Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict

Paramilitary Chronicles

Conspiracy Theory: Colombia




Outline of Section Contents

A Technical Note on Accents and Tildes


References and Resources

Colombia Updates



A Colony Of Spain

Ethnicity In Colombia

The Struggle For Independence From Spain

Legacies Of Spanish Colonialism

Liberals And Conservatives

Struggles For Land And Labor

La Violencia, And The Origins Of Social Revolution In Colombia

The Alliance for Progress, and Nationalist Wounds



The Guerrilla Movement Takes Off: The FARC, the PCC, and Organized Labor

The ELN: Another Guerrilla Group

From And To Elections: The Story of the M-19

Yet Another Guerrilla Movement: The EPL

The Indigenous Movement in Colombia





Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict

For many people, today, Colombia and Cocaine are inseparable, the one "C" word evoking the other. The association is painful to most Colombians, whose entire culture, history, beauty and flaws are reduced, simplified, and digested by a malicious stereotype, which misrepresents them to the world and compresses the labyrinth of their politics, art, love and passion, into a "dumbed down" emotional package conducive to the wielding of ignorance. "Ignorance cursed by power is the downfall of Man… what has bloodied the hands of angels." Nonetheless, the intimate relationship between Colombia and Cocaine cannot be denied. What needs to be accomplished, for understanding, is to clarify the nature of that relationship; to put it in perspective, and accurately portray the protagonists of both the world that made coca, and the world that was made by coca. The villains, the heroes, and the masses of gray men and women who have built, fought, and used the industry do not always conform to the expectations we have of them.

As previously stated in this article, the history of la coca in Latin America dates back to the pre-Columbian Andean civilizations which discovered its energy-enhancing and spirit-lifting properties, and incorporated it into their religious rituals and their medicinal practices. The Quechua and Aymara peoples of Peru and Bolivia, who formed the basis of the Inca Empire, were devotees of la coca. So, too, were the Chibcha of Colombia.

When the Spaniards charged into the Americas, with the Cross in one hand and the sword in the other, they, at first despised la coca. Church people, fearing it as a symbol and sacrament of the Native religion, an "evil instrument of the Devil", initially outlawed it as they sought to tear down Native forms of spirituality, and to replace them with Christianity and its underlying message of submission (as it was presented by the priests). However, after a time, the Spanish conquerors discovered the usefulness of the plant, which was capable of re-energizing the exhausted work crews of the mita - the Indian laborers who they coerced to work in their mines and on their farms. Entire haciendas were soon dedicated to the cultivation of coca, worked by Native labor in the service of Spanish encomenderos. Harvested, the coca was transported to major work sites, and given to the Indians in the form of leaves, as a stimulant to maintain their productivity under harsh and degrading conditions. This is the historical watershed, when la coca was transformed from a sacrament into a drug.

After the collapse of the Spanish Empire, and its replacement by a large number of independent Latin American nations, the use of coca returned partly to its original patterns, although the erosion of Native culture in many regions diminished its significance. However, as the oppression of Indian communities continued in the newly independent Latin American republics, the use of coca as a mental and physical stimulant to help indigenous peoples endure poverty, hunger, and exhausting working conditions, remained in those areas where coca had been turned by the Spaniards into a drug. Coca, chewed as a leaf or ingested as a paste, as it was by Native peoples, was not the explosive substance it is today, in its processed form. But it was a drug, nonetheless, an answer to hopelessness and pain that could keep a man going, even after his heart had been broken and his soul had been stolen. Che Guevara, as a young man traveling through Bolivia, before he became a revolutionary, was appalled by the widespread habit of coca-chewing among indigenous peoples which he witnessed - by the sight of numbed faces and slowly churning mouths: stone-like masks that had frozen an impenetrable layer of indifference over overpowering sadness. Coca, no longer officially produced as a prop of exploitation, had nonetheless remained and become consolidated as a possibility for the future.

As previously stated, another legacy of the colonization of Latin America by Spain was the development of a lively tradition of contraband activity. This was provoked by the stifling mercantilist policies of Spain, which shut its Latin American colonies out of potentially lucrative trading relationships with Great Britain, France, and Holland, so that Spain could monopolize their resources and markets for its own gain. Subjects of the Spanish Crown in Latin America whose economic potential was limited and repressed by these policies, frequently chose to break the law, and developed impressive human networks and geographical routes for bypassing Spanish authorities and reaching the forbidden trade of other nations. In colonial days, some of these paths passed through the Colombian regions of Uraba and Panama. Strong foundations for continued contraband trade were laid: organizational, geographical, and folkloric traditions of smuggling which persisted in diminished, but recoverable, forms. La coca and a powerful smuggling tradition, were slowly traveling towards each other, through time. Also headed in their direction was a gigantic sense of disillusionment which was beginning to rumble in the soul of North American civilization, a terrible sense of emptiness that needed an awakening, a way of being born again or dying. The clock of history was about to strike the hour of cocaine.

Cocaine, which had alternately teased and fueled various intellectuals and artists in America and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and actually found its way into various popular tonics, and even been an active ingredient in Coca Cola during the soft drink’s infancy, had eventually been banned from these markets as its benefits became suspect in the face of its dangers. Neither the praise of Freud, the fictitious advocacy of Sherlock Holmes, the testimony of Robert Louis Stevenson (who used it to write Jekyll and Hyde), nor the rave reviews of architect Frederick-Auguste Bartholdi, who said that if he had developed a taste for cocaine in his youth, he would have built the Statue of Liberty a few hundred meters higher, could deter more sober elements of society from driving it back, out of the mainstream of Western civilization which it was seeking to enter. However, the brief opening which was allowed the drug before its rejection, planted the seed of its future use in both North America and Europe; while in Latin American, the possibility of converting cocaine into a valuable export commodity, like coffee, had been put on the table.

In the same way that the Colombian coffee industry grew in the shadow of developments in North American culture, responding to transformations in the American workplace that required the introduction of a mass stimulant in order to combat the exhaustion produced not only by physical labor, but also by boredom and monotony, so the Colombian cocaine industry mirrored the rise in existential distress and sensory curiosity which hit the United States in the 1960s. Today, anti-narcotics advocates frequently refer to marijuana as the "gateway drug", far more dangerous for its role in preparing users to go on to other levels of drugs, than for its own effects. In the case of the export and production of cocaine in Colombia, this was certainly the case. Marijuana was the "gateway drug", the groundbreaker and the dry run.

Marijuana first developed a significant presence on Colombia’s Atlantic Coast after hemp cultivation was introduced to the region as part of the US war effort during World War II. The hemp plants were utilized to produce fiber for rope, but locals quickly subjected them to additional uses, and pot soon became a standard ingredient in the social life of some local subcultures. As marijuana consumption skyrocketed in the United States during the 1960s, due to the impact of the "counterculture" and its thirst for transcendence or escape, criminal elements in Colombia sought to connect to the demand by organizing marijuana production for export. Poor peasants were recruited into the operation as growers and laborers. As previously stated, they could earn six times as much working in the illegal marijuana sector as they could by devoting themselves to coffee production. The Eucharist of Utopia, Holy Sacrament of the North American Counterculture, was just as great a blessing to the peasant of Colombia. The vacuum in the midst of one world’s wealth had created an opportunity for the healing of another world’s poverty. In those days, Colombian marijuana production was centered in the Guajira Peninsula, along the slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. As North America’s main marijuana supplier at that time, Mexico, became hampered by increasing vigilance at the borders and by increased police activity within Mexico, Colombian suppliers began to gain ground. They also offered a high-quality product, typified by "Santa Marta Gold."

From marijuana, it was but a small step to cocaine. As the 60’s drug experience seemed to grow a thousand heads, offering a dizzying array of stimulants, depressants, and psychedelics, cocaine emerged as a powerful option, a path to an ecstatic enhancement of the self, real or imagined; a means of leaving oneself behind like a rocket discarding the wearisome earth; to become someone better, smarter, more beautiful, tireless, able to run forever; to live without the islands of death that rest and mediocrity impose on us, to sail the sea of who we want to be without ever stopping (until the crash, which another hit can rescue us from). Let the God come in, and never leave. North America’s infatuation with cocaine was a godsend to Colombian smugglers, because Colombia was, in regard to this one product, perfectly situated to become the world’s leading supplier. Coca was native to the Andes, and in its natural environment, was of unsurpassed quality. Colombia was perfectly located, between the gigantic coca-producing potential of Peru and Bolivia, the traditional heartland of the sacred leaf, and the North American market which craved it. Colombia also had a significant capacity to produce the leaf itself. At the same time, marijuana traffic originating from Colombia (which by the late 1970s was responsible for 70% of the marijuana which reached the US from abroad), had established important links between Colombia and the US counterculture. Smugglers had been acquiring experience, and new generations of criminals had been inspired to follow in their footsteps.

Coca production for export seems to have gained ground in Colombia in the late 1960s, when a small coca-exporting network was set up by Miami-based Cuban mobsters in the Department of el Cauca, utilizing Paez Indians as cultivators, and smuggling the drugs into the United States via individual carriers known as "mules", who brought it in aboard commercial airlines in a thousand simple to brilliant ways, from hiding it in false-bottomed suitcases, hollow shoe heels, and underclothes, to inserting it into packages of coffee, and body cavities, to eventually ingesting it in packets and carrying it in in their stomachs (before eventually excreting the packets for recovery once they were past Customs). It was an ingenious, but ultimately small-scale operation. In the 1970s, as North American demand for cocaine rose, producers were forced to respond by augmenting the limited supply then available in Colombia with production from new sources in Bolivia and Peru. It was in this decade that Colombians began to take control of cocaine trafficking away from foreign mafias, and to become the mind, as well as the body, of the expanding drug trade. With the emergence of two powerful homegrown drug mafias during the 1970s - the Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel - the deadly "golden age" of Colombian drug trafficking was about to begin.

The Medellin Cartel, rather than being the initiator of Colombia’s cocaine industry, as many have assumed, was actually a response to the rise of that industry by various Colombian drug bosses, who sought to inject order and coherence into the business, to coordinate already existing operations, and, by pooling their resources and talents, to maximize their efficiency. Pablo Escobar Gaviria, generally considered to be the mastermind and driving force behind the formation of the cartel, began his criminal career humbly enough as a car thief in Medellin, which is the principal city of the Department of Antioquia, a region long renowned for its entrepreneurial spirit, outstanding for its nationally-revered heritage of personal ambition, initiative, and risk-taking. It was, in many ways, the natural intellectual birthplace of the gigantic new industry which was about to transform the world. Besides his experience with stealing cars, the young Pablo Escobar was also said to have robbed tombstones, from which he erased the names of the deceased, so that he might resell them to grieving families in need of a headstone; as well as to have engaged in the selling of fake lottery tickets. Always alert for new money-making opportunities, Escobar was quick to see the promise of cocaine and inserted himself into the rapidly growing business in the 1970s, leaving the world of petty, dead-end crimes behind him. Undoubtedly an entrepreneurial genius, although some detractors have attempted to reduce his success to sheer ruthlessness, Escobar did rely heavily on violence to augment his powers of persuasion as he went about the business of constructing his empire by means of winning allies and eliminating competitors, gradually gaining possession over trafficking networks, connections, and pathways. In the realm of criminal business, violence was a "legitimate" option - already outside the law, one was not restrained by the law - and Escobar, like any talented entrepreneur recognizing the conditions which define the possibilities and limits of his activities, acted brilliantly in accordance with them. Already, in his car-stealing days, he had mastered the skills of hiding his tracks (perfecting the art of quickly breaking down stolen vehicles in order to sell untraceable parts); bribery (he later resold stolen vehicles brazenly with the cooperation of local authorities who he had succeeded in buying off); and strictly enforcing the code of "honor among thieves", indispensable for the long-term success of any criminal operation (he had taken to hiring thugs to kidnap those who owed him money, holding them for a ransom equal to their debt). During his car-stealing days, Escobar had also developed a penchant for boldness, which was to become a hallmark of his drug-dealing days (oftentimes, the vehicles he desired would be accosted in broad daylight by members of his gang, and the drivers thrown out into the street as the thieves made off with their car). Somehow, Escobar survived the drama of his youth to graduate to a far greater drama. Alternately charming and cruel, clear-minded (except when his audacious spirit ripped him from the path of prudence), and uninhibited by conventional morals, which he and many other Colombians had seen violated so often by the wealthy and the powerful that they had ceased to submit to them, he was the right man at the right place at the right time to wreak havoc in Colombia and the world with the pent-up energy of a little plant that was about to be turned into the demon of an age.

If Pablo Escobar was the great galvanizing influence of the Medellin Cartel, the personality that defined it and projected its power outwards, Carlos Lehder Rivas, son of a German father and Colombian mother, was its technical master. Like Escobar, Lehder came to the cocaine industry from a background of petty crimes, in his case centered on dealing marijuana, and smuggling stolen cars between Canada and the United States. Eventually, the law caught up with him, and Lehder was forced to do time at a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where he met up with US marijuana dealer George Jung, who was also doing time. Their relationship, popularized in the movie Blow, was a criminal "match made in Heaven", because Lehder, who was already thinking beyond marijuana to the extraordinary new possibilities of cocaine, found, in Jung’s past experience, the inspiration which would enable him to exponentially expand the traffic flow into the United States. Jung had previously smuggled pot into the US from Mexico aboard a private aircraft which he, himself, had piloted, landing it off the beaten track where ground connections were waiting to meet him and unload the cargo. For Lehder, the idea was revolutionary - a light went off in his mind; he had his own moment of criminal satori, his own narco-Eureka. At that very moment in history, as North America’s demand for coke was growing, and as Colombia’s ability to respond to that demand by increasing the supply was also growing, transport was emerging as the last remaining choke-hold on the development of the trade: how to get the drugs into the US as fast as they were wanted, and as fast as they could be produced. The system of individual carriers, or "mules", smuggling in small amounts of coke aboard commercial airlines, was not capable of supporting the dimensions of the traffic which were possible. But if the dealers were able to bring in larger shipments with their own aircraft… Lehder spent the rest of his prison days working over this idea with Jung, building gigantic fantasies, then filling them out with concrete details. Utilizing the prison as an intellectual resource and unparalleled repository of criminal knowledge and experience, he not only developed the blueprint for a new transport system which would revolutionize the cocaine industry, but also made important breakthroughs in his understanding of "money laundering", which would enable the illegally-made fortune he planned to build in the US, by selling cocaine, to be camouflaged and invisibly transferred back to Colombia.

Upon leaving prison, Ledher and Jung took steps to turn their criminal dream into a reality. They built up investment capital through launching some small-scale drug smuggling operations, using hired girls to carry coke into the US in their suitcases. With this capital, they invested in a plane and pilot to smuggle drugs into the US from the Bahamas, which were a convenient staging area for the flights, being within striking range of the Florida coast while also lying along potential air and sea routes available to the Colombian suppliers, with whom they had begun to develop intimate relations. For Escobar, Lehder was an immeasurable asset whose operation could throw a door, which was only open a crack, wide open; while for Lehder, Escobar was the natural ally who could give him something to move through that open door. As Lehder’s increasingly successful operations generated more and more capital to work with, he set his sights on gaining possession of the Bahamian island of Norman’s Cay, gradually buying up local property owners and intimidating those who did not wish to sell into leaving, while bribing key Bahamian officials to turn a blind eye to his activities. After a time, Lehder succeeded in his purpose of consolidating the island as his personal drug-smuggling base, and the Medellin Cartel’s "gateway to America." Coke-filled jets from Colombia would land on his private runway, patrolled by well-armed bodyguards and attack dogs. The coke would then be unloaded, and transferred to the small aircraft which were used to smuggle it into the US (where ground crews would be waiting for it in clandestine landing zones). In cases, the planes would drop packets of drugs into the sea at arranged rendezvous points, where speedboats would pick them up, and smuggle them into the Florida coast by sea.

Like any good soldier, Lehder diversified his strategy, infusing it with multiple options and protecting it with unpredictability. In addition to his Norman’s Cay route, the Medellin Cartel developed a variety of routes and strategies for penetrating the US with cocaine shipments. One major pathway of coke into the US was via northern Mexico, which could be used to launch flights of small aircraft into the US, and also used as a staging area for sending in shipments of drugs hidden aboard trucks. The US-Mexican border area already had a well-developed tradition of contraband, and the groundwork for the Medellin Cartel’s efforts here had been laid beforehand by the marijuana trade. All that was needed was to bring local smugglers and marijuana-trafficking networks into the operation. This had, in fact, already been accomplished by another important Colombian drug lord, Jose Gonzalo Rodriquez Gacha, AKA El Mejicano ("the Mexican"), who not only had a fascination for, and love of, Mexican culture (he particularly admired its aura of virility and lore of bandit heroes), but who was also the owner of a gigantic warehouse of Colombian marijuana located in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. In other words, Gacha already had a major operation installed in this strategic region, an operation which could use well-proven marijuana-smuggling networks to begin to move cocaine as well. Like Lehder, Gacha was a "big catch" and a crucial asset to the growth of the Medellin Cartel.

In addition to Lehder’s Norman’s Cay route and Gacha’s Mexican inroads, the Cartel was sometimes able to deliver major shipments of cocaine into the US hidden aboard commercial airliners or ocean-going ships, which were protected by Customs agents and/or dockworkers and airport workers who had been drawn into the operation by means of bribes. As Philip of Macedon, the ancient warrior-king, once said: "I can conquer any city into which I can slip a bag of gold." For the Medellin Cartel, this saying was proved true time and time again.

Besides Escobar, Lehder, and Gacha, the Ochoa family came to be a prominent player in the development of the Medellin Cartel. The family’s patriarch, Fabio Ochoa Restrepo, was a well-loved breeder of racing horses who was never formally accused of involvement in drug-trafficking, but was rather, regarded by many as the colorful "victim-father" of rogue sons whose criminal activities tarnished the family’s reputation. However, many others regarded Don Fabio as the one who avoided the details and kept his hands clean, while using his fatherly influence to create an aura of support, within the family, for his children’s delinquent activities. One of Don Fabio’s sons, Jorge Luis Ochoa, was apparently involved in the contraband trading of electrodomesticos (electrical appliances) and whiskey before he linked up with Pablo Escobar, and turned his criminal experience and skills to the smuggling of cocaine. His brothers Fabio (Fabito) and Juan David, soon joined him. Their intelligence, resources, and family contacts proved to be of immense value to the Medellin Cartel.

As this huge criminal empire was carefully constructed by Pablo Escobar and his associates, other Colombian cocaine-smuggling operations were gradually swallowed up, either "brought in" or cleared out of the way. Although some other operations did continue to exist, they were soon dwarfed by the Medellin Cartel, which did not allow major competitors to survive alongside it. One exception would be the Cali Cartel, another cocaine mafia based in the city of Cali in the Department of el Valle, which Escobar’s organization could not co-opt, intimidate, or shoot into extinction. Its founders included Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, his younger borther Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, and Jose Santacruz London~o, and its rise was essentially contemporary with that of the Medellin Cartel. Although violence was always an intrinsic part of the large-scale cocaine business, the Cali Cartel would, over the years, gain the reputation of being far less bloody than the Medellin Cartel, and also far less flamboyant, preferring to "fly under the radar screen" and to do business without making waves, securing the space it needed to operate through bribery and the political influence which its money could buy, rather than by intimidating or directly challenging the system. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and his cohorts were, in fact, known as "the Chess Players", in contrast to their rivals from the Medellin Cartel, who were more often compared to "cowboys" and gun-slinging bandits of the "Wild West." (Yes, Hollywood Westerns had by then become a part of world culture, and served as an apt metaphor for Escobar & company both in the US and Colombia.) Although tensions between the two drug mafias persisted throughout the 1980s, and violent skirmishes between them sometimes erupted, the two giants of the international cocaine trade maintained an uneasy coexistence throughout this period, allowing each to become the master of its own turf and to conserve its energy for those struggles which could not be avoided.

Around 1978, the Medellin Cartel decided to take its foot off of the brakes of its ascending power, and to augment its control of South America’s coke supply, and its domination of the cocaine-smuggling routes into North America, with control of cocaine distribution inside the United States. In business terms, it decided to "eliminate the middlemen" who were, at that time, outsiders, needlessly taking away profits from the Cartel by performing a service which the Cartel could perform for itself. The problem between the Colombian mafia and the US-based mobsters who handled their distribution for them could not be settled peacefully, and resulted in a turf war of incredible violence in Miami and southern Florida, which shocked US law-enforcement officials and put the Medellin Cartel on the international map for the first time as a criminal presence to be reckoned with. The power of drug money, and the fierce persistence and determination of the Medellin Cartel, which embodied Pablo Escobar’s will, resulted in victory for the Colombians who, by late 1981, had succeeded in installing their own middlemen in Miami, who took charge of receiving and moving the coke to local distributors throughout the US. While the Medellin Cartel dominated the markets and distribution networks originating from South Florida and Miami, and Southern California and Los Angeles, the Cali Cartel grew particularly successful in the New York market.

At the same time as the Medellin Cartel was mastering the penetration of the cocaine trade into the United States, and increasing its share of the profits there, it was also expanding its supply operation to encompass large swaths of Peru and Bolivia, where coca cultivation had a long history, and where the quality of the leaf was unsurpassed. Local peasants drawn into the operation by the incentive of higher economic returns than they could receive for other crops, grew and harvested the leaves, which were mashed and soaked in organic solvents (including kerosene and sulfuric acid), and then filtered and dried, converting them into a paste more suitable for transport, and much more potent than the raw leaves. (From an initial purity of 0.1 to 0.9 % cocaine per coca leaf, the paste was eventually upgraded to a purity level of 60 - 80%.) This paste was picked up by aircraft landing on clandestine runways, or by helicopters which took advantage of clearings in the wilderness, and moved along a trail of supporting landing sites, or else flown directly, to coke-processing laboratories in the Colombian jungles, where the coca received an additional level of processing. Once the final stage of refinement was complete, the result was a highly concentrated, hydrochloride salt version of the drug: that is to say, the powdered form most recognizable to high-end coke users in the US.

In order to protect the operations in Peru and Bolivia, massive payoffs of local officials and police were utilized. Bribes were also used to lower defenses in Colombia. The cocaine-processing/refining laboratories crucial to the success of the operation were nonetheless kept out of the way of law-enforcement officials. In the beginning, these facilities were protected by private security forces recruited by the mafia. Since many of the best out-of-the-way places for running this kind of operation were in regions heavily influenced or controlled by the guerrillas, the narcotraficantes (drug traffickers) soon learned to cut deals with the guerrillas, who agreed to allow the labs to come in, and to stay up and running, so long as they - the guerrillas - were paid for the concession. In this way, the narcotraficantes were able to take shelter in spaces beyond the control of the Colombian State, a move which simultaneously protected them from honest members of the Colombian government which wished to crack down on them, as well as from those elements of the Colombian government which had been bought off, but which needed an excuse not to crush the drug trade which was enriching them. As students of international business have been right to point out, what the Medellin Cartel succeeded in creating in the 1970s and 1980s was actually a highly complex and proficient criminal transnational, utterly admirable in terms of its vision, inventiveness, and powers of organization; utterly reprehensible in terms of its methods and product. And yet, the destructive product which it fed to the world, in order to satisfy its dreams, was no simple offering of black and white. There was ambivalence in the poison, enormous complexity within the sin. For the immorality of the Colombian drug traffickers took on an entirely different meaning when seen in the light of international power relations, the economic inequality of nations, and the gigantic gap in income between the Northern and Southern hemispheres of the Americas. For men of a certain cynical bent, and for others who had been wounded enough not to play any longer by the rules of a game that was killing them, the drug trade was less of a crime than an act of self-defense. Liliput was tired of being stepped on, and had finally found a remedy, a way to take its place among the giants who decided who would live and who would die. As Carlos Lehder put it, in words which bore the unmistakable stamp of nationalism and were pregnant with historical implications: "Cocaine is the atom bomb of Latin America." More than a merely lucrative business venture, la coca was a weapon, a way to reverse history, to right the wrongs of time, to see to it that the first should be last, and the last be first. With la coca, justice would be attained. Centuries of impotence would be discarded. South America would rise up from its knees.

This vision, shared by Lehder and Escobar, has been termed megalomaniacal by many of their critics, and yet, there were economic and historical roots which fed the perception of self-importance which they succumbed to. As will be recalled from an earlier section in this article ("Liberals and Conservatives"), the economic theories of David Ricardo had not generated favorable results for Latin America. Learning to specialize in the production of primary products such as coffee, bananas, minerals, and timber for export had led to the rise of wealthy elites linked to the international economy, but failed to generate the broader revenues needed to lift the masses out of poverty. The prices of the products which Latin America’s economic growth depended upon fluctuated too greatly, and were subject to decline due to overproduction, as many poor countries were driven into competition against each other in obedience to the same strategy. Furthermore, exporting low-priced primary products, and importing more expensive manufactured products according to the precepts of global specialization and free trade, created unfavorable trade balances, which ate away at the income possible for Latin American countries to attain within the international system. In many cases, foreign companies became major forces in the development and marketing of Latin American resources, remitting large percentages of the profits made by these endeavors to North America and Europe, rather than investing them in the overall growth of the host countries. As Latin American governments outspent their earnings in the desperate desire to develop infrastructure which would further their economic growth, out of moral zealousness to help their poor or an elitist sense of urgency to quell social unrest, or simply to imitate the grandeur of North America and Europe, which was beyond their means, debt was incurred, and grew at last to debilitating proportions. Service to the debt then siphoned off critical percentages of the GNP from vital facets of economic development, further impoverishing the debtor nations. At the same time, the need to retain access to foreign credit, in order to keep their economies afloat, forced the Latin American countries to accept the political and economic dictates of international lending institutions such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund), which imposed conditions and regulations for the receipt of new loans which were not always beneficial to the social welfare of the masses or the sovereignty of Latin American States. For example, they might require the lifting of government price controls used to make certain staples affordable to the poor; demand the dismantling of "inefficient" government bureaucracies, resulting in increased unemployment; force the abolition of tariffs and other restrictions sometimes used to give local businesses a chance to compete against foreign multinationals; and mandate the privatization of important national services and assets, ranging from control of the oil industry, to ownership of telecommunications networks, electrical power systems, and the infrastructure utilized to provide drinking water to the people. In theory, the changes were meant to vitalize the target economies and lead to long-term improvement. In reality, for many Latin Americans, the policies of the international lending institutions, which were governed by the wealthy and powerful nations of the world, especially by the US, created unbearable social pressures in Latin America, and perpetuated the domination of the region by foreigners who interfered with its development, because they wanted to use Latin America for their own growth, without leaving Latin America what it needed for its growth. Radical Latin economists complained that the economic models being foisted on them by the US and Europe were not valid, and would never led to the genuine development of Latin America; they were merely intellectual disguises for the perpetuation of neocolonialism: blueprints for enabling and justifying foreign exploitation, and for creating and cultivating, through their partial success, the collaborating elites necessary to maintain that exploitation. For these radicals, the international system was cursed by contradictions and double standards. "Free Trade" meant "Latin America, open your doors to our products", but whenever Latin American economic success threatened the living standard of Americans by outcompeting American producers, and endangering the jobs of US workers, the US would take steps to protect its own by imposing trade barriers, an option which it sought to deny to Latin Americans, through the political power of the debt, and the veiled threat of its military. In other words, the equalizing dynamics of the free trade system were not being allowed to occur. (According to these dynamics, as they had been traditionally presented, living standards in the poor countries should give them one crucial economic advantage over the wealthy countries: the ability to factor cheap labor into their production. Over time, as they slowly moved from the export of agricultural goods into the export of both agricultural goods and light industrial goods, which were to be launched with earnings invested from the agroexport sector, their ability to undersell producers in the wealthy nations would gradually increase their share of world trade, and also help to improve their balance of payments. More wealth would begin to flow from the wealthy nations into the poorer nations, who might then, further embellish their economies by investing increasing profits into the development of competitive heavy industries, and capital goods industries.) Unfortunately for Latin America, the uneven use of trade barriers which reflected power differentials between the rich nations and poor nations of the world, was being used to sabotage the redistributive aspects of the free trade system; while the economic value of cheap Latin American labor was being captured by foreign multinationals, which were moving many of their operations abroad, yet continuing to dominate the profits of the operations they had set up in other lands. Outraged by this betrayal of a paradigm, radical economists were wont to exclaim, "This is not development, this is conquest wearing the mask of economic science! This is the mita speaking with the voice of Adam Smith. This is the grand illusion, the El Dorado that does not exist, that is leading all of Latin America to destruction in the desert of a tomorrow that will never come!"

And yet, for all the rage and sense of violation, economic alternatives had not flourished. The import substitution strategy previously mentioned ("Struggles for Land and Labor") had not panned out well for most of Latin America. The partial retraction from an unfavorable international system, and the effort to base development not so much on exports as upon the creation of domestic industries geared towards internal consumption, had foundered badly. In most cases, the domestic markets had not been large enough to support the development of substantial and efficient industries. In order to correct this problem, some Latin American countries had attempted to expand the "internal markets" available to them by combining with each other to create zones of economic cooperation, with experiments such as the Latin American Free Trade Association, the Central American Common Market, and the Andean Group. However, these efforts, though useful, had also run into significant obstacles, among them the inability of participating Latin American governments to incur the heavy political and social costs inherent in any genuine act of regional integration, in which some sectors of one’s economy are bound to suffer in the name of improving the performance of the whole. For many nations, poverty was too deep and social tensions too alive to be able to navigate through such sacrifices for the sake of the future. The present could not tolerate the politics of the horizon. And so, with modifications, the old export-oriented models of development had returned, burdened by the same limitations, the same sense of powerlessness, the same need to hope and the same empty words. Radical departures such as Cuba existed, which switched dependency from the US to dependency on the Soviet Union, then plunged into a marginal existence without a guardian; or Allende’s Chile (1970-1973), which lived in defiance of the system, seeking to reshape its destiny without recourse to guns, until it was punished for not conforming and finally dropped into the abyss of Pinochet. Cases such as these seemed to underline the inevitability of the farce, the eternity of the inequality.

And then came la coca. Lehder was not necessarily being melodramatic when he called it the "atom bomb of Latin America." Trapped in the dead-end formula of Ricardo, cursed by the contours of the system and the inequality of the price structures which characterized it, the coffee planters and the banana growers had failed to lift Latin America out of the pit of poverty. Even the oil drillers, indebted to and dominated by foreigners, had failed. But now, la coca had arrived: the primary product with manufactured-good prices; the agricultural sector with industrial-sector power. It was the perfect product to inject into a warped system, the mythical equalizer come to life, which suddenly made it possible to play and win by the rules of Ricardo. For the very first time, Colombian exports could finally begin to hold their own in the war that is mistakenly called "economics"; the wealth of the world that was used to trick nations into losing theirs could be recaptured and brought back to Colombia; the poor could be redeemed; what had been stolen from them could be stolen back. And Escobar and Lehder, who craved love as much as opulence and power, would be the new heroes of the Americas. For them, the promotion of la coca was not a crime, but an act of justice and revenge. What was being done to Latin America under the regimen of the international economy was the real crime, and they were about to ride to the rescue of el pueblo (the people), like Robin Hood.

Besides this aspect of la coca, Lehder seems to have envisioned Latin America and North America as being engaged in some kind of war to the death. La coca went beyond economic power, beyond the raw material of Latin America’s financial renewal, and political and military enlargement. He saw it, also, as a bullet aimed directly at the heart of the United States; as a bullet which could destroy North America’s will, unravel its "moral fabric", disorganize and divide it, self-involve and blind it, hasten its "decline and fall" like the Roman Empire, whose invincible weapons were destroyed by decadence, ultimately buried under the dust of its entertainments and its insatiable drive to satisfy the senses. For Lehder, who knew the US better than other members of the Cartel, having lived there for some time (both outside and inside of jail), la coca was the instrument by which Colombia would be raised, and North America would be lowered.

Perhaps this poem captures something of the hugeness and ferocity of the historical role conceived of for cocaine:

Big Devil

Big Horns

Coca on the way


Little Man’s

going to grow overnight


Overthrow the one

who called himself


because his

sword was biggest


Big Devil

Big Horns

Coca on the way



tied to a leaf


Stolen treasure

came back home


The whole world

paid the price


Big Devil

Big Horns

Coca on the way


Rome snorted itself

back to

two boys

sucking on a she-wolf’s teats


There’s a hole in power

where pleasure fits


Rome gave itself

back to the world

through its nose


Big Devil

Big Horns

Coca on the way


The empty space

behind the gold

knelt down

at the feet of the dead


Blood filled the streets


The gift was revenge


Big Devil

Big Horns

Coca on the way


What was easy

will never be easy again


Your friend

got lost

in the labyrinth

of you wanting everything



the only one who will talk

to you is

the one

who will never find you


And all you can have

is what you broke


Big Devil

Big Horns

Coca on the way


End it

before they do

While the bigwigs of the Medellin Cartel boldly inserted themselves into the flow of Latin American history, re-imaging their criminal pasts with a compelling if not entirely accurate justification of their actions, how did the poor peasant producers of Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia envision their roles in the new world unfolding from the coca boom? For these peasants, la coca represented a chance, not always realized, to break out of the trap of poverty which the social and economic dynamics of their own countries, and the international system, had previously condemned them to. Although the path of coca-farming was not a ticket to wealth for the peasant class utilized in its production, which stood at the bottom of the totem pole of the drug profit structure, the increase in income was still impressive. La coca provided peasants formerly locked into subsistence patterns of agriculture with the opportunity to increase their living standard, to save money, buy needed items such as clothing and medicine, consolidate property of their own (if they were raspachines, or seasonal coca pickers), perhaps invest in farm animals, and lay foundations for their children’s future. For people living a marginal existence, these gains were not superfluous, they were essential. This was especially true in Colombia, which was the original growing area tapped by the drug mafias; then a reserve growing area (after the Peruvian/Bolivian coca zones had been fully integrated into the operation); then, once again, the primary growing area after anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency operations in Bolivia and Peru (including substantial victories against the Sendero Luminoso, a guerrilla organization which had provided cover to the growing zones in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley), destabilized these sources. For poor Colombian colonos, driven by the dynamics of land ownership and violence which had marred their nation’s history into the remote jungle regions of Putumayo, Caqueta, and Guaviare (where 60% of Colombia’s coca is grown today), la coca was the only answer that made economic sense. The cost of transporting their produce to markets from these isolated regions was simply prohibitive: the income available from the sale of traditional crops would be negated by the expense of getting them to market. Relying on the production of traditional crops such as yucca, frijoles, platanos, and maiz, was, therefore, an approach that could only perpetuate subsistence, enshrining bare survival as the destiny of one’s life and the fate of one’s progeny. Coca, on the other hand, due to the extraordinary price it was able to command in international markets, could be economically transported out of the marginal zones where it was produced, leaving behind profits for the peasants, and hope for the future.

There are many in the US, today, who fault the poor peasant coca-grower of Latin America as selfish, egotistic, heartless: oblivious to the damage his economic choices are producing on the streets of North America. But these critics would do well to think twice. For these peasant cultivators, the reality which motivates them is what is in front of their eyes, and what is most immediate in their hearts, the welfare of their families. North America and its problems are hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles away. To identify with North American victims of cocaine use requires an act of the imagination, while to react to the hunger of their own children requires only the normal functioning of the strongest of human instincts. And North Americans should ask themselves: do we take into consideration the effects which our economic choices are having on the people of Latin America, when we buy jeans, or put gasoline into our cars, or eat bananas, or drink our favorite soft drink, or give flowers to a friend? Or do we only consider the prices and the quality of what we wish to buy, in light of what will make us and the ones we love happy, with no thought to the social consequences imbedded in our purchases? Do we see the girls in the sweatshops, the workers poisoned by pesticides, the union activists gunned down in cold blood so that rising wages will not sabotage the price we are looking for? How should the Latin American coca-grower, who has far less economic room to spare than we do, sacrifice his income to protect strangers who, for the most part, make no such effort on his behalf?

Perhaps no one said it better than Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in a passage which could be applied to humanity, in general, which inhabits the universe of the near while only faintly perceiving the universe of the far: "Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake… [After reflecting on it for a while, the thoughtful humanitarian man of Europe] would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this own paltry misfortune of his own." Indifference is a vice which cuts two ways; and the guilt is greater the less need one has of one’s vice.

Besides this emotional distance from the destructiveness of cocaine, of course, which insulated peasant coca-growers from the harmful nature of their product, it must be noted that the moral cruelty of cocaine was not obvious or universally agreed upon at the outset. Cocaine was glorified by many users, and came into vogue in the wake of marijuana’s drive from the social fringe towards (but not quite to) the North American mainstream. As part of the 60’s Drug Culture, which was infused with an ideology of experimentation, mind-expansion, pseudo-spirituality, and rebellion against "anachronistic" and personally-limiting laws, cocaine was only a "vice" and "force of evil" to the "squares" and "repressive institutions" of the Establishment. It took time for the damaging properties of coke addiction to become evident; and an expansion of coke consumption from the class which was originally able to afford it on a regular basis to wider sectors of the populace, before the alarm bells would start to ring in all quarters.

This widening of coke consumption began as the Colombian mafias sought to cut losses inherent in their commitment to shipping only "quality product" to the United States: what to do with substandard coke? Eventually, the solution of "dumping" coca paste of inferior quality, which had been withdrawn from the final stages of refinement due to its unsuitability, was adopted. Colombian cities such as Medellin were hardest hit. There, the paste sold for a low price, and mixed with tobacco or marijuana and rolled into cigarettes, became a favorite among the young and the destitute. Known as basuco, the high was considered intense, and addiction rates soared. To their dismay, Colombian health officials noted an almost 100% relapse rate of addicts brought into public detoxification programs, while astonishing stories circulated of doctors who actually performed lobotomies in an effort to destroy the addiction (but with only a 50-80% success rate).

While this epidemic of basuco hit susceptible urban populations of Colombia during the 1980s, the US was subjected to its own wave of "cheap cocaine" in the form of "crack", which was recognized as a massive new social problem around 1985. Cocaine, in its previously standard powdered form - generally snorted, but occasionally dissolved into water and injected - had been too expensive for regular consumption by the masses. Crack, however, brought cocaine to the people in a new, affordable, and extremely powerful form which was designed for smoking. Cocaine, in its powdered hydrochloride form, was not suitable for smoking, due to the fact that the coke began to decompose before the temperature needed to vaporize it could be reached. Crack was a new variation of cocaine (reached by a different method of preparation), which, available in "rock" or "crystal" form, could be vaporized at lower temperatures than the hydrochloride powder, and therefore smoked (typically in a "crack pipe") without losing its properties. The cracking sound made by these crystals as they were heated gave the drug its name; while the means of delivery (smoking) had much to do with the heightened impact of the experience.

For the drug cartels, the introduction of crack diversified their product line, and enhanced their revenues by allowing them to reach a new market, one which the high prices of powdered coke had prevented them from tapping. For North America, the introduction of crack triggered a social nightmare, or perhaps, only deepened an existing one. Inner cities were overwhelmed by the powerful and affordable drug which suddenly appeared on the streets, offering itself as a remedy to the pain and frustration of lives stunted by poverty, racism, and a dearth of opportunity. As the song once said: "Did you know/ that it’s true/ that for me/ and for you/ the world is a ghetto?" For those most despondent and most wounded by the bleak horizon of the urban slum, crack felt like a savior, even though its rush was ephemeral and its departure a torment. Angel Crack, take me out of here, lift me out with your poison hand, that the King and Queen don’t understand: they’ve got other doors into Happy Land. I’m not less and they’re not more, we just go in by different doors. We just go in by different doors. As a result of the 1980’s crack epidemic, the already shaky future of many capsized into absolute oblivion. Addiction and an utter loss of social functionality replaced what was at least a slim chance; violence proliferated, as gangs grew up around the new commodity and fought for turf as local distributors; and as addicts resorted to crime to get the money they needed to crawl back to the oasis of another high. Families truly did unravel, as addicted mothers neglected their young, and damaged their fetuses because they couldn’t stop smoking, even during pregnancy; as kids stole from their parents and other relatives to get "crack money"; as dollars needed for staples went to the local drug dealer instead. Racial tensions also escalated, as the fear of "black crime" prompted increasingly harsh drug laws with unequal punishments meted out to the races (based on the kind of cocaine they used), and an intensifying police presence in many of the slums, which some locals accused of imposing a veritable state of siege in their communities. Racial profiling and the harassment of youth were frequently cited as abuses.

Back in Colombia, as all this was going on in the USA, coca-producing peasants did not comprehend what was taking place; and the drug lords did not care. This was business, and business was war. There was a product that people wanted, and the mafias were going to provide it. As cynics often said of North America’s drug consumers, "Nobody is holding a gun to their head. They can ‘just say no.’" While others added, "The sin is not with us, not with the supply side of the drug trade. We are only responding to demand. Who made that demand? Who made the people want drugs? Who made them need drugs? Who made them crazy for drugs? The society that put that hunger in them is to blame."

While the drug lords of the Medellin Cartel might be ruthlessly indifferent to the impact of their business on North America (and look the other way as they dumped basuco into the poorest of their own slums), they nonetheless sought to politicize their gangsterism and to infuse it with elements of social content which would rescue it from pure villainy, and convert it into a movement with widespread appeal in Colombia. Carlos Lehder, for example, bought interests in several newspapers, and began to toss his political ideas around, as he sought to formulate and articulate a new social order based upon a combination of intense Latin American nationalism with his own brand of outlaw capitalism. He flirted with leftist guerrilla movements, yet at the same time publicly confessed to an admiration for Hitler, who he characterized as a "great warrior", and most likely loved for the "strength" which he showed in not allowing international concepts of morality to hem him in. In the manner of Nietzsche (Hitler’s favorite philosopher), Lehder saw the morality of the common man as nothing more than cowardice; or, alternately, as mental weakness, by means of which the enemy disarmed him from within so that he could have his way with him.

While Lehder sought to find ways to transform coca from a business into a sociopolitical project of national redemption, Pablo Escobar attempted to drape himself in the mantle of populism, and to become the Caesar of Colombia: hero of the masses, conqueror of other lands. Don Pablo, as his admirers called him, made frequent public appearances, handing out cash to the poor. He built impressive new apartment projects to house the poor in Medellin, constructed a skating rink, and much more importantly, a soccer stadium, and invested heavily in the improvement of Colombian futbol (soccer), so that "Colombian players were no longer treated as objects of pity in international competitions, but with the respect due the best." (Quin~ones Nova, p. 133) For a culture impassioned by sports, this was no insignificant accomplishment, and the joy of seeing their team make it to the World Cup of 1990, and tie future world champion Germany 1-1 in a brilliant match that mesmerized the international community, was a gift that few could equal: a symbol of Colombia’s potential to emerge from the shadows of powerlessness and disrespect to become a recognized and valued member of the world. As Julius Caesar first won the adoration of the Roman masses through the games which he put on for them, so Pablo Escobar fortified his image as a "man of the people" by means of his contribution to the development of Colombian soccer. It did not matter that Don Pablo also surrounded himself with unimaginable opulence, creating a spectacular hacienda for himself replete with a private zoo, and bathrooms plated with gold, as well as purchasing numerous other luxury homes, yachts, and jets. He was not like the wealthy 19th-century Americans noted by De Toqueville in Democracy in America, who hid their wealth and class from the masses in an effort to blend in to the democratic milieu; rather, he flaunted his wealth as a sign of his virility and effectiveness, while mitigating the possibility of envy with constant acts of public generosity, and undermining the potential of resentment with his personal charm. For thousands upon thousands, he became a role model, blazer of a path that could change their lives. He became the personal embodiment of hope; the new Messiah who would straighten out the upside-down world.

For a moment, Escobar sought to exploit his growing popularity and to openly enter the arena of politics. In 1978 he was elected to be a "stand-in" member of the Medellin City Council, and in 1982, he was elected to be a "stand-in" member of the Colombian National Congress. However, at this point, he finally ran up against the wall of official propriety, which could not let a criminal of his stature pursue a conventional political career without sacrificing the prestige of the nation, and incurring the ire of the United States, which had finally begun to move in earnest against the Medellin Cartel. Escobar was publicly denounced and forced to withdraw from the Congress. In this same year, US pressure compelled the Bahamas to begin harassing Lehder’s base on Norman’s Cay. The Colombian drug lord was forced to abandon his residence there, and by 1983, his operation on the island had been closed down. While the Cali Cartel continued to play the card of patience, concentrating on its business, developing connections with the traditional elites, and accepting the necessity of leaving the attainment of direct political power for future generations, when the guilt by which their fortune was made would have been replaced by the innocence of those who merely inherited it, the Medellin Cartel was about to become a victim of its own ambition. It wanted to kill and to be consecrated within the same generation. It wanted to be both the beast outside, and to have a place by the hearth. The insatiable egos, the incredible drive and criminal imagination of its leaders, had finally led it into an untenable level of confrontation with the State. From its achievements sprang confidence, and from its confidence arose fantasies. In its mind, it became greater than the real world was willing to let it be.

The Medellin Cartel’s war with the State was a natural result of its high-profile presence, which could not be ignored without seeming to collaborate or to abdicate; and that was not possible, with the US government breathing down Colombia’s neck, using all of its political and economic influence to pressure the Colombian State to shut down Escobar’s operation. Already, the Medellin Cartel had caused grievous damage to elements of the Colombian State, subjecting it to its famous options of plata o plomo ("silver or lead"), meaning, "Take this little bribe and look the other way, or start to make your funeral plans right now, because we’re saving a bullet with your name on it, just in case you have something against our money." Drug money did, in fact, succeed in creating a vast infrastructure of Cartel supporters, from police and military personnel who did not "detect" or interfere with its operations, and who "failed" to catch its leaders, to politicians who blocked legislation unfavorable to the drug lords, to judges who acquitted the narcotraficantes or dismissed charges against them, to jailers who let convicts come and go from prison as they wished. The plata side of the Cartel’s strategy was more than effective. On the other hand, many members of the Colombian government refused to take the bribes. These, acting courageously on the basis of their own convictions and principles, or out of political territoriality (to prevent the usurpation of the traditional elites from which they came by a rogue criminal class spawned in a day), or else out of obligation to the USA, put their lives on the line to challenge the growing power of the cocaine empire. In such cases, Escobar did not hesitate to go after them. Colombia had a long tradition of hired killers dating back to the days of the pajaros, the hit men of La Violencia. The killers of the 1980s were more commonly known as sicarios, and were often young men recruited from the slums, enticed with a dizzying taste of luxury put at their fingertips, then trained to strike ruthlessly at targets designated by the Cartel. Frequently, they would operate in pairs, traveling by motorcycle to the vicinity of the intended victim. Then, as the driver roared up beside the target, the gunman riding behind him would open fire; or else, as the driver stood by, the gunman would dismount, shoot his victim at point-blank range, and remount. In either case, the team would then speed away, using the maneuverability of the bike to weave in and out of traffic, and break clear of the crime scene before they could be apprehended. Had Escobar ever heard of the "Old Man of the Mountain" and the notorious band of assassins which he used to project his power throughout the Middle East during the 13th Century; a man without an army, who used the threat of a few fearless killers to break the will of the those who ruled great kingdoms; a man who lacked the resources to invade foreign lands, yet who thoroughly controlled those places which he could not conquer with the shadow of his terror; a man who, though unable to occupy another country, could, nonetheless, occupy the minds of those who had the power to give it to him, with the constant questions of "When?" and "Where?" Escobar, like the Old Man of the Mountain, placed the threat of death before all who opposed them - the threat of a quiet night interrupted by gunfire; the threat of an ambush on the street, a roadblock and bullets fired through the car window; the threat of a fatal step out the door, with someone waiting. The tension and sense of powerlessness were more than most could bear. If he wanted you, it was only a matter of time…

Using the formula of plata o plomo, Escobar kept the State disorganized and divided against itself, one part sabotaging the efforts of the other part to destroy him. However, in 1984, he finally pushed past the limits which could be tolerated, even out of fear; outrage rose to such high levels that not even the instinct of self-preservation could contain it. The Cartel had just killed Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, Colombia’s Minister of Justice, and President Belisario Betancur, realizing the fragility of his police and legal system in the face of the plata o plomo strategy, reversed his position on extradition, making Colombian drug traffickers eligible to be tried for their crimes in the United States. (US warrants were already out for Escobar, Lehder, Gacha, and the Ochoas, who were all wanted for drug trafficking.) The US criminal justice system, not so vulnerable or highly damaged as Colombia’s, was deemed capable of meting out the sentences which the Cartel members deserved. As some Colombians said, "Justice in the US is as cold as a gringo’s heart. Go in a young man, come out with a cane." No Colombian wanted to end up in that Hell, where plata had lost its voice.

From this moment on, the Cartel’s relation with the State began to revolve around the issue of extradition. While Cartel members, calling themselves the "Extraditables", stepped up their violence against those who supported extradition, cartel publicists played the nationalist card against it, arguing that it was a violation of national sovereignty to allow the US to exercise that kind of power over Colombian citizens, who could not expect to receive a fair trial in the United States and would only end up victims of racism, sacrificed to North American political objectives. "To surrender [Colombian] nationals to the United States is to provide imperialism with a means to intimidate… the peoples of the [South American] continent; it could fill North American cells with Colombians who are subjected to outrages and permanently humiliated…" (Quin~ones Nova, p. 130) Many Colombians who were against the drug traffickers nonetheless agreed with their take on extradition, considering it to be an unbearable admission of the weakness of their State ("how is it that we cannot secure our own prisoners?"), as well as an unwanted act of submission to a foreign nation which had a long history of abusing its power in Latin America. On the other hand, many other Colombians believed that extradition was now the only means left to them to defeat Pablo Escobar and his cohorts.

Frightened by the specter of extradition to the US, Escobar temporarily left Colombia to go into hiding in Panama under the protection of General Manuel Antonio Noriega, military strongman and de facto ruler of the country. Noriega was at that time surviving as an opportunist working the various sides in the region, providing some support to the CIA and US interests in their contra war against the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, while also allowing radical groups some freedom of action in his country, and enabling Colombian drug traffic to pass through. Panama had also developed into a major center for Cartel money-laundering operations, accepting vast sums of US dollars made from the drug trade, no questions asked. While Escobar and the Ochoas sought refuge with Noriega as the heat was turned up in Colombia, Lehder, seeing only "betrayal" in the general’s eyes, preferred to seek sanctuary elsewhere: some say, in Nicaragua, then later, in the jungles of Colombia. Don’t tell too many secrets to a cockroach. Don’t close your eyes at night next to the one who helped you wash your knife. In spite of the temporary displacement of its leadership, the Cartel continued to run full steam ahead, directed ably by Escobar and associates from abroad, and then, once more (after things had settled down a bit), from Colombia. In 1987, during the presidency of Virgilio Barco, the extradition treaty between Colombia and the US was declared unconstitutional by the Colombian Supreme Court - an act of genuine legal interpretation, judicial nationalism, or plata o plomo? Whatever the case, it gave the Cartel more room to work with (although by that time one of them had already been captured. More on this later.)

Meanwhile, the Cartel’s war against the State continued. In 1986, Supreme Court Justice Hernando Baquero Borda was gunned down by sicarios. In that same year, Guillermo Cano, editor of El Espectador, one of Colombia’s leading newspapers, was shot down. He had been too vocal in his condemnations of the traffickers, who now expanded their list of targets to include "freedom of the press." In 1988, Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos was murdered, one more victim of integrity in the war on drugs. The conflict was intense, the outcome undecided, although the possibility of an outlaw, narco-state emerging as a permanent feature of the Americas seemed hard to imagine.

In the mid-1980s, as the Medellin Cartel and the Colombian government (with the US and its Drug Enforcement Administration also deeply involved), mixed it up, a new and very important development occurred which was to change the face of the long-standing political conflict between Left and Right, which had been raging ever since La Violencia. The drug dealers began to become a part of that war, joining in on the side of the Right, while maintaining the Machiavellian connections with the Left which were necessary to keep their business operations afloat. The bosses of the Medellin Cartel were not simple people, and when success required complex strategies, they were up to the challenge. Like the mythical character Proteus, they could change their form to fit the circumstances, mutate from a bull to a lion to a bird to a fish. Look for them in the air and they will be in the water. Cast your net into the sea, and they will be looking down at you from a mountain. Who are they, whose side are they on? Their own. They did not need to make themselves be easy to understand, they were comfortable maneuvering in the labyrinth, comfortable killing yesterday’s friends and sleeping with the enemy; they did not live to be predicted, or to fit into anyone’s model of Colombia’s reality. Historians of the twisted politics and sordid intrigues of medieval Byzantium and Renaissance Florence would have loved them.

The motives for the Cartel’s entry into the war between Colombia’s Left and Right were personal, economic, and political. On a personal level, the Cartel was surprised and infuriated by the 1981 kidnapping of Martha Nieves Ochoa by M-19 guerrillas. She was the daughter the Ochoa family patriarch Don Fabio, and sister of the notorious Ochoa brothers. As one writer reported it: "It was one of the worse mistakes the guerrillas ever made." In response to this new threat against their families, the traffickers formed a death squad known as Muerte A Secuestradores ("Death to Kidnappers"), or MAS, whose objectives were to retaliate against the guerrillas for this violation of their families’ security, and to create the means to insure violent payback for any and all future transgressions of this kind.

On an economic level, the traffickers began to awaken to the social ramifications of the fact that they were wealthy businessmen, successful entrepreneurs, new elites in the making. Their earlier identity as rebels and outlaws had initially placed them, in their own minds, on the outside of the system, which led to a certain empathy with the guerrillas, who were also outsiders. Perhaps the kidnapping of Martha Nieves Ochoa alerted them to the fact that they were drifting apart, that more than fellow rebels, they were actually "class enemies", natural adversaries on different sides of the socioeconomic divide, motivated by different dreams, and responding to different interests. The narcotraficantes were, in the end, capitalists, not socialists, and they did not want to live in a socialist state which might limit their use of their wealth, or thwart the exercise of the power which they hoped to gain. They did not want to do away with elites, they wanted to become elites. They did not want to abolish economic inequality, which was a social necessity for the individual accumulation of extraordinary wealth, they wanted to sit in the driver’s seat of inequality. In concrete terms, as part of their strategy of protecting the money they made from drug trafficking and consolidating a legitimate economic base from which to project their influence throughout Colombia, the traffickers began to make huge investments in urban and rural real estate, providing a gigantic impetus to the construction industry which generated thousands of jobs and helped to enrich the country as a whole. In the countryside, they initiated a major campaign of land acquisition, establishing large-scale agricultural enterprises and setting up gigantic cattle ranches. In the process, they resorted to tactics long practiced by Colombian elites for taking possession of the land they wanted, using money and palanca ("connections") to turn the legal and administrative apparatus which oversaw issues of land ownership to their advantage; and failing that, intimidation and violence, to evict peasants from their farms. Once designated as a "squatter", the independent peasant could be booted off his own land; and in many cases, money and influence were all that was needed to secure a legally-binding reinterpretation of reality, which would convert a rightful owner into a "squatter."

Naturally, these aggressive dynamics of expansion brought the drug dealers into conflict with the FARC, which was committed to defending its peasant base. In the Magdalena Medio region of Colombia - an area of rich farmland along the middle Magdalena River, which is to Colombia what the Mississippi River is to the US - the conflict became particularly acute. This area, with its magnificent agricultural possibilities, and its access to Colombia’s principal oil fields and world-renowned emerald deposits, became a major focus of investment for the Medellin Cartel during the 1980s. Forging alliances with other major landholders in the region, the Cartel helped to transform AGDEGAM (la Asociacion Campesina de Ganaderos del Magdalena Medio, or "the Peasant Association of Cattle Ranchers of the Magdalena Medio") into a front for consolidating their political power in the region. Local officials and security personnel were bought off, the town government of Puerto Boyaca was co-opted, and a new and improved death squad, also known as MAS, was formed, to help evict peasants from their lands; drive away the FARC and relieve landholders of the need to pay la vacuna to the guerrillas; intimidate and root out FARC sympathizers; and quell any forms of social agitation or unrest which could possibly threaten the interests of the local elites. The region soon became home to one or more escuelas de sicarios ("assassin training academies"), and after a while, highly proficient paramilitary units, provided with weapons by elements of the Colombian military and trained by former Colombian army officers or foreign mercenaries, were molded into combat shape. These units, a special project of el Mejicano (Rodriguez Gacha), not only protected Cartel interests in the region, but soon developed the ability to exert Cartel power throughout the nation. As paramilitary activities began to intensify during the 1980s, bringing the drug dealers into violent conflict with popular sectors, such as peasants and organized labor, the Cartel fought to maintain its populist aura by continuing to perform acts of social generosity in limited environments capable of favorably projecting its image to the rest of the country. It continued to benefit poor people in some locations, while killing poor people in others. Some it cultivated as a base, others it blew out of its way.

In addition to these personal and economic motives for becoming involved in the war against the Left in Colombia, the Cartel also had important political reasons for joining in. As its war against the State, which was driven by its need to preserve space for its criminal activities, escalated, so its need for powerful allies within the State grew. By investing a part of its enormous drug fortune in the creation of a paramilitary apparatus capable of aiding the State in its counterinsurgency efforts, the Cartel hoped to make itself too useful to the State to be eliminated.

Already, on a more subtle level, of course, the Cartel was helping to combat the guerrillas. By injecting large new doses of money into the Colombian economy, the drug trade was helping to stave off recession and to prevent the kind of economic deterioration which historically has multiplied the guerrillas. By helping the capitalist system to stay on its feet, it was lessening the appeal of radical socialist alternatives, which could only be reached by walking over the hot coals of revolution. Why risk your life if there was still hope? Although Colombian government officials, and their North American allies who were opposed to drug trafficking, were sure to press ahead with their war against the Cartel no matter what, some estimates had placed Colombia’s narco-income as high as 50% of its Gross Domestic Product (Foreign Affairs Magazine, 1994), while others saw it as half that, or even less (below 10%). Whatever the truth - never easy to ascertain in such a highly-guarded, illegal field - cocaine’s economic impact on Colombian society was huge; and if there were moral "troopers" determined to eliminate it at any cost, there were also pragmatists who did not fail to recognize its usefulness in warding off the conditions likely to breed a new generation of guerrillas.

More directly, however, the Cartel’s investment in the creation of a new, high-powered paramilitary apparatus, was a tremendous gift to the Colombian Right. The Right was, by now, thoroughly frustrated by decades of civil war characterized by its inability to defeat the FARC. It believed that to win that war what was required was una guerra sucia ("a dirty war"): a war of terror against the guerrillas’ civilian support base; a war which would intimidate, displace, and destroy the "human infrastructure" required by the guerrillas to survive in the countryside, to maneuver invisibly among the people, to strike out of nowhere then disappear again, to spread their perspective ("propaganda"), to build contacts and carry out urban operations. The guerrillas, themselves, lacked major fixed targets for the military to assault, which is what made them so elusive and hard to beat: the people were their one fixed target, but they were also off-limits, due to the "rules of war", which precluded attacks against unarmed civilians. For right-wing elements of the military, the distinction between guerrillas and civilians in a guerrilla-dominated zone was a fatal mental construct, imposed upon their life-and-death struggle by international conventions and organizations outside of the line of fire. These militares hated human-rights activists, who they considered to be "agents of the subversives", or else naive pawns, used by the guerrillas to shape the contours of the battlefield to their own advantage. As time went on, rage at feeling their hands tied, grew. The same frustration that led US soldiers to act out with violent atrocities against the villagers of My Lai during the Vietnam War led to the development of a sustained strategy, in Colombia, to terrorize and punish those who provided aid and comfort to the guerrillas. The thought was, "My men are dying because you’re helping the guerrillas and not us. Why didn’t you tell us about that land mine? Why didn’t you tell us about that ambush they set up? By letting us walk into it, you are as guilty as the ones who fired the bullets. To Hell with you, you deserve to die just as much as the ones who pulled the trigger."

In fact, before the paramilitaries developed into a major presence in the 1980s, the Colombian military had been accused of numerous human rights abuses, including the torture and extrajudicial execution of civilians in combat zones, and the bombing of civilian populations suspected of collaborating with the guerrillas, a policy intended to displace peasants from guerrilla strongholds and to leave the guerrillas without a support base: or, as counterinsurgency experts put it, "to take away the water from the fish." (Colombia, today, ranks third in the world for "internally displaced" citizens, trailing only the Sudan and Angola in this regard. Since 1985, over two million Colombians have been forced to leave their homes and to resettle in other locations, due to threats and violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, and the army.)

Serious problems, however, attended any human rights abuses committed by the military in the name of counterinsurgency. Valuable public-relations ground was lost by the State in its war against the guerrillas every time it was implicated in a violation of the rules of war as the result of actions carried out by one of its official institutions, such as the military or the police. Besides this, US military aid, including weapons, training, funds for "civic action" programs, and logistical and intelligence support, was susceptible to review and suspension by the US Congress, if certain minimal standards of human rights were not observed by the recipient country. In 1977/78, for example, US military aid to Guatemala was suspended, and arms sales banned, due to gross violations of human rights that were being perpetrated by the Guatemalan army in its war against leftist guerrillas, which had degenerated into a veritable genocide of Native Mayan peoples; while, in 1983, the US Congress passed the "Boland Amendments", blocking the US government, and any and all of its agencies, from providing military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, a US-backed counterrevolutionary force aimed at destabilizing the ruling Sandinistas. Although both the Guatemalan military and the Nicaraguan contras continued to receive indirect US military aid from public and private sources, and from third parties which were invited to step into the vacuum created by the "absence" of the United States, the resulting systems of support were far more complicated and far less efficient than those which had previously existed. In the midst of a very difficult war against a formidable, time-tested guerrilla army, the last thing the Colombian State wanted or needed was for human rights abuses to provoke the US Congress, acting to save its own image and (in cases) principles, to cut off military aid.

For this reason, the paramilitaries were an ingenious invention. Not officially a part of the State, they were able to operate outside of the traditional human rights framework which binds governments, and "ties the hands" of soldiers in the name of morality; to commit horrible atrocities for which the Colombian government could not be held accountable, and to wage the "dirty war" which elements of the military wanted to wage, but could not, due to their formal association with the State. Although the fiction of "independent death squads" not connected to the State was nothing new - in fact, it was already a well-known feature of 1980s El Salvador and Guatemala - the pretense was more believable in Colombia, due to the genuine existence of a powerful, non-governmental entity already well-known for its criminal ruthlessness: the Medellin Cartel. Besides this, brilliant fiction was not required here. The US government was wholly committed to the war against the guerrillas in Colombia, and therefore willing to tolerate human rights abuses which were not brazenly traceable to the Colombian government.

With the rise of the paramilitaries, the perfect counterinsurgency machine was put into place: a government which combined the PR advantages and aid-procurement capabilities of a democracy, with the military effectiveness of a dictatorship; a likable clean face, with a hard, unsparing heart. It was truly a hybrid beast, like the mythological chimera, or some fantasy creation of geneticists: a lamb with the claws of a lion, and the teeth of a wolf; a beautiful white dove with a serpent’s soul, iron weapons grafted onto its soft body. And what made it particularly effective was the fact that thousands of Colombian officials, civilians and military alike, honestly played the part of the defenders of ideals, abhorring the inhumanity of the dirty war as they inadvertently provided moral cover for those who practiced the skills of darkness beneath the surface of the State. Their commitment to justice, as they perceived it, and to human rights, perfected the facade which the others needed to hide behind.

Typically, the paramilitary death squads, financed by drug money, trained by former military men and by foreign mercenaries (including British and Israelis), armed by the Colombian military or by sources on the black market, and made up of peasants, members of the urban unemployed, and former security personnel, all working for hire, received intelligence information and logistical support from elements of the Colombian military as they moved into position to carry out their attacks. The army and police would then move out of their way, pretending not to notice them as they advanced to strike at their common enemies; then, fail to apprehend them or engage them as they left the scenes of their horrendous crimes. More will be said about these crimes in the next section ("Paramilitary Chronicles"). For now it can be said that the paramilitaries specialized in carrying out massacres of civilian "guerrilla sympathizers", which were meant to shock and terrify the guerrillas’ support base into submission, or else frighten it into abandoning the countryside altogether, thereby isolating the guerrillas, and also opening up new tracts of land for acquisition by the narco-elites and their allies. Paramilitary actions were particularly rife in some zones, especially those which were heavily militarized and dominated by army commanders to whom the civil government had granted special powers, and where important economic assets were located. This applied particularly to the region of the Magdalena Medio, where the FARC and ELN were a threat, and to the banana-growing region of Uraba, where the EPL and FARC were active. The paramilitaries rarely confronted the guerrilla groups directly, but were, instead, utilized by some military commanders as a kind of auxiliary force, to soften up the guerrillas’ support network by waging "dirty war." Obviously, areas that were deep inside guerrilla territory, such as the FARC’s jungle strongholds, were less affected by paramilitary activity than areas that were more contested, where access to guerrilla-supporting communities was easier.

While these paramilitaries participated in a brutal campaign of civilian massacres designed to undermine guerrilla power, without triggering an international response which could severely damage the Colombian government, they and smaller groups of mafia-spawned sicarios also carried out a relentless series of assassinations against Leftist activists and politicians in general. For the Colombian Right, the Left was nothing more than the FARC with many heads, one big monster of guerrilla sympathizers, agents, and front men, mixed with equivalents and deadly ingenues, whose lethal naiveté was almost worse than bullets. Together, they were part of a human ocean of dissatisfaction that threatened to crash over the shore of what was, and what the Right wished to preserve. Trade unionists, peasant organizers, progressive teachers, students, and intellectuals, community activists, indigenous leaders, and left-wing politicians of various affiliations, were all considered suspect according to this worldview , and depending on specific circumstances, in need of intimidation or elimination. Not only was this campaign of terror meant to isolate the FARC politically, it also seemed designed to impede the development of any significant social challenge to major landholders and business owners, to keep down the cost of labor, increase elite access to land, and enforce a monopoly on ideas, putting blinders of fear over alternative visions that might arise, shooting down the social imagination of a nation. During the 1980s, thousands died as a result of this wave of assassinations. Particularly hard-hit was a leftist opposition coalition formed by the PCC, FARC, and various democratic-left groups, which sought to combine their constituencies to create a new political party capable of challenging the traditional domination of the Liberals and Conservatives. The Union Patriotica (Patriotic Union", or UP) as this new party, created in 1985, was known, arose during the "democratic opening" pursued by President Belisario Betancur, who wished to pacify the country by promoting the idea of inclusion, and reintegrating rebellious elements of society into the political process. For the FARC, participation in the UP was a way of testing the ground of peace, to see if it was solid. Could gains truly be made in the electoral arena? Could the FARC truly come out of the jungle without being shot? Until it was sure, it was not going to give up its weapons. Of course, it is very possible that the FARC was only interested in participating in the UP as a way of expanding its political influence, as a means of enhancing the future possibilities of its armed struggle. Why not exploit the opportunity to operate legally and openly in the public arena while it lasted? Certainly, this is the way that enemies of the FARC perceived the UP. For them, the UP was nothing more than a guerrilla front meant to subvert society by taking advantage of its democratic institutions. Determined to save the nation from President Betancur’s ingenuousness, they took it upon themselves to begin shooting the UP into oblivion, caring little for the fact that many UP members did not belong to the FARC at all, and had simply gravitated to the party in order to begin to try to form a leftist alternative to the current state of affairs. "Birds of a feather flock together," was the philosophy that ruled the loading of the guns. During the 1980s and 1990s, the UP lost 2,000 - 3,000 members to assassination (some say 5,000), including its leaders and presidential candidates, Jaime Pardo Leal (1987) and Bernado Jaramillo Ossa (1989). Pardo Leal’s death was directly attributed to the planning of Medellin Cartel crime boss Rodriguez Gacha, who was not successfully prosecuted in the case, however. When it came to acts of violence perpetrated by the paramilitaries and the sicarios, the culprits were rarely found, and even less rarely prosecuted and convicted. "Impunity" was king in the land of blood. Decimated by violence, the UP eventually faded from the political stage. The FARC used its destruction as an argument for the continuation of the armed struggle; as proof of the impossibility of peaceful change in Colombia, where democracy was either a game, or a killing field.

In addition to these campaigns of political terror, the death squads created by the drug lords also began to engage in ruthless acts of limpieza social (or "social cleansing"). Comparing themselves to fumigators of insects, they took it upon themselves to "beautify" their cities by getting rid of the homeless, the gamines (street children, many of whom had turned to thievery and drug addiction), beggars, transvestites, and homosexuals. These moves were partly designed to increase the economic value of their real estate by improving the general quality of the cities they sought to dominate; to deny the guerrillas potential urban recruiting grounds (the guerrillas were said to sometimes abduct the gamines in order to integrate them into their forces); and to woo socially conservative elements of society, which might begin to see the narcos as defenders of "family values", rather than as untrustworthy outlaws. It might help to create common ground between them. And yet, these killings were cold-blooded and close-minded, turning the stomachs of the sensitive. To some, it seemed as if the underlying philosophy of the limpiezas was the same as that which lay behind the famous graffiti detected on a wall in La Paz, Bolivia, ever since a symbol of the heartless logic of the rich: "End poverty, kill a beggar." Although the Cartel had not given up on its populist image, its politics were becoming steadily more fascist, with the people subsiding into servitude, just as they had under Hitler: enthusiastic and adoring slaves, or else enemies in the gun sights.

The narco strategy, at this point, was complex, as intellectually amazing as it was morally repulsive. By assuming a vital role in the State’s defense, undertaking to wage the "dirty war" that the State could not wage without crippling itself, as well as pumping badly needed narcodollars into the economy, the Cartel had made itself useful to the State, and imbedded itself into the very fabric of its survival. It hoped to be so valuable that it could not be torn out of this fabric. While some elements of the State opposed the traficantes, as they must, many others were bought off, intimidated, or won over by the Cartel’s usefulness. Most likely, Escobar, now that he realized he would never be able to openly pursue a political career in Colombia, hoped to create a kind of shadow body politic under his control, consisting of government and security officials who were drawn to his side. Using his influence, he would engineer a kind of "invisible coup" backed by politicians and by military men who welcomed his aid in the war against the guerrillas. The legitimate government would be left in place to provide cover for the reality that was replacing it in the shadows, but ever larger portions of its control would be deactivated over time, leaving it an emitter of empty directives that would not be carried out, even as they appeared to be obeyed. No one would find Escobar, no one would stop Escobar, no one would destroy his empire of cocaine, until he was finally left as the Maker of Kings, the Will inside a hollow State.

Of course, one great difficulty in his strategy was that, in order to win the support of the army, which could shelter him from his foes, he needed to become its ally in their war against the guerrillas - and yet the guerrillas were becoming increasingly important to the defense of his jungle laboratories and zones of coca production in Colombia. How was he able to navigate this paradox? First of all, it must be understood that the Cartel’s drug trafficking operation was huge, international, and diversified. It was able to draw on coca supplies from Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, meaning that it did not depend exclusively on coca-growing zones in Colombia for its PBC (pasta de cocaina basica, or "basic cocaine paste"), the semi-processed material which it brought to its Colombian laboratories for refinement before final shipment to the US. Whereas guerrilla support (in both Colombia and Peru) was very useful for keeping the State out of the large swaths of territory needed to cultivate coca in significant quantities, less space was required to maintain the laboratories which refined the coca - and therefore, less overall resources were needed to guard them. This meant that the Cartel, itself, was capable of guarding some of its labs with its own private bodyguards and paramilitary units. Although deals were cut with the guerrillas to guard some of its laboratories, and although the drug traffickers continued to buy coca produced in guerrilla-controlled zones, the Cartel felt that it held a strong-enough hand to be able to risk conflict with the guerrillas over the paramilitaries, without jeopardizing its business. In other words, its options were so robust, that it felt it could survive a breakdown in its business relations with the FARC, if need be, in order to pursue its strategy of ingratiating itself to right-wing elements of the State.

Besides this, however, the Cartel shrewdly anticipated the pragmatism of the FARC. It correctly guessed that the FARC - once the cocaine trade had aroused the interest of peasant cultivators and become a part of the culture of the Colombian frontier, an economic ray of light in the wilderness - would not be able to suppress the trade without alienating its peasant base. Peasants had learned the power of the illegal crop, and would not readily part with the opportunities it provided. This knowledge, which was one reason the FARC decided not to move against coca, even though coca profits were being used by the narcos to fund the "dirty war" against them, was not only applied by the guerrillas in Colombia, but also temporarily (during the late 1980s) by the military in Peru to aid in its war against the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas of Peru’s middle and upper Huallaga Valley. There, in the heart of Peru’s coca-growing region, the highly controversial counterinsurgency expert General Alberto Arciniega decided to suspend government operations against peasant coca cultivators, and to allow the drug trade to go on, for a very simple reason: government efforts to ban coca production, to fumigate coca fields, and to arrest coca cultivators were only alienating the peasantry from the government, and driving them into the arms of the Sendero Luminoso rebellion, which offered to provide protection to the trade. Combining sympathy and support for peasant coca cultivators in the region, with hard-core military operations against the guerrillas, Arciniega succeeded in achieving substantial victories against the Sendero, until US anti-narcotics lobbyists finally intervened, leading to his transfer. What Arciniega and the FARC both realized, from their different perspectives, was that la coca was now a reality in their environment; it was like a dye poured into a pool of water, that changes the color of everything that existed before. You can either work with the reality, or deny it; look it in the eyes, know it and use it, or bury your head in the moral sand, and let it devour you, in the hands of others. You can try to ride it, like a horse, towards dreams you dreamt before you knew it, even though it may throw your soul to the ground, or let others ride it over you.

But, of course, the FARC’s acceptance of la coca was not merely passive. Besides not wishing to alienate its peasant base, which in some areas came to depend on coca cultivation, the FARC must also have succumbed to the Faustian temptation that many other sectors of Colombia were succumbing to, including elements of the government and the military which opposed it. La coca translated into power, and power was necessary for survival. Ringed by weapons on all sides, no one fighting for his life in Colombia could disdain the weapon of la coca, it was becoming an essential presence on a battlefield where morality was suicide. Concretely, the FARC could turn profits made from taxing the coca trade and demanding protection money for guarding drug-related facilities into weapons purchases, to enhance its ability to fight against the army, and to further its long-term objectives. On the contrary, if it sought to shut the trade down in territories under its control, it would lose a valuable source of income without necessarily denying income to its paramilitary enemies, since the drug trade could probably adapt to its actions, and reconfigure, basing itself on other locations, both at home and abroad. The FARC’s enemies would continue feeding, while it fasted. Bullets would keep coming, while few would be left to answer with.

Perhaps the following metaphor can make this bizarre relationship between mortal foes comprehensible. Imagine two enemies. One controls the land above a gigantic gold mine. The other has the technology to extract the gold. They need each other to get the gold. They therefore make a bargain. The one lets its enemy come in to mine the gold, for a share of the profits. The other pays its enemy for access to the mine, in order to get at the gold. The gold they reap together is used to fuel their war against each other, but neither side retracts from the oddity of the situation, because each believes that it will gain the most advantage from the relationship. Like two duelists with pistols, each believes he is the better shot.

While the drug traffickers were addicted to the idea of the wealth which their business could generate, to the point of being willing to strengthen their enemies in order to promote it, the guerrillas felt that money from the drug trade could facilitate a major upgrade in their military capabilities, and provide them with the clout they needed to actually challenge the government for control of the Colombian State. They probably felt that their power could grow faster than their enemies’ power to destroy them, and may have felt that international human rights groups would eventually succeed in limiting the impact of the paramilitary groups which the drug traffic was spawning. The FARC, therefore, permitted the cocaine trade to develop and expand within its territory during the 1980s. Within its territory, the trade was strictly regulated. Drug consumption was heavily discouraged, the FARC wanted economic benefits, not social disintegration. Bullying tactics often used by the mafias to secure land and to control the coca supply were not tolerated in guerrilla territory; instead, the FARC imposed a high degree of law and order over a frequently violent and unruly enterprise; and the guerrillas also insisted on a steady price for the leaves and PBC which dealers bought from peasants. The mafias, when able to, attempted to vary prices paid to peasant cultivators for their product, in order to reflect price drops in the international market whenever these occurred; but the guerrillas believed that the dealers, who made most of the money from the business, should absorb those losses, and they enforced "fair prices" for their cultivators. At the same time as the FARC made the decision to accept the reality of coca in Colombia, and to work with it, it is also possible that it explored various means of escaping from its reliance on the mafias which were becoming increasingly committed to a right-wing agenda, and using drug profits to finance paramilitary massacres of FARC supporters. Most likely, it began to seek contacts with some of the surviving smaller drug-trafficking organizations in the country, to try to develop independent, non-Cartel alternatives to the problem of refining, trafficking, and marketing the coke; while some speculated that it may have attempted to form, or encourage the development of, a third major Cartel which could connect it to the international market without nourishing its enemies in the process. This was, in fact, a conjecture which appeared in the Colombian magazine Semana on February 20, 1989, which was struggling, at the time, to get a handle on the overwhelmingly complicated and baffling dynamics governing the relationship between the guerrillas and the narcos. Whatever the case, it seems that the guerrillas, to this date, have remained primarily defenders and regulators of coca-growing regions in Colombia, relying on outside criminal organizations to traffic and market the coca which their peasant base produces. Although, as of 2002, there were indications that the FARC had engaged in some trafficking operations of its own (seeking to barter drugs for weapons in neighboring countries), it still does not appear to have developed major, if any, inroads into the US.

While the FARC undoubtedly reaped major economic rewards from its paradoxical and double-edged involvement in the drug trade, it also incurred substantial public relations damage, and in some ways played directly into the hands of its enemies. With the softening of the Soviet Empire during the days of Gorbachev, and then its utter unraveling in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cold War justifications for US-supported counterinsurgency operations in Latin America were rendered obsolete. That, in turn, left North American policy-makers in a quandary. If Latin American revolutions could no longer be seen as projections of Soviet Strategy, meant to extend the global power of the "Evil Empire" (as President Reagan called the USSR) into the Western Hemisphere, then on what basis could US military intervention there be justified? Eisenhower’s intervention in Guatemala in 1954, Johnson’s intervention in Santo Domingo in 1965, and Reagan-era involvement in Central America during the1980s (as well as his invasion of Grenada in 1983) were all explained to the North American public as necessary engagements of the Cold War; as efforts to uphold the Monroe Doctrine and prevent an expansionist and threatening outside power from taking control of key Latin American regions and turning them into bases in its global confrontation against the US. Without the menace of the Soviet Union to inflate the danger of Latin American revolutions to the US, how could approval for massive expenditures of military aid and other forms of military assistance or direct involvement against Latin American guerrilla groups be procured? The people of the US, through the Congress that represented them, would be likely to question the use of their tax dollars for conflicts that seemed marginal to their security, especially given the fact that counterinsurgency usually takes place in a morally-ambiguous environment disturbing to the conscience, in which the "good guys" are often just as tainted as the "bad guys." When one feels threatened, one is more likely to tolerate the abuses committed by one’s defenders, on one’s behalf. It is easier to look the other way, to believe in excuses, or in fictions like the "independent death squad that has nothing to do with us." The less tangible a threat, however, the less our self-image is able to endure demolition by our brutality. If blood is being spilled, not for our survival in a war against ruthless enemies, but only to protect the profits of our businesses operating in a foreign land, we cannot help but feel a certain revulsion at our cynicism, a certain self-contempt and disappointment which undermines the quality of our life. In the face of this intense discomfort, we seek to extricate ourselves from the predicament by pressuring our representatives to put an end to the upsetting stimulus. US government policy-makers, aware of this tendency, are aware of the corresponding need to find a concrete moral way in to military actions which they believe are necessary, but which the general public would never favor on purely material or abstract grounds. In the case of seeking to maintain high levels of US military aid to the Colombian government in its conflict against the FARC, in spite of growing human rights abuses by that government and its shadowy paramilitary apparatus, the drug trade offered the perfect way in; the perfect answer to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the perfect replacement for the dissolution of the Soviet threat. By emphasizing the FARC’s involvement in the drug trade (and downplaying the simultaneous importance of the drug trade in the war being waged against the FARC), US policy-makers were able to construct the highly emotional image of the narcoguerrilla - the drug-trafficking guerrilla - and implant it in the consciousness of the North American public.

The "narcoguerrilla", a magnificent myth which was able to maintain the relevance of the Colombian guerrilla to North American citizens in a post-Cold-War era, was built upon realities extracted from their context. Yes, the guerrillas were involved in the drug trade; but so, too, were their enemies, and so, too (some claimed), was the US (see "Conspiracy Theory: Colombia"). While pro-business sectors representing industries dedicated to the production of oil, bananas, coal, coffee, flowers, etc., in Colombia, definitely perceived the FARC as a threat to the continued success of their operations - and while geopolitical strategists still feared the danger of a powerful socialist state directly adjacent to the Isthmus of Panama and potentially able to spread its revolutionary influence to other South American countries - for the average US citizen, there was little motivation to become involved in what seemed to be a long-term civil war of Colombians against Colombians. However, by connecting the guerrillas to the drug trade in the mind of the North American public, US policy-makers were able to portray the guerrillas as a direct threat to the USA, even without the Soviet Empire to inject into the equation. Not since Pearl Harbor (1941) had there been a direct attack by a foreign power on US soil; but now, according to fomenters of the "narcoguerrilla" myth, America was actually being invaded by a foreign enemy known as COCAINE, which was killing thousands in the streets, destroying neighborhoods, disintegrating families, ripping apart the heart and soul of the US with violence, crime, social chaos, and moral collapse. Lehder’s "atom bomb of Latin America" was being dropped on New York, Chicago, Miami, LA, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and hundreds of other cities and towns; Hiroshimas of white powder, and Nagasakis of crack rocks were exploding everywhere, and blowing apart the future of the nation. And behind it all was a deadly conspiracy of ruthless Colombian drug lords and their guerrilla allies: one face, one force, one enemy. This simplistic formula for perceiving reality was absolutely imprecise, and for that reason, politically powerful. In one bold stroke, it obscured the social roots of the guerrillas, obliterated the history of the civil war in Colombia, disappeared the social objectives of the revolutionaries, and transformed the FARC into merely a band of criminals, a worthy target of US military action. From an unjustifiable act of international meddling (as opponents saw it), US military involvement in Colombia had been successfully reframed as a necessary act of self-defense. The FARC, a captive both of unavoidable circumstances and its own ambition, had cooperated beyond the State Department’s wildest dreams in its own villainization.

Some lawmakers in the US, at first, refused to part with distinctions, however. They did have enough of a grasp of history to recognize the complexity of things, and as the US War on Drugs escalated - as new air bases, radar stations, and intelligence-gathering networks were constructed in the Andean region to interdict airborne drug traffic, and as increasing numbers of US military personnel, DEA operatives, weapons, and helicopters found their way into the area - they sought to impose legal safeguards which would insure that those resources were only used to combat the drug trade, and not to engage in counterinsurgency operations which might degrade an already atrocious human rights situation, and draw the US closer to a new Vietnam in Colombia and Peru. As time went on, however, and the carefully-crafted misperception of the guerrilla as "narcoguerrilla" became more and more ingrained into the North American mindset, it became possible for policy-makers to argue that, in order to defeat the epidemic of drugs in the US, the guerrillas, themselves, must be confronted. The spaces that they controlled, which (by the 1990s) harbored the major coca-growing regions in Colombia, must be "opened up" to the State and its anti-narcotics efforts, and this could only be achieved by defeating the guerrillas in combat, and driving them out of their strongholds. The distinction between anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency was artificial, it was argued; la guerrilla and la coca were inextricably bound together, in a knot that could not be untied, only cut with the same knife. By 2000-2001, this philosophy had gained ascendancy in the highest places. US President Bill Clinton and Colombian President Andres Pastrana cooperated to form an initiative known as Plan Colombia, an ambitious plan to improve the Colombian economy, promote new economic opportunities to wean peasant cultivators away from coca, strengthen the Colombian military, enhance the anti-narcotics capabilities of the State, improve the nation’s human rights record, and work towards a peaceful settlement of the armed conflict. 78% of the US $1.3 billion aid package that went to Colombia as part of this plan, however, was military in nature, and President Clinton waived human rights requirements for the release of that military aid. The defeat of the FARC had finally become an integral component of the US agenda of destroying the international supply of coca, and perhaps an objective of equal importance, since most experts realized that as long as North American demand for cocaine remained, there would always be too great an incentive to produce for the supply to be eliminated. (Instead, the temporary drop in supply created by successful anti-narcotics operations would catapult street prices sky-high, drawing new players, and new locations, into the business.) While the War on Drugs could truly only be won on US soil, by defeating the monster of demand (which is what generates supply), the supply-side approach to the War on Drugs was useful in justifying the insertion of an elevated US military presence into the region, in spite of the end of the Cold War - more bases, more troops, more agents; and in creating a valid context for the support of counterinsurgency operations. But, as some Colombians imagined US officials saying: "Why deal with your own problems, when you can make someone else deal with them?"

I cut off the hydra’s head, and there grew two.

And victory turned into a bad dream:

seven snarling dragons

became fourteen.

The hydra will never lose,

till you follow him home

and fight the seeds of his many heads

which are inside of you.

Hydra, hydra,

you are me

and I am you.

I am your master

and I am your slave.

I broke my mirror

and laid the world in a grave.

But all of this is getting ahead of the story. Back in the mid-1980s, as the complex and barely comprehensible relationship between the guerrillas and the drug traffickers, who were simultaneously allies and enemies, was developing, Pablo Escobar was hoping to save his criminal empire by becoming too useful to the State to be destroyed by it. Hence, the creation of the paramilitary apparatus: to ingratiate himself to the Colombian Right, and to crucial elements of the military which, in turn, could shelter him from still functioning elements of the State.

However, Escobar’s brilliant effort to win friends was not enough. He and his Cartel were too visible, too well-known, to be simply left in peace. Even if he could turn the State’s war against him into a mere charade, the charade still needed a body, a captive, to assuage its foes, and play convincingly on the world stage. Somebody had to fall. Whether by accident or design, that somebody turned out to be Carlos Lehder, who was captured by the National Police in February 1987 in one of Pablo Escobar’s safehouses in Colombia. Was he set up, thrown to the Colombian government as required proof that they were serious about shutting down the Medellin Cartel, which would then make it easier for Escobar to corrupt and deter the government from carrying out further actions against him? Was Lehder the most expendable member of the Cartel, due to some of his lingering connections with the Left, which may have unsettled the Right with whom Escobar was attempting to build a relationship? Or was he the most dangerous to Escobar, due to his brilliant mind and free spirit; a potentially unreliable ally? Or was he simply the unlucky one among friends, the one who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time? It seems that the police surrounded the house where Lehder was staying while a party was going on; and that after some preliminary exchanges of gunshots, the traffickers and their friends, who had been taken by surprise and were not in the mood to go down fighting, surrendered. At this time, the hated extradition agreement with the United States, implemented after the assassination of Lara Bonilla, was still in effect, and Ledher was promptly shoved onto an airplane bound for the US. Aboard the plane, a US agent is said to have offered him a cigarette, but Lehder refused it, saying, "I only smoke pot." Unlike most of the Cartel leaders, who scrupulously avoided their product in order to maintain the cool and calculating focus needed to stay on top of such a dangerous game, Lehder was known to enjoy the products which he plied to the world. Maybe he was a little foggy that night, forgetful of the senses that a fugitive needs to avoid capture. Back in the US, Lehder was, predictably, convicted for drug trafficking, and sentenced to life in prison, plus 135 years (to be applied in the event of his reincarnation? One wonders at sentences of this nature, but, in the end, they are probably just a way of ISSUING A SENTENCE IN CAPITAL LETTERS; a way of saying, "We hate you, and wish we could kill you. But since we can’t, take this.") But, of course, this was not the last the world would hear of Carlos Lehder. Hobbling about in shackles, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, his charisma broken - seemingly discarded by time and history, and turned into an inhabitant of a hole - he would persist to appear once more, in prominent fashion, during the trial of General Manuel Noriega, then mysteriously disappear from the visible surface of the US prison system altogether! (See "Conspiracy Theory: Colombia.") Even in defeat, he was not conventional.

In the meantime, sacrificial goat of the Cartel or not, Escobar and company worked hard in the wake of Lehder’s capture to make sure that they did not fall victim to a similar fate. Pursuing the plata o plomo strategy on the one hand, and cultivating friends on the political Right on the other, they succeeded in "influencing" the Colombian Supreme Court to annul the extradition agreement with the United States in May of 1987. In November of 1987, Jorge Ochoa was arrested in Colombia, but thanks to the blow dealt the extradition agreement by the Supreme Court ruling, and thanks to compelling threats made by the Cartel against the political establishment, he was released in December, just in time to celebrate New Year’s. The Cartel was back in the driver’s seat, operating in a powerful dimension created by fear and avarice, between the government’s authority on paper, and its ability and will to act. How long this situation might have lasted is hard to say, but in 1989, Pablo Escobar once again destabilized his project with an overaggressive action meant to subdue the State, which only awakened it. He made its vulnerability too obvious, forgot the steps of the dance, committed the sin of disgracing subtlety, made a travesty of the etiquette of conquest. Like a criminal Bellerephon, he reached beyond his mortal limits, and left the State no option but to publicly capitulate, or to rise up from its knees and fight him. On August 18, Liberal Presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, a well-liked figure and advocate of extradition, was gunned down at a political rally by assassins in the hire of the Cartel. Galan was no "fringe leftist", not one of hundreds of UP politicians who could be shot down without consequences, and mourned only by reprimands. He was the presidential candidate of a major, traditional party, and Escobar’s latest attack seemed nothing less than an outright grab for national power: the formal declaration of a regimen of terror designed to replace the elites who had ruled for decades with a new order beholden to the Medellin Cartel. That very night, President Virgilio Barco issued an emergency decree restoring extradition to the Colombian landscape, and initiated a massive new crackdown against the drug lords. In response, the traffickers, referring to themselves as the "Extraditables", launched a wave of terror against the Colombian government, the likes of which had never before been seen.

Late in 1989, the Cartel placed a bomb aboard a commercial jet belonging to Avianca, the national airlines, killing all 110 passengers aboard in a deadly midair explosion. It also initiated a wave of car bombings, including one massive detonation outside the Bogota headquarters of the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, or "Administrative Department of Security"), the Colombian equivalent of the FBI. With this bombing, the Cartel hoped to eliminate one of its most persistent enemies, DAS chief General Miguel Maza, but it only succeeded in turning downtown Bogota into a scene straight from Hell, killing and maiming large numbers of innocent civilians. Escobar also put a price of US $2000 on the head of every Colombian policeman, triggering a wave of assassinations of local law enforcement personnel. The war was now absolute, and brazen. The Colombian government struck back in December, cornering Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha in a ranch house, and killing him in a fierce gun battle. This fearsome mastermind of murder, a key player in the formation of the Colombian death squads and the intellectual author of countless assassinations, finally met the Destiny which his violence had been preparing for him over the years. To his credit, it must be said that, in the tradition of the Mexican bandit heroes and macho cowboys who had inspired him, he went down fighting, not disgracing his ruthlessness with out-of-place expectations of mercy. His bloody corpse was laid out on the ground, photographed, then rapidly buried, leading some to conjecture that he had not really been killed at all, and that his death had merely been faked. But such conjectures abound in the universe of the notorious. The world does not easily let go of its heroes or its demons.

While the Colombian government was busy battling the Cartel to the death, the US government made its own contribution to the war against the drug lords by invading Panama (December 20, 1989), in order to topple General Manuel Noriega from power. The decision to oust Noriega was officially based on his involvement in drug trafficking, including his previous (and possible future) support for Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. On the other hand, critics of the invasion noted that Noriega’s involvement with drug trafficking had been known and tolerated for some time, and that the real reason he was being challenged now was because he had refused to give the US the level of support it had demanded from him during the civil war in El Salvador and the contra war in Nicaragua. In other words, Noriega’s political direction was considered too independent and unreliable, an especially dangerous development considering the fact that the Panama Canal, crucial to US commercial interests, was due to revert to full Panamanian control by the year 2000. If, as mandated by the Torrijos-Carter Treaty of 1977, the US was not to directly control the canal as it had ever since it opened in 1914, then, at the very least, it required a dependable and friendly government to be in charge of Panama to insure full US access to the canal. This is why, critics of the 1989 invasion say, the US government ultimately decided to move against Noriega.

Whatever the motives, the end result was that Noriega was eventually captured and brought to trial in the US on drug-related charges, including drug trafficking and money laundering. Thanks largely to the testimony of Carlos Lehder, Noriega was convicted and given a forty-year sentence. Meanwhile, back in Panama, pro-US figures stepped into his place. Although corruption and drug trafficking did not end, the usefulness of Panama as a potential base and refuge for the Medellin Cartel was severely compromised (and the security of the Canal was restored).

In 1990, Escobar’s reign of terror against the Colombian State continued. Killings and bombings simultaneously wore down the government’s will to defeat him, and convinced the government that it could not relent in its efforts to destroy him. Escobar’s power was more evident than ever, and yet the terrible fury of its manifestation was also an expression of the limits of his power. Like a tiger flushed out of the brush, Escobar was ferocious, yet exposed. As he made others fear him, he was also filled with fear, surrounded by wanted posters, targeted by huge rewards, pursued by police and military units, some of whom were in his pay, others of whom were quite serious about killing him. In the chaos, Escobar’s aura of folkloric popularity, though still alive, was dwindling. Too many funerals, too many innocent people soaked in blood, too much indiscriminate slaughter was beginning to deconstruct the myth of the criminal hero, and to leave behind only the image of a cruel and egotistic man, capable of using and destroying others sin corazon ("without heart"). A car bomb makes no distinction between friend or foe, soldier or child; it is the ultimate expression of uncontrolled violence, symbol of a soul enslaved by its anger, that does not separate "the wheat from the chaff", but lashes out without selectivity, and therefore without the little trace of humanity needed to make war conscionable. By escalating his deployment of terror, Escobar increased his impact, at the price of undermining the mystique which legitimized him in the eyes of many thousands of Colombians. He lost intangible but strategically important swaths of emotional space which had facilitated the conduct of his material operations.

In 1990, in addition to his bombings and assassinations, Escobar unleashed a wave of kidnappings directed against the Colombian elites, reeling in important figures such as Francisco Santos, editor of El Tiempo, and Diana Turbay, daughter of former Colombian President Turbay. Diana Turbay, much to the horror of the Colombian public, which, irregardless of the politics of her father, sympathized with her as a woman and a helpless captive, was killed by the Cartel.

In 1990, Cesar Gaviria assumed the office of the presidency in Colombia, and sought to bring the war against the narcotraficantes to an end by means of the continued pursuit and harassment of Cartel members, combined with generous terms of peace: five years in prison, with a presidential guarantee that no drug lord who turned himself in would face extradition to the US. By January 1991, all three of the Ochoa brothers had accepted Gaviria’s terms. Life on the run, with the threat of a lifetime buried in the crypt of the North American prison system, were enough to induce their surrender. For his part, Escobar remained in hiding, monitoring developments and waiting for something even better. In June of 1991, he got it. The Constituent Assembly, in charge of rewriting the Colombian Constitution, included a section which banned extradition, solidifying Gaviria’s promise to the drug lords with binding legal forms; Escobar was also offered gigantic latitude in designing the conditions of his captivity, and under these circumstances, finally agreed to turn himself in.

While the Colombian government heralded Escobar’s surrender as a great victory, Escobar’s enemies only banged their heads on the wall in frustration. For the great drug lord’s captivity proved to be illusory. Inside his own private luxury prison complex known as La Catedral, Escobar was not only free to continue living in the style to which he was accustomed, he had nearly complete liberty to pursue his criminal activities and direct the operations of the Medellin Cartel, from the comfort and security of an impregnable base masquerading as a jail. The security forces which had previously hounded him, cramped his style, reduced his ability to function, forced him to hide and do his business on the run, could no longer get to him, because he was now, in theory, a prisoner of the State. The battle was "over"; Escobar was "defeated", which meant that the campaign that had been mobilized to defeat him no longer had a reason to exist. It was time for his pursuers to go home, to return to other endeavors. Protected, in this way, from his enemies, Escobar flourished as a "captive." The security forces assigned to guard him were compelled to remain at some distance from his facility, and many were "bought" and won over to his side. Visitors came and went as Escobar pleased, he called and sent messages to whoever he wanted, whenever he wanted; and throughout this time, there were numerous "sightings" of Don Pablo in Medellin, shopping downtown or attending soccer matches. When reports surfaced that Escobar had actually brought some Cartel associates accused of stealing from him to La Catedral, and had them executed there, the government, besieged by public opinion, was at last compelled to act. It could not survive such a huge perception of its ineffectiveness, and was forced to try to make Escobar’s imprisonment seem real. Escobar, however, was not about to accept any genuine form of captivity. If he was accused of breaking the terms of his surrender, the agreement which he had made with Gaviria might be invalidated, and he even feared a means might be found to extradite him to the US, in spite of the new Constitutional ban against extradition. He therefore escaped before he could be transferred to another jail in July of 1992, somehow "slipping past" the guards who ringed his luxury prison and disappearing into the Colombian countryside.

A gigantic international effort was now the only possibility for dealing with him. The expression "a big fish in a small pond" is known throughout the world; but Don Pablo was more than that, he had become a fish that was too large for the ocean. The level of chaos which he was creating was unbearable both inside and outside of Colombia, he was too great a destabilizing force, too visible and powerful and unwilling to play by the rules which even kings and presidents play by, to be endured. At this point, US military and intelligence forces became deeply involved in the pursuit of Pablo Escobar. A special elite Colombian police force known as the Search Bloc was perfected - trained by the US, and cultivated to have its own special identity and professional ethic which would insulate it from the corrupting power of the traffickers, who always seemed to have an "in" with Colombia’s security forces, which provided them with vital warnings prior to attack, enabling them to elude capture time and time again. The Search Bloc was backed up by US electronics surveillance teams operating out of aircraft, which were capable of monitoring cell phone communications over Colombia, and of using high-tech equipment to determine the location of specific callers, once they had been identified. While the US provided training and intelligence support, the Search Bloc was geared to make the actual capture, acting on the ground, on the basis of information provided by US operatives. The Search Bloc was said to be trained, and in cases assisted, by US Delta Force specialists and Navy SEALs.

At the same time as the US-Colombian effort to knock out Escobar was massively upgraded, a brutal new death squad known as Los Pepes (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar, "People Persecuted By Pablo Escobar"), was formed, comprised of former Medellin Cartel members who had either been turned against him or broken with him over political or business issues; by some paramilitary operatives, who were ready to cut loose from Don Pablo to save their own skin and create the new connections which would serve them in the inevitable post-Escobar world; by elements of the rival Cali Cartel, eager to finish off their greatest enemy once and for all; as well as by some members of the security forces, possibly including fighters from the Search Bloc. According to some, the death squad was funneled intelligence information, passed to it through the US Embassy via the Search Bloc, which pointed it towards some of its more elusive targets. The objectives of Los Pepes, simply put, were to match Escobar’s violence, murder for murder, death for death; to provide the government with the capacity to use the tactics and methods of criminals in order to defeat criminals; to terrorize Escobar’s followers into surrender, or kill them; to gradually isolate the great Don until he stood alone; and then, to move in for the final blow. The bullet hole becomes the barrel of a gun; blood spilled teaches the trigger. The eternal law of war is that the killer becomes the victim, and the victim becomes the killer. Role reversal is the ultimate dynamic of the battlefield; violence is a lesson that no one ever forgets. Of course, the government "had nothing to do with" the creation of Los Pepes, it merely profited from their violent actions, which it "could not prevent." Now, for the first time, Escobar was finally put face to face with his own cruelty, his own ruthlessness, directed by others against him. Los Pepes were merciless. They assassinated known Escobar operatives with pistols, automatic rifles and bombs. They threatened and killed family members of his supporters, women and children included. As the blood bath deepened, Escobar’s ability to intimidate seemed to pale by comparison, while his messages to the press calling for justice and denouncing the crimes of his foes, fell on deaf ears - for who was he to demand that the violence "play fair"? Desperately, from hiding, Escobar sought to engineer the departure of his wife and children from the country, but the US and Colombian governments intervened to convince foreign powers not to accept them as refugees, forcing them to return to Colombia, where they remained exposed to the threat of Los Pepes, especially given the deliberately lukewarm attention paid to their security by the Colombian government.

By now, Escobar’s criminal empire was spiraling towards its demise. The drug lord whose shadow had once fallen over the entire Western Hemisphere, the powerful billionaire who was once ranked seventh richest man in the world, was now no more than a haggard fugitive, running from safehouse to safehouse. According to the folklore which developed afterwards, he would contract workmen to construct special hiding places inside and underneath these homes, behind trap doors and walls, and below floors: refuges he could take shelter in, in the event of police raids. He was then said to have the workmen killed, so that he alone would know of the existence and location of these secret hideaways. Probably apocryphal, these stories nonetheless convey a sense of the intensity of the pursuit, and the desperation and paranoia which it produced in Escobar’s overstressed mind.

In the end, the ultimate irony of this all-out, unsparing campaign to defeat Pablo Escobar was that it was his human side that destroyed him. Quite successfully, the government used Escobar’s endangered family as bait, luring him to "check in" on them with frequent calls by cell phone, which allowed them to establish a general idea of his whereabouts, thanks to the high-tech tracking equipment being deployed from US spy planes above the city of Medellin. In the midst of his terrible capacity for savagery, love of family sabotaged his battle to survive. He finally "slipped up", made the mistake of staying in one safehouse too long, and using it for too many calls. A precise fix on his location was attained; Search Bloc operatives cruised into the neighborhood where he was staying, and saw him, still speaking on the phone, standing beside a window. The house was quickly surrounded, and more support called for. The police then kicked in the door, and were met by gunfire from Escobar’s single remaining bodyguard, who was rapidly killed, and from Escobar himself. Escobar, still armed and shooting, jumped out of a second-story window onto the roof of the safehouse, looking for a way out of the trap - surrender was not in his nature; but he never made it. Gunfire from the ground brought him down as soon as he exposed himself in the inevitable effort to maneuver on the rooftop. The great drug lord was either killed at that instant, or else finished off by a point-blank shot to the head delivered by a policeman while he lay there wounded. Some say that the final fire-fight was carried out by Colombian Search Bloc members, only; while others claim that a US Delta Force sniper may also have participated.

Whatever the case, Pablo Escobar was dead. Brilliant, ruthless, a man of historical proportions, he had made his death inevitable by becoming too powerful, in the quest to protect his power. His success is what undermined his success, and his one spot of tenderness is what broke his iron shield. Although legends persisted that Don Pablo was not really dead - how could he be? - and although some claimed to see him alive and well and walking about the streets of Medellin even after the photos of his bloody corpse were circulated in all the major newspapers - for most Colombians, the most notorious criminal in modern memory was no more. What was not dead, however, was his legacy.

The cocaine industry, though disorganized by his death, remained robust, and in time recovered fully. The Medellin Cartel, which in its prime had controlled as much as 80% of the coke traffic going into the United States, was essentially shattered, but pieces of the shattered empire survived as smaller, decentralized organizations still capable of functioning effectively. Besides that, the Cali Cartel was now in a position to pick up the slack from its defeated rival, and it did so quickly and with great success. Escobar had made drug trafficking a powerful feature of the Colombian political, social, economic and cultural environment, and his death did not erase that achievement. For those who believe that the greatness of a man’s accomplishments is demonstrated by their ability to stand on their own, without him, and to survive beyond the sometimes misleading effects of his personality, Escobar was proved great by death. Drugs continued to flow into the United States; drugs continued to finance and corrupt elements of the Colombian State; drugs continued to support the genesis, evolution and growth of right-wing paramilitary units; and drugs continued to empower left-wing guerrillas, as they simultaneously demonized them and increased their political susceptibility to outside intervention.

For a time after the fall of the Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel, with a very different style, dominated the drug trafficking scene in Colombia. It had proved itself useful to the Colombian government and the US by cooperating in the defeat of Escobar, and now hoped that its connections with important Colombian politicians and businessmen, as well as the economic benefits it was able to deliver to the country, combined with scrupulous efforts not to embarrass its friends with megalomaniacal and overly aggressive actions a la Medellin Cartel, would lead to its long-term survival. Run silent, run deep was this Cartel’s philosophy. The less it stood out, the stronger it became. The world had been conditioned to respond to the threat of drug dealers, it had to take action when the underworld broke through the surface and became too obvious. And so, the Cali Cartel became a master of stealth, a religious practitioner of discretion, although there are limits to how discreet such a gigantic enterprise can be. As it cultivated friends in high places, it developed a wide range of legitimate businesses which enabled it to mask its illegal earnings and to launder its drug profits, simultaneously providing its heirs with a future base for blameless integration into the mainstream.

However, in 1994, the Cali Cartel’s blueprint for smooth sailing finally ran into a major snag. President-elect Ernesto Samper was accused, by political enemies, of having accepted $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali Cartel, which was eager to protect itself from prosecution by helping others, so that they would, in turn, help it. The scandal was enormous, and although Samper survived it, he suffered a huge loss in prestige and effectiveness as a result, limping through almost his entire term in office. Samper was also compelled, by the pressures resulting from the scandal, to move against the Cartel. In 1995, Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was captured by the police, who found him in his home in Cali, hidden inside a secret compartment in an entertainment center. Not long afterwards, his brother Miguel was surprised at home, and seized before he was able to make it to a secret hiding place - a concealed "panic room" which had been especially constructed for an occasion just like this, but perhaps with a faster trafficker in mind. The Cali Cartel was essentially dismantled during this period. Some time afterwards, Colombia passed a new extradition law overriding the provisions of the 1991 Constitution, in order to win US Congressional approval for economic and military aid. Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela was sent to the US to stand trial on a variety of charges in 2004: another titan fallen from his pedestal.

But, true to form, the flow of drugs did not cease. Trafficking in Colombia, today, is still responsible for about 80% of the cocaine which reaches the United States, and, by all accounts, the trade has not diminished in volume. As previously stated, the law of supply and demand dictates that any drop in supply (produced by the disruption of a major trafficking organization) merely raises the price, providing an incentive for new producers to become involved when old ones drop out. Locations where coca is cultivated or processed may be switched, resurrected or diversified, with new reserves added to the system; human networks may be adjusted or rebuilt. Like water seeking a path downhill, supply will almost always find a way to demand. As long as cocaine remains desired, even indispensable, to large and diverse sectors of the North American populace, it will be produced, in spite of helicopters, in spite of herbicides, in spite of anti-narcotics police, in spite of counterinsurgency troops. The problem is a social, cultural, and psychological one originating from within the United States, and until this country musters the courage to fight the battle on the terrain of its own shortcomings, its solutions will always be full of sound and fury, accomplishing nothing.

Colombian drug trafficking today persists in the form of many decentralized mafias sometimes referred to as "baby cartels." There is no longer a gigantic archenemy to fight, a single symbolic enemy upon whom we can project the rage that arises from our helplessness, our fury at the addictions we cannot conquer. The Medellin Cartel is gone. The Cali Cartel is gone. All that remains is us.

Back to Top


Paramilitary Chronicles

The origins of the paramilitary phenomenon in Colombia have already been discussed. A tradition of extralegal assassination and massacres carried out by hired killers known as pajaros emerged during La Violencia of the late 1940s and 1950s, laying the social foundations for the conduct of future paramilitary operations. In 1968, "Law 48" provided for the creation of officially-sanctioned self-defense groups, allowing the military to provide civilian groups with weapons, and to organize them to assist it in the "restoration of normality." The self-defense groups envisioned by this law had nothing to do with the autodefensas campesinas of La Violencia, which were peasant self-defense groups that arose to resist the incursions of expansionist landlords, Conservative police forces and army units, and los pajaros. Those self-defense forces, on the contrary, had become the basis of the FARC. The new groups, envisioned by Law 48, were meant to embody the opposite side of the political spectrum, and to help the army monitor the countryside and keep the guerrillas out. Throughout the subsequent history of the war in Colombia, these officially-backed self-defense groups were alternately supported, armed and trained to fight the guerrillas, or else legally prohibited due to their questionable nature. In order to avoid the controversy of arming civilian auxiliaries in the countryside, and also to enable such groups the latitude that officially-sanctioned organizations could never be allowed, the paramilitary phenomenon in Colombia began to go increasingly underground, until, in the 1980s, it reached a new moment of genesis, and emerged as a powerful new force far exceeding the capabilities that its proponents had originally envisioned for it. Thanks to a major influx of investment capital from the Medellin Cartel, an immensely dangerous, upgraded paramilitary apparatus was spawned at this time, made up of peasants and other poor people working for hire, and former and active security personnel, acting on behalf of the interests of the drug lords, major landowners, and military. Trained by retired Colombian army officers and foreign mercenaries, they sometimes acted in large groups, in the manner of military units, and sometimes alone or in small squads, as sicarios, or "paid assassins." Their objectives included: intimidating or killing suspected guerrilla sympathizers; waging the "dirty war" against the guerrillas that the military could not without drawing human rights sanctions from abroad; protecting landowners and other susceptible elements of the population from extortion or kidnapping by the guerrillas; clearing peasants off of lands desired by landholders and traffickers; and intimidating or assassinating Leftist political candidates and party officials, trade unionists, community organizers, indigenous activists, human rights workers, and others whose work conflicted with their vision of Colombia. Supposedly independent of the government, they were able to perpetrate the most terrible of crimes, which served the interests of the Colombian elites which dominated that government, without exposing the government to international reprisals. Economic aid was not cut, military aid was not cut… The Face of the Good Man hid the Monster, which ate through the Good Man’s mouth; while the Monster guarded the Good Man’s door at night. Once again, as in the case of drug trafficking, the political establishment in Colombia was divided over the issue of the paramilitaries, who were clearly linked to elements of the Colombian military and the political Right, in spite of the fictional device of their "independence." While some government officials sought to prosecute them and curb their abuses, fighting to recover the rule of law even in the midst of conflict, others turned a blind eye to their outrages and pretended to be baffled, always one step behind the killers. These must have remembered the ancient Roman expression "in times of war, the laws are silent", and looked past the horrors of the day to the safety of a future free of guerrillas, free of agitation and tumult: a day of quiet workers, order, peace. A day of harmony, such as might come from equality, but without equality.

Today, the most famous of paramilitary organizations is known as the AUC, or Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia ("United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia"), which is actually a coordinating structure for various local autodefensas. Its founder, Carlos Castan~o, became involved in the culture of the paramilitaries as a young man in the 1980s, after his father was kidnapped and murdered by the FARC. Carlos’ brother, Fidel, set the family on its course of power and tragedy in the late 1970s by leaving their modest farm in Antioquia to engage in drug trafficking and smuggling. In this dangerous, sometimes lucrative, sometimes deadly field, he was one of those who came out on top, making a considerable fortune which he invested in large tracts of land in the banana-growing region of Uraba. As many wayward sons, he felt joyful and vindicated to be able to come back home redeemed, and to be able to move his father onto a larger estate, proof of his filial devotion and his worth. Nothing is more beautiful for a "black sheep" than to recover the love of those he once disappointed. However, for Fidel Castan~o, the dream was ruined in a moment by the FARC. Fidel’s very success had turned his father into a guerrilla target; his efforts to win his father’s love and admiration had only ended up destroying him. Infuriated and bitter, Fidel made contact with the death squad MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores, or "Death to Kidnappers"), the paramilitary organization created by the Medellin Cartel, in conjunction with right-wing landowners and elements of the security forces. Not long afterwards, Carlos joined that organization, as well, as an informant for local military forces, then as a paramilitary assassin. In 1983, determined to improve his tactical and strategic skills, he went to Israel to receive military training in a private program, then returned to Colombia to resume his paramilitary activities. Together, Fidel and Carlos formed their own death squad, Los Tangueros, in the mid 1980s, to help protect Fidel’s properties in Uraba from EPL and FARC guerrillas, and to launch their very personal crusade against the Colombian Left, in order to avenge their father endlessly: to re-enact his death with others as the victims; to weaponize their pain, and turn their tears into steel to rip apart the bodies of those who had not suffered enough. Let the whole world come down to where we live. At the bottom of their vision of a Communist-free utopia, was a wound that would not heal, a personal vendetta that used politics to justify its insatiability. In 1994, Fidel Castan~o disappeared from the scene. Possibly, he was killed by an EPL guerrilla who later switched sides and joined the AUC (the official paramilitary version); possibly he was killed by members of his own organization as the result of an internal dispute; possibly, he left the country after faking his death. At this point, Carlos assumed command of Los Tangueros, which was renamed the Autodefensas Campesinas de Cordoba y Uraba (the "Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba", or ACCU). In 1997, the ACCU and other regional paramilitary forces were united by the coordinating structure of the AUC, under his command.

Not surprisingly, considering the trafficking background of Fidel Castan~o and the importance of drug trafficking to the generation of MAS, which served as the Castan~o brothers’ introduction to the paramilitary lifestyle, the AUC and drugs were intimately connected. Fidel’s drug money was an important source of income for the Tangueros. Later, as the Colombian government, Cali Cartel, and US intelligence operatives combined to take down Pablo Escobar, Carlos Castan~o emerged as a key player, providing crucial "inside information" to Escobar’s enemies, and helping to perpetrate the violence that slowly unraveled the drug lord’s mighty empire. By Carlos Castan~o’s own admission, the AUC (as of 2000) derived approximately 70% of its income from the drug trade, with the rest coming from the taxes it collects in its protection zones (which are comparable to the FARC’s vacuna), and from large voluntary donations it receives from landowners and businessmen who are eager to extinguish the guerrilla threat.

For years, public outcry against the paramilitaries was intense, except among those sectors of the population which most benefited from their abuses. And it did not go unheard in the international community. For example, in 1988, during the Eighth Annual Latin American Congress of Associations of Family Members of the Missing (FEDEFAM) held in Bogota, Colombia, Pamela Pereira, president of that organization, which included many survivors of the horrific repression experienced in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Guatemala during the 1970s and 80s, said: "The international participants in the Congress had a dramatic image of the human rights problem in Colombia. But we never imagined that the situation had reached such dimensions. The cruelty with which abuses are committed here is appalling." Other international observers termed the situation "a human rights crisis", an "unrestrained blood bath" and a "festival of impunity." They did not buy the fiction of the "independent death squad", acting in total separation from the State and beyond the State’s control; and therefore considered that the State should be held accountable for the crimes committed by the paramilitaries, and denied all forms of military aid as a result.

Some international groups, such as Americas Watch, were more cautious than others regarding the way in which they chose to express this conclusion. In a 1989 report on human rights in Colombia (page 5), Americas Watch stated: "Here we note that, unlike the case of other Latin American governments in recent history, [the Colombian President] is not involved in planning, ordering or executing any illegitimate act of violence. Even the harshest critics of the President do not make this charge. The only question in this regard is whether his government does enough to control, investigate or prosecute governmental forces for the violations that they commit… A separate question is whether the Armed Forces of Colombia, with or without the acquiescence of the civilian government, are engaged in a deliberate, systematic policy of selective murder and massacres of civilians. Our investigation has not yielded any evidence that a deliberate plan exists at the level of the high command. On the other hand, in certain regions and in certain well-known cases, there is compelling evidence that regional Army chiefs and high-ranking intelligence operatives are involved in facilitating the commission of atrocious acts by private armies and death squads. The response of the high command has been to close ranks and avoid - and frequently to obstruct - any serious investigation. Though this may not prove the direction and implementation of this campaign by the high command, it should be obvious that this response breaches their duties as high military officers, as well as violating the government’s obligations to its own laws and its commitments to the international community. The failure to investigate and prosecute those military officers who have participated in individual murders and mass murders indicates, at the very least, that their superiors have chosen to signify toleration for these crimes rather than risk a rift within the institution of the armed forces." It went on to state (page 41): "[The Colombian President] and his assistants seem willing to investigate the death squads, in some cases after meeting military opposition. Unfortunately, the cases which the President has vigorously pursued are few, and the cases in which military objections seem to have carried the day are many. This is why we insist that these murders, even when committed by clandestine death squads, are indirectly the responsibility of the government. Governments violate their international commitments to respect human rights in two ways: by abusing those rights directly and by failing to comply with their duty of ‘ensuring the full and free enjoyment’ of those rights for their citizens."

Amnesty International, in its special Colombian human rights report of 1988 (page 5), was far more forthright in its conclusions: "Convincing proof exists that the Colombian armed forces have adopted a policy of terror in order to intimidate and eliminate the opposition without the need to resort to legal procedures. This policy has become evident in the face of the intensification of guerrilla activity and the demand for political and social reforms… Beginning in mid-1987, these assassinations have begun to cost the lives of victims outside of the sphere of leftist opposition to the government. Today they include not only those who criticize the government or the armed forces, but also those who simply do not actively support it. Entire sectors of society run the risk of being considered ‘subversive’, which in Colombia is equivalent to a death sentence… The government has attributed the majority of the one thousand plus political killings which occurred in 1987 to ‘death squads’: mysterious gunmen which it describes as civilians impossible to identify or control. Nevertheless, the study of hundreds of cases demonstrates that the assassinations and disappearances attributed to the death squads were, in reality, perpetrated by police and military personnel and their civilian auxiliaries under the authority of the military high command… Perhaps the most conclusive proof that the death squads are an integral part of the Colombian security forces is the simple fact that no one has been convicted by the military for the political assassinations and disappearances which are attributed to them… The military tribunals are the only legal bodies with the power to punish human rights violations committed by members of the security forces - the police and the army - and they haven’t done it…. The only possible conclusion is that large-scale human rights violations are not merely tolerated by the Colombian armed forces, but that those forces subscribe to a deliberate policy of political killings."

Given such concerns, why, many have asked, did the United States continue to provide large doses of military aid to Colombia throughout this period, and why does it continue to provide large doses of military aid to Colombia today, without insisting that the Colombian government take stronger and more effective measures to get the paramilitaries under control? In theory, US "lethal" aid is linked to human rights conditions, both as an incentive to foreign nations to conduct their affairs in accordance with North American principles of morality, and as a means of protecting our own sense of morality by preventing our weapons from being used to commit atrocities; but in reality, perceptions of human rights conditions seem to be almost infinitely malleable on the anvil of convenience. The greater the perceived danger, the more extreme the measures that will be tolerated to combat it. For many US political figures, the idea of denying the Colombian military aid at a time when it was embroiled in heavy fighting against Marxist guerrillas with an anti-US bias, and powerful drug lords whose illegal product was creating social chaos in the United States, was simply unacceptable. For this reason, the paramilitaries had to be tolerated; the fiction that they could not be controlled had to be believed, or treated as if it were believed.

In order to continue aiding the Colombian State, in spite of the escalating human rights nightmare, US policy-makers were forced to resort to a variety of strategies. First of all, they banked on the apathy and end-of-the-workday exhaustion of the North American public, to keep it detached from the reality of what was happening in Colombia, and susceptible to politically-contrived perspectives that could be fed to it in its state of passivity. The independent acquisition of knowledge, and the will to act upon that knowledge, require energy that is not often available at the end of the workday, and all efforts in that direction must compete with other possible uses of one’s time, many of which are far less disturbing, and far more able to heal the wounds created by disappointment, stress, and the pervasive sense of powerlessness which infects the people of the most powerful nation in the world. Why risk confronting the limits of one’s ability to help by hurling one’s last reserves of life into Quixotic activism, when one can simply cover over the feeling of impotence and sorrow with escape and fantasy? For this reason, the majority of the North American people are willing to let their government officials run the country for them after they have elected them to office, while they retreat from the issues, except for those that come crashing through the door. They allow the government to do as it wishes, to pacify their conscience with the "spins" it puts on the news, or with silence that keeps disturbing truths from entering their minds. Acting within this environment of information-scarcity and passivity, the US government was able, to a large extent, to successfully portray the Colombian government as a well-meaning entity which was trying its best to suppress the paramilitary movement, and to argue that what that State needed, more than anything else, was more military aid, to help it overcome the multiple threats which it was facing. "The Colombian State is under siege, from guerrillas, drug dealers, and other proponents of violence. For peace to have a chance, the State must be strengthened, which requires that its capacity to enforce its will throughout its territory be increased." The trouble with this approach, of course, was that the well-meaning political figures in the Colombian government who warranted the aid did not receive it; military aid went to the armed forces, and ultimately, helped to strengthen a military machine which was intimately associated with paramilitary violence.

A second approach utilized by US policy-makers to get military aid to Colombia, in spite of the atrocious wave of violence unleashed by paramilitary forces against civilians from the mid-1980s on, was to insist that the aid being given was earmarked for the war on drugs, and not for counterinsurgency. Few in North America were willing to oppose the effort to curb the deadly flow of cocaine (and later heroin) which was entering the US from Colombia. But, as numerous activists reported, helicopters, ammunition, troops, and intelligence-gathering technology meant for the war on drugs began to surface frequently in counterinsurgency operations, which is precisely the interface where the formal military and the paramilitary met. Peasant communities reported being attacked by US-made Blackhawk helicopters, while army units benefiting from US aid were accused of clearing zones for paramilitary infiltration, then looking the other way while "dirty war" was waged against the civilian population by their illegal allies.

The US government then sought to perceptually fuse the guerrillas and drug dealers into one through the construct of the "narcoguerrilla" (see previous section), arguing that, in Colombia, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency were really the same. You couldn’t fight the war on drugs without fighting the war against the guerrillas. In this milieu, efforts were made to take the heat off of the Colombian military, and its violations of human rights, and to instead focus the attention of the North American public on the abuses of the guerrillas. By attempting to make violations of human rights seem symmetrical, putting the guerrillas on an equal footing with the paramilitaries, it was hoped that the onus of supporting the Colombian military (which was filtering aid to the paramilitaries) would be diminished. The strategy was to eclipse the violations of one side with the violations of the other, or at the very least, to depict the war as a battle between monsters. When one monster bites another, few will cry for the one that’s hurt. Although it appears that this strategy has had considerable success, in the name of truth it needs to be pointed out that the violence committed by the guerrillas and the violence committed by the paramilitaries is asymmetrical. There are substantive differences both in the volume and specific nature of the abuses committed by the two sides. This is not to absolve the guerrillas of their crimes. The days of idealizing and romanticizing the armed struggle are long gone. Spiritual consciousness has arisen to complicate and, in cases, challenge political consciousness. Simple and inspiring Marxist formulas which aroused many in the 1960s today trouble the conscience of those who have learned to deplore violence. Besides this, the very success of the guerrillas has diminished their mystique, their "innocence" as outsiders. Some see the FARC today as a business just as much as a revolution; lament the flow of violent personnel between the worlds of the guerrilla, the paramilitary and the common delinquent, wondering how many fighters really believe in something more than their gun; and attribute the same static and self-serving characteristics of governments to the guerrillas, who have consolidated their own State in the jungles of Colombia.

In what way have the guerrillas transgressed in the realm of human rights (as these are interpreted under conditions of war)? They use extortion as a means of finance (la vacuna); they kidnap as another means of finance; they are involved in the drug trade as still another means of finance (much like the paramilitaries, and corrupt elements of the security forces); they frequently use underage soldiers (the military and paramilitaries are accused of the same); they kill select civilian targets, usually associated with the government, in an effort to extend their influence (paramilitaries kill select targets of the Left, and also take out wider swaths of the populace in an effort to intimidate and, in cases, depopulate guerrilla zones via internal displacement); the guerrillas kill civilians considered to be sapos, or "informers" (a practice which may be on the rise due to the extreme repercussions of "betrayal", now that the paramilitaries are on the scene to kill "guerrilla sympathizers" who are identified by these informers); and they often inflict serious cases of "collateral damage" on civilian populations, due to the overaggressivenss, imprecision, and inadequate planning of some of their attacks (this could be compared to civilian casualties produced by the government bombing of peasant villages).

Clearly, these violations are not to be dismissed. But neither should these violations be used to blur the distinction between the use of violence as practiced by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, in order to construct a perception which lightens the moral weight of the paramilitary atrocities. Between the years of 1995 and 2001, responsibility for political killings in Colombia was assigned the portions of: 76% by the paramilitaries, 19% by the guerrillas, and 5% by government security forces (statistics compiled by the Colombian Commission of Jurists). These figures do not apply to casualties incurred in combat between armed groups. In 1998, 52% of massacre victims were allegedly killed by paramilitaries, 21% by the guerrillas, and 4% by the armed forces, with another 23% being killed by criminal gangs, social-cleansing squads, drug traffickers, and unknown assailants. (Statistics compiled by the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office and UNHCR.) Once again, these figures apply to civilians, not combatants, and "massacre" is used to designate any incident in which three or more people are killed. While all paramilitary massacres are conceived and executed as deliberate acts of terror against civilian populations, some guerrilla "massacres" are actually the accidental consequence of defective military operations and irresponsible command decisions. For example, the FARC’s May 2002 destruction of 60 civilians (mainly women and children) in the Department of Choco, when one of its inaccurate gas-cylinder bombs hit a church where the refugees had gathered for safety during a military engagement; or the ELN’s October 1998 destruction of the Antioquen~o village of Machuca, when its detonation of an oil pipeline targeted at foreign petroleum interests led to the creation of a giant mass of flaming fuel which poured into the midst of the civilians, burning seventy-three of them to death. These accidents were truly acts of criminal military negligence, which, nonetheless, places them in a different category than the premeditated actions of the paramilitaries. Soon, a summary of some of the more important and representative paramilitary actions will be made, allowing readers to get a deeper sense of the difference which exists between guerrilla violence and paramilitary violence. Once again, let it be emphasized: an understanding of this difference will not whitewash the guerrillas, only help to de-mythologize our current political perceptions, and provide us with a more balanced view of what is really going on in Colombia.

Finally, in their efforts to justify providing US military aid to Colombia in spite of grievous human rights abuses perpetrated by the paramilitaries, US officials have now added, to the narcoguerrilla construct, the categorization of the guerrillas as terrorists, and gradually sanitized the possibility of using that aid directly against them. The FARC and the ELN have both been classified as FTOs ("Foreign Terrorist Organizations") and placed on the US State Department Register of FTOs. What, exactly, is terrorism, and who qualifies? According to the State Department, terrorism is: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." In order to be legally proscribed as an FTO, a group must be a foreign organization, engage in terrorist activities or have the capability and intention to do so, and its terrorist activity must threaten the security of US nationals, or US national security. Terrorist activities in which the FARC and ELN are engaged would include kidnapping, the use of explosives to "cause substantial damage to property", and drug trafficking, which is construed as a terrorist activity when used by a militant political organization to generate funds. The effects of FTO status are to blockade the designated organization from receiving financial support from individual and public donors, to deny it legal space to carry out its operations, to criminalize certain forms of US-citizen involvement with it, to stigmatize and isolate it as much as possible, and to "heighten public awareness" about it, which can translate into public support for government actions against that organization, especially now, in our post-9/11 world, where the word "terrorist" has acquired an emotive power rarely witnessed in history.

Of course, there are problems with this definition and understanding of the concept of terrorism, which is not universally accepted, and which has been criticized for reflecting what is in the interests of the US more than embodying any clear-cut or consistent philosophical principle. First of all, by confining acts of terrorism to "subnational" groups, the possibility of State terrorism is negated, meaning that a government which utilizes terrorist tactics against its own people cannot be classified as a "terrorist" - while a revolutionary group in conflict with it, may be. This allows the emotive power of the word "terrorism" to be monopolized by the State, and to be deployed down a one-way path of stigmatization against its enemies, consolidating the considerable military advantages which it already enjoys with equally powerful psychological ones. But sometimes, this lack of equality between nation and rebel makes no sense. As IRA prisoner Joe McDonnell is made to tell Great Britain in Brian Warfield’s lyrics ("Joe McDonnell"): "You dare to call me a terrorist while you look down your gun, when I think of all the deeds that you have done: You have plundered many nations, divided many lands, You have terrorized their people, you ruled with an iron hand; and you brought this reign of terror to my land." Why should he be in prison, labeled as a terrorist, while foreigners in armored cars mounted with machine guns could occupy his land with moral impunity? Or as an Algerian rebel leader in the war against France in the early 1960s told reporters, after they criticized the rebels’ use of women to smuggle bombs concealed in their bags past French checkpoints in Algiers, on the way to their intended targets: "If you give us airplanes, we’ll use them." Why should one who drops a bomb from an airplane on a village not be as worthy of the word "terrorist" as one who places a bomb by hand in a train station? In the case of Colombia, why should the FARC and ELN be labeled as "terrorists", and painted with the furious color of the collapsing trade towers which that word now evokes for every American, while a government whose military, acting through paramilitaries, is out of control, retains the right to be the victim, the defender of higher ground? Why, especially, many have asked, when the AUC was not officially classified as an FTO until 2001, years after that designation was first approved for the guerrillas?

According to US officials, the AUC did not, at first, qualify as an FTO due to the fact that its actions were not deemed threatening to US citizens or to US property. That detail, which enabled it to stay off the FTO list for some time, also allowed the paramilitaries to avoid the stigma of being equated with terrorists. To the North American public, not familiar with the subtle differences between FTO status (which requires anti-American activity), and universally-recognized terrorist behavior, the assumption was natural that the AUC was not a terrorist organization while the guerrillas were. (The guerrillas, whose violence was far less horrific and calculated to sow the seeds of terror than was that of the paramilitaries, targeted US-owned oil pipelines and sometimes kidnapped US citizens in Colombia, while the AUC left North American assets alone.) The underlying principle of the distinction seemed to be, "Don’t mess with American citizens, or American property, and you can kill as many of your own people as you like." Terrorism, in this framework, seemed to be more an act of challenging US interests, than an act definable by its own internal qualities. After a while, however, given the brutal nature of the paramilitary killings, and mounting awareness of the paramilitaries’ involvement in the drug trade, the obscenity of this double standard became unbearable. In 2001 the State Department was finally forced to give ground, and placed the AUC on its list of international terrorist organizations. The Colombian government was also forced to provide signs of more effective action against the paramilitaries.

By 2004, the AUC which had numbered anywhere from 11,000 - 15,000 fighters, had entered into a major process of transition. Carlos Castan~o, who promised to cleanse his organization of drug traffickers in what was generally regarded as an empty PR gesture, was indicted by the US for drug trafficking in 2002, and forced to recede from visible prominence in the group. In 2004, about 2,500 AUC fighters were convinced to "demobilize" by the government, receiving amnesty for their crimes, and also legal permission to continue "cooperating" with the army in exchange for payment, a ruling which led critics to complain that their "demobilization" was a farce, and that they were merely being "recycled" into the conflict in a gigantic publicity stunt arranged for the benefit of the international community. "They have surrendered their arms to the military, which will now give them back to them." International pressure did force the Colombian government to suspend amnesty for the demobilizing paramilitaries midway through the process, since amnesty for death squad participants could interfere with "the right of victims to truth, justice, and reparation, [and guarantee] impunity for human rights violators." The amnesty, however, remained in effect for those who had already demobilized. Skeptics of the paramilitary disarmament process also noted that the AUC, which had declared a cease-fire in December 2002, and a suspension of its violent activities against civilians, had not showed any signs of slowing down. Indeed, since that time and through the end of 2004, 1,800 more Colombians had become victims of paramilitary killings, or joined the tragic, invisible ranks of los desaparecidos ("the disappeared ones"), kidnapped by the Colombian Right for their activities or beliefs, never to be heard from again. The US State Department had been compelled to force cosmetic changes in the situation in Colombia, and yet, the basic reality of the paramilitaries remained intact.

Why so much tolerance for the actions of the paramilitaries on the part of Washington? Colombia is a large and important country in South America, a continent of great significance to the US, which maintains numerous business interests in the region and which extracts enormous wealth from its trade there. Colombia’s geographic location is particularly important, as it is the link between South America and Central America. As former US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said: "It’s terrorism that threatens stability in Colombia [by this, he was referring principally to guerrilla activity]. And if it threatens stability in Colombia, it threatens stability in our part of the world, in our neighborhood, in our backyard… I think that’s something that should be of concern to us." In addition to its potential impact on the region as a whole, Colombia contains important resources, including an attractive reserve of oil which is being tapped by various foreign, including US-owned, companies. The existing reserve could actually be much larger than what is known, if major fossil-fuel deposits are discovered in regions currently inaccessible to exploration by oil companies, due to the presence of the FARC. The US government, therefore, has numerous reasons to promote the defeat of the guerrillas, ranging from its desire to preserve Latin America as a non-revolutionary open house for its economic activities, to its desire to access potential new oil supplies important to the perpetuation of its way of life, to its efforts to suppress the drug trade which is inflicting terrible damage on its cities (even though the drug trade is not a guerrilla invention or a guerrilla monopoly, and is just as likely to be wielded by friends as by foes). Given these objectives, tolerance for the paramilitaries is comprehensible, if not justifiable. The paramilitaries, as previously described, are a wonderfully effective asset in the war against the guerrillas, and it seems that US policy-makers are likely to exaggerate the extent of any improvement in Colombia’s human rights record, and to "fall for" any cosmetic makeover of the brutal forces which are helping them to achieve their objectives, so long as those political facelifts can be sold to the American public and to the American Congress. Faust is one of history’s most powerful and omnipresent characters, a citizen of every country, and every time.

While the apparent tolerance of high US officials for the transgressions of the paramilitaries is most regrettable, there are critics who go much further, and actually blame the US government for having a direct hand in the creation and deployment of this terrible weapon of counterinsurgency. Is there any substance to these claims?

That is hard to say. Proof would be difficult to attain, and speculation might be irresponsible. However, the surprising tolerance displayed for the paramilitaries, when contrasted to the major military and PR campaigns which have been launched against the guerrillas, seems to indicate that, at the very least, a political climate conducive to the conduct of the "dirty war" is being projected into Colombia by Washington. Some analysts point to the concrete connections which exist between some Colombian human rights abusers and the School of the Americas (SOA), lately renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The School of the Americas, founded in 1963 (but based on an institution which was founded in 1946), is a military education center (formerly located in Panama and now in Georgia) in which personnel, mainly from Latin American armies, come to be instructed and trained by US military instructors in a variety of professional skills. Here, they may learn crucial elements of weapons use, tactics, strategy, technology, intelligence, and psychology, contributing to their ability to carry out the functions assigned to them by their militaries when they return back home. The work of the School of the Americas was considered to be especially important during the Cold War, when it was feared that radical revolutionary groups might be spawned and/or supported by the USSR to overthrow Latin American governments friendly to the United States, destabilizing the region and leading to its gradual transition into a hostile camp which would threaten the United States from within its own hemisphere. Under these conditions, the School labored to provide Latin American military officers with the technical expertise needed to combat revolutionary groups and to maintain internal security, preparing them to effectively employ the military aid which the US government was willing to provide their nations in order to help them combat "subversive insurgencies." If there is no such thing as pure war, however, counterinsurgency must rank among the least pure of war’s diverse forms, meaning that armed combat is only one of many facets crucial to its success. There is an incredibly important psychological component, not only aimed at "winning the hearts and minds of the people" and leading them away from the path of the guerrillas, but also at motivating soldiers to fight against their own countrymen without becoming demoralized or confused; there is also a huge "police" facet, implying surveillance, infiltration, intelligence-gathering, and information-extraction, which is needed to destroy the mechanisms which provide the guerrillas with secrecy, mobility, and the ability to momentarily achieve deadly tactical advantages, which over months and years can accumulate into victory. Critics of the School of the Americas have been especially disturbed by some of these psychological and intelligence aspects of the training offered there. According to General Carlos Prats, Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Allende’s Chile, until he was forced to resign under pressure from other officers who wished to engineer a coup which he would not support: "Many of these [soldiers who have attended the SOA] have responded to the stereotypes and thoughts which were inculcated into them during these courses and believing they were liberating the country from the ‘internal enemy’ have committed a crime which can only be explained by their ingenuousness, their ignorance and their political short-sightedness…" [Gill, 79-80] In other words, they succumbed to the mental framework which the US government constructed for them in order to reinterpret their national reality along lines consistent with the perspective of the Pentagon. Within this framework, social strife lost any possibility of having legitimate causes (except for those which could be addressed by means of minor adjustments), and rebellions and revolutions lost the right to claim they had authentic roots in their nation’s history. Internationally-inspired Communism was postulated as the unique source of all revolutionary activity in Latin America, and insurgency was therefore to be treated as a form of foreign invasion, simplifying the decision for the soldier to kill, by denying his dissatisfied fellow citizen inclusion in the definition of nationhood. Externalized from the protective shelter of the soldier’s psyche, los inconformes (the discontented ones) were left on the outside of the soldier’s duty to defend, in the psychological zone where his altruism was expressed as violence. His own people were turned into his enemies, shut out of his heart by his new way of looking at the world. In addition to its role in indoctrinating Latin American troops to fight their own people according to a simplistic formula which froze the political and economic options available to their countries, critics say the SOA was also implicated in advocating, and training students to utilize, illegal techniques of interrogation and torture (and possibly extralegal killings) as part of a broader counterinsurgency package. In 1996, the use, by the SOA, of explicit texts unofficially referred to as the "Torture Manuals" - texts which were also utilized by US Special Forces Mobile Training Teams which traveled to Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru to assist training operations there - was revealed, creating a major scandal. It interfered with the claim of SOA defenders that the atrocious human rights records of many of their former graduates was not the result of the school’s training or policies, but rather, the consequence of the character defects of a few "bad apples" who had sullied the name of the rest. It also interfered with the classic explanation of human rights abuses which was provided by US businessmen and politicians with regard to the Latin American environments in which they operated: "Violence and dictatorship are a part of the local culture; we do our best to maintain high moral standards in everything we do, but we cannot change the inheritance of history in a single moment, and must therefore sometimes choose the uncomfortable option of working with unsavory characters as the only alternative to completely abandoning the region to others, who lack our good intentions." In the light of the "Torture Manuals", critics renewed their rejection of that take on affairs, claiming: "Repression of their people by military strongmen in Latin America is less an expression of the dark side of Latin American culture than it is an expression of interference by US interests, which empower and support those militaries to repress their people. Banana Republics are made in the USA."

Although many people did not want to believe the allegations at the time, in spite of the concrete evidence which came to the attention of the US Congress in 1996, the idea that the US advocates and practices the use of torture when it is to its benefit, is now much more widely accepted. Stories from US military prisons in Afghanistan, the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo, and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, as well as the exposure of a whole system of indirect torture, in which US captives are routinely "farmed out" to the prisons of allies who, unrestrained by US law, use torture to extract information for the benefit of US intelligence services, have combined to make the concept not only believable, but sad to say, nearly impossible to deny.

Of course, denial is not the only means of surviving this truth on a moral level. For hard-core warriors, there is the thought that the civilians back home, who abhor the idea of torture, do not know the reality of what it takes to keep their way of life afloat in a world filled with ruthless enemies, and rife with challenges which they do not have the vision or harshness to recognize. These warriors consider themselves to be the guardians of the weak, who want the fruits of the world, but are not willing to pay the price to have them. Through their sacrifice, the greatest of which is sin, these warriors protect their people. They protect them physically with weapons; and psychologically with cover-ups, so that their self-image as "good people" will not be shattered by the knowledge of what is really going on to support their happiness. Only the strongest can look the truth in the face, and that is where these warriors, and the "torture manuals", come in. Although there is more philosophical ambiguity regarding the issue of torture than initially meets the eye (for example, most people would, under certain extreme conditions, condone the use of torture), the SOA chose not to mount a philosophical defense of its training when confronted with the issue, but rather, subjected itself to a gigantic PR overhaul, changing its institutional name to the WHINSEC, changing the design of many of its courses, and eliminating all of the offending material pertinent to torture from its curriculum. (Critics say that this material is now being taught elsewhere, at less controversial venues, both inside and outside the United States.)

Within Colombia, itself, many military officers suspected of supporting paramilitary death squad activity as a tool in their war against the guerrillas, are SOA graduates, and one has served as a guest instructor at the School. Officers closely linked to MAS, officers linked to the terrible massacres in Uraba, an officer accused of founding the AAA death squad (American Anti-Communist Alliance), an officer accused of coordinating paramilitary activity out of the DAS (the Colombian FBI), all had SOA connections. In fact, according to one human rights investigation which accused 247 Colombian army officers of human rights abuses, one-half of the accused were graduates of the SOA. [Gil, xiii-xviii, Livingstone, 158] Do these correlations imply US complicity or direction in the creation of Colombia’s dreaded paramilitary apparatus; tacit approval, intellectual authorship, or perhaps even active support? The rules of logic allow for the possibility that US intelligence forces are not involved. As defenders of the SOA have pointed out in their defense, the fact that the Unibomber went to Harvard does not mean that Harvard trained him to be a terrorist, or to send bombs through the mail. [Gill, 52] On the other hand, the existence of US training materials promoting the skills of "dirty war", when taken in conjunction with the large number of US-trained Colombian soldiers involved in "dirty war" operations, and the relative tolerance of US policy-makers for human rights violations in Colombia which are perpetrated by the paramilitaries, are suggestive. Even if the US does not have a direct intelligence interface with the dirty war, it seems unconscionably willing to stay out of the way and to reap the benefits of others’ brutality.

Always in war, there is tension between the ends and the means; the ideal and the weapon; victory, and victory’s meaning; the physical life and the soul. If one has lost one’s spirit, morality remains as nothing but a tool of manipulation, to wield others and to hide behind. All that matters, then, is the flesh, the moment of drinking blood, and standing tall on hollow ground. Who are we, who do we want to be? Can we get there using the tools of vice? Do we have to use those tools? Can we turn away from triumphs that degrade us, or do our children depend on the downfall of our souls, is that what the earth is for? These are important thoughts to consider, as this article now proceeds to some specific cases of paramilitary violence, in order to illustrate the exact nature of the phenomenon we are talking about.

Angel needed devil’s hands

to fight away the beast;

to equalize the war,

great dark claws

he grew.


Poor angel heart

turned black as night,

his weapon seeped within;

till he became

the one he slew.


And he saved Paradise

by turning it to Hell.

The Massacre of La Honduras

On March 4, 1988, sometime around 1 AM, a group of about fifteen heavily armed men drove up to a farm known as "La Honduras" in the banana-growing region of Uraba. They forced the workers and their families who lived there out of their barracks, then, driving the women and children back inside, forced seventeen of the men to lie down on the ground, and shot them at point-blank range (one was killed about one hundred yards away, after a thwarted effort to escape). The assassins then got into their vehicles, drove to a group of homes about four hundred meters distant, and killed three more workers. In spite of a heavy military presence in the area, and the fact that local roads were guarded by numerous checkpoints and counterinsurgency patrols, the killers came and went without "detection" or interference by State security forces.

Besides being one of the more shocking paramilitary episodes of the times, the massacre at "La Honduras" became especially significant as it generated the first concrete documentation of the nature of the paramilitary phenomenon which surfaced in Colombia during the 1980s. This was thanks largely to the efforts of Martha Lucia Gonzalez Rodriguez, serving as judge in a specialized orden publico ("public order") court, which had enhanced powers for investigating crimes of this nature. But it was this judge’s courage and integrity which made the difference that finally brought the details of the crime to light. Judge Gonzalez determined that the killers were part of a new paramilitary apparatus created by the Medellin Cartel, in conjunction with ACDEGAM, an association of ranchers and landowners of the Magdalena Medio based at Puerto Boyaca. The existence of several paramilitary training camps and escuelas de sicarios ("schools of assassins") in that region, which operated with the complicity of the mayor of Puerto Boyaca and local police and military forces, was uncovered. In Judge Gonzaelz’ investigation, it was determined that two intelligence officers attached to the Voltigeros Battalion which was active in Uraba, had paid a hotel bill for one or more of the assassins (including Fidel Castan~o) who traveled from their stronghold in Puerto Boyaca to commit the massacre at "La Honduras." Witnesses also revealed that soldiers had visited the farm in February with heavily-armed civilians (some of whom would later participate in the massacre), and that, at that time, the army used EPL prisoners to identify workers sympathetic to the guerrillas. These are the workers who were later executed. In other words, the paramilitary killings were set up in advance with substantial military participation. Not surprisingly, Judge Gonzalez’ investigation began to encounter serious resistance the deeper it dug into the true nature of what was taking place. When she flew to the Magdalena Medio with her staff and two informants who had promised to show her the location of one of the paramilitary training camps, she was detained by the police after landing at the local airstrip, which belonged to the Texas Petroleum Company (TEXACO’s Colombian subsidiary). The Judge was simply refused permission to proceed any further, and was forced to leave the area without completing her investigation. Additionally, she was warned by a high-ranking military officer not to press charges against any army officers implicated in the Uraba killings. In this climate of obstruction and intimidation, Judge Gonzalez nonetheless went ahead and issued a number of arrest warrants before accepting the Colombian government’s offer of transfer to a diplomatic post abroad, since she had, by now, received numerous death threats which were not be taken lightly. Seven months later, Judge Gonzalez’ father, who had remained behind in Colombia, was assassinated; and in July 1989, Maria Elena Diaz, the judge who took her place in the "La Honduras" case, was also killed, shot down by a gunman in Medellin. The "La Honduras" case was both a tragedy and a breakthrough, a testament to the integrity of some elements of the State, and to the corruption of others. It was an introduction to the depths of darkness, and the limits of light.

The Massacre at Coquitos

Only a month after the massacre at "La Honduras", the paramilitaries struck in Uraba again. This time they kidnapped 25 banana workers from a farm in Coquitos near the port of Turbo. The captives were forced to get into boats by the paramilitaries, who first killed 9 of the men who would not fit into the boats, leaving their bodies behind on the land. They then took the rest out to sea, where they shot them and threw them overboard.

Who needs the paramilitaries? An Incident of Direct Extralegal Killings by the Military

Although the paramilitaries were the main instrument of the "dirty war" in Uraba during the 1980s, the army which provided them with intelligence and support also carried out some "dirty war" operations on its own.

In March of 1989, 19 banana plantation workers from the vicinity of Carepa, including several union leaders, were taken from their farms to the nearby headquarters of the Voltigeros Battalion. 12 were released later that day. Four others, who were released several days later, denounced the army for torture. Three of them required hospitalization. On March 29, the remains of two others were discovered. Dynamite had been tied to them and detonated. The army insisted that the victims had been released from custody before suffering their mishap.

The Case of Manuel Pen~ate

On October 3, 1989, Manuel Pen~ate, a banana plantation worker, was illegally photographed, along with other workers, by the military. On October 16, he and fellow worker Alberto Jose Palmera, were detained by the police in Chigorodo. Later that same day, after their release, the pair were attacked by two gunmen roaring by on a motorbike. Palmera was killed instantly, but Pen~ate, wounded, managed to escape and reach the hospital at Chigorordo. In the night, national policemen appeared with orders to transfer him to the hospital at Apartado - where he arrived dead, with six gunshot wounds to the head.

The Massacre of Pueblo Bello

On January 7, 1990, a group of about 40 armed men, some in military fatigues and others in civilian clothing, entered Pueblo Bello, Uraba, and rounded up at least 42 banana workers, whom they identified by shining torches into their faces. They then loaded them into two lorries, and after setting fire to the union meeting hall, drove away, never to be seen again.

As this and many other cases from the Uraba region reveal, destroying guerrilla support networks was only one of the paramilitaries’ violent functions. The intimidation and breaking of unions on behalf of local businessmen and elites was also a common motive for attack.

Paramilitary Attacks and Labor Negotiations

The use of political violence as a method of curbing the demands of labor was dramatically evidenced in Uraba in 1986 and 1987, as labor unions representing the banana workers and negotiators representing AUGURA, the national banana growers’ association, struggled over the issue of new contracts. The environment was already extremely violent, due to conflict between EPL guerrillas and the army, and especially due to the EPL practice of targeting banana plantation administrators and supervisors for assassination in an effort to win the support of the banana workers, and provide them with "armed back-up against repression." Tactics such as these convinced the banana growers that the EPL and organized labor were working hand in hand, whereas the situation seems to have been much more complicated than that. In all events, the assumption was acted upon, and organized labor began to take some very heavy hits during the contract negotiation process. A 48-hour work stoppage called in February 1987 in protest of the murder of three banana workers led to the assassination of an important union leader, Olvidio Cano, in Apartado. Shortly thereafter, Obdulio Palacios, an important leader of another banana-workers’ union who had previously been arrested for his activities, was shot while working in a park in Chigorodo under the supervision of prison guards. Acts of worker vandalism against banana plantation infrastructure followed, and the level of violence engulfing the region escalated dramatically, until the national government finally sought to intervene directly in the negotiation process. In July of 1987, after completing a round of talks with banana entrepreneurs and government officials in Medellin, Narciso Mosquera Sanchez of SINTRAGO, one of Uraba’s two principal unions, was shot down by a sicario. More strikes and violence ensued. At last, by the end of August, most of the banana farms in the region had successfully negotiated new contracts, which did not necessarily satisfy any side, but which nonetheless kept the banana industry on its feet, and offered the hope of relief from the seemingly endless cycle of political murders, retaliatory paros (work stoppages), and violent reprisals against the unions (to punish them for striking) which had engulfed the region. In September 1987, perhaps to show the labor unions that the strident activism which had characterized the contract-negotiation process was not forgiven, the Secretary General of SINTRAGO and the President of SINTRABANANO (another important banana union), were both murdered by sicarios.

Although this wave of assassinations carried out by death squads could be considered to be loosely connected to the counterinsurgency, due to certain points of intersection between the EPL and the radical labor movement in Uraba in the mid-1980s, it is clear that an equal, if not greater, reason for the killings of the union leaders just described was the effort to break the power of the unions, and to provide regional entrepreneurs with the freedom to run their operations with a minimum of interference. The construction of a quiescent and pliable labor force was a high priority here, in Uraba, and was to be attained by decapitating the unions through the assassination of their leadership, and by means of intimidating the unions’ rank and file through massacres and other acts of terror. The paramilitary structure was not only available to the military, it was also, in cases, available to business. Or, put another way, anything that stood in the way of profits was liable to be painted red, and exterminated. As Chilean songstress Violeta Parra once wrote (Arriba Quemando El Sol): "Me volvi para Santiago/ sin comprender el color/ con que pintan la noticia/ cuando el pobre dice no. I returned to Santiago without being able to understand the color they paint the news when the poor say No."

The Assassination of Diana Cardona

In February 1990, Diana Cardona Saldarriaga, the left-wing, UP mayoress of Apartado, was picked up at her parents’ home in Medellin, where she had been staying, by two bodyguards who the government had assigned to her for protection. She was to be escorted by them to the airport, where she was due to catch a plane back to Apartado. However, not long after she had left for the airport, two more bodyguards showed up at her parents’ home to pick her up. Immediately, a sense of fear filled the house, the sense that something was very wrong. Telephone calls made to penetrate the confusion only deepened the atmosphere of dread. Sure enough, the first set of "bodyguards" who had showed up to take the mayoress to the airport turned out to be fake. Diana’s body was found later on a road outside Medellin, with eight gunshot wounds.

The Murder of Dr. Garces

Diana Cardona was only one of thousands murdered by paramilitary death squads and hit men during the 1980s, for their affiliation with the left-wing Union Patriotica (Patriotic Union) party. The decimation of this party, which the Right considered to be nothing more than a political front of the guerrillas, but which was actually an important political experiment to see if the radical Left could safely participate in the electoral process in Colombia, has hardened lines in Colombia today, and left important sectors of the population convinced that there is no alternative to violent Revolution. The August 1987 murder of Dr.Alvaro Garces Parra, the UP mayor of Sabana de Torres, Department of Santander, is important not only as one more example of a UP casualty in the paramilitary campaign of terror against the Left, but also because it very clearly demonstrates the intimate links which are sometimes shared between the paramilitaries and the military.

Dr. Garces was assaulted on August 16 by five members of a paramilitary group known as Los Grillos ("the Crickets"), one of whom was killed during the attack. On the body of the deceased assassin was discovered a permit for the gun he had used, which had been issued by the S-2 (Intelligence) Section of the Ricaurte Battalion. Investigations proved that two of the assassins had met with Captain Ardila Orjuela, an S-2 officer, the day before the murder; and a military intelligence agent subsequently testified to the Office of the Attorney General that Ardila had ordered him to conduct surveillance operations against Garces, who he thought was a member of the FARC. The intelligence officer claimed that he had found no such evidence, but discovered, instead, that Garces was a peaceful politician who was well-liked by the town, whereupon he withdrew from the operation that was being planned to eliminate the doctor. Ardila, rejecting the intelligence officer’s conclusions, decided to go ahead. As if any more damning evidence were needed, one of the paramilitaries who was wounded in the attack was taken to the emergency room of a local clinic by a Major from the Ricaurte Battalion, who told the hospital staff that his Battalion would pay all medical bills for the man in question.

In spite of the huge implications of the connections unearthed by this investigation, the punishment of military officials involved in the killing was negligible. Ardila was placed under arrest for three days, and fined. Even when caught red-handed, the paramilitary apparatus and its military support network were practically impervious to prosecution…

The Massacre of Segovia

One of the most famous paramilitary massacres perpetrated in Colombia during the 1980s occurred in the Antioquen~o town of Segovia (population 20,000) on November 11, 1988. Around 7 PM, a band of perhaps a dozen men riding in two large jeeps drove into the town. Armed with assault rifles, automatic pistols and hand grenades, they began to conduct a house-to-house search, apparently looking for certain individuals by name, and murdering them whenever they found them. After a while, they worked their way from the outskirts of the town to the main square, where they began firing at passers-bye and at people sitting at cafes. By the time they had concluded their operation, 43 persons were dead and more than 50 wounded.

This assault seemed designed to terrorize the entire town, which had elected a UP mayor, and was deemed to be sympathetic to the Left.

What was particularly offensive about this massacre was the way in which it had been foreshadowed for some time, by an escalating string of violent events and threats, without any protective measures being taken by the State; and the way in which the army, once again, seemed to be a major player in the perpetration of the crime. When you are in danger, who do you call to for help? The one who wants to kill you. When your life is on the line, who will watch your back? The one who wants to put a bullet in it. The sense of helplessness and betrayal experienced as murderer and protector merge into one, as the clock ticks steadily towards the hour of one’s doom and nothing is done to deter the obvious, is hard to imagine. But no one who has ever gone through that feeling of utter abandonment will ever again be capable of loyalty to the State. He may be terrified into not resisting it, but he will never again actively support it or empower it with his belief.

In the case of Segovia, a death squad known as the MRN (Muerte a Revolucionarios del Nordeste Antioquen~o, or "Death to Revolutionaries of Northeastern Antioquia) had been threatening the town since July, with phone calls to UP members, graffiti left behind on walls, and pamphlets. (Paramilitary groups known as Los Realistas, the "Realists", and Guerra Sucia, "Dirty War", had also initiated a campaign of intimidation against the populace.) During this time, a UP councilman’s home was targeted by a bomb, a local military leader threatened to "send the MRN" after a local resident, and a trade union active in a local gold mine was also threatened by the military. In October and early November, according to investigators, the army launched fake guerrilla attacks against the town, firing machine guns into the air, then promising to help "pacify" the town, and drive out the FARC and ELN.

Finally, on November 11, the long-expected paramilitary assault was launched. In order to arrive to the town, the paramilitaries had to pass by the headquarters of the 42nd "Bombona" Infantry Battalion, which was a "major Army facility." They did so, "undetected" and unquestioned. During the attack itself, the local police remained inside their headquarters in the town square, making no effort to come out and help the citizenry. Whereas the neighboring city hall building was badly damaged by gunfire, not a single bullet was aimed at, or touched, the police building. In spite of the fact that the police sent out a radio message that they were being attacked by the FARC (a pretty clear effort at a cover-up), military troops of the Bombona Battalion were not sent out "to defend" the town until after the paramilitaries had already left. Nonetheless, the first official military report attributing the massacre of Segovia to the FARC guerrillas - an accusation which no one in Colombia, Left, Center or Right, believed for a single moment, given the characteristics of the attack and the political leanings of the town - made it into some outlets of the international media without evaluation. The New York Times, for example, uncritically passed on the report to its readers, without ever correcting its mistake via a retraction, even as the true nature of events became well-documented in Colombia. So much for the "liberal bias" of the Times!

In the history of paramilitary attacks in Colombia, Segovia stands out for the dimensions of the slaughter, as well as for the brazen nature of the security forces’ refusal to defend its people from the violence of the death squads.

The Massacre of La Mejor Esquina

On Easter Sunday, 1988, a group of ten armed men entered the vereda (hamlet) of La Mejor Esquina in the Department of Cordoba, where a dance was being held, and opened fire on the partygoers. After an initial burst of fire had ripped into the crowd, felling villagers indiscriminately, the armed men walked up to those who were still alive and lying on the ground, and appeared to shoot several more at random, taking turns killing the victims. By the time they had left, 36 people were dead. According to follow-up investigations, it appears that the hamlet had been targeted by the paramilitaries due to its alleged sympathies with the EPL. The gunmen were said to be backed by local drug dealers and by some traditional landowners, and the dance was set up as an elaborate trap, designed to concentrate the villagers into a single venue conducive to the perpetration of the massacre. The killers were even said to have paid for the musicians. Among those implicated in the crime was Fidel Castan~o.

Massacre at Pin~alito 

On February 21, 1988, 20 men who identified themselves as members of MOENS (el Movimiento Obrero Estudiantil Nacional Socialista, or "The National-Socialist Worker Student Movement), broke into a sporting event in Pin~alito, Vistahermosa in the Department of Meta, heavily armed and brandishing a list of alleged subversives.  MOENS was a paramilitary death squad which idolized Hitler, and sought to awaken the Nazi spirit in Colombia.  Fourteen peasants who were on their hit list were murdered on the spot.

The Massacre of La Rochela

On January 18, 1989, two judges and ten assistants who were investigating the activity of paramilitary groups in the Department of Santander were intercepted by gunmen at La Rochela, who bound their hands and shot them inside the vehicles they had been traveling in, then dragged their bodies out, threw them onto the road, and finished them off at point blank range. Three additional members of the judicial investigative team survived the attack by playing dead, later finding their way to the local hospital. Besides killing the judicial investigators, the paramilitaries absconded with valuable files containing the names of witnesses being used in the investigation, thereby putting their lives in jeopardy, as well.

Outraged by the destruction of this government commission, Carlos Eduardo Lozano Tovar, the National Director for Criminal Instruction, said: "…the armed institutions of the State have to be purified, because they are not even heeding the orders of the president." Nonetheless, in the ensuing six months, four witnesses who presented testimony about the massacre, and two more judicial investigators assigned to the case, were assassinated.

The paramilitary apparatus was not about to suffer further exposure, or to be dismantled, through the normal channels of government. At the very least, elements of the military were in silent revolt against the government, doing what they wished within its broken, democratic form.

The Coca-Cola Murders

As previously described, the dismantling of the Medellin Cartel in the early 1990s not only did not destroy the drug industry; it also did not lead to an end of the paramilitary apparatus which it had spawned. That apparatus persisted, and continued to develop, in new hands. One of the most internationally prominent cases of paramilitary violence which occurred in the 1990s - prominent not for its magnitude, but for the high-profile players who were involved - revolved around the Coca-Cola company, and the bottling plants which it operates in Colombia.

The most dramatic incidence of paramilitary violence involving Coca-Cola took place at its bottling plant at Carepa, which technically speaking, belongs to a company known as Bebidas y Alimentos, a Coke subsidiary. Union representatives allege that the plant manager, Aristo Milan Mosquera, publicly proclaimed that he had called on the paramilitaries to destroy the union (a warning which was meant to intimidate it); they furthermore claim that Mosquera was known to socialize "with paramilitary fighters and even provided them with Coca-Cola products for their fiestas." In September, SINALTRAINAL, the union representing workers at the bottling plant, sent letters to Coca-Cola complaining of the threats being made against them and asking for protection. On December 5, 1996, paramilitary gunmen entered the bottling plant at Carepa, closed the plant down, lined the workers up against the wall, and began firing off rounds of ammunition meant to terrorize their captives, most of whom were sure their time had come. Before they left, the paramilitaries did murder Isidro Segundo Gil who was a member of the local executive board of SINALTRAINAL. Those who survived the attack felt simultaneously blessed and damned.

Strange to say, the plant did not receive any major security upgrade following this incident. On December 7, the paramilitaries entered the plant again, this time forcing the workers to sign union resignation forms which had been prepared in advance by plant management. After that, many workers fled the plant and the region altogether, allowing the company to replace them with new workers who were able to be paid substantially lower salaries. There was no longer a union at the Carepa plant, or a dissenting voice. According to allegations, paramilitary fighters remained visibly present outside of the plant for weeks after the assault, blowing apart all expressions of company remorse and government concern.

While the Carepa operation remains the most famous of the paramilitary incidents linked to Coca-Cola, there are others. In 1996, also - at the Bucaramanga bottling plant operated by Coke subsidiary Panamco, which had just recovered from a strike - five members of the local executive board of SINALTRAINAL were accused by the plant security director of placing a bomb on the premises. They were promptly arrested by police, and remained in prison for six months, until a legal investigation determined that not only had they had nothing to do with placing a bomb inside the plant, but that there had, in fact, never been a bomb in the plant.

In yet another incident, the President of the local SINALTRAINAL chapter at Panamco’s Barrancabermeja bottling plant, became the target of repeated death threats which were made over the telephone, and also left written on walls inside the plant, signed by the AUC. While the paramilitaries have no compunction about using violence to achieve their ends, they are nowadays able to accomplish just as much through the warnings which they disseminate to their intended victims, intimidating all but the bravest, and making opponents "leave town" before it comes to bullets. Even back in the 1980s, WOLA (page 51) observed the effectiveness of the psychological terror practiced by the paramilitaries: "At the same time, new mechanisms of psychological terror have proliferated… Most common is the death threat - grotesque telephone warnings, funeral cards or wreaths with the recipient’s name inscribed, photocopied drawings of crosses and gravestones, the Virgin Mary and Christ in mourning, family photographs with children’s faces circled in black, toy caskets that arrive anonymously at the doorstep, flyers distributed en masse threatening an entire community, graffiti warnings and direct aggression from members of security or paramilitary forces." WOLA also noted the use of "death lists" containing the names of intended victims, which were sometimes released to the public in an effort to make activists cease their activities or flee.

In addition to the transgressions just mentioned, various union officials associated with

Coca-Cola bottling plants have been assassinated in incidents which did not take place inside of their plants. In 1989, one was killed in Pasto; in 1994, two more were murdered in Carepa. In 1996, one (not including Isidro Gil, who was killed inside the plant) was murdered in Carepa; in 2001 another union official was assassinated in Monteria, and in 2002 one was killed in Barranquilla. In 2003, the 15-year-old son of the national director of SINALTRAINAL (who was also a Coca-Cola worker), was seized while riding his bike. Kidnapped and tortured by paramilitaries who demanded to know the whereabouts of his father, the boy was released several hours later. Shortly afterwards, phone calls reached the distraught union leader, warning him that if he did not abandon his activities, they (the paramilitaries) would take the war to his home. Numerous other bottling plant workers, throughout this period, claim to have been threatened and, in cases, abducted and tortured by paramilitary forces. In other words, the Coca-Cola/paramilitary phenomenon cannot be dismissed as merely the product of a few "isolated incidents."

Outraged by this recurring pattern of violence against union organizers and workers at the facilities of Coca-Cola subsidiaries in Colombia, the United Steelworkers of America and International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola in the US in 2001, on behalf of SINALTRAINAL. The suit was filed in accordance with the provisions of the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals who are not US citizens to sue Americans for breaches of international law. At the same time as it was confronted with this legal action, the Coca-Cola company was also confronted by a major grassroots reaction back at home, as various civic groups organized to boycott Coca-Cola products, and several prominent universities kicked Coca-Cola vending operations off campus.

Legally, Coca-Cola succeeded in disassociating itself from its subsidiaries, who in spite of having to conform to rigorous product standards and subscribe to codes of conduct approved by Coke, were, nonetheless, deemed beyond Coca-Cola’s control with regard to incidents of local violence in Colombia. These subsidiaries, in turn, were essentially cleared of wrongdoing by the legal process, which required standards of proof that were too demanding to allow the conviction of local managers on charges of using paramilitaries to intimidate workers and break unions. Coca- Cola, now in the process of calling for a new, independent investigation meant to clear its name, has already declared itself vindicated by these results. It characterizes the paramilitary actions as tragic and regrettable, and portrays its workers as caught up in the violence of a 40-year-old civil war which has nothing to do with Coca-Cola, and everything to do with local culture and with the strife-ridden history of the country which has shaped it. According to Coca-Cola, its Colombian bottling plants have published local ads deploring the violence perpetrated against their workers; and special security measures have been implemented to protect Coca-Cola workers. These measures are said to include: the provision of company-sponsored transportation to and from work; the provision of cell phones to union officials (to make it easier to call for help); flexibility in scheduling (so that at-risk workers can leave before nightfall, or else vary their schedule in order to make their routine less predictable to assassins); the provision of paid leaves of absence to qualified workers who feel threatened, so that they can stay out of harm’s way during times of crisis; the availability of transfers for workers who feel that a particular location is too dangerous for them to remain in. Even so, Coke’s reputation remains severely tainted in Colombia. Critics believe that these measures are hypocritical, providing "protection" against a threat which Coca-Cola itself has engendered, in order to maximize its profits by crushing the spirit and capabilities of local labor unions. They point out that these measures, in fact, dramatize and reinforce, on a daily basis, the terrible fate which awaits those who oppose company policies, and therefore help to further the fear which Coca-Cola uses to keep its workers in line.

Although it is quite likely that Coca-Cola World Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, is not directly responsible for the decision to use paramilitaries to control its labor force in Colombia, it seems clear that there is a connection between some subsidiary plant managers who bottle Coca-Cola products in Colombia, and the paramilitaries, who collaborate to break unions, and keep down workers’ salaries and benefits. The evidence is simply too compelling to reach any other conclusion. In light of this fact, the measures taken by Coca-Cola World Headquarters to protect its workers and to maintain the moral standards of its international operation must be deemed insufficient. Is it time, perhaps, to switch to Pepsi?

The Energy Industry and the Paramilitaries

Compared to the importance of the energy industry, Coca-Cola’s Colombian operations must be considered relatively trivial. In the year 2000, nearly 35% of Colombia’s export revenues were derived from the oil sector, and 6.6% from coal (as compared to 8.1% from coffee). Colombia, a relatively minor supplier of oil to the US (accounting for 3.5% of total US imports), was nonetheless regarded as significant in this regard, especially considering the possibility that large undiscovered reserves might still exist in the country, beyond the reach of the national government, in regions controlled by the FARC. At the same time as Colombia was viewed as a small but important oil exporter, it ranked 4th, globally, in terms of coal exports in the year 2000.

The oil industry is dominated by the national oil company, Ecopetrol, and by foreign multinationals which include Occidental Petroleum (US), Chevron/Texaco (US), ExxonMobil (US), Royal Dutch/Shell (Dutch/British), and British Petroleum (Great Britain). The oil industry is particularly active in the Departments of Santander, Casanare and Arauca, while the coal industry is centered in the Guajira Peninsula, where ExxonMobil (50% owner) and a consortium of foreign companies control the world’s largest open-cast coal mine, known as Cerrejon Norte.

The regions where Colombia’s energy industries are located have, not surprisingly, become hotbeds of paramilitary activity. Sicarios have, over the years, been responsible for the death of many labor leaders and union organizers, apparently in an effort to keep wages down and workers compliant. Their attacks against organized labor have also been made in an effort to prevent penetration of the labor unions by the guerrillas: since the 1920s, the power of Colombian oil workers to impact the nation through strikes, work stoppages, and other forms of resistance launched from within this crucial economic sector, has been amply demonstrated. For opponents of radical social alternatives, it has therefore become a major priority to keep the Left out of the oil industry, so that it will not be able to shut down oil production or to seize vital oil installations from within, as part of its revolutionary strategy in the future. This, too, is a motive fueling paramilitary killings of Leftist labor leaders in the energy industry.

In addition to these direct attacks against energy workers, paramilitaries have also carried out numerous violent operations against peasants in the Colombian oil zones, once again acting as "dirty war" auxiliaries of the Colombian military. Both the FARC and the ELN have been active in these zones, seeking to reach out from the peasant communities which harbor them in order to build contacts with the oil workers, and also extorting money from the oil companies by threatening to blow up the highly vulnerable pipelines which connect the oil fields to the ports from which the oil is shipped. Paramilitary massacres and assassinations of peasants, as in other locations in Colombia, are meant to erode the support base of the guerrillas, either shutting it down with fear, or displacing it by inducing its flight to other regions. The dynamics are familiar, and comprehensible. What is not quite so clear is the role of the oil companies themselves. Are they nothing more than magnets for the violence; investors who, by raising the economic value of the territory they operate in, enhance its strategic value to warring factions, drawing in forces they have done little to create? Or are these companies active participants in the violence, which encourage and even help to construct the dirty war that protects their assets?

Although it is innately human to infer that he who benefits from an action is behind it, it is not logically acceptable to make such a conclusion. That is to say, an inference of that nature may either be true or not true. Some interesting points which may bear on the subject of the oil companies and the paramilitaries:

In the 1980s, a Colombian labor leader told me that TEXACO was allowing paramilitaries to train on their property. I have no independent verification of this statement, which was, nonetheless, made by a seemingly responsible and informed individual, which means that it merits serious consideration.

British Petroleum (BP) maintains its own security forces in Colombia in the form of Defense Systems Limited (DSL), a private British-based security company which was created by former SAS (Special Air Services) men. (The SAS is one British version of special forces.) In the 1990s, the DSL was accused of illegally providing counterinsurgency training to Colombian troops involved in defending BP installations, as well as of illegally supplying military equipment to the XIV Brigade, a Colombian army unit linked to paramilitary activity and extralegal killings. The Colombian prosecutor assigned to the case reported the existence of suspicious activity, which he could not, however, concretize to the point of exposing a crime.

During this same period, BP was accused by residents of the Department of Casanare of collaborating with the army and the paramilitaries in the "dirty war." They claimed that BP took photographs of activists at various community meetings, then passed these photos on to the intelligence wing of the Army’s XVI Brigade. An army intelligence commander, in fact, verified these accusations, admitting that some photos and video footage in the army’s possession had come from the oil companies. Local residents claim that this information is sometimes used to plan extralegal assassinations of community organizers and activists, as, for example, the murder of Carlos Mesias Arrigui Cerquera, a peasant leader who led a civil strike against BP in 1994, and was killed by paramilitaries in 1995. Once again, although suspicions abounded, the irrefutable and decisive evidence needed to link BP to paramilitary activity in a court of law, could not be produced.

In conclusion, it may be said that many in Colombia blame multinational oil companies for supporting paramilitary activity by means of direct monetary contributions to the death squads or to elements of the military which are connected to the death squads; by means of the sharing of intelligence gathered by their own internal espionage and security systems with "dirty war" operatives; and by means of lobbying efforts meant to win their governments’ favor for policies which support the Colombian military (and its paramilitary apparatus), with a minimal regard for human rights. The companies are said to desire protection from guerrilla harassment; freedom to operate with the least union activity possible; and liberty to explore for, and develop, oil resources in remote parts of the country, which will not be possible until the FARC is militarily defeated. All three goals are said to benefit from the existence of paramilitary death squads. The accusations of a paramilitary connection presented by enemies of the multinational oil companies are formidable, but not proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. As in the case of most suspicions circulating today in Colombia, what you believe and what you do not believe depends largely upon where you stand politically. For some, facts must be somehow more than facts in order to be believed. The art of discretion, which leaves only shadows of a trail, rarely blunders so colossally as to prove what it suggests. For others, a mere rumor or a myth is as tangible as a piece of metal, which can be picked up and held in the hand. In this environment, events serve as a kind of political Rorschach Blot. The Right goes Right, and the Left goes Left. The Colombian army, which knows it can get away with "dirty war" via the paramilitaries, has already been "caught" over and over again, and finally developed a sense of invulnerability which leads to sloppiness, which nonetheless has few repercussions. On the other hand, foreign multinationals such as Coca-Cola, TEXACO, and BP cannot afford to be so sloppy - and are not. Guilty or innocent - directly involved, or merely receptive to reaping the benefits of others’ sins - it is not easy to tell. Every reader is invited to make up his own mind; or to seek the additional information that will allow him to do so in fairness to all sides.

The Invasion of Barrancabermeja

Given what has just been said, it should not be surprising that one of the most amazing paramilitary operations of recent times has been carried out in the town of Barrancabermeja, the major urban center of the oil zone, which has a long history of radical labor activity. Barrancabermeja figured prominently in the great strikes against the US-owned Tropical Oil Company which took place during the 1920s, and played an important role in the 1948 uprising which followed the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Into contemporary times, it has persisted as a stronghold of organized labor, Left-wing politics, and alternative visions of Colombia.

In 1998, forces of the AUC decided to target this town of 250,000 with a wave of terror that went far beyond the selective assassination of prominent labor leaders and left-wing politicians. On May 16, heavily-armed paramilitary units drove into several working-class neighborhoods of Barrancabermeja, killing 11 and "disappearing" 25, while encountering no resistance from the army which had troops stationed nearby. In subsequent months, they began to move into nearby municipalities, consolidating their presence and constructing a formidable base which the military did not oppose. In August 1999, the Colombian military announced that it could no longer guarantee the safety of international human rights groups which had come to monitor the situation. This statement, which could be taken as a confession of the army’s inability to control the paramilitaries, was, instead, widely regarded as a declaration of its unwillingness to do so. The paramilitaries quickly responded to this signal of support by sending a warning letter to the Colombian human rights group CREDHOS, which was also released to the press. In part, it stated: "The AUC identifies the human rights workers and especially members of CREDHOS as guerrilla sympathizers, and for this reason from this moment forward we consider them military targets of our organization. It is important to say that all of this crap that they are doing is the policy of the FARC and ELN guerrillas, since we know who you report to at the end of the day…" (Livingstone, 20) The AUC was, in other words, seeking to intimidate human rights groups into leaving the area so that the paramilitaries would be able to carry out their operations in an environment of total obscurity. Their crimes would be conducted in a morally blacked-out zone, isolated from the conscience of the world; the killing zone would be rendered invisible to the international community.

In reality, of course, the paramilitaries were unable to achieve their goal of clearing the killing zone of human rights workers; these workers are perhaps the bravest fighters of all in the war that is taking place in Colombia, today, walking through the Valley of Death every day without weapons, in a effort to humanize the inhuman, and impose order on the chaos. For those whose strategy depends upon committing crimes, ideals are subversive, and the unarmed exponents of ideals are "the enemy." Human rights workers are among the most vulnerable of figures on the contemporary battlefields of Colombia, but they are also among the most obstinate. Easy to kill, they are difficult to intimidate. Although their continued presence in and around Barrancabermeja did not deter the wave of terror that the AUC was about to unleash there, their persistence in remaining did prevent the violence from occurring in a vacuum. The truth got out.

During the year 2000, AUC units moved in and out of Barrancabermeja at will, killing a total of 569 people, including left-wing politicians, members of organized labor, and community activists. Late in the year, AUC units moved in to stay. "Taking over" some working-class neighborhoods, they set up roadblocks and forced local residents to feed and shelter them; in cases, they threw them out of their homes, which they took over and turned into bases for their activities. The paramilitaries then began to control and monitor traffic coming in and out of these neighborhoods, and to conduct house-to-house searches for their enemies. All the while, Colombian security forces declined to become involved. Residents claim that military helicopters flew over besieged neighborhoods while the take-over was in progress, without interfering; they also claim that army and police personnel were frequently seen chatting and "hanging out" with paramilitary fighters on street corners. During the months of January and February 2001, between 100 - 200 people were murdered in Barrancabermeja by the paramilitaries. From March to August, over 200 more were killed. At the same time as the AUC aimed to weed out Leftist influence, and to terrorize the politically active town into submission, by means of a wave of murders and disappearances, it also sought to install permanent institutions of control in the town, calling meetings of the people which were meant "to impose their own rules of civic life" on Barrancabermeja, holding their own public trials to judge and punish people according to their own view of right and wrong, and blacklisting many organizations and activists, whose work was, from then on, only able to proceed under conditions of social stigmatization and extreme fear of reprisal.

The amazing thing about this paramilitary invasion of Barrancabermeja is its magnitude, and the length of its duration. In contrast to the typical paramilitary operation, which involves a quick strike and withdrawal from the "crime scene", which allows the fiction of government opposition of the paramilitaries to be maintained ("they got away before we could get there"), the operation in Barrancabermeja was long-term. The fact that the army and police did little or nothing to interfere with this operation, over a long period of time, and in the midst of innumerable complaints, protests, and calls for help which were being directed to the government by the citizenry, represents a shocking violation of the normal rules of the paramilitary drama. Are the actors finally tired of playing their roles, have they outgrown them, become too powerful to need them? Is the "willing suspension of disbelief" by the international audience no longer a priority for either the Colombian government or the paramilitaries? Can the violence finally dispense with the last shreds of the mediocre art that has tried to hide it for all these years? Barrancabermeja may, perhaps, be considered a testing ground: an exploration of the limits, or lack of limits, which will define the possible uses of paramilitary violence in Colombia in the future. As more blatant levels of repression succeed in achieving their ends without incurring significant international consequences, it is likely that the criminality of acts of political violence in Colombia will deepen, that brutality will attain new dimensions, and that adherence to basic codes of human rights will weaken. Victory through terror will replace the idea of peace through inclusion, and all factions will forget that on the other side of savagery, is death-in-life. Nightmare methods can only lead to nightmare nations.

The Massacre of Mapiripan

On July 15, 1997, a far more typical paramilitary action unfolded in the town of Mapiripan near the Guaviare River. This action stood out for its brutality, but aside from that, was more in line with the classic paramilitary massacres of the 1980s. In this case, a group of 200 paramilitary fighters (a much larger unit than was commonly deployed in the 1980s), entered the town, seized its leaders, and began to search for peasants who were said to have participated in recent protests against coca eradication. Since the AUC, itself, was heavily involved in drug trafficking, the motive for the attack obviously had nothing to do with any counternarcotics philosophy; on the contrary, it was most likely aimed at killing and intimidating peasants who were believed to have sympathies with the guerrillas, and to be promoting guerrilla policies through their community organizations. After securing a number of prisoners, the paramilitaries took them to the local slaughterhouse, and initiated a five-day reign of terror, torturing and mutilating their victims whose screams and cries for help could be heard from the outside. Numerous messages and phone calls were directed by people in the town to the regional authorities, but there was no response until soldiers finally arrived, five days after the slaughter had ended. One of the victims was hung from a hook, tortured, and cut to pieces. Two others were decapitated. Most of the 22 people killed were disemboweled, so that they would not float when their bodies were thrown into the Guaviare River.

As in many other instances, this paramilitary attack seemed to take place with the knowledge and collusion of the military, which made no effort to question or apprehend the 200 paramilitary fighters when they arrived at the local San Jose del Guaviare airport en route to the massacre, and which failed to respond to pleas for help until the incident was over.

The Alto Naya Massacre

During Easter week, 2001, 500 AUC fighters passed by a military base at La Timba, unchallenged, en route to perpetrating a brutal massacre in the Alto Naya region of southern Colombia, an isolated area in the mountains which is populated by indigenas. Methodically, they moved from village to village, killing inhabitants with chainsaws. Victims had limbs severed, were cut open, or cut in two. Anywhere from 22 to 100 persons may have been murdered in this horrific bloodbath, which prompted a Colombian official to say: "The chainsaw massacre is not a movie in Colombia." (Livingstone 11) In this case, a special emphasis was obviously placed on brutality as a means of spreading terror and achieving power through intimidation.

Summary of the Case Studies

Although it may seem unnecessary, and even perverse, to have provided so much detailed information regarding the paramilitary atrocities in Colombia in this section, it is actually of vital importance to flesh out the picture of what is happening in Colombia today, if we are to craft intelligent responses to the crisis which engulfs it. Where simplistic stereotypes prevail, simplistic and misguided answers arise. There is much more to the violence in Colombia than "narcoguerrillas", and a noble, beleaguered State attempting to achieve justice and restore the rule of law. A full understanding of the paramilitaries, and their relationship to the Colombian military and to elements of the political Right, as well as an understanding of the limits of the power of the civil government vis-à-vis the Colombian military when differences of opinion occur, is necessary in order to deepen our perception of what is really going on in Colombia. The issues are diverse, and the complexities resistant to formulas. Small packages, such as are used to manipulate large masses of people to apply great force, cannot fairly carry such a reality. As one professor angrily exclaimed, after a student, alluding to the coin’s "heads" and "tails", stated that there were two sides to every issue: "Only two? The dice has six!" When it comes to Colombia, understanding and answers will only come with patience, time, and study, if then…

Back to Top


Conspiracy Theory: Colombia

Every one loves a good conspiracy theory, and Colombia has no shortage of them. One of the most important and interesting of these theories concerns the international manipulation of the drug trade.

Classically, of course, the trafficking of cocaine and heroin from Colombia is regarded as the result of criminal activity originating from Colombia, which is linked to criminal networks inside the United States. The United States government, through the efforts of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), Customs, and local police units, as well as by means of the implementation of various programs of military and economic aid directed towards the Andean region, is perceived as opposing this traffic in body and in soul. Whereas this view may be enriched by taking into account the wounds of the producer nations and the self-generated vulnerabilities of the victim nations, which together create the perfect fit of supply and demand, the basic commitment of the United States government to protecting its people from the scourge of drugs is rarely questioned; except, that is, by "conspiracy theorists." For some time now, these iconoclasts of political perception have not only been critical of the approaches being utilized by the United States in its War on Drugs, which they view as flawed and simplistic; but they have also accused the United States government of being involved in drug trafficking, and, in fact, blame it for the epidemic of cocaine which currently afflicts our nation.

Conspiracy theory: how is it to be treated by serious and responsible analysts? Is it the kiss of death to even consider it, the fatal destroyer of credibility, capable of wrecking a lifetime of sober and rigorous investigation by tainting all of one’s previous work with hints of a runaway imagination? People’s beliefs regarding what is impossible will not change as quickly as their opinion of the one who comes with proof of the impossible; and the differential in the velocity of acceptance will almost always discredit the bearer of new knowledge before his proof can be weighed in the balance beside the assumptions of the past. Conspiracy theory is never right just because it is strange and discomfiting; but sometimes it is right in spite of being so. For this reason, the serious analyst cannot dismiss it out of hand, but must give it a fair look, the same as any claim which intrudes into the world of his expertise. The search for truth is not a popularity contest. Isolation is no proof of wisdom, but sometimes it is the first step in the recovery of reality, for fantasies may serve the prevailing paradigm just as readily as they serve the nonconformist fringe.

In the case of the conspiracy theory just mentioned, many currents have converged to construct it, some uninformed and obviously polemic, others sincere and seemingly knowledgeable. I have encountered greater and lesser versions of it in many places: in the research of important scholars and journalists, in the published and reported testimony of intelligence operatives and drug dealers, in accusations made by some Colombian politicians, and in innuendoes dropped by people who claimed to be "in the know" (but were they?)

Realizing the gravity of the accusation contained in this theory, I will merely describe it, put it on the table, without either advocating or rejecting it. At the very least, the accusation is widespread enough, with enough credible believers, to warrant presentation.

The idea that the United States government has sometimes been involved in drug-dealing dates back, at least, to the days of the Vietnam War. Dr. Alfred McCoy, a Columbia- and Yale-educated professor, and specialist in Southeast Asian History, reports that French General (Retired) Maurice Belleux, former chief of the French intelligence agency SDECE, told him in 1971 that the French had financed covert operations carried out during their 1946-1954 war in Indochina with money obtained through the drug trade. At that time, the French were attempting to hold onto their colony in the face of resistance from national liberation forces (which were dominated by Communists), and to further their aims, they linked up with the Hmong people of Laos, assisting them in the collection of locally-grown opium, and transporting it in French aircraft to Saigon, where the Chinese-Vietnamese mafia received and distributed the drug. After the French defeat at Dienbienphu, Indochina was broken up into several independent nations, including Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam (the North was ceded to the Communists, while the South remained politically connected to the West). As Communist guerrillas in the South, known as the Viet Cong, began to increasingly threaten the pro-Western government of Saigon, the United States was gradually drawn into the conflict in order to prevent the entire region from falling under the control of the Communists. This, of course, is what sparked the Vietnam War. According to McCoy, General Belleux stated that when the US took over the role of France in Southeast Asia, as the defender of Western interests against Communist expansion, it also took over covert French assets connected to the opium trade. Is there any evidence to back up the General’s shocking assertion?

The CIA clearly (and not very secretly) established links with the Hmong, who were trained and armed as fighters against the Communist armies of Southeast Asia. It is also apparent that the CIA knew of, and tolerated, Hmong involvement in the drug trade, following the basic Cold War precept that the war against Communism came first, and that it was better to put up with the abuses and crimes of allies, than to weaken the front against Communism by holding corrupt friends to standards of morality which would only end up alienating them. (This is not to discredit the Hmong: the opium trade was a phenomenon with a long history and deep cultural roots in many parts of Asia, and was viewed, by many, as more of a business than a sin.) How did CIA tolerance for the drug trade express itself during the Vietnam War? There is abundant evidence that the CIA provided cover for the drug traffickers, meaning that it interceded with local security forces, and with other US government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the forerunner of the DEA), to prevent drug trafficking operations which benefited its allies, and its covert operations, from being interfered with. What is still disputed is whether the CIA went beyond providing cover to local drug lords, to actually participate in the mechanics of drug trafficking, as some, who claim that CIA aircraft were used to fly opium into Saigon during this period, insist. Whatever the case, heroin produced from CIA-protected opium seems to have made it back to the streets of the United States, as well as to have found its way into the ranks of US military forces stationed in South Vietnam, one-third of whom were estimated, by the late 1960s, to be heroin users (McCoy).

In the 1980s, according to McCoy, the pattern was repeated in Afghanistan and Central America. In the case of Afghanistan, the CIA was involved in providing support to resistance fighters opposed to the Soviet occupation of their country. It was hoped, by President Reagan and his advisers, that Afghanistan could be turned into a Vietnam for the Soviets, which would weaken and discredit the USSR internationally and help the US to gain the upper hand in the Cold War. For this reason, funds, weapons, and intelligence support were provided to Afghan guerrilla groups by the CIA, which worked largely through Pakistani military intelligence. Unfortunately, many of the Afghan forces utilized in this project were involved in heroin trafficking. In an effort not to discredit or impede their allies, the US and Pakistan enabled the drug trade to flourish by ceasing to oppose it, and, in fact, it became an important source of financing for the anti-Soviet war effort. As a result of this tolerance for the trade, Pakistan, itself, soon became a major producer of heroin, until it was estimated to be the source of 60% of the heroin sold in the United States, as well as much of the heroin sold in Europe. According to McCoy, in Pakistan itself, the number of heroin addicts rose from 5,000 in 1980 to 1.2 million in 1985. As in Vietnam, morality was subordinated to a moral crusade. Anti-communism became the highest good, the cause so sacred that it was capable of absolving one of any sin committed in its name.

In the case of Central America, the drug in question was cocaine, and the Cold War players of the CIA were the contras, an anti-Communist guerrilla force which was created with the aim of destabilizing and eventually toppling the socialist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua. Largely operating out of bases in Honduras and Costa Rica, which were pressured by the US government to provide support for them, the contras, or "Nicaraguan freedom fighters" as President Reagan called them, launched numerous destructive raids into Nicaragua, accruing a very questionable human rights record in the process. So displeased was the US Congress with this record, in fact, that it decided to block the President, and the government agencies under his command, from providing military aid to the contras between December 1983 and September 1985, by means of legislation known as the Boland Amendments. Confronted with this legal obstacle, Cold War warriors in the Executive Branch struggled to find a way to keep the contras up and running. They felt they knew better than the US Congress, and decided that their mission was too important to be deterred by the mechanics of the US Constitution, which gave Congress the right to control government expenditures as part of a delicate system of "checks and balances" meant to prevent any one branch of government - Executive, Legislative, or Judicial - from gaining excessive power, which could lead to tyranny. The warriors dedicated to the contras therefore decided that the US Congress’ control over the allocation of federal funds must be bypassed. If the Congress would not approve aid to the contras, new, invisible sources of funding must be created, to keep the contra army afloat, against the wishes of the legislators, and the people they had been elected to represent. It was during this time that a clandestine contra-support project was launched from within the National Security Council, under the leadership of Robert McFarlane and later John Poindexter, both of whom depended heavily on Lt. Colonel Oliver North to manage the details of the operation. One relatively innocuous means by which they sought to provide funding for the contras in spite of the Congressional ban against such funding, was to use diplomatic enticements to try to convince other nations and private donors to contribute to the contra cause. Whereas the US government could not directly assist the contras, by discreetly rewarding allies who did, it could generate valuable "third party" aid to help maintain the viability of the anti-Communist guerrillas.

On the other hand, much of the NSC’s contra-support project occurred, under the radar screen, in absolute violation of US law. In one operation, weapons were illegally sold to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, in spite of a US arms embargo against such sales. The plan was, first, to gain the support of moderates within the Iranian government who, it was hoped, would use their influence to help win the release of US hostages being held by Islamic extremist groups in Lebanon; and second, to use profits from the secret arms sales to fund the contras. When the operation was exposed in 1986, it led to the Iran-Contra scandal, which shook the nation to the core. The Constitution had been violated! The political system carefully designed by the Founding Fathers to protect our liberty by dividing governmental power between three branches, each of which could oversee and limit the actions of the others, had been betrayed! One branch of government - the Executive - had illegally usurped the power of another - the Legislative - and thereby created a dangerous concentration of power within a single branch of government: a likely recipe for subverting the democratic system and pointing the nation in the direction of authoritarianism - not now, it might be, but sometime in the future, if the transgression were allowed to pass unchallenged and to consolidate itself in the political culture of the land. It is for this reason, especially, that the Iran-Contra scandal grew to such enormous proportions. The controversy had less to do with a specific policy related to Central America, than it did with the underlying principles of the North American political system, and with the mechanics that preserve and promote freedom in the face of human ambition. And yet, President Reagan was well-loved, and the nation did not wish its chief executive to be dragged through another "Watergate", not at a time of intense competition with the USSR for global leadership. And so, the scandal was subjected to reproach by a special commission headed by Lawrence E. Walsh, and some of the key players were punished, while the really "big fish", President Reagan and Vice President Bush, were allowed off the hook, even though some important testimony indicated that they had had knowledge of the illegal operation.

But the use of illegal arms sales to Iran to generate invisible funds for the contras against the mandates of the Congress was nothing next to the use of drug trafficking. This story first broke in December 1985 as the result of an exposé by Associated Press correspondents Robert Parry and Brian Barger, who presented evidence, based on interviews with DEA, Customs, and FBI officials, linking the contras to a drug trafficking network which was involved in smuggling Colombian cocaine into the United States. The accusations were not received favorably by the government, nor actively pursued by the media, but they nonetheless remained and resurfaced, eventually inspiring a Senate investigation in 1987, which was directed by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. Although the investigation was heavily resisted by the Executive branch and criticized as an act of opportunistic politics, many revealing bits of information came to light as a result of the probe, which were reinforced by subsequent discoveries. Some of the startling facts uncovered, both by this probe and other investigations:

The contra-support network which flew guns to contra bases in Central America, also flew drugs into the United States. (This fact was supported by multiple witnesses, including Floyd Carlton Caceres, a Panamanian pilot who was central to the network, during testimony presented at the 1991 trial of Manuel Noriega). According to the Kerry Report: "Elements of the contras knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the US government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

CIA Central American Task Force Chief Alan Fiers stated, during the Iran-Contra hearings, that drug trafficking by the contras was not merely the action of a few mavericks. "…It is not a couple of people. It is a lot of people."

Oliver North’s diaries contained information indicating that he had a knowledge of contra-related drug activities.

Wanda Palacio, a former associate of the Medellin Cartel, testified that Jorge Ochoa had cooperated with the contra drug ring. She stated that in 1983 and 1985 she had witnessed aircraft known to be utilized by the CIA (Southern Air Transport), taking off from Barranquilla, Colombia, with shipments of cocaine linked to the contra supply operation. In follow-up work, AP-correspondent Robert Parry discovered records connecting an agent who flew contra supply flights, and who was recognized by Palacio, with Southern Air Transport flights into Barranquilla. These accusations bear an eerie resemblance to accusations from another time, and from another war, when the CIA was suspected of direct involvement in the transport of Laotian opium to Saigon.

In 1991, Carlos Lehder, imprisoned drug lord of the Medellin Cartel, was called to the witness stand by the United States government in order to provide crucial testimony which would help to convict captured Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega of drug trafficking. Lehder was induced to testify by the offer of a reduced sentence (55 years, down from "life without parole plus an additional 135 years"); and by the possibility of being transferred to a prison in Germany (or so he believed). In spite of being called to the witness stand by US prosecutors, Lehder (in addition to sinking Noriega), leveled some very damaging accusations against the US, stating that an American official had offered to allow him to slip cocaine shipments into the US (government cover would be provided), in exchange for the right to utilize Norman’s Cay, Lehders’ private island, for contra supply operations. Lehder also testified that the Medellin Cartel had donated $10 million to the contras, presumably in exchange for some additional slack which was to be cut to it by North American counternarcotics operatives. While the testimony of drug dealers such as Lehder and Palacio might be questioned, on account of character issues, it must also be noted that the testimony of underworld figures was rarely discredited when it served US government interests. If Lehder’s testimony was good enough to convict Noriega, why shouldn’t it be good enough to confirm the worst fears of conspiracy theorists?

As an additional and very interesting note concerning Carlos Lehder, it needs to be stated that only a few years after his testimony in the Noriega trial, he suddenly vanished from the prison where he was being held in Arizona, under the WITSEC (in-prison "witness protection program"). He was simply "GONE", with no forwarding address. Where was Lehder taken, and why? Where is he now? For such a high-profile and controversial prisoner to disappear into thin air, overnight, without the faintest clue as to his whereabouts, is an almost unheard of event: a truly shocking mystery which has naturally generated a host of urban legends. Some believe that Lehder has been secretly shipped to Germany as he wished; or else released and sent into hiding, by friends in high places, or by those who fear the power of what he knows. Some believe he may have been eliminated, altogether. While others conjecture, somewhat more tamely, that he has merely been transferred to another high security prison with all the secrecy due a star of WITSEC. Whatever the case may be, the strange nature of his disappearance has only provided additional fuel to the conspiracy theorists, contributing to their suspicions that something powerful and dark is afoot. In their eyes, Lehder has been removed from any possibility of contact with the public in order to cover up the sins of men and institutions which we still cherish: we are not yet ready to know that the dust of heroes is mixed with the dust of criminals; that notorious drug dealers and US government officials have worked hand in hand.

In 1996, a series of articles entitled "Dark Alliance" was published in the San Jose Mercury News, adding new dimensions to the investigation - or perhaps merely rekindling it in the collective memory. The author, journalist Gary Webb, not only blamed the CIA for involvement in the contra drug trafficking operation during the 1980s, but also went on to hold the CIA responsible, through that activity, for the crack epidemic which first hammered US cities in that same decade. Although the mainstream media backed away from this fierce accusation, and chose to treat Webb’s work as poorly documented and weakened by what they claimed were sensationalistic exaggerations, many felt that Webb’s exposé had hit upon a terrible truth that the Establishment had no choice but to belittle and to bury, in its desperate effort to survive the consequences of its actions. According to one school of thought which proliferated in the wake of the "Dark Alliance" article, cocaine brought into the US by the contras and the CIA (which was converted to crack inside the US) was aimed not only at generating funds to support the illegal war in Central America, but also at politically neutralizing urban African-American communities within the United States, and aiding US businesses by helping to expand the "prison industrial complex." This perspective maintained that the massive influx of crack which hit US cities during the 1980s, in the context of declining economic opportunities for the poor, helped to steer urban rage and despair away from political, and possibly revolutionary channels of expression, into acts of self-destruction (drug addiction) and criminality (drug dealing, and robbery for "crack money"). A powerful potential movement of social discontent was thereby defused. The tremendous energy of coherent and righteous protest, launched from the moral high ground, can shame and shake great nations; but when the impulse of rebellion is tricked into assuming the form of crime, it loses its might; the wronged then surrender the superiority which they enjoy over their oppressor, becoming just a weaker incarnation of injustice. When the purity of victimhood is lost, the mistreated ones are tainted into powerlessness by their own overreaction; and legitimate grievances assume a shape that is easy to repress. According to this view, the introduction of crack cocaine into urban neighborhoods in North America was a deliberate act perpetrated by elements of the US government, which was meant to disorganize and destroy African-American communities, and to eliminate them as a focused political threat to the Conservative Reagan agenda for transforming the nation at the expense of the poor. Some theorists went so far as to label the alleged government crack-trafficking operation as a "preemptive strike" against the poor, claiming that it provided a mechanism for "criminalizing" and locking up large numbers of young black men before they could coalesce into any meaningful form of resistance against their social marginalization.

This interpretation has been reinforced by the identification of what is today known as the "prison industrial complex", an important new area of economic collaboration between government and business, which would not be possible if crime and punishment did not exist. In a country in which the number of prisoners has risen from 500,000 in 1980 to 1.8 million in 1997, the building and maintenance of prisons is now big business, providing opportunities for companies involved in construction, security equipment, security services, food services, medical services, phone systems, management, and many other areas of endeavor. Many prisons have also become host to factories and offices, where prison labor is utilized to build cars, construct furniture, manufacture clothing, do data entry, handle phone reservations, and perform many other economic tasks for a fraction of the cost of free labor (in some cases, workers are paid as little as 23 cents an hour). According to some theorists, the "prison industrial complex" is a means of providing US businesses with all the advantages of cheap "Third World labor", without the need to ever leave the country. But for the system to work, there must be criminals. Low crime rates will stymie this source of economic growth, and conditions which produce crime must therefore be promoted in some areas of the country in order to secure the necessary labor supply; at the same time, looser parameters for determining what is a crime, and longer prison sentences for offenses committed, must also be encouraged. According to those who adhere to this interpretation of events, crack cocaine, introduced into North American slums in the 1980s, provided the perfect tool for promoting the crime wave and the crackdown which were needed for the development of the "prison industrial complex."

Although many conspiracy theorists impacted by Gary Webb’s journalism embrace the scenario just described, many others who believe that the US government was involved in supporting the contra drug-trafficking operation during the 1980s resist the idea that the CIA intended to destroy African-American communities in the United States with crack. They feel that the CIA simply believed that the cocaine, in order to benefit the contras, required a market to be sold in. They feel that the CIA chose North America’s inner cities not explicitly to destroy them, but because it respected these neighborhoods less than other parts of the country, and considered them more expendable. These theorists do not see a blatant design of destruction here, but rather a callous willingness to accept "collateral damage" in order to further a foreign policy obsession.

In the wake of Gary Webb’s "Dark Alliance" articles, the government was pressured by the intensity of the public reaction, to conduct some investigations in order to try to clear its name. Both the CIA and US Justice Department entered into periods of introspection and self-investigation, and ended up disclosing some very important information. During this time it was revealed that the CIA had, in the 1980s, contacted the US Attorney General’s office in San Francisco in order to request that the money seized in a gigantic California drug bust be returned to the defendant. The money, it informed the Justice Department, belonged to the contras! (In acquiescence to the CIA’s "inside knowledge" and its long and accepted history of acting in obscurity "for the national interest", in ways that did not always make sense on the surface, the Justice Department complied with this request.) It was furthermore revealed, at this time, that between 1982 and 1995, a secret agreement had existed between the CIA and the Justice Department, which waived the CIA’s responsibility to inform the Justice Department in the event that any of its non-employee agents were known to be involved in drug trafficking. In other words, the Justice Department provided space in which the CIA was free to break the law by working with drug dealers in the interests of its national security goals. These revelations strengthened an already formidable array of evidence indicating that the CIA had not only known about and tolerated, but also protected, and probably promoted and assisted, the smuggling of Colombian cocaine into the United States during the 1980s in order to generate financial support for the contras.

In the same way that the NSC and CIA, during the 1980s contra war, sheltered drug traffickers who were linked to, or supplied by, the Medellin Cartel, many analysts feel that covert elements of the US government may also have facilitated the trafficking operations of the Cali Cartel during the war against Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s. Abundant evidence exists that, during that period, US and Colombian intelligence operatives established close connections with the Cali Cartel, whose knowledge and resources were utilized to help dismantle Escobar’s criminal empire. (Bowden) It seems plausible that the Cali Cartel may have been cut some slack at that time, in the same way that the Medellin Cartel appears to have been cut slack when its potential as a supporter of the contras was highly valued. Now that the Cali Cartel has also fallen, and Colombia’s drug-trafficking giants have been replaced by a large number of "baby cartels", the question may be asked: do any links between covert US operations and Colombian drug traffickers persist? (If they ever did, for some still doubt.)

In its final form, minus the US inner city agenda scenario espoused by some, "conspiracy theory Colombia" may be described as follows: The US government, like the Colombian government, is a multidimensional creature of many branches, agencies, departments, organizations, and minds. Some parts are bravely and fully committed to fighting the war against drugs, both at home and abroad, in an effort to protect the American people and to preserve their quality of life; while others, working behind their backs, are determined to tap into the enormous potential of the drug trade and to harness it as a powerful invisible source of funding for their projects, which will enable them to bypass the traditional limitations which the Constitution places upon the pursuit of their objectives. No longer will they be at the mercy of the US Congress, whose control of the nation’s purse strings, typically wielded as a means of exerting political influence, will cease to constrain them once they have developed their own underground source of finance. Working through foreign allies and operatives, and through private military contractors (who may utilize former US military personnel not serving the US in an official capacity), the vast resources of the drug trade may possibly be put to use to create a foreign policy apparatus with a will of its own, barely accountable to the nation at large. A cabal of powerful and strong-willed players, most likely concentrated in the Executive Branch of government, perhaps abetted by members of a "conservativized" Judiciary, will then have the tools it needs to act independently of the system when it does not concur with its vision. That is, until it is finally able to gain complete control of the system. For some say by "deactivating" the system of checks and balances (escaping from the countervailing power of Congress, for example), it will gradually create a hollow space in the midst of increasingly irrelevant public institutions, which are unable to influence or restrain it, until it one day has the strength to step from the darkness of hidden power into the light of fully revealed power. The nation within the nation will discard the nation and become the nation.

According to these conspiracy theorists, US intelligence operatives who have, in the past, become intimately involved with the drug trade in Asia, Central Asia, Central America, and the Andean region of South America, are now in the process of developing control over significant portions of the Colombian drug trade. The powerful, nationalistic cartels of Medellin and Cali have been broken and dismantled, replaced by numerous smaller operations, some of which are more pliable and willing to be utilized by covert US elements without interposing a competing agenda. For the Colombian drug dealers, cooperation with covert US elements is a godsend, it provides them with protection against pursuit and prosecution, and facilitates the smuggling of their drugs into the United States. For US covert operatives, the collaboration provides "secret income"; it can also provide increased revenues for the Colombian economy, making that nation less susceptible to the advances of leftist guerrillas, as well as provide vital financial backing to paramilitary units, useful to the counterinsurgency.

As this process develops, say the conspiracy theorists, the current decentralized nature of the Colombian drug trade will enable busts and crackdowns of some trafficking organizations to succeed, giving the appearance that the War on Drugs is real, without affecting the income, or disorganizing the operations, of organizations affiliated with US interests.

Conspiracy theorists base their views on some of the material presented above, building their arguments up from the past behavior of organizations such as the CIA and NSC, as well as drawing inspiration from a wide variety of speculative (and supposedly informed) sources from both Colombia and the United States.

Is it possible that there is any truth to their claims? Any plausibility to their disconcerting vision? As I stated at the beginning of this section, it is not my purpose to advocate one side or the other when it comes to such a controversial and highly veiled subject. This theory is believed by enough people to warrant inclusion here, if only to describe their perception, which, right or wrong, has political significance. There is also enough suggestive material, available from both past and present, to argue against summary dismissal of this theory. In the end, this is strong stuff, and I consider my task completed to merely place it on the table for consideration; to let readers know what is out there, in terms of fact and speculation, and to stimulate them in their own search to know.

Back to Top



Colombia, ? adonde vas? "Colombia, where are you going?" After all that has been written in this article, is there any way of knowing? It has been said that every individual and every nation has not just one destiny, but several; that the future, reached through the prism of our choices, could be one of many different colors. War or peace; democracy or dictatorship, or a hybrid system that is both and neither; capitalism or socialism; abundance or poverty; autonomy or dependence; hatred or healing? Nothing is written in stone, day and night depend upon our choices. But do we have a choice in our choices?

For Colombians today, and people all over the world who are affected by the material consequences of what happens or may happen there, or by the moral interconnection of human beings which prevents our hearts from being stopped by borders, the question of Colombia’s future centers on the issue of peace. Peace is not only beautiful in its own right, but it is often also a gauge of the responsiveness and fairness of a society to the people who live in it. Ultimately, it is a state of mind transmitted to external conditions: a seal of approval which grants legitimacy to a system, or else a sign of the exhaustion and demoralization created when illegitimacy becomes overpowering, and resignation reigns. Is peace in Colombia possible, or is war the only future that can be imagined, without succumbing to the imagination?

The conflict taking place in Colombia today has deep roots, and will, therefore, not respond to shallow remedies. It did not arise because of one set of villainous actors who suddenly decided to emerge from history to turn the country into a battlefield, to break it in two with evil intentions and with violent means. Although this should be obvious, in an era in which political understanding has degenerated to the level of lethal cartoons, it must be explicitly stated. In epochs which have thrown away the wisdom of the ages, the wheel must be reinvented, the meaning of "up" and "down" must be relearned.

The violence raging in Colombia today is a reflection of glaring differentials in income and power between classes, which have become imbedded in a matrix of complex historical forces operating at the global level. There was, in the beginning, the Spanish Conquest, and the attendant subjugation of the Native population; then the importation of disempowered African slave labor, and the consolidation of a system based upon the exploitation of the many by the few. Initially, the threat of rebellion or escape injected a coercive mentality into the system, which made domination and control seem to be a matter of life and death to the elites; ideas of liberty, of life without hierarchy, seemed positively deadly, a social Pandora’s Box which only a fool would open. Church and State collaborated to maintain the reign of the masters, and the submission of the slaves, the serfs, and the lowly. As time went on, in post-colonial Colombia (and in the rebellious Colombia which led to it), new ideas from abroad finally arrived to permeate the system: concepts of democracy and economic liberalism which altered many aspects of the social environment, and yet left much of the original tension between elites and masses intact. The masses were used to being used, the elites to using. In spite of the attainment of the cherished goal of Independence, the original power differential between Spaniard and indigena, and Spaniard and esclavo, was perpetuated in altered and diminished, but still hurtful forms, in the relationships which now developed between landlords and peasants, and empresarios (big business owners) and workers. Old habits persisted under new circumstances, making the unknown familiar with deeply-imbedded patterns of exploitation. At the same time, the masses became acculturated to warfare, which competing elites unleashed against each other in an effort to insure the triumph of their competing visions, using el pueblo (the common people) as the cannon fodder of their ambition. Eventually, the bellicose experience of the masses linked up with the sense of injustice created by the power differential which had historically existed between the races and then the classes, leading to new applications of violence in the form of revolutionary warfare. Elements of the masses broke away from their traditional role as soldiers of the elites, and began to form their own self-defense groups and guerrilla armies dedicated to the resistance and/or overthrow of the elites. This process was heightened after certain progressive factions of the elites which had sought to create broad-based populist movements capable of peacefully accommodating the radical desire for change of the awakening masses, ran up against the limits of reform which were imposed by more obstinate sectors of the elites. During La Violencia, Colombian society simultaneously polarized politically, and became accustomed to horrendous new levels of violence which were to set the tone for years to come. The price of powerlessness became so drastically evident, that no one could any longer afford to place himself at the mercy of another man’s good will. Trust became a form of folly; everyone wanted a gun, or a friend with a gun. During these years, many poor people ceased to believe in the State, whose police and army had repressed them or else looked the other way while private killers terrorized them, and so, they chose the guerrillas to be the guardians of their lives; while the State sought to bolster itself against the threat of its increasingly powerful enemies by enhancing the army with droves of new weapons purchased from abroad. At the same time, the wealthy, fearing the potential vacillation of the State which occasionally succumbed to populism and reformist experiments, sought to construct private armies to defend themselves in the event that "political naiveté" at the top gave courage to those who were on the bottom. In the 20th Century, Pandora’s Box was more dangerous than ever.

The dynamics of this conflict, which was never purely local to begin with, were complicated by the global conflict between Communism, as espoused by the USSR, and Capitalism, as espoused by the USA, which filtered into the struggle, influencing and internationalizing it. The war no longer belonged to Colombia alone. Powerful outside forces, real and imagined, became involved, intensifying the war, raising it to a new level, ultimately making the problems which had generated it more difficult to solve. War and peace were no longer exclusively Colombian decisions, but came to depend heavily upon interactions with outside players, who had inserted Colombia into their own global agendas and would not necessarily let it take its own course. In theory, after the end of the Cold War, this dynamic should have ceased, but in reality, it has continued with a kind of inertia oblivious to history, as the US continues to pursue a high level of military involvement in Colombia in spite of the absence of the USSR as a global rival, seeking new justifications for that involvement in the War on Drugs, which has been lent further emotive power by tapping into the terminology of terrorism. This is a historical moment which, may, perhaps, by stripping away previous layers of motives, finally expose the deepest motive of all. As the believability of self-defense declines, aggression becomes harder to hide; entire chapters of history are deconstructed, and we are left standing in the emptiness to either begin the journey to the altruistic people we thought we were, or to unapologetically embrace the egotistic people we really are.

Many analysts today, coming from many different political orientations, believe that the key to achieving peace in Colombia is to overcome the poverty which breeds desperation among the poor, and, as a consequence, fear among the elites. Desperation leads to guerrillas, and fear to paramilitaries, and to State repression. These analysts say that Colombia must become a fairer society, that the gap between rich and poor must be closed, and that economic opportunities must be expanded, in order for the social tensions which lead to political violence to be diminished. Most sides in the conflict do understand the connection between poverty and revolution, realizing that those who have will inevitably become targets of those who have not, if the existing wealth is not either increased and redistributed (through socialist policies), or expanded and made more readily available by means of the economic growth associated with capitalist policies. While some analysts find it easy to blame Colombia’s elites for not being more generous with the wealth they already possess and control, in actuality, these elites are operating from a mentality encouraged by the diffusion of North American cultural values throughout the world, which has set lifestyle objectives that are probably not attainable by the global majority, due to limits of resources and environmental constraints. Colombia’s elites have, in other words, been led to expect certain benefits from their success, and to accept the philosophy that the rest of the country will catch up later if appropriate capitalist economic policies are pursued. The problem with this expectation is that Colombia’s economic growth is largely dependent upon the dynamics of a global system in which it, as other "Third World" nations, is at a huge disadvantage. Many of its key exports are locked into inferior price structures in the international market, and subject to destabilizing fluctuations in earnings. Debt is siphoning off important increments of the national revenue, and many profitable businesses are actually foreign-owned, especially in these times of "privatization", which have been ordained by international lending institutions; this, in turn, is leading to an "escape" of development capital, which is being reinvested by foreign companies in their own countries and projects rather than in Colombia, itself. These are not the classic conditions of capitalist development which led to the enrichment of, and attainment of relative social peace in, Great Britain and the United States. Many analysts fear that, without a restructuring of the international economy leading to a fairer global distribution of wealth, nations such as Colombia will be left stranded between the sustainable traditional societies which they once were and the North-American-style consumer societies which they will fail to reach, except for a small percentage of their population which will be able to enjoy the limited fruits of stunted growth. The success of this minority will not significantly reduce the poverty of the masses which feeds political violence, however; according to many analysts, it will only strengthen the existing division between classes, reinforcing inequality which leads to instability, and generating resentment and fear, which are the emotional engines of the war.

Colombia is today rife with competing economic models, which aim to tackle the problem of poverty which lies at the root of the violence. The guerrillas and many political forces of the Left favor socialist economic solutions, while the political mainstream tends to favor a variety of capitalist solutions, incorporating differing levels of State participation. Most probably, salvation does not depend upon traveling on any one specific path. "Socialism with a human face", or capitalism deepened by genuine spirituality, could both serve Colombia well, if granted the necessary international economic and political space to work in.

The question of peace in Colombia, however, seems to go far deeper than even this. Jenny Pearce, in her insightful introduction to Grace Livingstone’s Inside Colombia, emphasizes the importance of psychological and socialization processes in Colombia. Solutions may have technical aspects (such as committing to certain economic models of development), but the selection and implementation of solutions are actually dominated by the internal human dynamics which lead to their acceptance, or create resistance to them. These dynamics are, in turn, forged by social and cultural influences which impact upon the development of individuals and groups. In the case of Colombia, Pearce notes that large numbers of people have been, and are continuing to be, socialized to violence through personal and cultural exposure to war and crime. Many have been deeply traumatized, psychologically wounded, and left with intractable residues of distrust which make peace difficult to believe in, or work for. Coexistence with the enemy in the context of a pacific society seems difficult to imagine; only by means of victory, which disarms and reduces the adversary to utter helplessness, can safety be achieved. But, of course, the need for such a gigantic level of safety only terrorizes the enemy, who fears his own vulnerability just as much, and holds on more tightly than ever to his weapons. Trauma and personal experience with violence may also generate huge reservoirs of anger and resentment, which need to be expressed and discharged, and often are through new acts of violence. Sometimes, the weight of fear and pain which would otherwise crush one, can only be kept at bay by rage. Revenge becomes a matter of psychological survival.

In one important passage (xxi - xxii), Pearce describes the potential impact of violence and stigmatization on the development of children, which may have a damaging affect on the future prospects of peace. "In 1994 I spent some time with the widows living in squalor and abandonment in the shantytowns of Monteria, Cordoba. They had fled the violent assassinations of their husbands in Uraba, fleeing at night with as many as five children… The question that needs to be asked is how does this experience affect the socialization space of the families in which their children grow up? How can the male children in particular be prevented from seeking vengeance against their fathers’ deaths in the future or developing violent sub-cultures of their own out of the trauma of their childhood? When I was in Monteria, the local people denied displaced children access to local schools, as they were considered the children of ‘subversives.’ There are profound potential problems of identify in formation at stake here, in which general expectations of masculine and feminine responses will play a major role in terms of the recovery of these children and their ability to contribute to building a more peaceful Colombia."

In some times and places, violence is considered to be an aberration, a breakdown of accepted channels of problem-solving. In Colombia, today, violence is a part of the landscape, and children growing up in this environment may well come to regard violence as a legitimate form of problem-solving, a normal way for obstacles to be overcome and goals to be attained. As Pearce writes (xxiv): "In all these spaces of socialization [family, community, nation], identity is formed and shared meanings evolve. If violence remains embedded, tolerated and justified within these spaces, it becomes conventionalized, something normal and expected. Recognizing this allows for understanding of the positive actions towards non-violence needed; and what has to happen in the public political sphere as well as the private domestic sphere and in the sphere of community and associational life to facilitate and nurture civil alternatives that do not avoid the substantive issues that divide the society." And yet, Colombia has now reached a point in time in which the conscious, large-scale implementation of programs of psychological healing, and the construction or recapture of socialization spaces needed to foster the consolidation of alternative values which could lead to peace, are not secure. In a nation in which the advocacy of basic human rights is frequently labeled "subversive", and the practice of evangelical Christianity (to give an example) is often regarded as "fascist", it is nearly impossible to do anything even vaguely political without offending somebody. There is simply nothing "apolitical" in a hair-trigger nation. In this environment, Peace, itself, has become suspect: the enemy of players committed to violence, whose minds, shaped by violence, can only perceive it as a strategy designed to deceive and weaken them.

In this environment of distrust and fear, acculturated to war, Suffering shifts from embracing violence to seeking freedom from violence, then back again, in seemingly endless fluctuations. Peace is alternately sought through the iron hand and the illusion of victory by force, and through negotiation and the illusion of peace built upon an unbridged chasm. President Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966-1970) attempted to promote greater political participation by the masses and to increase government responsiveness to their needs; but his efforts unleashed a popular response which the system was not prepared to accommodate, leading to the iron hand of President Misael Pastrana (1970 -1974). For his part, President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala (1978-1982) overdid the iron hand, increasing the resistance which he had hoped to quell. He was succeeded by President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986), who actively pursued negotiations with the guerrillas, which led to some positive movement in the direction of peace, but which once again disappointed: distrust was simply too powerful, and the gap between the socioeconomic visions of the State and the guerrillas too wide to cross. President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) enhanced the government’s overtures of peace, but once again the results were spoiled by the lack of trust between the belligerents. Both the FARC and the government were accused of opportunistically using the peace process for their own ends (the FARC was said to have used it as a strategic respite to increase its military strength, the government to have used it as a public relations campaign meant to increase its eligibility for US military aid); while some analysts concluded that the substantive differences between the belligerents’ visions of Colombia were irreconcilable. These analysts also speculated that the leaders of each side were too enamored of their own power to sacrifice any of it for the national good; they were said to covet their power bases more than peace, and to have an ego-investment in the continuation of the civil war. The failure of Pastrana’s peace process led to the election of Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002), a man who was referred to by his enemies as "the paramilitary candidate." (He had, in the past, promoted the formation of private armies to fight the guerrillas, and paramilitary leaders publicly praised him.) Uribe’s platform emphasized neoliberal economic solutions and hard-core military-oriented responses to the nation’s 40-year-old civil war. He felt that negotiations with the FARC would never bear fruit until the FARC had been reduced by military action to a state of utter weakness (such as the M-19 and EPL had been reduced to in the late 1980s). Uribe’s blueprint for attaining peace was, therefore, to achieve victory on the battlefield, which would, in essence, allow him to dictate terms of surrender to the vanquished, instead of having to negotiate terms of coexistence with the unbeaten. Peace made with an unbroken adversary requires concessions, even power-sharing. But peace made with the defeated requires only mercy, which becomes the equal of a thousand reforms for those who have been crushed. It changes the standards of generosity, transforms life from a right into an act of benevolence, drags expectations to the lowest possible level where they cease to be a threat to the existing social order.

Is Uribe’s strategy feasible? Is it actually within his power to defeat the guerrillas and to build the kind of society he wishes to in the absence of an armed opponent?

Skeptics doubt that he, or like-minded successors, will be able to militarily defeat a guerrilla army which has survived forty years of combat and spread outwards from the original points of conflict in the Departments of Tolima, Huila, Valle and Cauca, to exert a significant influence throughout much of the nation. They note that the FARC, which all observers agree is the principal threat to the Colombian government at this time, has grown much stronger than it used to be due to the economic impact of the drug trade, and due to the failure of the government’s off-and-on-again reform policies to appease important sectors of the population and to address the needs of the nation as a whole. As long as large numbers of Colombians continue to hold the view that their government exists to serve the interests of the elites (and their North American friends) at the expense of the well-being of the masses, and as long as large numbers of people continue to believe that peaceful avenues of change are blocked by the prevalence of paramilitary tactics of assassination and terror aimed at intimidating and decapitating political opposition groups, the incentive to continue sympathizing with, and supporting, an armed opposition group such as the FARC will remain strong. This will make it difficult for the government to defeat the FARC.

On the other hand, some observers believe that the actions of the paramilitaries, if permitted to continue without restraint, will finally begin to turn the tide of the war in favor of the government. They note that guerrilla influence has been rolled back in some areas, such as Uraba, once a stronghold of the EPL, and Casanare, a hotbed of ELN and FARC activity, as the result of paramilitary violence against the guerrillas’ civilian support bases; while dents have been made in the FARC’s long-standing domination of regions such as Putumayo and Guaviare, which were once regarded as citadels of its power. These observers believe that the Colombian military, bolstered by US weapons, helicopters, training, and intelligence (which is currently provided to the Colombian High Command by US satellites and reconnaissance aircraft) is becoming increasingly capable of winning a war against the FARC, especially when wielded in conjunction with the devastating "dirty war" techniques of the paramilitaries. Whether these observers are right or wrong may well depend upon international reactions to the paramilitary reign of terror. Will human rights groups succeed in publicizing it to the extent that the Colombian government is diplomatically isolated, and military aid withdrawn until an acceptable level of compliance with international standards of the "rules of war" is achieved? Or will the world continue to tolerate the massive human rights abuses which are taking place, which could make the counterinsurgency successful?

Many, today, believe that the Colombian government will only be able to achieve a military victory against the guerrillas if the moral space in which the conflict is taking place is allowed to degrade to a state of "pragmatic barbarism." Grace Livingstone writes (22): "According to the Jesuit priest Francisco de Roux, paramilitaries represent a sizable section of the Colombian elite, who now believe that only a Pinochet-style ‘solution’ will be adequate to defeat the guerrillas. They think it is necessary to eliminate any possible breeding ground for subversion, whether it be trade unions, community or human rights groups, and think that only a totalitarian dictatorship, lasting for at least two generations, will achieve this." Is the international community prepared to let this happen?

One more possibility for attempting to defeat the tenacious guerrilla presence in Colombia, of course, would be for direct US military intervention to be thrown into the mix: for US ground troops and air support to be sent in in order to bolster the capacities of the Colombian military. This possibility would, indeed, hugely enhance the Colombian government’s ability to fight the guerrillas on a technical level; but it would also create political complications, tending to trigger sentiments of nationalistic opposition which could elevate support for the revolutionaries. Although some Colombians would eagerly welcome the active presence of US troops in the war against the FARC, others would be likely to register the "mission of support" as an "invasion", and to respond accordingly. Also, the more directly involved the US became, the more difficult it would become for the Colombian military to rely on their paramilitary allies to wage "dirty war" against the guerrillas’ civilian support base. This is because paramilitary atrocities would now be occurring within the context of a North American military operation, making it much harder for the US government to deny moral responsibility for the human rights violations that were taking place. Without the resource of "dirty war", the US-Colombian campaign against the FARC would be likely to stagnate, achieving some success, no doubt, but without uprooting the enemy, and therefore without achieving victory in the full sense of the word. A Vietnam-like stalemate would be likely to develop, weakening the Colombian people’s faith in their own government and re-energizing the political prospects of the insurgents, while the clock of North America’s patience slowly ran down to the inevitable day of departure; for at this point in time, the North American people are not psychologically prepared to endure decades of ungratifying struggle in a foreign land. They are results-oriented, and do not wish to become immersed in situations which only remind them, through their nation’s failures, of their own lack of personal power. War, for North Americans, is meant to provide a release from frustrations, not to add to them. This is why post-Vietnam operations in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and Kuwait (via Desert Storm, 1991) were so popular in the United States, while the current operation in Iraq (beginning 2003) is threatening to become a political catastrophe for its designers.

In summary, the FARC is a serious, large-scale guerrilla movement with a 40-year history of fighting and surviving, and a significant level of support in many parts of Colombia. Its defeat, though not impossible, is not easy to imagine, and is most likely to occur if massive human rights violations against its sympathizers are tolerated by Colombia, the United States, and the international community. If "dirty war" is accepted as a legitimate answer to the FARC, then we must ask ourselves who are we, and what are we really fighting for? And we would do well to remember the following ominous warning: what you are willing to do to foreigners, you will, by doing to them, prepare yourselves to do to your fellow countrymen. Dehumanization is not a skill that can be put down at the end of the day; it is a state of mind that lingers past the moment of its usefulness, to infect the sanctuary it was invoked to defend. In this way, the death squads and dictators we support or tolerate in other countries begin to slowly make their way home, to become more possible in our own streets, because we have let them into the world, begun to accustom ourselves to their use, let the Nightmare live beside us, and accepted its gifts. Increasing our indifference to brutality in order to defeat the FARC, or any other foreign enemy, could be one small step in the direction of our own self-repression, our own degradation and demise as a democratic nation.

If defeating the FARC will not be an easy task for the Colombian government, what about the reverse? Is it possible that the FARC can defeat the Colombian government? This, also, is hard to imagine at this point in time. The FARC is powerful in its rural strongholds, although increasingly hard-pressed by the "dirty war." However, it still lacks important levels of connection with the urban environment, and has failed to generate the mass political movement which would be required to transform its localized military prowess into a genuine threat for attaining national power. One reason for this is the "dirty war", which has systematically destroyed the FARC’s efforts to amplify its political contacts and to expand its ability to project its political agenda beyond its rural strongholds by means of the development and penetration of community organizations, labor unions and political parties. Both the UP and the PCC took tremendous hits from paramilitaries and sicarios in the 1980s, hits which essentially eradicated the former, and probably contributed to a break between the PCC and the FARC in the 1990s. As a result, the FARC was forced to form its own underground political party in 2000, the PCCC (Clandestine Colombian Communist Party), a secret organization which lacked the mobilizing capacity of the above-ground parties and popular organizations which the paramilitaries had decimated. This, in turn, stranded the FARC, leaving it as an effective guerrilla organization with strong local bases, but serious problems in incorporating larger strategic elements of the population into its struggle.

Besides this, however, the FARC has also done much to dampen its appeal, and to reduce its prospects for seizing power on the national level. Its decision to become involved in the drug trade in the 1980s has badly disfigured the aura of idealism which nurtured it in the early days, blurred the lines between revolution and delinquency, and provided a powerful excuse for the United States to pump huge amounts of military aid into Colombia, which have been diverted from the "War on Drugs" into the counterinsurgency. Its overextension of kidnapping as a means of generating funds has alienated nationalistic sections of the middle class which previously sympathized with it, but now also fear the threat of abduction, just like the upper classes. There is also the danger that paramilitary atrocities will provoke the guerrillas to counter with increasing levels of violence against the civilian population, as they attempt to punish and weed out sapos (informers), who have set up guerrilla supporters for elimination by death squads. If the FARC falls into this emotional trap, and descends to the level of its enemies in that regard, it is likely to discredit itself even further.

Ideologically, the FARC has also been accused of not responding effectively to the collapse of the Soviet Union. While the Zapatistas of Mexico have been admired, by analysts, for their political flexibility, for their ability to adapt to a gigantic world change and to construct a "post-modern revolution" from within the debris of Marxism, based on international sympathy for indigenas (Native Americans), the FARC has been blamed for remaining in the past, for being the prisoner of a philosophical fossil, the advocate of a dead and discredited ideology, the peddler of an obsolete world-view, which no longer inspires or moves the masses. The FARC, itself, adheres to the idea that the disintegration of the Soviet Union does not condemn Marxism, but only reflects upon the vulnerability of the Soviet regime. It does not see itself as deluded and clinging to the past, but rather, as an organization of vision and clarity which has refused to succumb to the ideological "brainwashing" of the United States, which is attempting to portray a still relevant alternative as something defective and defeated. In this way, the FARC is said to view itself as a "loyal guardian of Marx", the defender of an idea that is out of fashion, but which must be preserved until the world wakes up to the fact that it is still needed. While the relevance and the future of Marxism may be endlessly debated, the FARC’s failure to adjust its ideological presentation at this sensitive moment in history has not enhanced its popularity or aided in its growth.

Meanwhile, on a purely military level, the cooperation of high-tech US intelligence assets with the Colombian military seems to have placed a cap upon the expansion of the FARC as a fighting organization. The classic scenario of the guerrilla army, which relies on small-unit hit-and-run tactics, eventually transforming into a quasi-conventional army capable of launching large-scale mobile attacks and fighting positional battles against a powerful enemy, no longer seems feasible, given the fact that the large concentrations of troops required to carry out these kinds of operations are too easily detected, nowadays, and too vulnerable to disruption by increasingly accurate firepower directed against them from the air. This would be especially true in the event of US intervention, or increased deliveries of US aircraft to the Colombian military. These purely technical developments tend to suggest that the FARC may have to amend classic guerrilla theory in order to pursue victory, and that victory, dependent upon the prolongation and extension of small-unit warfare and possibly upon greater success in penetrating the urban environment, will be harder to achieve.

If the Colombian government cannot easily defeat the FARC, and the FARC cannot easily defeat the Colombian government, what about the obvious possibility of negotiation and compromise? As I have already stated, the peace process seems to occur in stages, to make efforts, to give up in disgust, to try again, to fail. War exhausts both sides and drives them to negotiation; but negotiation reveals irreconcilable differences that drive both parties back to war. The enemy must be clobbered to make him reasonable. But the killing goes on, and no one is hurt badly enough to yield what is crucial to him, and hateful to his enemy. Finally, deluges of blood hallow the negotiating table once again, until disappointment finally calls for more bullets. Can either side surrender what is needed to satisfy the other? Is there economic space for peace, enough wealth to go around? Is there political space for peace, enough opportunity to shape the world so that one can live in it? Is there psychological space for peace, enough trust, enough generosity or simply prudence, enough attachment to life to silence the guns and calm the fires of hate? Peace in Colombia seems to depend upon the generation and preservation of a fragile middle ground, capable of fairly, justly, and compassionately including and representing greater numbers of Colombian citizens, of reaching deeply into the oversized margins of society where bitterness grows, with reforms and opportunities, while placating the fears of those who distrust the masses. Why fragile? Because there are hardened forces which oppose the changes which could bring about peace, no matter how peacefully introduced, which is why the war is raging to begin with - which is why Gaitan was shot on a street in Bogota when peace and justice were in reach - which is why Mahatma Gandhi would not have lasted a single day in Colombia. In Colombia, the movement for peace that is needed is probably one that would be riddled with bullets before it could ever achieve power. As Fidel Castro once said (Boorstein, 2): "What do the exploiters do when their [democratic] institutions no longer guarantee their domination? How do they react when the mechanisms historically depended upon to maintain their domination fail them? They simply go ahead and destroy them." Castro’s words proved prophetic in the case of Allende’s Chile, which was dashed to pieces by Pinochet’s dictatorship, and might well prove prophetic again in Colombia.

Does all this doom Colombia to a future of utter hopelessness? Not necessarily. A fairer global economic system; a new vision of what development means and is; a new international attitude towards the war, and the conduct of the war; increased efforts at facilitating psychological healing; a genuine effort to create "safe space" for the development of a movement of national reconciliation which must incorporate significant reforms (made possible by economic growth) - all of these could bring hope to Colombia, little by little. This is not the prediction of a rosy future, only a desperate effort to portray a little light at the edge of the darkness, to foresee a possible dawn. What do we live for, if not hope? Even if it is an illusion we pursue, the illusion is needed to sustain us until we find a viable reality.

Otherwise, peace will not come to Colombia except by means of the improbable victory of the Colombian government, the improbable victory of the guerrillas, or the utter exhaustion and dismay produced by carnage, which is what finally shocked the European nations out of the madness of the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1638). Let us hope that peace does not require such depths of pain to make sense.

Finally, before this article is complete, I must add our input as US citizens to the prognosis. What should we, as citizens of a nation whose actions will have much to do with the future of Colombia, do to influence our nation? What directions should we impel our nation to take?

First and foremost, I believe, it is our duty to educate ourselves about the reality of Colombia so that we do not act, or fail to act, out of ignorance. This article has been written, especially, to assist North Americans in the fulfillment of that duty. There are, of course, other sources, just as there are other viewpoints; and there is much more to know. This article, made possible by the idiosyncratic passions and peculiar destinies of my own life, is one possible step in the direction of learning what is necessary to relate intelligently and conscientiously to the complexities of a nation whose history, politics, and future are closely linked to our own. Time and time again, the danger of learning about the world through sound-bytes and the official pronouncements of policy-makers seeking to produce specific results, has been proven. Knowledge broken down and reconstructed as a form of manipulation is the most devious of acquisitions. Information designed as fuel can be counted on for power, not accuracy. Judge this article as you will. Supplement it as you need to. Please never let anyone put Colombia into a nutshell, especially when human lives are at stake.

What is probably most crucial for North Americans to keep in mind regarding US involvement with Colombia at this time, is the fact that the production and trafficking of drugs in Colombia, and the 40-year-old civil war that has been raging in that country between leftist guerrillas and the government, are separate issues. Yes, they have intimate points of connection, but it is historically imprecise and socially erroneous to lump them into one convenient category, to reduce the problems of Colombia to the existence of narcoguerrillas, and, on that basis, craft a foreign policy meant to promote counterinsurgency as a form of narcotics control. Looked at more closely, it becomes clear that the Colombian drug trade involves not only the participation of the FARC, but also the participation of the AUC and other paramilitary groups which are enemies of the FARC and cooperate closely with the Colombian military. Corrupt elements of the Colombian government and military, and a large number of independent drug trafficking organizations are also involved in el narcotrafico, while some claim ("Conspiracy Theory: Colombia") that covert US operatives are also linked to the trade. The drug trade, in other words, is not a guerrilla invention or exclusively a guerrilla occupation, hands from all sides are in it, reaping benefits from it, and drawing strength from it for their own conflicting purposes. Given this situation, a military defeat of the guerrillas is not likely, in and of itself, to end Colombian involvement in the drug trade. Since the 1980s, for example, as peasants sympathetic to the FARC have been cleared out of the rural zones which they have occupied by paramilitary death squads, new peasants without any allegiance to the FARC have been brought in by the paramilitaries and associated landholders (WOLA 39) to take over the abandoned farms of those who fled. There is no reason to believe that this process will not be extended into coca-growing regions currently controlled by the guerrillas, if they are defeated, especially considering the paramilitaries’ massive and well-documented involvement with cocaine-processing and drug-trafficking (Livingstone 109-111). To defeat the problem of drug-trafficking in Colombia, as already discussed, will require a multi-pronged strategy that does not fixate on the issue of supply, but also takes into account the tremendous generative influence of demand. It will likely require international trade incentives and adjustments in order to promote alternative sources of income for Colombia, which will enable the dismantling of the drug economy to be survived, as well as social, economic and cultural adaptations within the United States aimed at reducing North American levels of cocaine and heroin consumption. Without a major emphasis on reducing demand within the United States, the US War on Drugs in Latin America will most likely only lead to increased violence and militarization, without achieving any significant long-term results. The hydra’s head, cut off, will only grow back again. Although it may feel better to place the burden of solving our problems on others - to mask our vices as their vices, and try to force them, with weapons, to stop giving us what we cannot stop asking them for - we are the ones who have ultimately created the crisis, and the ones who must therefore solve it. The War on Drugs must surely integrate many different approaches, but, in the end, it can only be won on the terrain of our own wounded souls, and our own imperfect society.

Once we understand the reality of the Colombian drug trade, and who the players in it really are - once we understand that the drug problem will not be ended by defeating the FARC, but only reconfigure, and fall more completely under the control of other already active players - the question of whether our nation should intervene in the 40-year-old civil war that is taking place there becomes far less a question of anti-narcotics strategy, and far more a question of what is our nation’s political and economic agenda. What do we want from Colombia? What do Colombians want from Colombia? Can we allow Colombia to freely pursue its own path, whatever that might be, or do we need to keep it locked into a path that we have set for it? Does Colombia exist for itself, or for us? What is the difference between assistance and interference, solidarity and meddling, non-entanglement and indifference?

These are not easy questions to answer, especially since there is no one, clear answer that is coming to us from Colombia, a land that is deeply divided, with many different perceptions of the United States, and many different views on what our role should be. As things stand today, US foreign policy is oriented towards maintaining Colombia as a provider of raw materials and certain other basic goods to the United States (oil, coal, coffee, bananas, flowers, and emeralds), and as a market for US exports and investment capital. The US is therefore eager to support the Colombian government, which has traditionally accepted the economic role which the US has envisioned for it, against leftist guerrillas such as the FARC and the ELN, which favor the creation of a socialist economy in Colombia, which would limit the opportunities available to foreign capitalists. It is to be expected that the guerrillas would, if successful in gaining power, nationalize many important aspects of the Colombian economy, including the oil and coal industry (in order to redirect a greater share of the profits from these industries back into Colombia), and also reject the recent shift towards privatization which is increasingly enabling foreign interests to take control of Colombian enterprises. The guerrillas would probably also adopt a confrontational stance towards many aspects of the international system which are said to perpetuate the domination of "Third World" countries by the wealthy nations of the earth. This would apply especially to the international banking/lending system spearheaded by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank, whose policies are said to focus on utilizing debt as a tool for eroding the sovereignty of poor nations.

Besides creating some small-scale disruptions in the US economy, the reorientation of the Colombian economy by revolutionaries would be likely to motivate and inspire revolutionaries or radical reformers in other Latin American countries to emulate their example, creating a much larger threat to US interests, which might be able to afford the "loss" of Colombia, but not the "loss" of the entire Latin American region. Also, the possibility that Colombia might go beyond its role as a "bad example" to actually become a base for providing material support to revolutionary groups throughout Latin America could not be discounted. It would be a natural development, not only motivated by solidarity, but also by the need to defend its "breakaway" from the international capitalist system, which otherwise might succeed in diplomatically and economically isolating it and debilitating it, in the manner of Allende’s Chile. To escape the fate of being a pariah nation, to survive the denial of international credit and the impact of trade embargoes, the revolutionary government would need to find and/or create a new "international system", to locate or develop new trading partners and new mechanisms for facilitating commerce. One possible means for doing this might be to promote successful revolutions in other countries, which would then be jarred loose from the alliance of blockading nations and left free to participate in the new global counter-system, a unity of pariahs which would, by linking many isolated and vulnerable revolutions, finally make each one sustainable.

Dreading the possibility of such a challenge, the US government has continued to work for the defeat of leftist guerrillas in Colombia, even after the end of the Cold War has disconnected the insurgency from the Soviet threat. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the War on Drugs has, just as much as actually being a war on drugs, become a US government PR tool in the effort to mobilize resources against Colombia’s guerrillas in order to deter the political, social, and economic consequences of a potential guerrilla victory. Whatever attitude we take towards this reality, it is important that we recognize it. Otherwise, we are likely to fall victim to half-truths and to contribute our individual energy to the collective energy of a mighty nation, guided by false pretexts towards the realization of invisible goals, which are hidden by those who wish to use us to achieve them. Do we really want to take sides in the Colombian Civil War? Is the perpetuation of the current system in Colombia, propped up by our military aid and by our apparent tolerance for massive human rights abuses in its defense, really in the best interests of the Colombian people? Are we sure that the destruction of the guerrillas will improve the quality of life in Colombia, or does the existence of the guerrillas as a counterbalance to the traditional predominance of elite interests serve a purpose? As President Virgilio Barco said in 1988 (WOLA 53): "Our democracy is a democracy under which everyone is formally equal by law, but this does not hide the reality that Colombia is a country of privileges and inequalities." Is it possible that without the guerrillas, the incentive for implementing genuine reforms which could benefit the entire Colombian people would vanish? Is the tension between government and guerrilla, and their apparent inability to defeat each other, actually a potentially constructive space out of which a fairer, more just society might one day be built? What will go farther towards achieving peace and justice in the long run: the massive reinforcement of the violent capacity of one side in an effort to smash the violent capacity of the other, or a more balanced approach that allows the violence of both sides to reach a point of stasis, which may at some time in the future finally lead to a successful process of negotiation and compromise? I do not mean, here, to suggest an approach or even to imply one, I am merely posing questions to deepen our awareness of the issues involved. This article seeks to provide information, not to preach, and is already polemic enough in spite of its innocent, but hard-to-maintain intention.

What I do feel is basic to our involvement with Colombia, as US citizens capable of influencing the actions of our government, is to stand up for a basic level of human rights compliance in the war that is raging there. We must strongly insist that our government not arm those who so callously violate the rules of war. Although this stance does, indeed, have specific political consequences which do not allow it to remain purely "humanitarian", it also has moral consequences which we cannot afford to ignore. The world abounds with excuses for selling one’s soul. Lost souls are the heartbreaking, unwritten tragedy of the history of the tangible. Many men and nations, through the centuries, have been destroyed by winning: destroyed on other planes than this, and on this one, too, by degrading the force of purity that attracts friendship, sacrifice, and life. Victory, by moral means, is often harder to attain than victory by any means, and yet, it is longer-lasting, and does not leave the victor hollow. Human rights are always violated by war, and yet, even within the moral disintegration that war is, it is worthwhile to stand up for some rules, for some limits to the killing, for some moral sanctuaries that can hold off the complete surrender to bestiality. In my mind, this is the minimal duty which we, as citizens of the United States, owe to the people of Colombia, and to ourselves. Perhaps, one day, in a climate of increased respect for human rights, peace will once again become possible in Colombia as men and women in arms are finally free to seek and construct new channels for realizing the essential components of their dreams.

Beyond this - the issue of human rights - there are still deeper questions to consider, which touch upon the nature of our society, its needs, and its demands, and which lead the far-seeing to realize that peace in Colombia and many other parts of the world may ultimately depend upon the changes that we are capable of making within the heart of our own land - changes in our lifestyle and use of resources, changes in our dreams and visions; changes on the shiny outside, and changes in the depths of our bleeding psyches. But to write any more would be to derail the emphasis of this article, which is Colombia. The dynamics of our civilization is another subject, altogether. (For those who are interested, see The Message of Rainsnow.)

For now, it is enough to end as I began, by extolling the tremendous beauty of Colombia and its people, which makes its current plight that much more tragic, that much more unbearable. I pray for peace, and for humanity, and for the restoration of the potential of a great country. I pray for the guns to think again, and for tears to overpower bullets. And I pray for justice, the greatest of all peacemakers, to arrive. In the meantime, in the midst of suffering, violence, and poverty, there is the dream that things will change. In the words of Victor Jara (Vientos del Pueblo):

No me asusta la amenaza

patrones de la miseria:

la estrella de la esperanza

continuara siendo nuestra…


"Your threat doesn’t frighten me,

masters of misery:

the star of hope

will keep on belonging to us."

In memory of all those who have died.

In homage to all those who may yet live.

- J Rainsnow, April 24, 2006.

Back to Top

Weapons of Depth Contents


Site Contents