulations for private education institutions. However, what this center-right and social-democratic opposition does not question—much less Chavismo—are the limitations to the right of association, unionization, and collective bargaining, which is not guaranteed [to education workers]. One sign of the reactionary character of the order is section 5.f of the first provision, which states that teachers and professors engage in serious misconduct “by physical aggression, speech, and other forms of violence” against their superiors. To make matters worse, the fifth provision regulates the use of scabs “for reasons of proven necessity” in order to break strikes and work stoppages—a practice that has become habitual in so-called “Bolivarian Venezuela.”

In addition, the Chavista movement has unleashed an onslaught against media outlets that don’t accommodate the government, whose principal concern is the visibility of the conflicts and protests that they provide in contrast to the scarce coverage of the state and para-state media—self-declared as “alternative and community,” but without editorial and financial independence of any kind.

The role of Venezuelan anarchists in this moment of fracture of Bolivarian hegemony is to participate, accompany, and radicalize the conflicts, from below and with the people—and in this way to stimulate the recovery of the belligerent autonomy of the social movements. They must also become actively involved in the construction of a different, revolutionary alternative to the inter-bourgeois conflict for the control of the oil revenues that has engulfed the political scene in recent years, fighting the Bolivarian bourgeoisie in power with the same impetus as the potential rearticulation of those political parties it has displaced. In this way we walk, as always, without giving any concession to power and having our old values—self-management, direct action, anti-capitalism and mutual aid—as a bright horizon.


Rafael Uzcátegui is a member of Venezuela’s anarcho-punk community, and a contributor to the Caracas anarchist journal El Libertario.

This article first appeared in the October issue of Tierra y Libertad, publication of the Iberian Anarchist Federation. Our translation is adapted from one that appears on the A-Infos anarchist news service.


“Defendiendo el derecho a la protesta social,” from Rafael Uzcátegui’s website, July 28, 2009 (on the unrest at El Palito refinery)

From our Daily Report:

Venezuela: two workers shot in plant sit-in
World War 4 Report, Feb. 3, 2009

Venezuela: three unionists murdered
World War 4 Report, Dec. 2, 2008

Venezuela: Human Rights Watch delegation expelled
World War 4 Report, Sept. 20, 2008

Venezuela: “operational emergency” in oil sector?
World War 4 Report, July 25, 2007

See also:

A Threat to What Was Won Through Struggle
from El Libertario, Caracas
World War 4 Report, December 2007


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution