Cold War Bias in Colombia?

Carlos Castano is not a name that comes up much in the debate over whether to escalate U.S. drug-war aid to Colombia. But policy-makers and politicians alike in America should be mindful of the alliances that he and other rightist paramilitaries there have made with Colombia’s drug syndicates, including the ones that are now ascendant after the mid-1990s decapitation of the once-powerful Cali cartel.

Instead, people from the Clinton administration’s drug czar to its opponents in Congress have focused only on the role played by Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, such as those in the FARC, in the drug trade. This bias takes on added importance — when you consider the effects it has on U.S. policy to aid the Colombian government in fighting insurgent leftist rebels.

America’s drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, wants to double current U.S. military aid to provide $600 million to help Colombia defense forces fight off the powerful leftist “narco-guerillas,” while Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) has recently succeeded in pushing the administration to arm Colombia with “Blackhawk” helicopter gunships to help in the fight. That begs the question: When looking at Colombia, do American politicians see only red?

A litany of drug involvement

Castano is not only the top commander of Colombia’s rightist paramilitary groups, he is also “a major cocaine trafficker,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Castano has given many interviews to journalists from a ranch compound in rural, northwestern Colombia that has been attacked by the country’s leftist guerrillas. Yet Colombian military commanders say they cannot find him. One reason may be that the Colombian military has long collaborated with the country’s rightist paramilitaries against the leftist guerrillas.

The military goes on ignoring Castano even though DEA’s then-chief of operations, Donnie Marshall, now the agency’s acting administrator, said in 1997 that Castano is “closely linked” to “the Henao Montoya organization,” which he told Congress is “the most powerful of the various independent trafficking groups” to emerge since the demise of the Cali cartel.

In fact, alliances between rightist paramilitaries and drug cartels are an old story in Colombia. Unlike its leftist guerrillas who have always been outlawed, rightist paramilitaries operated legally there until 1989. But that year, Colombia’s civilian government backed by its Supreme Court outlawed them because their movement had been taken over by Pablo Escobar, the late drug lord of the once-feared Medellin cartel.

What happened back in the late 1980s is that the paramilitaries became an armed wing of the Medellin-based drug lords who had declared war on the Colombian state. They were fighting over whether Colombia should extradite people like Escobar to the United States to stand trial there on drug trafficking charges. “The Extraditables,” as they called themselves in unsigned communiqués, terrorized Colombia through attacks like the 1989 bombing of Avianca flight HK-1803, which killed 111 passengers.

Colombian civilian investigators later linked the perpetrators of the attack to a group of paramilitaries based at Puerto Boyaca on the Magdelana river. They revealed that Escobar commanded the perpetrators of many paramilitary attacks including the Avianca bombing; he financed Israeli, British and other mercenaries who taught them techniques including altitude-sensitive detonation. Yair Klein, a reserve Israeli Army lieutenant colonel, and three more reserve Israeli military officers were indicted last year in absentia in Bogota for their alleged involvement in terrorist crimes.

Giving the paramilitaries a free ride

There is no doubt that Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, too, are deeply involved in the drug trade. Following U.S.-backed reduction efforts that have reduced coca production elsewhere in the Andes, Colombian peasants protected by leftist guerrillas today grow coca over areas comprising at least one-third of the country’s terrain. They now produce the raw coca leaf used to make about half of the world’s cocaine. But the guerrillas still earn just as much money, maybe more, through kidnappings and other forms of extortion against wealthier Colombians.

It is the rightist paramilitaries that are linked to the highest levels of the drug trade. In 1995, the Colombian judicial police reported that paramilitaries working clandestinely with local Army commanders were protecting peasants growing poppy plants to make heroin in the Magdalena valley. The paramilitaries control many if not most processing laboratories throughout the country. Moreover, U.S. Naval intelligence, DEA and CIA observers all report that among Colombia’s irregular armed groups only the paramilitaries dominate the storage and internal transport of heroin as well as cocaine.

After Colombia outlawed its paramilitaries in 1989, the Colombian military went on secretly collaborating with them for political reasons at the same time that the paramilitaries went on secretly collaborating with the country’s drug cartels to profit. The judicial police report accused Major Jorge Alberto Lazaro, a former local Army commander who graduated from the U.S. School of the Americas in 1981, of collaborating with illegal rightist paramilitaries financed by the suspected paramilitary leader and drug trafficker, Victor Carranza, who was later incarcerated and still awaits trial on charges of murder as well as commanding illegal.

The rightist paramilitaries have links to high drug trade levels paramilitary groups.

Other paramilitary leaders and military officers have been linked to even higher levels of the drug trade. The former Army commander in Cali, Gen. Hernando Camilo Zuniga, resigned as the military’s chief ¿of staff in 1996 after U.S. officials accused him of having protected the Cali cartel. Henry Loaiza, known to his confederates as “The Scorpion,” was the cartel’s underboss in charge of security. Loaiza was linked to many paramilitary massacres including the notorious Trujillo ones involving chainsaws near Cali, according to a government-sanctioned truth report. Loaiza was one of seven top cartel leaders apprehended by 1996 by Colombian forces backed jointly by the DEA and the CIA.

A boost to bloodletting

American officials like McCaffrey and Gilman have come to mimic Colombian military officers who have long exaggerated the importance of the country’s leftist guerrillas to the drug trade while ignoring the action of the rightist paramilitaries. Their misleading claims only lead the United States into another counterinsurgency quagmire. Colombia is already the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world after Israel, Egypt and Jordan. The U.S. military and intelligence presence in Colombia is larger now than it was in El Salvador a decade ago, making it the largest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort since Vietnam.

Back in 1994, when U.S. drug war aid to Colombia was just beginning to escalate, Amnesty International accused U.S. officials of turning a blind eye toward counterinsurgency efforts that also involved human-rights abuses. McCaffrey was then the chief of the U.S. Southern Command based in Panama. In response, he ordered an internal audit that found that 12 of 13 Colombian military units cited by Amnesty International as abusers had previously received either U.S. training or arms. But McCaffrey only buried the audit (Full disclosure: I later obtained the audit and broke the story in coordination with Amnesty International). Meanwhile, in public, McCaffrey began saying that, because of the guerrillas’ increased involvement in the drug trade, counterinsurgency and counterdrug measures had become “two sides of the same coin.”

U.S. military presence in Colombia is the largest since Vietnam

Colombia’s complex situation may look plain to McCaffrey, a soldier who has been fighting Marxist guerrillas since Vietnam. But the view held by the administration and its chief drug-war critic only reflects a Cold War bias that is wrong. Increasing military aid to Colombia will not curb the drug flow, although it will boost Colombia’s bloodletting.

Frank Smyth, a freelance journalist who has also served as an investigative consultant for Human Rights Watch as well as Amnesty International, is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff. His website is He is a regular commentator for