Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror

By 26 November, 2012

Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror subtitled: US Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia, blows the lid on a world where no one is what they say they are and nothing is what it seems.

Written jointly by Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle, this expose contextualises the drugs trade in Colombia; its effects on the Andean region; its place in US foreign policy and its increasing role in the world’s financial system. It’s a Marxist ripping yarn. The thesis is simple: in Colombia, the heart of the Crystal Triangle, the US has unleashed another drug-infested nightmare like the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent. The many-tentacled drug-dependent monster that has resulted – Latin America’s first transnational corporation – now rampages from Argentina to Mexico and throughout the developed world – such is the demand it has created for cocaine, marijuana and heroin.

Business as usual

The book outlines the US’ rich history of working with the unsavoury, which from pre-Mao China through Vietnam and on to Afghanistan, has involved crooks and drug traffickers like the Sicilian mafia, the Corsican mafia (French Connection), the Mujahedeen and what it terms the Colombian “narco-bourgeoisie” – an amalgam of drug traffickers, paramilitaries and corrupt politicians. Colombia, as far as the US is concerned, is nothing new. It’s just another rather depressing opportunity for the CIA, DEA, the State Department and other agencies – and increasingly private military contractors – to subvert local concerns to a US agenda fuelled by geopolitical flummery such as the War on Drugs and the War on Terror – but primarily – it’s business.

Have a nice day!

Not surprisingly, amid all the chaos, the book finds that not only is the US the largest market for the product it is also its biggest beneficiary. Indeed, find a US bank that hasn’t laundered drug money and you could win a line of free coke! In 1979, during the Cocaine Decade and Cocaine Wars, the Federal Reserve Bank of Miami had a cash surplus of $5.5bn dollars. This was more than all the other state Federal Reserve branches put together. The US makes 80% to Colombia’s 10%.

Behind these statistics were two cartels, the Medellin cartel led by Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartel, headed by the Orejuela brothers and José Santacruz Londoño. When the US later requested the extradition of Escobar for “conspiring to introduce cocaine into the US via Nicaragua”, the final warrant for his arrest was on contraband charges; importing “one rhinoceros and eighty five exotic birds” without a licence.

Colombia’s president at the time, César Gaviria (1990-1994) noted somewhat cryptically that “the battle against Pablo Escobar was never primarily about stopping drug smuggling. He was a very serious problem because he was so violent. Moreover, he was a threat to the state. The level of terrorism we had to live with was something awful.” This statement speaks volumes about Colombian politics.

The line of least resistance

As the book points out later, Colombian politics is so corrupt it is almost impossible to find people who aren’t tainted in some way with death squads, the cartels, drug-trafficking, etc. Coining the term narco-bourgeoisie for the Colombian elite seems entirely appropriate.

Even former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) – who was extremely tough on FARC terrorism – was ranked by a US Defense Intelligence Agency report in 1991 (since declassified) as 82nd out of a list of 104 “more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotics cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection and enforcement of narcotics in both the US and Colombia.” He was further described as “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels.”

Out of the mouth of knaves

The book is heavy with testimonies from diplomats, NGOs, politicians and former operatives of the CIA and DEA, who outline the US’ role in creating, sustaining and transforming this magnum opus from its customary meddling to a full-blown War on Drugs and Terror – both of which it has contributed to greatly. Indeed, aside from the fact that Colombia now produces 75% of the world’s cocaine and 79% of its marijuana, you have to ask yourself how the entire hemisphere is now awash with drugs, narco-traffickers and paramilitary death squads. The US has it prints all over the place.

Cause and effect

As the book notes, Colombia’s problems are home grown, pre-date La Violencia and the Bogotazo of 1948 and have been exacerbated ever since by the Kennedy Plan/Alliance for Progress, the Plan Lazo, Plan Colombia I and II and have languished on the back-burner until the latest peace talks.

When President Álvaro Uribe addressed “democratic security” in 2003, he established “civil defence peasant militias” and a spy network of 1 million based on a Rand study entitled “Colombian Labyrinth”. There wasn’t a cabbie in Bogotá who wasn’t in on it. This in a country where 69% of the population still live in poverty (and 89% in the countryside); 9.6m are described as “destitute”; 1 in 5 children in rural areas are undernourished and according to UNHCR, 4.9m Colombians are internally displaced.

The wood and the trees

It remains an irony of the piece – which the book points out – that both drugs and terror are bigger problems than ever. There is also a cosy conflation here which pits the Colombian government, its paramilitary stooges/narco-bourgeoisie and the US in a battle against the guerrilla groups, FARC and ELN, which account for just 2.5% of the trade in coca paste (compared with 40% for the narco-bourgeoisie). From a law enforcement standpoint, this is like shooting a waiter at a Mafia convention because he’s taken a tip.

Try as they might, consistent attempts to implicate FARC as the prime movers in narco-trafficking have not been borne out by the facts. During the Reagan era, Colombian police and the DEA collaborated in a raid on labs in Tranquilandia, Caquetá. FARC was framed by the Reagan administration, Lewis Tambs, the US ambassador and the press. It later transpired that it was the work of one of the drug cartels.

The cocaine trade is effectively controlled by paramilitaries, de facto creations of the CIA, DEA and other US agencies and the Colombia government and is kept buoyant on financial institutions in the US and Europe which are only too happy to launder the loot.

Backyard bullying

The US has had a major presence in Colombia since 1962, when Kennedy instigated the Kennedy Plan/Alliance for Progress. Worried by the possibility of Castro-contagion, it latched on to Colombia’s big “local difficulty” – a left-wing insurgency. Soon to follow was the Plan Lazo – 1962-64 – a distorted numbers game which could never be won. This resulted in the birth of the autodefensas/paramilitaries as an arm of the state and a seriously subversive element in Colombian domestic politics – one which would have implications from top to bottom.

Here the book abounds with testimonies from CIA and DEA operatives, former military personnel and politicians, on how to make a problem into a disaster. It took until 1989 for these death squads to be outlawed by which time they ran through Colombian society like a water mark. Even now the successors to Carlos Castaño and Vicente Castaño’s United Defence Forces of Colombia/AUC, Los Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) and Muerte a Sequestradores/Death to Kidnappers or MAS – Aguilas Negras/Black Engles – are still active.

In August, 2004, the Colombian army launched an offensive in Casanare Department to curb precisely those paramilitaries whose existence they had not just tolerated but promoted in the past.

When we’re marching through powder

Subsequent plans for Colombia, notably those instigated under Presidents Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, G. W. Bush and Clinton – Plan Colombia I & 11 – as the book testifies – culminated on the bounce with the Cocaine Decades (1970s-1980s), Colombian dominance of the world market in cocaine and marijuana, the Mexican cartels and the onset of neo-liberal economic reforms.

This is where we came in

The authors quote assassinated Liberal Party presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitán, who in 1948 said there was a “real Colombia” and a “political Colombia”. This is still true. However, any attempt to address them is complicated by the US vision of what Colombia needs. If the last 40 years are anything to go by, it might be better if that didn’t include the world’s largest drug industry, the world’s longest insurgency, some of the worst poverty in the western hemisphere and paramilitary armies of narco-traffickers with politicians in their pockets.

Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror is available from Amazon, among other bookstores.

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