Hollman Morris, Labeled ‘Terrorist,’ Finally Harvard-bound

Original Story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists’  blog.

For a month, U.S. officials in Bogotá told Colombian journalist Hollman Morris that his request for a U.S. visa to study at Harvard as a prestigious Nieman Fellow had been denied on grounds relating to terrorist activities as defined by the U.S. Patriot Act, and that the decision was permanent and that there were no grounds for appeal. It was the first time in the storied history of the Nieman Foundation that a journalist had been prohibited from traveling not by his own nation, such as, say, South Africa’s apartheid regime back in 1960, but by ours, noted Nieman Curator Bob Giles in the Los Angeles Times.

A coalition of groups including the Nieman Foundation, Human Rights Watch, CPJ, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (where Morris was also a fellow), the Open Society Institute, the Knight Foundation, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, the Inter-American Press Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, PEN American Center, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the North American Congress for Latin America rallied to Morris’ defense, publicly and privately imploring U.S. agencies to reverse the decision. Last week, the multilateral Organization of American States also asked the State Department to grant Morris the visa.

Morris wrote this afternoon in an e-mail to the above groups: “I just got out of the U.S. Embassy and they gave me the visa.” He went on: “I am very happy, and I know none of this would have been possible without you.”

CPJ and other groups are happy, too. Although the month-long denial of the visa raises questions that remain unanswered. Such as: Did U.S. officials accept information provided by their Colombian counterparts without independently verifying the claims? Did U.S. officials follow Colombia’s lead by (albeit temporarily) red-baiting one of Colombia’s most respected and critical journalists?

After news of the U.S. visa denial broke in Colombia, more than a few callers on radio and television talks threatened Morris’ life saying the U.S. decision was confirmation of his alleged “terrorist” ties.

This is a charge that has been levied against Morris before, by Colombian officials as high-ranking as President Alvaro Uribe, who has accused Morris of being “an accomplice of terrorism” over his reporting of the Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. But human rights groups suspect that senior Colombian officials have really lashed out at Morris over his reports on rightist paramilitary forces linked to senior Colombian government officials. At the same time, Morris was one of the Colombian journalists who was spied on and had phone calls and e-mails intercepted by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security under the Uribe administration.

Morris has frequently visited the United States, including in 2007 when he received the Human Rights Defender Award from Human Rights Watch. Morris’ Nieman Fellowship at Harvard starts in the fall.

Uribe, Courts Hold Critical Journalists in Contempt

Original story ran on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog

Daniel Coronell’s name didn’t come up in a hearing this week on Capitol Hill, even though CPJ had just learned that a Colombian court had ordered the arrest of the respected Canal Uno TV reporter and Semana magazine columnist over his work. Coronell is one of many journalists and human rights monitors who’ve lately been forced to defend themselves against irregular, if not bogus, criminal charges brought in Colombian courts. The hearing held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the House Foreign Affairs Committee did, however, hear important testimony from one of Coronell’s colleagues.

Hollman Morris, another respected TV journalist (his program CONTRAVÍA roughly translates as “The Other Way”), told Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) as well as Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-Penn.) that he recently learned that Colombian prosecutors were preparing criminal charges against him. By then Andrew Hudson of Human Rights First had already told the bipartisan commission that Colombian prosecutors had recently brought no less than 32 unfounded and “specious” criminal investigations against Colombians, including journalists as well as human rights investigators.

Morris, right, told members that he had been publicly, repeatedly, and falsely accused of purported offenses by Colombian officials as high-ranking as the nation’s head of state. Last month CPJ and Human Rights Watch wrote a joint letter to President Álvaro Uribe over the president’s latest accusation that Morris was an alleged “accomplice of terrorism.” (Three weeks later, CPJ reported that Colombia’s national intelligence service was spying on journalists, Supreme Court judges, opposition politicians, and officials in Uribe’s administration.) Uribe was hardly alone. Vice President Francisco Santos (himself a former journalist who was once kidnapped by FARC Marxist guerrillas, and whose family runs Bogotá’s largest daily, El Tiempo) and his cousin, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, have also accused Morris of having guerrilla ties.

These latest accusations against the CONTRAVÍA journalist came after Morris briefly interviewed four hostages–three police officers and one soldier–shortly before they were released by the FARC. But Morris told CPJ that he cut short the interviews once he realized that the hostages had been coerced by the FARC into giving scripted answers. Morris also neither aired the footage nor published the hostage’s testimonies. Nonetheless, Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced the opening of a criminal investigation of Morris for alleged terrorist ties.

“The recent barrage of accusations that you and senior members of your administration have launched against Morris undermines your commitment to freedom of expression,” HRW and CPJ jointly wrote to President Uribe on February 5. “Official comments linking journalists to any actor in Colombia’s internal armed conflict have resulted in serious threats and have led reporters to flee the country or to engage in self-censorship.” Morris this week told members of Congress that he has received some 50 death threats, many of which have come in the wake of public accusations by Uribe and other senior Colombian officials. Morris and his family have fled the country several times. A short documentary about the Colombian journalist, which was recently shown at the Sundance Film Festival, documented the stress this has caused not only Morris, but his wife and children as well.

The stories that may have really upset Uribe and other senior Colombian officials are Morris’ investigative reports into politically motivated violence, including assassinations by both rightist paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas in communities such as San José de Apartado. Morris’ reports have included evidence–also reported by HRW and others–that rightist paramilitaries responsible for much of the violence have been secretly backed by the Colombian military. In 2007, HRW gave Morris is its prestigious Human Rights Defender Award for his ground-breaking reporting.

Morris’s situation is not unique. Journalist Ignacio “Nacho” Gómez went into exile twice, years before Uribe took office, each time after uncovering evidence of ties between illegal rightist paramilitaries and the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Gómez spent a year in exile as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University before returning to Colombia to work at Canal Uno. He found himself in trouble again after reporting on links between then-presidential candidate Uribe and the Medellín drug cartel. After the report aired, Gómez and Coronell, the show’s news director at the time, receive death threats. CPJ gave Gómez its International Press Freedom Award in 2002.

Coronell went in exile with his family in 2005 after receiving a series of threats, including two funeral wreaths predicting his death. (That same year, CPJ documented widespread self-censorship in Colombia inspired by intimidation and threats.) An inquiry by local authorities later showed that intimidating e-mails targeting Coronell and, shockingly, his toddler daughter had been sent from the computer of former Congressman Carlos Náder Simmonds, a close friend of Uribe. Náder later admitted sending one of the e-mails, but said it was misinterpreted. He was never charged.

Coronell returned to Colombia to continue reporting for print and television. Last year, Coronell, and Canal Uno aired a previously taped interview with former Congresswoman Yidis Medina that ignited nationwide controversy. In the interview, Medina alleged that high-ranking officials had offered her bribes in exchange for her vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe to seek re-election in 2006 for a second four-year term. Summoned to testify, Uribe called for a criminal investigation–into Coronell. He claimed the journalist broke the law by airing instead of immediately disclosing the videotaped interview.

Another witness before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission was Liliana Andrea Avila of the Jesuit-run Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace. She noted that human rights defenders have found themselves targeted for investigation after reporting evidence of paramilitary violence, including ties to the U.S.-backed Colombian military. Human Rights First and the Tom Lantos Commission found the same in their report and hearing, both titled, “In the Dock and Under the Gun.”

It’s not unlike the situations facing the journalists Gómez, Morris, and Coronell.

U.S. Arms for Terrorists?

Original story found here.

The Colombian police heard in early May that a big deal was going down inside a gated luxury community southwest of Bogotá. On May 3 they followed Colombian suspects, two of whom turned out to be retired Colombian Army officers, to a house filled with twenty-nine metal crates of arms and 32,000 rounds of ammunition. The police were still taking inventory of the cache when two more suspects knocked on the door. The police arrested them, only to learn they were US soldiers. The Colombian police said the arms were bound for an illegal paramilitary group that the State Department considers to be both a drug-trafficking and a terrorist organization.

The community of Carmen de Apicalá, where the arms were found, is only a short drive from Colombia’s Tolemaida military base, home to US Black Hawk helicopters and the place where US Special Forces train Colombian troops in combat skills. For convenience as well as security, many US military personnel and contractors rent condominiums in Carmen de Apicalá. “It’s a lot of ammunition, and it’s a very suspicious case,” Colombia’s police commander, Gen. Jorge Castro, told local radio. Colombian lawmakers in Bogotá said the US Ambassador, William Wood, should explain the circumstances to the Colombian Congress.

The State Department spokesman in Washington, Richard Boucher, denied that the arms were part of a secret US effort to arm Colombian paramilitaries. But he still refuses to say whether the arms are part of the unprecedented $3.3 billion in military aid the United States began sending in 2000 as part of Plan Colombia. The Colombian attorney general’s office, which is now investigating the case, said that the arms had been diverted from US stockpiles. The Colombian television station RCN broadcast footage of arms with US markings.

The case comes at a time when the Colombian government, led by President Álvaro Uribe, is negotiating a broad amnesty for Colombian paramilitaries. Known by their supporters as “self-defense” groups, Colombian paramilitaries have long been responsible for most of the country’s politically motivated massacres and murders, which often target peasants, trade unionists and students they suspect of supporting leftist guerrillas. The rightist paramilitaries have also long been accused of secretly collaborating with the military to carry out death squad crimes.

“I think that it’s probably fair to say that there is [sic] some episodes of contact between Colombian military and these so-called self-defense forces,” Roger Noriega, the senior State Department official for Latin America, told Congress during questioning eight days after the Bogotá arrests, adding that such “episodes” are against Colombian law and US policy. Yet, in nearly every region of the country, Colombian military officers of all ranks have been found to be secretly collaborating with rightist paramilitaries, and only a few have ever been seriously prosecuted.

The United States itself has long been ambivalent about Colombia’s paramilitaries. Back in the 1960s the US military, according to its own documents, encouraged the Colombian military to organize rightist paramilitary forces to help fight leftist guerrillas. By the early 1980s, Colombian drug traffickers and large landowners together organized the paramilitaries into a national force to ward off kidnappings and other forms of extortion by leftist guerrillas. But by the end of the decade, the government had outlawed paramilitaries after one group trained by the late drug lord Pablo Escobar blew up a Colombian airliner.

The Colombian military soon found a new way to maintain contacts with illegal paramilitaries, however. In the fall of 1990, according to a letter from the Pentagon to Senator Patrick Leahy, the US military helped its Colombian counterpart make its intelligence networks “more efficient and effective.” It was instructed, according to an April 1991 classified Colombian military order, to keep its operations “covert” and “compartmentalized,” to use only “retired or active-duty Officers or Non-commissioned Officers” as liaisons, and not to put orders “in writing.”

One new intelligence network killed at least fifty-seven people, including trade unionists, community leaders and a journalist, according to judicial testimony. But charges were dropped after most of the witnesses were either murdered or disappeared. In 2001 a former Colombian Army general, Rito Alejo del Rio, was arrested by Colombian authorities from the attorney general’s office on charges that he allegedly collaborated with illegal paramilitaries. But these charges, too, were soon dismissed, and the country’s top two civilian prosecutors fled the country.

Later that year (one day before 9/11, ironically), the US State Department finally put Colombia’s largest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, on its list of terrorist organizations. In 2002 US authorities announced that the AUC was implicated in trading drugs for arms with none other than Al Qaeda. US authorities finally began indicting more Colombian rightist paramilitary leaders on drug charges, after having already indicted Colombian leftist guerrilla leaders on drug charges.

The May arrests of two US military officers for allegedly running arms to AUC paramilitaries raises many questions. US warrant officer Allan Tanquary and Sgt. Jesus Hernandez are now back in the United States, where officials say they may face criminal charges. “We’re committed,” said spokesman Boucher, “to a full investigation.”

Colombia Briefing: Bad Press

The original story ran here on the Committee to Protect Journalists website

This Colombian warlord cultivates journalists. He also murders them. For Carlos Castaño, it’s all about image.

Bogotá — On May 3, 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño to its annual list of the ten worst enemies of the press. Six weeks later, a reporter from the Paris daily Le Monde caught up with Castaño in northern Colombia and asked how he felt about the distinction.

“I would like to assure you that I have always respected the freedom and subjectivity of the press,” said the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Colombia’s leading right-wing paramilitary organization. “But I have never accepted that journalism can become an arm at the service of one of the actors of the conflict. Over the course of its existence the AUC has executed two local journalists who were in fact guerrillas.” He no longer remembered their names.

Since 1999, in fact, forces under Castaño’s command have been linked to the murders of at least four journalists, the abduction and rape of one reporter, and threats against many others, according to CPJ research. “Against the violent backdrop of Colombia’s escalating civil war, in which all sides have targeted journalists, Carlos Castaño stands out as a ruthless enemy of the press,” CPJ’s citation noted.

This self-confessed murderer of journalists is now turning to the local press in an effort to rehabilitate his image in Colombia. To that end, Castaño has launched a uniquely Colombian public relations campaign, seemingly modeled after tactics employed by legendary drug lord Pablo Escobar. Not unlike Escobar, Castaño’s strategy combines a charm offensive with forthright acknowledgements of the AUC’s use of terror.

While Escobar attacked journalists who favored his extradition to the United States to face drug trafficking charges, Castaño attacks any journalist whom he suspects of cooperating or even sympathizing with Colombia’s left-wing rebels. This year, Castaño admitted that he had murdered journalists and tried to bomb a newspaper for its alleged communist sympathies. He has been implicated in many other attacks on the press in recent years.

In November 2000, Castaño granted an exclusive interview to the Bogotá weekly Semana. The reporter asked whether Castaño thought he deserved to be compared to the late Escobar. “There is no way you can compare me with a monster like that,” replied Castaño. “While he sought to destroy the country, I intend to save it.”

Old war

Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War remains hot in Colombia. The U.S.-backed Colombian military has been fighting against various Marxist guerrilla organizations (see sidebar) for nearly forty years. The army frequently collaborates with private paramilitary groups, including the AUC, which the Colombian government has outlawed. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the army’s 18 brigades were sharing intelligence and other resources with rightist paramilitary groups, most of them under Castaño’s command.

Since the 1980s, both right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas have increasingly been supported by profits from Colombia’s burgeoning trade in illegal drugs.

Carlos Castaño is Colombia’s top paramilitary leader as well as the country’s leading fugitive. He is currently wanted on multiple murder, kidnapping, and arms trafficking charges dating back to 1988. He is also “a major drug trafficker,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Last April, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Anne W. Patterson told the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador that if Castaño is involved in drug trafficking, “and we think he is,” the United States might one day seek to prosecute him in the United States.

Childhood memories

In 1981, when Carlos Castaño was 15 years old, his father was kidnapped and murdered by leftist guerrillas. At 23, he allegedly participated in a series of massacres of banana pickers in northwestern Colombia. Also known as “Monoleche” (Milkwhite) because of his fair complexion, Carlos allegedly killed at the side of his brother Fidel, and both brothers joined Colombia’s first national paramilitary organization, “Death to Kidnappers” (MAS).

According to DEA documents, MAS was founded in 1981 by Escobar’s Medellín cartel. But the Castaño brothers and Escobar later fell out. Fidel Castaño became chief of operations for a paramilitary strike force called “Los Pepes” (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). Following Fidel’s mysterious 1994 disappearance in northern Colombia, Carlos emerged as Colombia’s leading anti-communist militant.

Three years later, Carlos Castaño unified a number of regional rightist groups to form a national paramilitary organization called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 1997, Castaño admits, he ordered the massacre of 49 peasants in rural Mapiripán, eastern Colombia. Since then, Castaño and his allies have committed about 80 percent of Colombia’s human rights abuses, according to Human Rights Watch. The Colombian Defense Ministry reports that rightist paramilitaries carried out three-fourths of the country’s massacres last year.

“Guerrillas, whether in uniform or civilian clothes, remain a legitimate military objective,” Castaño said on camera on March 1, 2000, when he showed his face to Colombians and others for the first time. “I know this violates international humanitarian law.”

On May 30 of this year, Castaño issued a cryptic online communiqué announcing his resignation as military commander of the outlawed AUC. Days later, he announced that he was forming a nonviolent political organization, linked to the AUC, that would seek legal recognition in Colombia (none was granted). And he continued to grant interviews.

AUC meets the press

Journalists have figured prominently among Castaño’s victims. In January 1999, for example, Castaño repeatedly threatened Alfredo Molano Bravo of the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador after Molano wrote a story about anti-communist paramilitary groups and their ties to Colombian drug traffickers.

In June 1999, AUC members threatened Carlos Pulgarín, a reporter for Bogotá’s largest daily, El Tiempo, after Pulgarín wrote an article about paramilitary assassinations of indigenous activists. Pulgarín fled to Peru, where his movements were apparently monitored; he later received telephone threats in Lima.

On September 16, 1999, two assassins on a motorcycle shot and killed Guzmán Quintero Torres, editor of the northern Colombian daily El Pilón. Quintero was investigating several AUC-linked murders at the time, including the 1998 slaying of television journalist Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares, who was killed after she reported that local paramilitary forces had murdered peasants.

On September 9, 2000, AUC paramilitaries abducted and killed a rural community leader named Carlos José Restrepo Rocha, who ran two small regional publications. AUC fliers were left next to Restrepo Rocha’s bullet-ridden corpse, but the motive for this particular murder remains unclear. Later that year, AUC members threatened Eduardo Luque Díaz, of the daily La Nación, at his office and home, demanding that he reveal the whereabouts of a family he had mentioned in a story.

On April 27 of this year, Flavio Bedoya, a southwesternColombia correspondent for the Communist Party weekly La Voz, was murdered. Colleagues believed the murder was linked to a series of highly critical reports that Bedoya had published in La Voz since the beginning of April about collusion between the security forces and outlawed right-wing paramilitary gangs in southern Nariño Department.

One month after Bedoya’s death, the AUC tried unsuccessfully to bomb the Bogotá offices of La Voz. Castaño took responsibility for the incident a few days later.

On October 31, 2000, rural community radio station director Juan Camilo Restrepo Guerra was summoned to a meeting by rightist paramilitaries who were apparently incensed by his sharp criticisms of the local administration. Restrepo Guerra’s brother drove him on a motorcycle to the rendezvous site. The paramilitaries shot Restrepo Guerra dead in front of his brother, who has since declined to testify and has gone into hiding.

Journalists who choose to remain in Colombia despite Castaño’s intimidation privately admit that they censor their own reports to protect themselves and their families. “Of course I censor myself,” said one threatened journalist who elected to stay. “You have to tell the story, but there are some things I can’t include.”

Carrot and stick

Although journalists all over Colombia have been threatened and attacked for daring to criticize the AUC, Castaño has also used the press to launch a PR offensive. The formerly reclusive leader has “gained public visibility in the national and international media with disconcerting ease,” according to a March 2001 report by the United Nations human rights office in Colombia.

“Carlos Castaño, Colombia’s fugitive paramilitary leader, unleashed a national stir when he stepped from the shadows and submitted to a ninety-minute, one-on-one interview, televised on March 1 [2000],” wrote then-U.S. Ambassador Curtis W. Kamman in a recently declassified U.S. embassy cable. “The 35-year-old Castaño appeared intelligent, articulate, well-poised, and, above all, very charismatic.”

Nearly one in five Colombian adults watched at least half the program, about the same percentage that supports Castaño, according to opinion polls. Since that first television appearance, Castaño has made himself freely available to both domestic and foreign reporters.

The Garzón murder

While Castaño has been linked to numerous attacks on the press, he currently faces just one criminal charge over an attack on a journalist. The charge, aggravated homicide, relates to the 1999 murder of Colombian television host Jaime Garzón. According to the official charge sheet, Castaño ordered Garzón’s murder because of the journalist’s role in negotiating the release of hostages held by leftist guerrillas.

The 39-year-old Garzón was a morning news host for the Caracol network and a regular columnist for the weekly magazine Cambio. But Garzón was best known for his work as a television comedian who used humor to criticize all factions in the civil conflict. He specialized in uncannily accurate impersonations of Colombian officials and other notables and was so popular across Colombia that in 1997, then-presidential candidate Andrés Pastrana Arango appeared live with other candidates on his TV show.

Garzón regularly traded on his stature as a well-respected broadcaster to negotiate for the release of victims of guerrilla kidnappings. He also served on an independent commission that mediated between the government and the leftist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Two points emerge clearly from the Garzón case. First, some of Colombia’s most dangerous criminals work for Carlos Castaño; and second, not even famous and well-connected journalists are safe from him.

On August 10, 1999, Garzón heard that Castaño was planning to kill him. The news was conveyed by a Colombian senator named Piedad Córdoba, who chaired the Senate’s human rights committee at the time. In late 1998, Castaño’s men kidnapped Córdoba and held her for nine months. During that time, Castaño told Córdoba that Garzón was on his list of targets. Castaño read her excerpts from what he said were transcripts of Garzón’s private telephone conversations. He claimed that the transcripts proved Garzón was really a guerrilla.

After Córdoba was released in June 1999, she told Garzón that Castaño was planning to eliminate him. During the second week of August, Garzón learned that Castaño had ordered him killed by the end of that week. On August 10, desperate to get in touch with Castaño, Garzón visited La Modelo prison, a maximum-security installation in Bogotá where several important AUC figures are incarcerated.

According to the charge sheet, Garzón met with Ángel Custodio Gaitán Mahecha, also known as “The Baker,” and with Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as “Popeye.” Velásquez was an early 1990s Escobar loyalist who later transferred his allegiance to the AUC. Both were well-connected members of the Colombian underworld.

Gaitán used his cell phone to call Castaño. He handed the phone to Garzón, who pleaded with Castaño to spare his life. Castaño called Garzón a son of a bitch who supported the guerrillas and added that he was a coward who didn’t have the guts to meet him face to face. Before hanging up, the two men arranged to meet the following Saturday, August 14.

On August 13, a motorcycle-riding gunman shot Garzón dead at a traffic light just four blocks from his office. A few hours later, Castaño himself called Garzón’s radio show and denied responsibility on the air. Velásquez and Gaitán also claim they had nothing to do with Garzón’s death.

The gunman who shot Garzón allegedly belonged to a criminal band known as La Terraza. In the past, La Terraza carried out attacks for the late Pablo Escobar. However, Castaño admits he has hired La Terraza to carry out a number of crimes in recent years, including kidnappings. The official government charge sheet accuses him of hiring La Terraza to kill Garzón.

On August 3, 2000, three months after Castaño was formally charged with Garzón’s murder, he invited seven La Terraza leaders to a meeting in northern Colombia. Authorities later discovered all seven of their corpses near a local road. Meanwhile, Castaño issued a communiqué saying that the AUC had executed them for giving leaders like him a bad name.

Three months later, several young men who claimed to be La Terraza members surfaced in Medellín. Wearing masks, they taped a television interview in which they claimed to have committed many kidnappings and murders on behalf of the AUC, including the Garzón assassination. During the interview, they claimed that Castaño was planning to kill them and their families with the help of local police and military forces. Castaño did not deny the accusation. In March 2001, he told El Tiempo that only one or two members of the band were still alive.

War on El Espectador

On May 24, 2000, a suspected AUC militant tried to abduct Ignacio Gómez, an investigative reporter with El Espectador, in downtown Bogotá. The man who failed to trick Gómez into boarding a “taxi” that day matched the composite sketch of an AUC suspect in the massacre of 49 peasant farmers at Mapiripán in 1997.

Gómez had just published a story that documented the Colombian Army’s collaboration with the AUC in the Mapiripán massacre. That same day, Gómez found an envelope with his name stenciled on it in his mailbox at work. The envelope contained a photocopy of a recent article by Jineth Bedoya, one of his colleagues at El Espectador.

Bedoya had reported that La Modelo prison guards were allowing AUC inmates to keep guns in their cells even after clashes between them and other inmates that left 25 prisoners dead, 18 wounded, and an undetermined number missing, according to a United Nations report on the incident.

Bedoya and her editor, Jorge Cardona, received identical envelopes. An hour and a half later, Bedoya’s telephone rang. Gaitán was calling from his cell in La Modelo. He offered Bedoya the opportunity to interview him at the prison at 10:00 a.m. the next day. He promised the 25-year-old reporter an exclusive and asked her to come alone.

Cardona insisted on accompanying Bedoya and on bringing a photographer. The three El Espectador journalists arrived at La Modelo shortly before 10:00 a.m. on May 25. Prison guards told them to wait.

The visitors waiting area is just inside the entrance to La Modelo, although many visitors prefer to wait in the street just outside the entrance. Cardona and the photographer walked to a nearby concession stand to buy sodas, leaving Bedoya standing in front of the prison entrance. She stayed within view and earshot of the waiting area in case the guards cleared them to enter the jail.

Bedoya disappeared during the few minutes it took her colleagues to buy the sodas and return to the prison entrance. The prison guards claimed they had seen nothing.

At 8 p.m., the police reported that Bedoya had been admitted to a police medical clinic in the city of Villavicencio, a three-hour drive from La Modelo. A taxi driver found her lying with her hands tied in a garbage dump on the outskirts of town. She had been drugged, brutally beaten, and sexually assaulted. Bedoya was found in a state of nervous collapse but eventually recovered from the attack and returned to work at El Espectador.

During the assault, the men told her in graphic detail about all the other journalists whom they planned to kill, including her colleague Gómez. They did not explain why they chose to free her. A week later, Gómez fled to the United States.

No suspects have been charged in the attack on Bedoya. Gaitán and Velásquez both denied any role in her abduction, as do La Modelo prison authorities.

In a June 2000 interview with El Tiempo, Castaño also disclaimed responsibility for Bedoya’s ordeal. He acknowledged that Gaitán was his subordinate, but claimed that Gaitán had assured him he was not involved.

On the evening of September 7, 2001, Gaitán was murdered in a prison called La Picota. He was apparently killed by leftist guerrilla inmates in retaliation for last year’s jailhouse massacre at La Modelo.

The hunt for Castaño

Since the death of Pablo Escobar, no Colombian has terrorized so many members of the Colombian press, to say nothing of Colombian society in general. Carlos Castaño’s extraordinary assault against local journalists comes as the Colombian government is receiving a record amount of U.S. aid. On September 10, as U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell was about to leave on a visit to Colombia, the State Department formally designated the AUC as a terrorist organization.

Yet U.S.-backed Colombian forces have so far been powerless to stop Castaño. As a result, he has enjoyed complete impunity for his crimes. The Attorney General’s Office was the only Colombian law enforcement agency that even tried to pursue Castaño. Earlier this year, its civilian agents launched a series of raids against the AUC. But they complained of working without the support of the military or other government bodies. “In this struggle…the Attorney General’s Office has been alone,” chief investigator Pablo Elías González told El Tiempo in June 2000.

At that time, the AUC had just kidnapped seven members of González’s staff while they were exhuming the corpse of an alleged AUC victim in Cesar State. All seven investigators remain missing and are presumed dead at the hands of Castaño’s men.

Leftist guerrilla attacks on the press

Carlos Castaño is by no means the only threat to the embattled Colombian press. The country’s two main leftist guerrilla organizations, the ELN and the FARC, have both threatened and kidnapped dozens of journalists in recent years.

The FARC kidnapped seven journalists in October 1999 and held them for five days. El Tiempo editor Francisco Santos (who was once kidnapped by Pablo Escobar) has also been threatened by the FARC and is now living in Spain. And RCN television correspondent Claudia Gurisatti received FARC threats last year after the station aired her interview with Castaño. Both Santos and Gurisatti have since fled into exile.

There are indications that FARC was responsible for the December 13, 2000, killing of radio station director Alfredo Abad López, according to reliable Colombian sources. Abad was the director of Voz de la Selva (“Voice of the Jungle”), an affiliate of the national Caracol radio network in the southern Colombian city of Florencia. Just before his death, Abad had conducted an on-air discussion on whether the government should renew its grant of a Switzerland-sized chunk of territory to the FARC. A majority of the callers apparently opposed renewal.

The FARC has also been linked to the July 6 killing of José Duviel Vásquez Arias, who took over as news director of Voz de la Selva after Abad was murdered. Vásquez’s last broadcasts dealt with an AUC communiqué announcing changes in local leadership and promising to refrain from kidnapping and extortion.

On May 23, 2001, FARC guerrillas briefly detained three employees of the Medellín daily El Colombiano, according to the Colombian press freedom organization FLIP (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa). Correspondent Gustavo Gallo Machado, photographer Donaldo de Jesús Zuluaga Velilla, and driver Ramón Morales were held for several hours, and their vehicle was damaged. That same day, FLIP reported, an urban faction of the ELN distributed a pamphlet directed at all Colombian journalists, who were warned to avoid partiality.

Frank Smyth is an investigative reporter and CPJ’s Washington representative.

Drug War Blues

“Drug Wars,” Frontline, Public Broadcasting Service, October 9 and 10, 2000.
“Drug Wars,” Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, October 3, 2000.

What kind of a man would stand up to the Republican mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, and tell him flat out that he is wrong? Tell him, “No, Rudy, just busting addicts doesn’t clean up the streets like you say. In fact, it does just the opposite. Busting ’em raises crime.” I can think of one guy, a lifelong Republican who held a much higher office. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon will always be known for his cover-up of the Watergate Hotel break-in, but who would have thought that he would have taken such a radical stance on drugs? “A program of law enforcement alone is not enough,” a composed President Nixon is seen saying in a two-hour Public Broadcasting System (PBS) Frontline series, “because as we succeed in the law enforcement side, we may increase crime, increase crime because of the inability of those who are unable to obtain drugs to feed their habit, and so this means on the treatment of addicts we go parallel with a program that is strong in this field,” a program that uses methadone as a substitute for heroin. Why would our government ever substitute one drug for another? Because methadone works and Nixon knew it.

The PBS Frontline documentary Drug Wars was reported and produced by a team led by former CBS News 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman. The result is the most comprehensive treatment of U.S. counter-narcotics policy available on film. Drug Wars credits and builds upon the path-breaking work of the 1998 book, The Fix, by Michael Massing, which documented Nixon’s unconventional drug policies. The PBS series was produced in coordination with National Public Radio (NPR) in a live panel moderated by Juan Williams at Georgetown University Law Center. The speakers included many of the same former U.S. drug control officials who appear in the Frontline series. Their collective discussion of the drug war includes many telling anecdotes and other surprises, especially about policies at home.

Yet anyone seeking to understand current U.S. counter-narcotics policies overseas will be disappointed by both productions. While they each answer the compelling question “How did we get to the point where we are now in the drug war?,” they barely mention the $1.3 billion in military aid that the United States is now providing to Colombia. This latest package has led the Andean nation to surpass El Salvador as the site of the largest U.S.-backed counter-insurgency effort since the Vietnam War.

What the PBS documentary does do is present Colombian drug traffickers like two of the infamous Ochoa brothers on camera for the first time. They chronicle the rise of the cocaine trade from the late 1970s into the early 1990s and its spread to other nations, including the Bahamas and Mexico. Their exclusive interviews underscore a point that is also made in the film by none other than another former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, when he said that trying to stop drugs from crossing borders is as futile as “carrying water in a sieve.”

Both the PBS series and the NPR panel also present a number of former American drug war veterans who have since changed their own views. William Alden was the second-in-command of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for seven years beginning in 1986, the year the college basketball star, Len Bias, died from a new cocaine-based drug called “crack.” Although he once championed law enforcement efforts to control the problem, Alden now says, like Nixon did nearly three decades
ago, that this approach does not work by itself. Jack Lawn was Alden’s boss at the DEA under President Reagan, and he too told Frontline the same thing. The shifts in the U.S. policy pendulum between law enforcement and drug treatment is a thread throughout the PBS film.

The Vietnam Crisis

Why was Nixon the first to prioritize treatment for drug addicts? He was no fan of either the drug culture or the Haight-Ashbury crowd in San Francisco that unabashedly promoted marijuana and LSD while protesting the Vietnam War. However, cracking down on the cultural revolution that was part of the anti-war movement, notes author Michael Massing in the PBS documentary, might not have been to Nixon’s political advantage. When it came to drugs, his attention was focused elsewhere. As U.S. support for
South Vietnam was declining and U.S. servicemen were returning home by the thousands, two U.S. congressmen coming back from South Vietnam broke the news to the nation in April 1971. Robert Steele, a Republican from Connecticut, and Morgan Murphy, a Democrat from Illinois, told the country that 10 to 15 percent of returning GI’s were addicted to heroin.

Purple Heart bearers were among those coming back on smack, and Nixon was determined to use state-of-the-art treatment to help them get clean. Drug abuse is “public enemy number one in the United States” and it “is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive,” he said in the White House pressroom in June 1971. President Nixon was standing next to a psychiatrist, Jerome Jaffe, who once taught at Yeshiva University in the Bronx. “I consider this problem so urgent,” Nixon went on, “that it had to be brought into the White House.” Nixon was the first U.S. president to create an executive office to coordinate a national policy on drugs, and he picked Jaffe to run it on the strength of his successful heroin treatment programs in Illinois. Jaffe had become the nation’s “drug czar,” seventeen years before journalists coined the term to describe William Bennett’s job in the Bush administration.

Like Bennet, Jaffe was no moralist. Instead, the Nixon administration favored a pragmatic approach and Jaffe was given the budget and resources to make methadone available to heroin addicts nationwide. Within just one year in the wait for treatment in New York City dropped from six months to less than one month. Nationwide, the number of clients in federally funded treatment programs tripled to 60,000 by the fall of 1972. Although Nixon prioritized treatment in his national plan, he also included law enforcement efforts and diplomacy. U.S. pressure and support helped compel France and other states to break up the infamous French connection in 1972 for heroin en route from Asia to the United States. France was a key trans-shipment nation for heroin smugglers.

The combination worked and crime plunged. Crime in the District of Columbia had dropped by half, Nixon told voters as he campaigned against Democratic challenger, George McGovern, in 1972. In New York City, crime dropped 21.1 percent in the first five months of the year. Though in public much credit was given to law enforcement, Nixon privately acknowledged the importance of treatment for the policy’s success. Indicative of the drug war debate to come, Nixon was in a helicopter over New York City when he pointed down to Brooklyn and said to one of his aides, “You and I care about treatment, but those people down there, they want those people off the street.”

While Nixon continued treatment programs, he also escalated law enforcement efforts. In 1973, after he won re-election, he created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and, by the time he was forced to resign later in the year over Watergate, civil liberty abuses by DEA special agents were already rising.


While Nixon’s legacy in the drug war remains as controversial as it was mixed, his Republican successor, Gerald Ford, backed off from all previously instigated policy initiatives, just as the nation’s attitudes toward drugs seemed to be changing. By then heroin treatment had helped enough addicts kick their habits that President Ford had no further plans. But Robert DuPont, his drug czar, did. DuPont had been hired by Nixon and then, under Ford, managed a smaller national drug policy office. DuPont told Frontline how Nixon had warned him that he would fire him if he ever made “any hint of support for decriminalization” of marijuana. But with Ford, DuPont had his chance. The new president admitted that his twenty-three year-old son, Jack, had “smoked marijuana.” DuPont soon prepared a White House study that recommended making marijuana a “low priority” for U.S. law enforcement. Not long after, in November 1974, DuPont even spoke at a conference organized by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana

Laws (NORML)

Tolerance for recreational drug use was on the rise in 1976 when Ford’s democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, campaigned in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana. Marijuana use reached its highest peak ever across the United States two years later when one in ten high school seniors got stoned daily, and 40 percent took a hit once a month. Yet President Carter, and his drug czar, Peter Bourne, were undaunted by the news. Instead, the Carter administration maintained that marijuana was a relatively harmless drug that did not warrant much attention. Bourne was a British-born doctor who had run drug treatment programs across Georgia, and like his predecessors he focused on hard-core heroin use. Both Carter and Bourne, however, severely underestimated the reaction that marijuana use among kids would have among middle-class suburban communities. In 1976, Keith Schuchard, a parent in the suburbs of Atlanta recalls that he “saw flickering lights” that he first thought were cigarettes at a party in his backyard for his seventh-grade daughter: “They were stoned, but we didn’t realize [it until later], and that’s when we got alarmed and said, ‘The party’s over.'” Schuchard would help organize a movement against the “normalization” of marijuana use in the United States. Carter and Bourne dismissed them as mere gadflies, a mistake that still seems to haunt the Democratic party. The parents invited Bourne to speak in Georgia, and when he did they gave him “the bong show.” But to the outrage of parents like Schuchard, Bourne did not
seem to care.

Later in 1978, Bourne did a few things that today are hard to believe. He wrote a fake prescription for a downer called quaaludes for a member of his staff, and he attended a party hosted by none other than the head of NORML, Keith Stroup, where not only marijuana but cocaine was also apparently consumed. Stroup, angry that the Carter administration was not fulfilling its pledge to decriminalize marijuana, later confirmed rumors about Bourne’s attendance at the drug party to the press. “I made what I think was without question the stupidest decision in my life,” said Stroup.

One might then think that the Reagan administration reacted to the above by taking a hard-line turn away from normalization to moralization about drugs. But Ronald Reagan himself only made that transition slowly. When he took office in 1981, he briefly advocated a return to Nixon’s pioneering formula to focus on reducing addicts’ demand as opposed to traffickers’ supply of drugs. The reason, said Reagan, is that the influx of drugs could not be stopped.

“With borders like ours that, as the main method of halting the drug problem in America, [it] is virtually impossible. It’s like carrying water in a sieve. It is my belief, firm belief, that the answer to the drug problem comes through winning over the users to the point that we take the customers away from drugs, not take the drugs necessarily. Try that, of course. You don’t let up on that. But it’s far more effective if you take the customers away than if you try to take the drugs away from those who want to be customers.”

But Reagan’s pragmatic approach to drugs would be short-lived. It would not be long before the same parents’ movement that had been snubbed by Carter and Bourne would be embraced by Reagan and his wife, Nancy, whose “Just Say No” campaign steered the nation toward a “zero-tolerance” approach. By then U.S. law enforcement spending on drug control was already greater than spending on treatment.

Tough Laws

The advent of “crack” in inner cities across the country changed the drug war debate as well. The new substance was both much cheaper and more addictive than either powdered cocaine or heroin. Moreover, it decentralized trafficking syndicates like never before. “The [new] organization was a twenty year-old guy and three ten year-old kids,” said one DEA agent. Congress’ response was swift after basketball player Len Bias tragically died from crack and the man who sold it to him effectively walked away from the crime. As if trying to show who could be tougher on the new, dangerous drug, House and Senate committees competed with each other to pass mandatory minimum sentences for hard crack that were 100 times greater than the penalties for powdered cocaine. The result put a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics in jail. The new law caused street dealers, who transformed cocaine into crack, to do far more time in jail than the wholesale cocaine traffickers. Although it was not mentioned in either of the productions, Congress also passed a law for LSD possession in the 1980s that based sentences upon the weight of the drug including its carrier. The law would ultimately sentence to decades in jail many harmless white twenty year-olds who were caught with acid-soaked s sugar cubes.

The trend continued under President George Bush, who in 1989 created the modern Office of National Drug Control Policy and appointed a former secretary of education, William Bennett, to run it. He staffed the office with people who, like him, were hostile to most drug treatment programs, and they elevated the drug war to a crusade against all users of illegal drugs. “The casual user, the weekend user, the so-called recreational user that person needs to be confronted and face consequences, too,” Bennett said.

Bennett was so zealous about drug use that he and his staff initially greeted good news as bad news when the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported an unexpectedly good trend. The number of casual drug users had, in fact, fallen 37 percent, from 23 million in 1985 to 14.5 million in 1988, while chronic drug use, which Bennett spoke of less often, was soaring. The drug czar’s staff member David Tell said: “We were surprised and a little distressed because we’ve got this big report that everybody’s expecting and here’s data that seems to indicate the problem’s barely more than half the size we thought it was. So there was a moment’s wondering whether this was real or just hysteria, I think. On the other hand, it was quite apparent even from that very same survey that the problem that was driving public concern real, hard-core cocaine addiction was exploding.”

However, Bennett did little to address hard-core addiction, whether it stemmed from crack or heroin. Instead, he continued his call that all drug users of any kind must be punished. The Clinton administration did little better, even though President Clinton, like President Reagan before him, began his tenure by saying that he would reduce the demand not the supply of drugs. Clinton briefly prioritized treatment, but within two years he reversed course, returning to the traditional model that remains today of federal law enforcement efforts outspending federal treatment programs by two to one.

The apparent message of the Frontline series is that treatment works. Moralism has led the United States to incarcerate people at a rate only matched by Russia among industrialized countries. Well over half of the nation’s federal prisoners are in on drug charges, and two-thirds of them are minorities: 48 percent are black and 10 percent are Hispanic. The prison population is projected to pass 2 million inmates for the first time. Yet the United States is at an impasse in the drug war debate, as politicians cannot seem to get past “looking tough” on the issue.

If there was one moment of illumination in the recent forums, it came from a woman who walked to a microphone at NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She asked the panel a question that seemed to challenge whether law enforcement, as a way to control drug abuse, worked, and she identified herself Kendra Wright of Family Watch. “What is that?” asked the program’s host. Wright responded that Family Watch is an organization that takes the fundamental premise held dear by law and order advocates like William Bennett and turns it on its head. While in the past many groups have claimed that more law enforcement is necessary to protect families from drugs, Family Watch argues that it in fact hurts families by putting fathers and mothers in jail. “They are doing more harm than good,” Wright said. It is a radical notion, but so was Nixon’s idea nearly thirty years ago that treatment works.

SAIS Review, Winter-Spring 2001 Volume XXI, Number One

No Passage

American officials and others say the United States learned vital lessons in El Salvador that policymakers are now applying in Colombia. The gist of this argument is that like in El Salvador, the United States support of the Colombia military will eventually force its rival guerillas to the negotiating table. Last week in IC, Benjamin Ryder Howe quoted the Colombian academic, Eduardo Pizarro, who said: “[T]he strategy [in El Salvador] was very successful. The guerrillas got nothing. In the end, they had to negotiate because of what United States did for the Salvadoran army.”

Remember 1989

America’s record in El Salvador suggests something else, however. In November 1989, two days after the Brandenberg Gate in the Berlin Wall was finally opened, the largest Cold War military battle in this hemisphere began in the tiny Central American republic.

By then, U.S. intelligence agencies had dismissed El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as a waning force. “Although they have not been decisively beaten, the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capability to launch and sustain major offensives,” reported the CIA in 1986 in a SECRET assessment. But Langley was wrong. Although U.S. officials received various indications by 1989 that the FMLN was planning a major offensive, they chose to ignore their own intelligence and told Washington not to worry about the expected guerrilla action. The result put many of the same officials at risk.

It began loudly at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11. My favorite story is of the State Department official who, while huddled on the white tile floor of a San Salvador Pizza Hut, proposed to his girlfriend minutes after gunfire broke out on Avenida Escalon. Although he had planned on waiting until after dinner to offer her the ring, he decided he had no time to waste as FMLN guerrillas and government forces exchanged gunfire outside. Just up the street, the U.S. military attache, Col. Wayne Wheeler, found himself barricaded inside his home with his family as guerrillas and government forces fought over Escalon Circle. A little farther north, CIA Station Chief Robert W. Hultslander briefly saw his residence on Avenida Capilla in the San Benito neighborhood taken over by the guerrillas who spared his life after learning his identity. (Hultslander is now a private consultant who publicizes his past CIA positions on the Web to attract clients for the Washington-based firm, Global Business Access, Ltd.)

The calm before the storm

One U.S. official who missed the 1989 offensive was David Passage, who helped run the U.S Embassy in El Salvador in the mid-1980s. This spring he wrote a paper for the U.S. Army War College about Colombia in which he claims to draw lessons from America’s counterinsurgency experiences in both El Salvador and Vietnam. Ambassador Passage rightly explains the lesson of Vietnam that America applied in El Salvador: “The United States made clear [to Salvadoran authorities] that it was El Salvador’s war, not ours, to be won or lost by Salvadorans.”

But he attempts to draw a far less solid lesson from America’s experience in El Salvador for Colombia. Like Pizarro, the Colombian political scientist, Passage argues in his paper: “El Salvador’s armed forces improved their military performance to the point that the guerrillas ultimately concluded that they needed to negotiate a peace or risk being wiped out.”

Passage left El Salvador in 1986 — the same year as the aforementioned CIA SECRET assessment. The mid-1980s was the height of U.S. aid to El Salvador, made possible by the election of President Jose Napoleon Duarte. (Duarte is the only serving head of state who ever wrote his autobiography in a language foreign to his own nation.) Duarte was a consensus-building figure in the U.S. Congress where he provided a humanist face to an anti-communist cause. During Duarte’s administration, the United States encouraged the Salvadoran military to stop killing suspected civilian supporters of the guerrillas and instead to target armed guerrillas themselves.

The success of the Duarte period, however, faded as quickly as his book did. Although crimes of war decreased at the same that the U.S.-backed military made some battlefield gains, the advantages of U.S. firepower began to diminish once the FMLN adjusted to the new situation by breaking down their rebel concentrations into smaller, more mobile squads. In response, first the CIA and then U.S. Special Forces tried to train the Salvadoran military to also break down their large units into smaller, more mobile patrols. But the Salvadoran military never made an effective transition to small unit operations. The main reason was the lack of morale among Salvadoran soldiers, most of whom came from peasant families like most of the guerrillas.

Was American policy in El Salvador a failure?

The United States also backed civic action programs in El Salvador to help the military win popular support. But Army dentists fixing teeth in villages along with clowns handing balloons to children could never undo the damage done by previous military massacres. In the late 1980s, while the military was trying to gain ground in the countryside, the guerrillas were expanding their support bases among poor urban communities in San Salvador and other cities that they would later use as staging grounds for the November offensive.

After the fall

The seizure of San Salvador along with every other city in the country in 1989 took Salvadoran military officers along with their U.S. advisers by surprise. U.S. Army Major Eric Warren Buckland was a psychological operations specialist within the Salvadoran High Command. He said the offensive “was like the fall of Saigon.” The strength and scope of the siege was so overwhelming that for the first four days of the offensive the Salvadoran High Command also feared that the country might fall.

The November offensive broke at a time of great debate within the High Command. Officers including the former military intelligence chief, Army Col. Juan Orlando Zepeda, were arguing that the military needed to reject American exhortations about human rights to once again repress suspected civilian supporters of the guerrillas. Late the evening of Nov. 15, the Salvadoran High Command, in a meeting presided over by Chief of Staff Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, decided to kill civilians, according to a U.N. Truth Commission report released four years later. Early the next morning, the Salvadoran military executed six Jesuit University priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The offensive continued for more than another week.

Images of Jesuit corpses wearing pajamas on the bloodied campus grass resonated in Washington. The events of the time killed several myths that revisionists like Passage seem to have forgotten. One was that the Salvadoran High Command had allegedly grown above ordering the murders of civilians. Another busted myth was that rather than nearly “being wiped out,” the guerrillas reached their peak of military strength in 1989, and they remained strong until a lasting cease-fire was signed in 1992.

A third denuded myth was that rather than being marginal, the guerrillas had considerable support. While the rebel offensive had failed to spark a popular insurrection as many guerrillas and a few of their leaders had hoped, it nonetheless showed that the rebels enjoyed enough sympathy among poor communities to smuggle food, arms and combatants into the capital along with every other city without being detected in most cases.

Long-term risk

The lesson of El Salvador is that the guerrillas could not be so easily wiped out, and that in the end the United States needed to pressure not them, but America’s own allies in the Salvadoran military to reach a peace settlement. Washington favored a gradual military victory over the FMLN before its November 1989 offensive. After it and the Jesuit murders, Congress and President Bush together cut the Salvadoran military’s aid in half, forcing the military to finally accept real negotiations with the FMLN.

Today, the United States is training and arming the Colombian armed forces with the hope they will eventually be in a better position to negotiate with their country’s FARC guerrillas. That could take years and cause untold carnage. There is a better way.

One critic of the Colombia plan is the Bush administration’s former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Bernard Aronson. Writing recently in The Washington Post, Aronson warns that Colombia’s guerrillas need to be brought to the table sooner instead of later, and he addresses the example of El Salvador along with two other cases: [A]s successive administrations have done with the PLO, the FMLN (in El Salvador) and the IRA, the United States needs to find a formula to talk with the Colombian guerrillas, and a cease-fire in our domestic political wars would make that possible.

America’s domestic political warfare continues although the perceived foreign enemy has switched from communism to drugs. When shaping U.S. Colombia policy, no one should forget El Salvador’s 1989 offensive or the U.S. officials who — believing their own myths — found themselves and their loved ones in danger. The lesson of El Salvador suggests that the United States should change policy to really support a negotiated settlement in Colombia now, not later.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, The Economist and the Village Voice. He is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador, Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute(1988), and El Salvador: Is Peace Possible? Prospects for Negotiations and U.S. Policy, The Washington Office on Latin America (1990). He is a contributing editor at, and his website is at

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