Colombia’s Blowback

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article below by investigative journalist Frank Smyth was published last Fall by the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam) and Accion Andina (Cochabomba, Bolivia) as a chapter titled, “La Mano Blanca en Colombia,” in the book, Crimen Uniformado [Crime in Uniform]: entre la corrupcion y la impunidad (1997). It appears in Antifa Info-Bulletin with the author’s permission.

The CIA has long backed anti-communist allies who, either during their relationship with the agency or later, ran drugs. This comes as no surprise. As early as 1960, U.S. military manuals encouraged intelligence operatives to ally themselves with “smugglers” and “black market operators to defeat communist insurgents, as reported by Michael McClintock in his seminal book Instruments of Statecraft. In fact, the CIA did just that. Take Southeast Asia. Later in that same decade the agency allied itself with, among others, the Hmong in Laos, who, according to historian Alfred W. McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, were trafficking opium. Or Afghanistan. There in the 1980s the CIA backed the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, according to Tim Weiner of The New York Times, the same Mujahedeen have controlled up to one third of the opium (used to make heroin) reaching the United States.

Colombia is an even better example today.

In addition to suffering from rampant common crime, Colombia is a country crippled by two ongoing political campaigns. One is a three-decade war pitching the CIA-backed Colombian military and allied rightist paramilitaries against formerly pro-Moscow and pro-Havana, leftist guerrilla groups. The other campaign is the drug war, where the battle lines are far less clear. Elements of all these sides are involved in Colombia’s drug trade, which includes the processing of about 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, the base substance of crack.

The CIA is no exception. Since 1995, an elite CIA counter-drug team commanded by, progressively enough, a woman, and staffed mainly by young, competent technocrats, has been instrumental in apprehending all top seven leaders of Colombia’s Cali cartel. But back in 1991, another CIA team played a different role. More interested in supporting Colombia’s dirty counter-insurgency than its counter-drug efforts, this team helped forge and finance a secret anti-communist alliance between the Colombian military and illegal paramilitary groups, many of whom are running drugs today.

Why was this alliance made secret? Colombia had outlawed all such paramilitary groups two years before in 1989. Why did Colombia do that? A Colombian government investigation had found that these same paramilitaries had been taken over by the Medellin drug cartel led by the late Pablo Escobar. At the time, Escobar and his associates were fiercely resisting U.S.-backed pressure for Colombia to pass extradition laws intended to make them stand trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges. So they took control of Colombia’s strongest paramilitaries, using them to wage a terrorist campaign against the state. These same paramilitaries, based in the Middle Magdalena valley, were behind a wave of violent crimes, including the 1989 bombing of Avianca flight HK-1803, which killed 111 passengers. Investigators concluded that the bomb was detonated by an altimeter, and that the perpetrators had been trained in such techniques by Israeli, British and other mercenaries led by an Israeli Reserved Army Lieutenant Colonel, Yair Klein. The Colombian military had helped protect this training, to the point of even being in radio contact with the paramilitaries’ training base, while Escobar had paid the mercenaries’ fees.

The CIA, however, ignored these facts when it decided two years later to help renew — in secret — the alliance between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups. By then, even though the cold war was over and Eastern bloc aid had long since dried up, Colombia’s leftist insurgents were still relatively strong. And many trade union, student and peasant groups, among others, provided them with political and sometimes even logistical forms of support. CIA officers knew that paramilitaries — civilians usually led by retired military officers — could provide the Colombian military with plausible deniability for assassinations of suspected leftists and similar crimes. “A vast network of armed civilians began to replace, at least in part, soldiers and policemen who could be easily identified,” writes Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and founder of Colombia’s Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace. “They also started to employ methods that had been carefully designed to ensure secrecy and generate confusion.”

But neither the CIA nor any other U.S. agency admitted that it was still backing Colombia’s counter-insurgency campaign. Instead U.S. officials claim that all U.S. support to Colombia, since 1989, has been designed to further the drug war. “There was a very big debate going on [about how to best allocate] money for counter-narcotics operations in Colombia,” said retired U.S. Army Colonel James S. Roach, Jr., who was then the top U.S. military attaché in Bogota as well as the Pentagon’s ranking Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) liaison there. “The U.S. was looking for a way to try to help. But if you’re not going to be combatants [yourselves], you have to find something to do.”

Do, they did. First an inter-agency team including representatives of the U.S. embassy’s Military Advisory Group in Bogota, the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, the DIA in Washington and the CIA in Langley made recommendations to completely overhaul Colombia’s military intelligence networks. Then The CIA independently provided funds to incorporate paramilitary forces into them. It didn’t matter that these paramilitary forces were illegal in Colombia at the time. Nor did it matter that they had been outlawed explicitly over the growing influence of the late Pablo Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel in directing them.

In addition to drug trafficking, Colombia’s nefarious paramilitaries had already been implicated in widespread human rights abuses. This led the Defense Department, for one, to discourage the Colombian military from incorporating them into these new intelligence networks. “The intent was not to be associated with paramilitaries,” said Colonel Roach, who was also in regular contact with CIA officers in Bogota. He says they had another approach. “The CIA set up clandestine nets of their own. They had a lot of money. It was kind of like Santa Claus had arrived.” CIA spokesman Mike Mansfield declined to comment.

News of these clandestine intelligence networks was first brought to light by Human Rights Watch, in November 1996 released U.S. and Colombian military documents, as well as oral testimony, to show that both the Defense Department and the CIA, in late 1990, encouraged Colombia to reorganize its entire military intelligence system. In May 1991, Colombia formed 41 new intelligence networks nationwide “based on the recommendations made by the commission of U.S. military advisors,” according to the original Colombian order which established them. Later, four former Colombian operatives from one of network in central
Colombia’s Magdalena valley testified that it incorporated illegal paramilitary groups, paying them to both gather intelligence and assassinate suspected leftists. Though U.S. officials still maintain that they supported this intelligence reorganization as part of their drug war efforts, the same Colombian order quoted above instructs these new intelligence networks to fight only “the armed subversion” or leftist guerrillas.

Indeed most of Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, especially among the formerly pro-Moscow FARC, are also involved with drugs. But a U.S. interagency study recently ordered by the Clinton administration’s former ambassador in Bogota, Myles Frechette, found the guerrillas’ role to be limited to mostly protecting drug crops, and, to a lesser degree, processing operations. Meanwhile, rightist paramilitaries allied with the military protect far more drug laboratories and internal transit routes, according to both U.S. intelligence and Colombian law enforcement authorities. In fact, according to one Colombian law enforcement report, drug trafficking today is — again — the paramilitaries’ “central axis” of funding.

Similarly, according to another report from a different law enforcement entity, this one about the Magdalena valley in 1995 by top detectives from Colombia’s Judicial and Investigative Police, the military and paramilitaries there are allied “not only for the anti-subversive struggle, but also to profit and open the way for drug traffickers.” One paramilitary suspect it names is “the well-known narco-trafficker Victor Carranza.” A contemporary of Medellin’s Escobar, Carranza first established himself by rising to the top of Colombia’s lucrative emerald trade among the Boyaca Mountains, and by wiping out a large guerrilla front there at the same time. Soon Carranza also became a major landowner, buying large swaths of it in the eastern plains of Meta, a province choked with drug crops as well as laboratories. Today Colombian police identify Carranza as both a multi-ton level drug trafficker, and one of the key leaders of Colombia’s many illegal paramilitary groups like, in Meta, the infamous “Black Snake.” Human rights groups have accused Carranza of engineering assassinations as well as massacres.

There is no evidence that Carranza has ever been either a CIA asset or informant. But his anti-communist credentials are unquestionable. And he runs frequently in military crowds. Military eyewitnesses say that military officers in Villavicencio, Meta have even met him inside the Los Llanos hotel, which he owns. U.S. officials too know a lot about him. “Carranza comes up constantly in intelligence reporting,” one such expert says. An old-fashioned gangster, “Don Victor,” as he is respectfully called by his men, still frequents the emerald mines and likes to be the first to pick out the largest stones from the best veins uncovered. Yet, Carranza remains untouchable, even though one of his purported lieutenants, Arnulfo Castillo Agudelo, also known as “Scratch,” was arrested in 1995 implicated Carranza in circumstances involving over 40 corpses which had been exhumed — six years before — on one of Carranza’s Meta ranches. “Scratch” declined to be interviewed in Modelo prison in Bogota. Carranza, who avoids publicity, was also unavailable for comment.

In recent years, Carranza has been expanding his operations in central Colombia throughout the Magdalena valley. The above police report notes: “Carranza is planning to acquire Hacienda Bella Cruz [there] to use as a base for his activities, [and] bring in 200 paramilitary operatives from Meta.” Witnesses say that it is now teeming with armed men, who have displaced hundreds of local peasants. In total, Carranza and other drug suspects have bought about 45,000 acres of land throughout the Magdalena valley, according to Jamie Prieto Amaya, the Catholic bishop there, quoted in the Bogota newsweekly, Cambio 16.

Still another suspect is Henry Loaiza, also known as “The Scorpion.” Demonstrating the importance of paramilitaries to the overall drug trade, he was one of the top seven Cali cartel suspects arrested with CIA help since 1995. Like Carranza, “The Scorpion” is also implicated in several specific civilian massacres of suspected leftists carried out jointly by military and paramilitary forces, including the 1989 Trujillo massacres (involving chainsaws) near Cali. Other drug suspects identified by the Colombian police include military officers like Major Jorge Alberto Lazaro, a former Army commander also accused of ordering paramilitaries to commit massacres in the Magdalena valley. Today this same central Colombian valley, which runs about 400 miles north toward Caribbean ports, is a major corridor for both processed drugs and precursor chemicals.

The CIA helped enable Colombia’s military and paramilitaries to collaborate in the dark — more than a year after the Berlin Wall fell. By doing so, the CIA has facilitated crimes involving both human rights and drug trafficking. Such behavior was reprehensible during the cold war. It is completely indefensible now.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has written about drug trafficking in The Village Voice, The New Republic, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is co-author with Winifred Tate of “Colombia’s Gringo Invasion,” Covert Action Quarterly, Number 60, Spring 1997. The article above was reprinted in Colombia Bulletin: A Human Rights Quarterly.