In November of 1998, the head of the Colombian air force resigned after seven-hundred packages of cocaine, containing about 1,500 pounds of the drug, were found on one of his aircraft upon arrival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, en route from Bogota. The Hercules C-130, manned by Colombian military personnel, was on a routine flight to transport supplies and spare parts to combat the “narco-terrorists.” Gee, that’s funny, said Colombian air force General Jose Manuel Sandoval, but the plane was inspected and searched by drug-sniffing dogs before takeoff. How in the heck did that happen?
SMACK IN THE NOSE CONE
This was very bad timing, for just a month earlier President Andres Pastrana had been in Washington solemnly promising that his country was ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US in the drug war if only they would keep the foreign aid gravy train flowing. And just a week prior to the Fort Lauderdale incident, three Colombian air force mechanics had been convicted for a 1996 plot to smuggle 8 pounds of heroin into the United States in the nose cone of then-President Ernesto Samper’s private jet. The US revoked Samper’s visa in spite of the vigorous protests of the Colombian Congress. They also revoked their previously fulsome support, and got to work finding a new American stooge, this time a relatively clean and “democratic” one. President Andres Pastrana was installed amid high hopes and fresh injections of American cash. At first it looked as though the thin veneer of civilization might be restored to an anarchic country, at least to the satisfaction of the outside world.
Except for one small detail: the concept of the restoration of order does not apply to Colombia. This is a country that has been plunged into what may be the longest civil war in all of recorded history. There is nothing to restore. Since 1878, Colombia has been wracked by open shooting warfare between left and right, between the Liberal party and the Conservatives. With the US entering the fray as the patron of Pastrana, a third force is being created out of whole cloth. So now we have a three-way struggle, pitting the central government in Bogota not only against the leftist guerrillas, but also against the right-wing “paramilitary” groups.
AUTODEFENSA: THE TEETH OF THE DRAGON
As the US sinks into the Colombian quagmire, US troops (in the guise of “advisors”) will have to contend with such groups as the 11,000-strong Campesinas de Cordoba y Uraba (ACCU), the leading organization of the autodefensa movement that has arisen as the answer to leftist violence. Although rather unsympathetically portrayed in Alma Guillermoprieto’s excellent piece in the New York Review of Books, the story of how the ACCU “paramilitaries” came into being is told accurately and fairly. As Guillermoprieto puts it:
“The paramilitaries first sprang up, like soldiers grown from dragons’ teeth, in regions where the guerrillas made the mistake of kidnapping the wrong people. In the days before the FARC started taxing cocaine, they survived in large part off income derived from abducting, or threatening to abduct, ranchers and businessmen. Kidnapping as an illegal economic activity has a long history in Colombia. Many drug traffickers, for example, got their startup capital through kidnapping and continued to use it as an additional source of income and power. (The best account of a kidnap victim’s terrorized life in captivity is to be found in Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping, about the victims of the trafficker Pablo Escobar.)”
A COMPETITION OF THUGGERY
While the FARC rakes in hundreds of millions a year in extorting some would say protecting the drug dealers and cultivators who dominate the southern tier of the country, at least half their income comes from the continuous kidnappings that are a staple of the ongoing Colombian psychodrama. The multitude of leftist groups have a competition going to see which faction can collect the most spectacular ransoms, and get away with the most daring escapades. This ensures a rather high level of violence, since the number of leftist splinter groups is rapidly proliferating. Aside from the FARC, the group you hear most about, there are several others, including M-19, the “autonomes” of the Southern Hemisphere, Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (EPL), an orthodox Maoist tendency, the Ejercito Liberacion National (ELN), a radical outgrowth of Catholic “liberation theology” that has canonized Che Guevera, Quintin Lame (MAQL), which claims to speak for indigenous peoples, and a host of others: Comandos Ernesto Rojas, Corriente de Renovacion Socialista (CRS), Milicias de Medellin, Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT) and the Frente Francisco Garnica. These grouplets battle each other almost as much as they engage government forces, and this has also had the effect of turning this into a three-way civil war.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT
In 1991, the majority of the formerly Maoist EPL decided to discontinue the armed struggle: they announced they were turning in their guns and forming a legal party, Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace, and Liberty). The response to this from their more orthodox Marxist competitors was an armed assault on the EPL-controlled territory in the province of Cordoba by the FARC, in which unarmed EPL cadre were executed, including many of the leaders. Guillermoprieto interviews a young woman named Rosa, whose ideological odyssey starts out in the EPL, a New Leftish milieu consisting mostly of university students, and winds up in the camp of the paramilitaires:
“She is only one of many defectors from the fanatic left to join the ranks of the murderous right. The autodefensas claim that fully one third of their troops are former guerrillas, and even if one disputes the figures, there is no doubting the general trend. Rosa’s life, however, is unusual even in Colombia, where reality always seems to flow out of someone’s dream, or nightmare.”
A SOUTH AMERICAN ALBANIA
Rosa and many of her comrades joined the so-called “death squads” without really changing their world outlook. This development is perfectly logical if you abandon the old left-right dichotomy and begin to see Colombian politics as a South American version of Albania, where clan loyalties structure society and perfecting the fine art of the blood feud is the national pastime. Think of the Code of Lek, the Albanian codex of systematized revenge, only with a Latin flourish.
A WAR OF RETRIBUTION
With their own martyrs to avenge, the EPL readily joined the autodefensas in a war of retribution against the FARC, and by extension all the other leftist grouplets. After all, the ACCU was founded as an act of revenge, in 1981, in the mining town of Segovia, where, as, Guillermoprieto puts it, “the FARC kidnapped the father of a smalltime drug dealer and emerald dealer called Fiodel Castano, a crime which would turn out to have fateful consequences.” The family offered to pay a ransom, but their offer was rejected by the FARC as absurdly low, and they were urged to come up with more funds. Fidel Castano reportedly wrote the kidnappers that if the family did somehow manage to raise the money “it would be exclusively to fight against you.” This was the genesis of the paramilitaires.
A BLOODTHIRSTY LOT
The younger brother, Carlos, took over command after Fidel’s untimely death, and went national, allying himself with other local groups that had sprung up wherever the peasants got tired of being taxed by multiple guerrilla groups. Banding together with the developing middle class for their own self-defense, the autodefensa consists of fed-up peasants and ex-leftists whose doctrine of class warfare was easily transmuted into war pure and simple. If the numerous accounts of their savagery have any credence Guillermoprieto has them dancing and singing in the town square as they slit the throats of FARC-sympathizing villagers then the old adage about ex-Commies being as bad if not worse than their former comrades is once again rather starkly illustrated.
BIG MOUTH BEN
It isn’t the rock-ribbed conservatives who are crusading for US intervention on the Republican side, but centrists like Speaker Hastert and moderate upstate New York Republican congressman Ben “Big Mouth” Gilman, chairman of the House Committee on International Affairs. Gilman earned his nickname by braying loudly for intervention in Kosovo, with a decibel level second only to John McCain’s. In the vanguard of the War Party on every occasion, from the Straits of Taiwan to Chechnya, here is a warmonger for all seasons, who made a special push for 100 brand-new helicopter battleships as the solution to winning the war on drugs in Colombia
CONSERVATIVES AREN’T BUYING IT
Our intervention in Colombia is often compared to the early stages of the Vietnam war, and no doubt the constantly growing number of American “advisors” officially up to 200 now will bring the word “escalation” back into everyday use. But this scenario is missing the basic scenery of the cold war, the painted backdrop of the Soviet bloc looming in the distance. The mainstream conservatives over at the Heritage Foundation, however, are not buying the “war on drugs” as a substitute for the war on Communism that shaped US foreign policy in the Cold War era. They’ve heard “it’s for the children” too many times. John Sweeney’s Heritage paper proposes limited aid with the proviso that no US troops are directly engaged in the conflict, and warns that we should tread cautiously:
“The president and Congress would be wise to remember that America’s involvement in Vietnam began with a few dozen U.S. military advisors and a small financial investment. . . . If the limits of US military involvement are not spelled out clearly at the outset, the risk is great that significant numbers of US soldiers could be sucked by default into the quagmire.”
A FALSE NOTE
The idea that it was Colombian drug lords who surreptitiously imported moral corruption into the streets of America’s cities along with the thousands of tons of cocaine and heroin that pour over our porous borders twenty-four hours a day just does not ring very true. It is especially unconvincing to conservatives disgusted by a culture they liken to the last decadent days of the Roman empire. The idea that “narco-terrorists” in the Colombian jungles are more responsible for the drug traffic in America than the glamorization of the heroin-addict look by the fashion industry or cocaine by Hollywood in the seventies and eighties is laughable. Rather than blame his own movie mogul friends, our Commander-in-chief is ready to call out the Marines in yet another “humanitarian” intervention: yes, and this one’s “for the children,” you can be sure.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED
How many focus groups have told the Clintonians that the all-important “soccer moms” are worried sick about their kids turning into drugged-out pupil-less zombies? Rather than blame our soul-destroying public school system, or their own narcissistic affliction passed on to their children, our soccer moms are quite willing to hold the FARC responsible for the zombie-like state of their troubled and increasingly demented offspring or so the architects of this war hope. But will they buy it?
MARCHING ON PARIS
I doubt even the fabled soccer moms are dizzy enough to swallow such drivel, no matter what the focus groups say. And conservatives will certainly not fall for this flight from responsibility by the one-hundred-percent American authors of our own moral decline. If we are to take the stance of the extreme moral protectionist, and avenge the various forms of moral corruption supposedly imported from abroad by invading and stamping out the threat at the alleged “source,” then there is more of a case for an immediate (and massive) military intervention in France in retaliation for the export of such dangerous trends as deconstructionism and other pernicious literary theories and political dogmas, which have decimated the American university system.