Did Bush Pledge Support for Colombia’s Top Terrorist and Drug Dealer in his Cartagena Photo-Op with Alvaro Uribe?

by Bill Weinberg

President Bush’s brief stop in Colombia on his return from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Chile on Nov. 22 brought this forgotten front in Washington’s war on terrorism briefly into the headlines. Bush promised Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe–his closest South American ally–to boost aid for his military campaign against so-called "narco-terrorists."

"Our two nations share in the struggle against drugs," Bush said during a joint press conference with Uribe at the Caribbean port of Cartagena. "The drug traffickers who practice violence and intimidation in this country send their addictive and deadly products to the United States."

Bush expressed optimism that Colombia can win its war against drugs and terrorism. "Colombia is well on the way to that victory," he said, adding that Uribe has built "an impressive record" since he took office in August 2002.

"We will win, but we have not won yet," Uribe chimed in. He added, using his favorite metaphor: "We have made progress, but the serpent is still alive." (AFPS, Nov. 24)

Uribe made sure to wear a Red Sox cap at the photo-op, in honor of Orlando Cabrera, the Boston shortstop who pledged his support to Bush after his team won the World Series in October–who was also on hand to wow the press. (NYT N23)

The top target of Uribe’s "anti-terrorist" campaign is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a 15,000-strong leftist guerilla force which Uribe’s army is currently battling in a major offensive in the country’s southern jungles, known as Plan Patriot. Days after Bush’s visit, Defense Minister Jorge Uribe (who was appointed by the president, but is not related to him) told reporters that informants said the FARC had instructed agents to "assassinate President Bush" in Cartagena. Bush was protected by 15,000 Colombian troops and police, US troops, and Secret Service agents during his three-hour stop in Colombia. (AP, Nov. 30)

Invisible Terror

Just two weeks before Bush’s Cartagena photo-op, 100 unarmed peasants were killed in a massacre by rightist paramilitary troops in Colombia’s southern jungle province of Putumayo. Survivors who fled across the border to Ecuador said the victims were cut to pieces with chainsaws and machetes while tied hanging from beams. Unlike the Bush visit, this failed to make headlines. (La Hora, Quito, Nov. 12, via Weekly News Update on the Americas)

Shortly after Bush’s visit, on Dec. 6, two Embera-Katio indigenous leaders were assassinated by gunmen who entered their reserve in Antioquia province. The three were Horacio Bailirin, former director of the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia (OIA); Arturo Domico, another OIA leader; and Misael Domico, former governor of the Embera-Katio reserve of Las Playas, in Apartado municipality, where the killings took place of. Witnesses said 10 heavily armed men in Colombian army uniforms carried out the killings, dumped the bodies in the nearby Rio Ibudo, and threatened to kill more if community members retrieved the bodies for a proper burial. This also failed to garner any headlines in the US. (ACIN statement, Dec. 9)

Much of the ongoing violence in the Colombian countryside does appear to be linked to drugs. The paras and guerillas appear to be at war for control over Colombia’s cocaine trade–the key to money, weapons and power in the country. Peasants who are forced to grow coca leaf for one side end up being targeted by the other. The peasants killed in the Putumayo massacre, for instance, we apparently working as hired hands to harvest coca on a jungle plantation. In June, the FARC was implicated in a similar massacre of peasant coca-growers in Norte de Santander province (see WW3 REPORT #100).

Officially, the US-backed Plan Colombia is aimed at putting an end to drug-related violence. In an August press conference in Washington, US Drug Czar John Walters claimed coca production has declined in Colombia by 30% over the past two years, and also boasted that 40% of US cocaine imports had been intercepted last year, thanks to international cooperation. (AP, Aug. 10)

But a new report critical of US policy in Colombia, "Going to Extremes," released by the DEC-based Latin America Working Group (LAWG), states that this has not resulted in a reduction in the amount of cocaine reaching the US–production in the Andean region as a whole has remained stable for 15 years, with Peru and Bolivia picking up the slack following the crackdown in Colombia. This is partially why Bush has expanded Plan Colombia into the Andean Initiative, with military aid packages for Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

And in spite of official optimism, Ricardo Vargas of Andean Action, a Colombian policy group, told the New York Times after Bush’s visit that coca production has spread from 12 of Colombia’s provinces to 23 in roughly the period that Plan Colombia–with its program of aerial herbicide-spraying of coca-growing areas–has been in effect. (NYT, Nov. 23)

The "Bogota Cartel"?

Critics also point to ongoing collaboration between the Colombian army and the ostensibly outlawed paramilitary groups. The paramilitary network known as the United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC) is (like the FARC) on the US State Department terrorist list. The problem, say rights organizations, is that Uribe is not fighting the AUC–his government is negotiating with them, while refusing to do so with the guerillas. Despite official denials, rights advocates continue to cite cooperation between the AUC and Colombia’s official military.

Since July, negotiations with the AUC have been taking place in a 142-square-mile safe haven in northwestern Cordoba province, where AUC leaders are not subject to arrest, and where their demobilized fighters are supposed to gather before they disarm. But the AUC paras maintain their reign of terror throughout much of the country, threatening peasant communities and imposing "war taxes" on them, and carrying out assassinations and massacres against the uncooperative.

Especially controversial are proposals for the AUC leaders to receive an amnesty from prison time for massacres and atrocities. A group of Colombian lawmakers has come together to draft a proposal requiring paramilitary bosses convicted in such cases to serve at least eight years, and return all property acquired illegally. Under the proposal, the penalties would be a government condition for any peace agreements with the paras. Lawmakers supporting the measure include both Rep. Wilson Borja Díaz, a former trade unionist injured in a 2000 para assassination attempt, and Sen. Rafael Pardo Rueda, a former defense minister who supports President Uribe. (Colombia Week, Nov. 22; NYT, Nov. 16)

The measure would apply to guerilla organizations too. But Uribe has shown little interest in resuming peace talks with the guerillas, broken off under his predecessor Andres Pastrana. In a Dec. 2 communique, the FARC proposed that a safe haven be established for the group in Valle del Cauca province–but insisted that Plan Patriot be called off before any talks resume. (ANNCOL Dec. 3)

Controversy has long raged over whether a new crime machine has consolidated since the rival cocaine cartels of Medellin and Cali were crushed in the 1990s. There may be legitimacy to rightist claims that the FARC aspires to become the "new cartel." But Uribe’s critics claim he has long maintained ties to the paras, who now control at least as great a share of the cocaine trade–if not greater. Critics increasingly speak of a "Bogota Cartel" which is emerging–with far closer links to Colombian officialdom than either the Medellin or Cali cartels ever maintained.

Coca or Oil?

And targets of AUC’s terror have included not only guerillas, but also (as in the recent Antioquia assassinations) Indians demanding their constitutional right to local autonomy and non-involvement in the war, and (as in the recent Putumayo massacre) peasants simply caught between all sides. Another key target has been trade unionists

In 2002, 184 trade unionists were killed in Colombia–82 of them teachers, according to the teacher’s union FECODE. (ANNCOL, Nov. 30) In 2003, 94 were killed, while 58 have been slain in 2004 as of press time. Altogether, 2,100 unionists have been slain since 1991. Nearly all are believed to be victims of AUC terror. Only 19 of these killings have been successfully prosecuted. (NYT, Nov. 18)

Oil workers opposing Uribe’s plan to privatize the state company Ecopetrol have been especially targeted by the paras–and they have nothing to do with the cocaine trade. The AUC and the FARC may be struggling for control of the cocaine trade. But the fast-growing US involvement in Colombia may have to do with control over another resource–oil.

The Iraq war and Middle East chaos have made South America’s oil resources more strategic to the US. Venezuela, bordering Colombia, is the fourth US supplier after Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Canada–and it is under the populist government of Hugo Chavez, a White House target for western hemisphere "regime change" second only to Cuba. Colombia itself is among the top 15 global suppliers to the US, and Uribe hopes to privatize the country’s industry as part of his push to join Bush’s Free Trade Area of the Americas.

One beneficiary of the escalated troop presence in Colombia is Occidental Petroleum–colloquially, "Oxy". Bush’s 2003 foreign operations budget request included $98 million to train and equip a Colombian army brigade to protect Oxy’s Cano-Limon pipeline linking the oilfields of Arauca province with the Caribbean. Arauca, the heart of Oxy’s operations, hosts the greatest concentration of US military advisors and has Colombia’s worst human rights situation. (See WW3 REPORT #43)

But the oil industry is seeking to expand beyond Arauca, on the Orinoco plains bordering Venezuela. Uribe is luring investment for Putumayo, in the Amazon basin bordering Ecuador, where a new bonanza of oil is said to await. Putumayo is now the epicenter of Uribe’s Patriot Plan offensive against the guerillas–which has largely been ineffective. Guerilla fighters melt into Putumayo’s jungle as the army approaches, leaving behind snipers and land mines to pick off government troops. Under close army protection, the firm Petrotesting Colombia is exploring for oil and gas deposits in Putumayo. The army hasn’t even been effective at protecting these operations–in recent months, FARC has burned nine Petrotesting tanker trucks, and killed one driver.

Uribe’s efforts to lure more transnational investment are paying off. ExxonMobil and the Brazilian giant Petrobras have recently signed offshore drilling contracts on what the New York Times calls "beneficial terms." Harken Energy–President Bush’s former firm–recently signed exploration contract.

Beneficial terms aren’t the only lure–Uribe also has to guarantee oil companies a modicum of security against guerilla attack. Towards this aim, he has launched a Presidential Councilor for Infrastructure Protection, which serves as a direct liaison between oil companies and the military.

Of course, the hardline Uribe has militarized the entire country since taking office. The New York Times reports that there are now army or national police troops operating in all of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities, filling in gap of some 200 since before Uribe took power. But critics note that those forces receiving the most US military aid are in Colombia’s oil zones. "Even if the Uribe government has launched offensives in other places, the US assistance has been in places that do have oil reserves," Adam Isacson of DC’s Center for International Policy told the Times. "Coincidence?" (NYT, Oct. 22)


Latin America Working Group:

Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program:


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 10, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution