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Colombia: Was the United States involved in the murder of FARC-EP leaders?

By James J. Brittain[i]

While virtually every country in Central and South America, including the Caribbean, has waded in on the debate of the Colombian state conducting an illegal military campaign within Ecuadorian sovereign territory, resulting in the deaths of various high-ranking officials in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), the United States have remained virtually silent. Such surprising silence from the US is quite perplexing, as the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have waged a twenty-two-year assault on this insurgency movement.[ii]

The US has deemed the FARC-EP to be, what it considers, a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO). Therefore, would one not expect, during the so-called ``war on terror’’, some attention from Washington -- other than a few sentences by state officials -- following the deaths of both Comandante Raúl Reyes and Comandante Iván Ríos within less than six days of each; two of the seven highest-ranking members of the organisation (lest we forget the hourly visual barrage of images related to the capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 or his execution in 2006). The following makes a case that the US silence has far more to do with a plausible connection to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos rather than simple disinterest.

The case of Comandante Raúl Reyes (murdered March 1, 2008)

It has become general knowledge that shortly after midnight on March 1, 2008, the President of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón and Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos sanctioned an illegal air and ground assault against the 48th Front of the FARC-EP, which resulted in the death of Comandante Raúl Reyes, one of the members of the insurgency’s Secretariat of the Central High Command, Julian Conrado, a member of the Central High Command (and the insurgency’s most recognised cultural icon through his work as a revolutionary folk musician),and twenty other members of the FARC-EP.

Hours after the assault had taken place, Defence Minister Santos reiterated that Colombian forces began the operation with an air assault followed by an elite group of Colombian soldiers engaging in a ground combat against members of the FARC-EP Front. Santos expressed that recently obtained intelligence information related to a satellite phone used by Comandante Reyes enabled the Colombian military to pinpoint the location of the encampment, subsequently enabling the campaign to take place.

During meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS), state officials and representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Peru condemned the assault. Not surprisingly, one of the only backers of the illegal military incursion was the US. Nevertheless, President George W. Bush and J. Robert Manzanares, the US representative during the OAS meetings, had very little to say about the greatest achievement ever realised by Washington’s principal ally in Latin America’s forty-four-year civil war with the FARC-EP.

When asked if the Uribe and Santos administration had informed Washington preceding the transgression on Ecuadorian soil, Tom Casey, a spokesperson for the US State Department, hesitantly stated, ``No, I’m not aware that we found out about this other than after the fact’’. Less than assuring complete impartiality, Colombia’s chief of police General Oscar Naranjo declared that ``I can say for sure that the operation was autonomous’’. As General Naranjo continued his press conference he did however reveal that the US had, in fact, been involved in operations connected to the Colombian military assault in Ecuador, albeit indirectly.

General Naranjo asserted that no external forces were involved in the FARC-EP-targeted attack but he did offer that ``it is no secret that … a very strong alliance with federal agencies of the US’’ exists between the Colombian military. Shortly following this statement, a high-ranking official within the Colombian defence ministry leaked that the US had been involved in the March 1 operation. In fact, the US, through satellite intelligence gathering over southern Colombia and northern Ecuador, had been able to retrieve signals from the FARC-EP’s 48th Front and handed over the identification of the satellite telephone being used by the insurgency to intelligence sectors of the Colombian police. The informant went on to add that it was only then that Colombian officials were able to process the data, thereby enabling the Colombian state to decipher the exact location of Reyes. The informant’s account of the satellite phone effectively mirrors that made during Defence Minister Santos’ first press conference. The leaked information demonstrated that the US was, at the very least, indirectly involved in the actions of March 1. That was until March 7.

On March 7, Ecuador’s defence minister Wellington Sandoval announced that after further investigation of the area targeted during the March 1 attack it was revealed that the site had been bombarded with at least five bombs, with incredible precision (``smart bombs’’). All five detonations were within a 50-metre diameter during a night-time attack, a virtually impossible achievement considering the military capabilities and resources of the Colombian air and armed forces. Sandoval claimed that the arms used during the incursion can only be deployed through the use of aircraft that have the capacity to fly at a considerable height and velocity, weaponry that is again not found within the Colombian Air Force. It was then alluded that not one Latin American nation possesses such military machinery or intelligence equipment and that the only air force with such an arsenal is that of the United States.

While the US and the Colombian governments state that the US was not involved in the attack, it is quite likely that the US played more than an informal role.

The case of Comandante Iván Ríos (murdered March 4 or March 7, 2008)

On the afternoon of March 7, Colombia was once again the witness of an interruption by Defence Minister Santos on both television and radio. Similar to his announcement six days earlier, Santos pronounced that a member of the FARC-EP’s Secretariat had been killed. A great surprise to many, the defence minister announced that Comandante Iván Ríos had been killed by another member of the FARC-EP named Rojas (with two other combatants associated with the insurgency) on March 4, 2008.

The defence minister proceeded to tell the press that after those deemed responsible had killed Comandante Ríos they severed his right hand in order to prove to Colombian officials that the youngest member of the Secretariat was dead.[iii]

It was then stated that the three insurgents took the severed limb, along with Comandante Ríos’ laptop and identification, and handed them to members of the Colombian army and the Colombian attorney general office’s Technical Investigation Body (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación, CTI). During a brief press conference, Santos said that the Colombian army had launched an operation designed to capture Comandante Ríos on February 17, 2008, after (again) receiving intelligence that he was located in a highly elevated region in the department of Caldas. Unlike the March 1 press conference, however, Santos did not entertain any questions or reveal any additional information other than that listed above and that Comandante Iván Ríos had been officially pronounced dead.

Confusion immediately began to circulate around the events presented by Santos. The reason for the uncertainty was that previous to the ``official’’ pronouncement of Ríos’ death another state official within the Prosecutors Office of Colombia had outlined a different account of what transpired.

An anonymous official had prematurely contacted the press and reported that Comandante Ríos had been killed on March 7, 2008 during an attack carried out by an elite wing of the Colombian army in conjunction with members of the CTI in Aguadas, just outside the Samaná municipality within the department of Caldas. This again mirrors events in Comandante Reyes’ death; intelligence provided to state officials, an upper level official presenting sanitised sanctioned accounts explaining the deaths of the FARC-EP’s high command, and lower-level officials disseminating alternative accounts of the actual goings on.

Another strange complexity related to Comandante Ríos’ death is simply, where is Rojas? One would think that the state would put forward details concerning who Comandante Ríos’ murderer was, what his social background or personal details were, how the murder occurred, and what has happened to Rojas. Interestingly, however, nothing related to the above queries concerning Rojas were released.

If Comandante Ríos was, in fact, murdered by Rojas, such events surrounding the death are quite puzzling due to the structure and practice of the FARC-EP. It is difficult to understand how one FARC-EP combatant -- let alone three -- were capable of breaking rank and violently reacting against not only a highly ranked officer but a leader within the FARC-EP’s Secretariat. Each comandante associated with the Secretariat has a cadre of more than a dozen immediate personnel who are not only responsible for the comandante’s protection but oversee the goings on of the guerrilla camp in which the leader is stationed. From first-hand experience, all meetings and interactions with the comandante are coordinated each day and formally scheduled. Prior to each meeting, the party invited must wait and ask for approval to enter the comandante’s barracks. Once approval has been arranged it is only then that a member is escorted into the comandante’s quarters by at least one other armed guard.

How is it then that three armed FARC-EP combatants were able to violently enter into Comandante’s Ríos’ barracks directly in front of an entire FARC-EP front, which includes two FARC-EP companies and two FARC-EP guerrilla squads which contain, on average, at least twelve combatants per squad?

For any researcher, academic, environmentalist or journalist who has spent any significant amount of time within FARC-EP-controlled territory since 2002, the defence minister’s ``official’’ account of ``Rojas’’ and two other so-called FARC-EP combatants being solely responsible for the murder of Ríos is highly problematic let alone incredibly simplistic. Comandante Ríos’ limb being removed by a FARC-EP member is too out of character to any informed analyst of the Colombian civil war. There has not been one confirmed case of any FARC-EP combatant in its forty-four years of existence of employing such tactics; however, such a tactic has been systemically employed by government paramilitaries, privately funded ``security forces’’ and right-wing civilian vigilante groups dating back to the 1940s and increasingly carried out over the past decade.

The plausible paramilitary role in the deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos

Over the past two years the Uribe and Santos administration has increasingly heralded that Colombian paramilitarism has come to an end with the demobilisation of the right-wing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) through 2003-2006. Such proclamations are in direct contradiction to existing evidence, eye-witness reports and escalating violence targeted at civilians critical of the Colombian state and political-economic structure. More accurately, the AUC has decentralised its actions and activities through various small-scale organisations rather than operating, as it did between 1997 and 2006, a single umbrella organisation.

Comandante Ríos’ murder are symbolic of those carried out by Colombia’s many far-right paramilitary groups. However, if it was to get out to the general international public that paramilitarism has, in reality, continued within Colombia, various political and economic consequences could potentially be realised.

The Colombian state cannot afford to have a paramilitary group claim responsibility for the murder of Comandante Ríos for this would, once again, demonstrate that the state has either failed in its political capacity to demobilise the paramilitary forces, or more accurately, that the state has been complicit in covering up the actions of Colombian paramilitarism, which is rampant throughout the Colombian countryside (seeking to sustain political, economic and social control through aggressive coercion).

Rather than supporting the claim that ``FARC-EP combatants’’ committed the assault and subsequent amputation of Comandante Ríos’ hand, it is more likely that what transpired was a tactic which has been widely utilised by the paramilitaries over the past several years. Countless researchers and journalists have exposed how reactionary forces dress up in fatigues making themselves appear to be FARC-EP combatants. Paramilitaries have regularly presented themselves as members of the FARC-EP so as to commit atrocities against civilians in the hope of creating false condemnation of the insurgency.

The plausible US role in the deaths of both Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos

The Bush administration has had great difficulty trying to have a new free-trade agreement (FTA) with Colombia passed. Internal congressional protests by sectors of the Democratic Party have opposed the legislation due to alleged and proven atrocities committed by the paramilitaries, crimes that the Colombian state has allowed to go unpunished. Many of these politicians argue that the Colombian state and the US government and military have failed to quell the illicit drug trade or decrease the FARC-EP’s strength throughout the Colombian countryside even though billions of US dollars have been spent. Therefore, if the Bush administration was able to claim even the slightest victory over the FARC-EP then it could argue that its counter-insurgency funding has been successful and that a new FTA should be supported in Congress.

There is a very real possibility that the United States may have been involved in the actions leading up to Comandante Ríos’ death. Reports have detailed that US special forces and marines have been illegally engaging in counter-insurgency campaigns within Colombia for years. Even though the legal number of US troops cannot exceed 800 state forces (and 600 private forces), thousands have been operating in campaigns against the FARC-EP. For example, Peter Gorman published that as far back as 2002 roughly 1100 US counter-insurgency troops were on ``orders to eliminate all high officers of the FARC’’. This does not even take into account possible actions by private US-based contracted counter-insurgency forces.

The media’s role

There is a very real two-fold psychological affect from the propaganda related to the deaths of Comandante Reyes and Comandante Ríos, which is being disseminated through the centralised media, primarily El Tiempo.[iv]

1) Systemically exposing Colombia’s general public to photographs of the bullet-ridden and mutilated corpse of Reyes and of the Esky containing Ríos’ severed limbs is a tool utilised to intimidate and deter sympathisers of the insurgency, political activists and state opponents from criticising the state’s far-right social and economic policies.

2) Telling the world that Comandante Ríos’ was murdered by his own comrades is a tactic employed to decrease international solidarity. People abroad may now falsely believe the argument that the FAERC-EP is losing ground, power and influence in the Colombian countryside. At the same time, such accusations are disseminated in the hope of destabilising the FARC-EP itself. Propagating that the rank and file have abandoned the leadership and that the movement is collapsing is a strategy to destabilise the insurgency forces.

[i] James J. Brittain is an assistant professor of sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada, and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. James is currently completing two books on Colombia; one analysing the FARC-EP’s revolutionary ideology and praxis within rural Colombia and another detailing the rise of Colombian paramilitarism throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He can be reached at

[ii] United States opposition to the FARC-EP dates back to the John F. Kennedy administration but it was in 1986 that the White House officially condemned the FARC-EP as a threat to the country’s national security.

[iii] In November 2003, Iván Ríos replaced Comandante Efraín Guzmán as a member of the Secretariat, who died on September 7, 2003 of a heart attack.

[iv] Vice-President Santos was the former editor of El Tiempo newspaper.


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Colombia: 1 Million March Against Paramilitary Violence and War
Colombia: One Million March Against Paramilitary Violence and War
Written by Anthony Boynton
Wednesday, 12 March 2008
March 6th, 2008 was a historic day for Colombia. It was the day the "other" Colombia took to the streets and put the whole country, and the world, on notice that state terrorism and paramilitary violence have failed. The marches were far more important than anyone could have imagined because the Colombian government had brought the country to the brink of war with Ecuador and Venezuela just the weekend before the marches were scheduled to happen.

On Saturday, March 1, the Colombian military invaded Ecuador in order to assassinate Raul Reyes, a key leader of the FARC, one of the guerilla organizations which have been fighting the Colombian government for decades.

As a result, the marches became a major, and totally unexpected, anti-war protest.

That protest was almost certainly one of the key factors which led to the retreat of the Colombian government from its war-like rhetoric the very next day, at the meeting of the Rio Group of countries in the Dominican Republic.

According to Semana magazine, no friend of the protest, 1,000,000 people marched. In addition to the main demonstrations in Colombia, solidarity marches were held in cities around the world. Some, like the one in Buenos Aires, Argentina, drew thousands of marchers. Others, like the ones in Washington D.C. and New York drew hundreds of marchers.

The marches had been planned months before by MOVICE (MOVIMIENTO DE VICTIMAS DE CRIMENES DE ESTADO – Movement of the Victims of State Crimes) and were backed by the major Colombian trade union organizations and the two opposition political parties: the Polo Democratico Alternativo (Democratic Alternative Pole) and the Partido Liberal (Liberal Party.)

Surprisingly, even some figures from the government backed the marches. Most important were the Procurador General (something like an Attorney General) Edgardo Maya Villazón, and the Fiscal General de la Nación, Mario Iguarán Aranand. (Both of these officials are involved in, and responsible for, the prosecution of the paramilitary organizations in Colombia, and for the prosecution of politicians connected to the paramilitary organizations.)

The official slogans for the march were, "POR LOS DESAPARECIDOS" (For the disappeared), "POR LOS DESPLAZADOS" (For the displaced), " POR LOS MASACRADOS" (For the massacred), and " POR LOS EJECUTADOS" (For the executed.)

The flavor of the demonstrations was somber, resilient, determined, and also humorous. Marchers carried tens of thousands of placards bearing the photos of people murdered, kidnapped and disappeared by the paramilitaries and the government – some pictures showing the most gruesomely tortured bodies of children and old people - others showing mass graves - but most just the faces of the dead and missing.

ImageAlongside of the placards were banners, street theater, and lots of chanting. Besides the official slogans there were many banners calling for a humanitarian exchange of prisoners between the government and the FARC, and opposing any effort by the government to rescue FARC hostages through military action. Sprinkled throughout the crowd were banners supporting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa.

What I heard the most were three chants, "Uribe paraca, la gente barraca." (The translation is more or less - Uribe paramilitary, the people are tough, resilient and mad!), "Uribe, Gonorea - La Gente esta con Correa (Uribe Gonorea, the people are with Correa!), and "Uribe fascista, Usted es terrorista!"

This march was smaller than the anti-FARC demonstrations a month earlier, but the conditions under which the marches took place were radically different.

The anti-FARC march had the blanket and total support of all mass media in Colombia, and of all major businesses and schools. It was a show of what the ruling class can mobilize when it pulls out all the stops, shuts the doors of businesses, closes schools, and advertises on page one for two weeks in advance.

The March 6th demonstrations were opposed by the government, threatened by the government and paramilitaries, and barely mentioned before hand in the press. The fact that 1,000,000 were brave enough to march despite this must have given pause to the Uribe government as it headed toward war with Venezuela and Ecuador.

In February, the men who marched wore suits and ties, and a lot of the ladies wore heels. A lot of those protestors were busy getting their visas in order in case of a war with Venezuela and Ecuador on March 6th. This no doubt explains why they did not have time to demonstrate against paramilitary violence.

Instead of the ladies in heels and the men in ties, the March 6th protests were led by women in blue jeans, carrying pictures of their children, brothers, sisters, and husbands who had been killed by the army and the paramilitaries. They were followed by high school and university students, by women and men from the factories, and by tens of thousands of displaced people. Very few people marched in high heels or suits and ties.

Despite the differences, one fact united most of the people who marched in the two opposed demonstrations. The people of Colombia are tired of war, and desperately want peace.

ImageThis truth extends to the soldiers in the Colombian army who are drawn from amongst the poor - the people who demonstrated on March 6, and who by and large stayed home for the February anti-FARC demo.

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez backed down at the Rio Group meeting, partly because he is deathly afraid of what will happen in Colombia if there really is a war with the country’s neighbors. But his retreat may only be temporary.

The offensive against the FARC has escalated, with the assassination of a second member of the FARC secretariat, Ivan Rios, and newspaper headlines calling for the assassination of Mono Jojoy (Jorge Briceño) the FARC’s military commander. The government of Colombia is offering "Dead or Alive" rewards from between $2,500,000 and $5,000,000 (US dollars) for FARC leaders. It monitors all FARC internet and electronic communications.

The Bush government is clearly unhappy about Uribe’s retreat from war. According to the Miami Herald and Nuevo Heraldo, they are now working on putting Venezuela on their list of "terrorist" governments along with Iran and North Korea. If this happens, it will almost certainly set the stage for a new round of conflicts here in the northwestern corner of South America.

Whatever happens next, the "other" Colombia has decided to step onto the stage as an actor against war, and against paramilitarism.

Manta Air Base Tied to Colombian Raid on FARC Camp

Manta Air Base Tied to Colombian Raid on FARC Camp

By Kintto Lucas

MANTA, Ecuador, Mar 21 (IPS) - Military and diplomatic sources see a link between the Manta air base, operated by the United States in Ecuadorean territory, and this month’s bombing raid by Colombia on a FARC guerrilla camp in Ecuador.

The U.S. air force was granted a 10-year concession in 1999 to use the base, located in the port city of Manta on Ecuador’s northern Pacific coast, in its counter-drug trafficking activities in the region.

A high-level Ecuadorean military officer, who preferred to remain anonymous, told IPS that "a large proportion of senior officers" in Ecuador share "the conviction that the United States was an accomplice in the attack" launched Mar. 1 by the Colombian military on a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) camp in Ecuador, near the Colombian border.

FARC’s international spokesman Raúl Reyes and 24 other people were killed in the bombing raid, which prompted Quito to break off diplomatic relations with Colombia, although ties were restored several days later.

"Since Plan Colombia was launched in 2000, a strategic alliance between the United States and Colombia has taken shape, first to combat the insurgents and later to involve neighbouring countries in that war," said the officer. "What is happening today is a consequence of that."

Plan Colombia is a U.S.-financed and supported counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy carried out by Bogotá.

The information gathered by IPS from military and diplomatic sources indicates that the Manta air base played a role in locating, and carrying out reconnaissance of, the FARC camp in Ecuador.

Ecuadorean Defence Minister Wellington Sandoval said there should be an investigation of whether the Manta air base was used for the attack on the rebel camp in Ecuador. According to the agreement signed by Washington and Quito, it is the Ecuadorean armed forces that should carry out such a probe.

The Manta air base lease clearly stipulates that the base can only be used for counter-narcotics operations.

Sandoval said he cannot provide any information until an investigation has been conducted.

The military source who spoke to IPS said that what should be verified "above all are the flights from the base in the 20 days prior to the bombing, who was on them, the routes they took, and what they were investigating. This data should be complemented by other inquiries and information."

On Mar. 13, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador said she had had "a conversation with (U.S.) Ambassador Linda Jewell who ensured us that the planes (at the base) were not involved in any way" in the bombing of the FARC camp.

But the military source said that "the technology used, first to locate the target, in other words the camp, and later to attack it, was from the United States."

Sandoval declared that "equipment that the Latin American armed forces do not have" was used in the Mar. 1 bombing.

"They dropped around five 'smart bombs'," the kind used by the United States in the First Gulf War (1991), "with impressive precision and a margin of error of just one metre, at night, from planes travelling at high speeds," said the minister.

The military source said that "an attack with smart bombs requires pilots who have experience in such operations, which means U.S. pilots. That’s why I think they did the job and later told the Colombians ‘now go in and find the bodies’, which is when Colombian helicopters and troops showed up" at the site of the raid.

According to the official version of events that the Colombian government gave an Organisation of American States (OAS) fact-finding commission that visited both countries, 10 "conventional" bombs were dropped from five Brazilian-made Super Tucano aircraft and three U.S.-made A-37 planes.

The A-37s dropped bombs guided by GPS (Global Positioning System) and the five Super Tucanos have the technological means to launch bombs at targets with a five-metre margin of error, said the OAS delegation’s report.

But according to the sources who spoke to IPS, the U.S. role in the incident could have been even greater.

The military officer said the bombing raid in Ecuadorean air space was actually led by "U.S. pilots, possibly from DynCorp," a U.S.-based private military contractor that has contracts under Plan Colombia.

The aircraft took off from the Tres Esquinas air base in the southern Colombian department of Caquetá, said the source.

"The planes used to fumigate coca crops or to attack the guerrillas are piloted by serving members of the U.S. military or (former) military men at the service of companies like DynCorp," said the officer.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on Mar. 15 that his government would not allow "any foreign soldier, whether regular or irregular, to affect the soil of our fatherland. That is why there will be no more foreign bases after 2009."

U.S. usage rights for Manta expire on Nov. 12, 2009.

A committee in the Constituent Assembly that is rewriting the Ecuadorean constitution approved the chapter on territorial sovereignty on Mar. 17.

One of the articles states that "Ecuador is a territory of peace. The establishment of foreign military bases, or foreign installations for military purposes, is not permitted. National military bases cannot be leased to foreign security forces."

In its refusal to renew the air base lease, Ecuador can argue "many causes: direct or indirect participation (by U.S. forces from Manta) in the bombing; negligence for failure to detect the FARC camp with their technology, first of all, and the attack, in second place; and, in case they did detect the camp and the raid, for failing to inform authorities in the partner country, Ecuador," said a diplomatic source who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity.

Another reason that could be set forth is the direct support that the U.S. Southern Command, under which the U.S. armed forces at the Manta air base operate, has provided the Colombian military.

Admiral James Stavridis, the commander of the Southern Command, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Mar. 6 that he was monitoring the movement of Ecuadorean and Venezuelan troops to the Colombian border.

Stavridis said that with continuous U.S. support, Colombia has won "hard-fought successes" in the armed conflict. He added that "this key strategic ally" was making irreversible progress towards peace and against "terrorism."

He also told the Senate Committee that the FARC had been reduced from 17,500 guerrillas in 2002 to around 9,000 today.

In July 2001, retired colonel Fausto Cobo, former director of the Ecuadorean army’s Escuela de Guerra (war collage), had told IPS that "Manta, for the purposes of Plan Colombia," is a "U.S. aircraft carrier, on land."

By April 2001, when work began on the expansion of the Manta air strip, an average of 100 troops were taking part in up to three missions a day in F-3 reconnaissance planes.

A diplomatic source from the United States told Britain’s Financial Times at the time that by October the number would go up by 200, and by 200 more within the following few months.

After the expansion of the air strip, bigger, more sophisticated aircraft began to be used for reconnaissance missions.

Manta is one of the four "forward operating locations" (FOLs), along with Curaçao, Aruba and El Salvador, that make up the U.S. network of counter-narcotics bases in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In August 2006, the Expreso de Guayaquil newspaper reported that Colombian pilots were operating alongside Ecuadorean pilots on flights out of the Manta air base.

The commander of an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) squadron based out of Manta, Rich Boyd, told the Guayaquil newspaper that one of the AWACS aircraft was operated by a Colombian air force officer.

But Boyd said that each country's sensitive and confidential information is protected, because the Colombian officer exits the cockpit when the plane is in Ecuadorean air space, and the Ecuadorean pilot leaves when the plane overflies Colombia.

According to Boyd, three of the U.S. military’s 27 AWACS were at the Manta base. Each one has a price tag of one billion dollars -- nearly double the entire 2005 budget of the Ecuadorean air force. (END/2008)

Colombian Coal: Mining, Multinationals and Human Rights

IV Online magazine : IV399 - April 2008

A window into courageous resistance

Jeffery R Webber

Washington’s man in Bogotá, President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, made international headlines in early March when the Colombian military murdered members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla organization, in Ecuadorian territory.

Aviva Chomsky, Garry Leech and Steve Striffler, eds., The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mining, Multinationals and Human Rights. Bogotá: Casa Editorial Pisando Callos, 2007, 200pp.

Among the dead was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, aka Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s chief spokesperson and a key participant in the recently negotiated release of several hostages who had been held by the FARC. The ongoing hostage negotiations were being mediated successfully by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Uribe’s assault on the FARC guerrillas in Ecuador was a stark illustration of the regime’s belligerent refusal to allow for serious steps toward a negotiated settlement to Colombia’s civil war. To the contrary, Uribe’s latest move suggests that he will continue to serve the Colombian ruling class and imperial interests of the US and other major capitalist powers, orchestrating from on high a war of state terror against any and all dissent and resistance. [1]

In the immediate aftermath of the Colombian state murders in Ecuador, massive demonstrations were held across Colombia and throughout the world on March 6 on behalf of Colombians killed by state or paramilitary violence. [2] One of the immediate consequences has been renewed paramilitary terror and threats against trade unionists and human-rights activists involved in organizing the marches and protests. Carmen Cecilia Carvajal, a teacher, was killed on March 4. Leonidas Gómez Rozo, a member of the bank workers’ union, Unión Nacional de Empleados Bancarios, was murdered the next day. Gildardo Gómez Alzato, a teacher and member of the Asociación de Institutores de Antioquia, was likewise assassinated on March 7. Carlos Burbano, the Vice-President of the Hospital Workers Union, Asociación Nacional de Trabajadores Hospitalarios, was murdered on March 11. On top of these deaths, 28 other human rights activists and numerous social organizations have been threatened by a paramilitary group calling itself the “Black Eagles.” In their communiqués they warn that all the organizers of the March 6th demonstrations are future targets. [3]

It has been well-established that transnational capital operating in the extractive resource industries of Colombia has played a central part in perpetuating civil war and backing military and paramilitary terror against the civilian population. [4] These processes have been occurring against a more general backdrop of neoliberal restructuring since the 1990s. Wealth has become more concentrated, dispossession of land and resources has accelerated, exploitation of labour has intensified, and the dislocation of peasants and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities has reached astounding heights. Karl Marx’s notion of “primitive accumulation” remains incredibly apt as a tool for understanding twenty-first century capitalism in Colombia.

Social movement activists, trade unionists, leftist political leaders, and peasants deemed to be supporters of the guerrilla insurgency, experience threats, assassinations and other human rights abuses at the hands of the armed forces and paramilitary groups as part of a cruel routine. [5] Roughly three million people have been displaced in the twenty-first century in Colombia. [6] Two million of these were displaced from mining regions. [7] Levels of violence in mining zones defy the imagination, as do the poverty rates in these regions.

All of this makes the publication of The People Behind Colombian Coal timely and important. Two of the editors, Aviva Chomsky and Steve Striffler, are scholar-activists, and Garry Leech is a journalist, author, activist and editor of the on-line publication, Colombia Journal. All three have made important contributions to our understanding of Latin American politics, imperialism, and capitalism in the past. [8] This latest collective effort is a very good collection of short articles, testimonies, and primary documents that together cover mining capitalism, state power, imperialism and dispossession on the one hand, and the resistance dynamics of community, union, and international solidarity struggles on the other.

The focus of the book is the human devastation wrought by the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, El Cerrejón, in La Guajira, in northern Colombia. The basic thesis tying together the various strands is that “multinational mining companies that own El Cerrejón profit at the expense of the ‘people’ of the Guajira region whose plight has remained hidden ‘behind the Colombian coal’ that many of us in North America and Europe rely on to generate our electricity” (13). The testimonies and analyses are drawn from, sociologists, anthropologists, environmentalists, lawyers, medical doctors, indigenous and Afro-Colombian community activists, and Colombian and North American trade unionists.

The Guajira peninsula is a Colombian department – state – in which roughly one third of the population is indigenous Wayuu, Colombia’s largest indigenous group. The Wayuu live primarily in the arid northern area of the peninsula, where the coal port and railroad are located. However, as will become clear in the rest of the review, there are also indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian settlements in the southern part, where the mine itself is located.

The book is structured into four parts. It begins with an analysis of how multinational corporations are structured, helping to explain their brutally exploitative behaviour in the mining zones. Second, the book provides a series of articles written between 1983 and the current period that addresses the multifaceted impact of the mining developments in La Guajira: socio-cultural, environmental, economic, and health-related. A third section provides further documentation of health and human rights problems stemming from the mine’s operations, as well as a report by the mine workers union expressing its solidarity with the displaced Afro-Colombian and indigenous Wayuu communities. The last section outlines developments in the growing campaign of international solidarity around reparations for communities displaced by the mine since 2001 and in defence of communities and mine workers still under threat today.

Since there is no way of capturing the sheer diversity of subject matter and important empirical observations offered up in the book in a review such as this, I will simply focus on what I suggest are three major themes running through the text: accumulation by dispossession, social movement unionism and indigenous and Afro-Colombian resistance, and international solidarity.

Accumulation by Dispossession

The Marxist geographer David Harvey recently developed the concept of accumulation by dispossession as a way of updating and refining Karl Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation. Marx highlighted processes of capital accumulation based upon predation, fraud, and violence, but saw them as something unique to a “primitive” or “original” stage in the historical development of capitalism. Harvey argues, by contrast, that these predatory practices have in fact been a continuous characteristic of capitalism, a facet of the system intensified during the onset of neoliberalism in the mid-1970s. [9] In the neoliberal era, assets previously held under collective ownership, either by the state or in common, have been forced on an unprecedented scale into the realm of the market, often through fraud, coercion, and innumerable forms of predation both by the state and powerful private actors. In other words, many forms of public property have been commodified, have entered into the market as commodities for buying and selling. The intensification of commodification has included the commodification of labour on a grand scale, or the proletarianization of huge swathes of the world’s population. This process of proletarianization is often engendered through the violent dispossession of the land of peasants and indigenous communities, and the subsequent coercive migration of these populations into urban centres in search of means of sustaining themselves, now with only their labour to sell. The private appropriation of natural resources in the Third World and the manipulation of the national debts of poor countries by the core capitalist state powers are other facets of accumulation by dispossession. Third World ruling classes and states have been instrumental players in these coercive processes, but most important have been the capitalist classes of the core imperial powers, the states that rule in the interests of these classes, multinational corporations, and the central international financial institutions – the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and others.

While Harvey’s insights are unexamined in this text for good reason – it is primarily a collection of testimonies and local analyses geared toward a broad audience – we see the processes of accumulation by dispossession unfolding in bold fashion in many of the experiences and situations described. Between 1981 and 1986 the 50/50 public-private partnership between the state-owned enterprise Carbones de Colombia (Carbocol) and Intercor, a subsidiary of Exxon (later ExxonMobil) began the construction stage of a three phase mining development of Cerrejón North Zone. A number of indigenous Wayuu communities, inhabiting the area since before the Spanish conquest, were dispossessed of their lands to facilitate the construction of the mine’s railroad and port. In 2001, the Afro-Colombian town of Tabaco was destroyed and the residents forcibly removed by state security forces to allow for the mine’s expansion. As of 2007 the communities of Chancleta, Patilla, Roche, Los Remedios and Tamaquito continued to be threatened with displacement by the mines. In the interim, the resident’s lives have become almost unbearable because of the mine’s strategic purchase of all surrounding land that used to be utilized by community residents for hunting and farming, or, alternatively, it provided sources of nearby farm employment. As a consequence, traveling to distant locations for seasonal work is increasingly common for men, with all the negative attendant consequences for community and family life. Here is Colombian sociologist María Cristina González Hernández on the Afro-Colombian town of Tabaco, in the municipality of Hatonuevo, in the department of Guajira:

“The population is surrounded by the coal complex. In economic terms, the restrictions on livestock-raising, loss of pasture land, loss of neighbors to ally with, and the diminution of hunting and fishing, have compromised the community’s economic survival. This situation has been aggravated by the State, which has declared the land a mining reserve, approved the town’s expropriation, and suspended health, education, and Telecom services. Altogether, these factors have brought about pathologies and crisis for the community” (66).

Anthropologist Deborah Pacini Hernandez observed some of these trends in Wayuu territory in Guajira as early as 1983. In her contribution to the volume she points out that, “There has been and will continue to be loss of territorial rights as the project and others like it intrude into the Guajira. In addition to the loss of land to development projects (whether mining, tourism, military or otherwise), there will be loss of land to entrepreneurs and opportunists who will be moving to the Guajira and will be expropriating, legally or illegally, Wayuu traditional territory” (41). In addition to land dispossessed in the interior, the loss of “coastal land will result in the loss of offshore marine resources, such as fish, shellfish, turtles, etc., that the Wayuu rely upon to supplement their diet and income. These coastal resources will be further reduced as increased commercial maritime activity results in the deterioration of offshore waters” (42). The construction of roads and railroads on the peninsula “will disrupt the traditional patterns of Wayuu transhumance as they move with their herds in search of water and pasture” (42).

Pacini Hernandez goes on to address explicitly the brutal stages of proletarianization that follow: “Traditional land management techniques and knowledge will be lost as the Wayuu are pressured to abandon their traditional subsistence strategies and work for the Cerrejón project and others that will follow…. The loss of this knowledge and of the land on which to practice it will probably result in the further proletarianization of the Wayuu, leaving them at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, without their culture for support. This process has already begun in the case of many Wayuu who have migrated to urban centers…. The Wayuu have become slum dwellers, with unemployment and underemployment rendering them vulnerable to all the social problems typical of such conditions” (42).

In 2000, the Colombian government privatized Carbocol, selling its 50 percent share of the mining company to a multinational mining consortium comprised of BHP Billiton, Anglo-American, and Glencore. The pace of accumulation by dispossession merely accelerated. This is perhaps best reflected in the case of the town of Tabaco. Armando Pérez Araújo – a member of the indigenous organization Yanama, the Mines and Communities Network, and a lawyer for the communities displaced or under threat by the Cerrejón mine – contributes an important article on this topic. Pérez Araújo’s analysis illustrates how state coercion and legal manipulation is often a critical component of accumulation by dispossession in the neoliberal age. He shows how the then Minister of Mines and Energy, Carlos Caballero Argáez, “in a clear flouting of national laws, authorized and promoted the administrative phase of the improperly-tagged ‘expropriation’ of what was disingenuously termed ‘a plot of land called Tabaco.’” The so-called plot of land “was declared necessary for public and social use. The terminology suggested that the ‘plot of land’ was an uninhabited rural area. It ignored the physical existence of an organized human community…. We have petitioned the relevant authorities to revoke the illegal, unjust and arbitrary administrative act that set the process into motion. Invariably, we have received a negative response that left us no doubt that we were facing a formidable web of lies designed to defend the illegal mining operation at the cost of the social stability of an obviously fragile community” (98-99).

What the different components of the book illustrate together is how mining capitalists are the immediate agents behind the dispossession and displacement of indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities in Guajira, and the exploitation of the workers in the mine. Yet, these immediate agents rely on Colombian state power and the power of imperialism enacted through core states in the Global North – and in particular the US state – to enforce the coercive and legal components involved in accumulation by dispossession in the mining industry.

The book is not a one-sided description of the indestructible power of capital, state and empire, however. Indeed, it documents in detail how the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and the labour movement have fought back – in the face of a fiercely hostile environment – seeking to alter the balance of power and achieve at least a modicum of dignity and social justice in the short term. More recently, international solidarity has been added to this equation, with important consequences.

Social Movement Unionism

Social movement unionism, as labour historian Kim Moody has pointed out, seeks to multiply “its political and social power by reaching out to other sectors of the class, be they other unions, neighbourhood-based organizations, or other social movements. It fights for all the oppressed and enhances its own power by doing so.” [10] Another important contribution The People Behind Colombian Coal makes is its description of the way in which the mine workers union at the Cerrejón Mine, Sintracarbón, came to adapt a perspective of social movement unionism near the end of 2006, in the sense of making solidarity with displaced indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities a central facet of its struggle.

Four members of the union were participants in an international delegation – organized in part by Chomsky, Leech, and Striffler – that traveled to several of the affected communities in Guajira and listened to testimonies of residents about how the mine had negatively impacted on their lives. The delegates subsequently went back to their union and successfully argued for the inclusion of the struggles of the communities into the union’s bargaining at the mine. A national and international declaration of Sintracarbón, issued after the international delegation, includes the following passage: “Sintracarbón has committed itself to the struggle of the communities affected by the mine’s expansion. We invite all other unions and social organizations in Colombia, and especially La Guajira, to join in the struggle of these communities for better conditions and quality of life, and to take on the communities’ problems as our own. As a union committed to the struggle of these communities, we have established the short-term goal of working to help unify the affected communities, to participate in their meetings, to take a stand with the local and national authorities regarding the absence of public services in the communities, and to begin a dialogue with the company about the reality we are now aware of, and to take a public stand locally, nationally, and internationally about the situation of the communities affected by the Cerrejón mine and its expansion” (125).

At the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 the union entered into bargaining negotiations with the company. The bargaining process quickly broke down and 98 percent of the union members who voted – there was a turnout rate of 76 percent – favoured a strike. Sintracarbón’s communiqué calling for a strike vote makes the following statements that reiterate its position in solidarity with the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in conflict with the mining capitalists:

“In addition to labor demands, our petition includes social demands, such as those regarding subcontracted/temporary workers, and those regarding communities. The communities near the mine, and the communities displaced by the mine’s expansion, also have the right to collective negotiations. All of the communities should be relocated [the eventual demand coming from the communities themselves given the dire environmental pollution and social conditions established by this point]. They should be paid compensation for the loss of their cultural patrimony, and the loss of their ancestors [in reference, it seems, to the displacement of community cemeteries described elsewhere in the book]…. The Cerrejón Company and its enormous profits should not be based on leaving behind sick workers and impoverished communities” (131).

Aviva Chomsky explains how Sintracarbón representatives first came to be aware of and involved in community struggles in 2006, after an extended period in which the union’s struggles had been quite separate and distinct: “… the union president accepted our invitation to the conference, and I think that he was very moved by hearing the testimonies from the people form the communities, and also by the level of international interest. He asked us if we would return in November to accompany their upcoming contract negotiations, and vowed to work to raise consciousness in his union about the dire situation of the communities. The union designated three people to accompany our delegation for several days of intense meetings with the communities. They were appalled to see the conditions there, and worked to incorporate language requiring the mine to negotiate with the communities into their own collective bargaining proposal. They also began to work on other ways they as a union could support the communities’ struggle” (154).

Jeff Crosby, President of the North Shore Labor Council in Lynn, Massachusetts was part of the international delegation that visited indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities affected by the mine in Guajira in November 2006. He connected the efforts in Colombia to build union-community linkages to his own experiences in Masachusetts as a worker at a General Electric aircraft engine plant. He notes that it is “possible for members of my union to drive through the poorer new immigrant communities from Central and South American and Southeast Asia each day on their way to work, with little understanding of the life conditions of these communities” (165-166). Looking at the Colombian and American scenarios, Crosby concludes that, “overcoming the chasm between the organized and unorganized sectors of workers, between those with a decent living and those living on the edge, and between native-born workers and migrant workers, is a critical challenge facing trade unions in both the United States and Colombia” (166).

He was impressed with Sintracarbón’s emerging commitment to this sort of solidarity, and the eventual success the union had at forcing the mine’s management to accept discussion of community issues as an acceptable topic at the negotiating table. Management had been vociferously opposed for obvious reasons: “The statement by Cerrejón management inviting the union into its discussions with the community about the impact of the mines on those communities is an important step, since it accepts in principle that the communities and the union have join interests and a right to negotiate together with the employer” (167).

International Solidarity

Undoubtedly one of the most valuable components of this book is its step-by-step description – through the narratives of various key organizers, including the editors – of how international solidarity was built around the defence of displaced communities and workers struggles in Guajira mining zones in a manner that responded to the interests, needs, and visions of the communities and workers themselves. This final section of the book achieves two important objectives that are undoubtedly important to the editors. First, it shows readers in imperialist countries without a personal history of activism how they might become involved in these struggles and why it’s important that they do. (It also provides additional arsenal for more seasoned international solidarity activists.)

Second, the section on international solidarity illustrates how the struggles of oppressed groups and exploited workers at home are often integrally connected to the struggles in seemingly far-off Guajira, Colombia. There are abundant examples pointing to the necessity of international working class solidarity. One participant in the international delegation in November 2006 was Richard J. Charlo, a member of the Dene, Dogrib First Nation in the Northwest Territories, Canada. He has been employee of a diamond mine owned by BHP Billiton Diamond Inc. for eight years. Charlo describes how the same employer of Colombian mine workers in Guajira also exploits indigenous populations in Northern Canada. Charlo explains how he “had an important opportunity to visit the coal fields of Colombia and learn about the displacement of Aboriginal people by the Cerrejón Mine. I also learned about the treatment of the mine workers. The culture and customs are very different from our own and the working conditions are deplorable. However, the local people living near the mine are affected in similar ways as we were here in northern Canada. In the back of my mind, I know that if BHP could get away with it, they would treat us the same way they treat their workers abroad” (179).

The volume shows how unions in Colombia often feel that international solidarity is not simply a symbolic gesture. International consciousness and solidarity, in fact, can provide a certain amount of coverage and protection to union activists working in what is often referred to as the most dangerous country in the world for union activity. Thus when the International Commission in Support of Sintracarbón and the Communities Affected by Cerrejón was established and travelled to Colombia to monitor the contract negotiations, Sintracarbón’s bargaining power – and those of the displaced communities – was measurably enhanced (154).


The People Behind Colombian Coal contains some weaker material that diminishes the books overall impact. S.L. Reiter’s chapter on “The Ethics of Cerrejón and the Multinationals,” is one example. In effect, it amounts to a moral critique of the ethics of multinational mining corporations without a corresponding critique of the underlying system of capitalism. Reiter’s muddled conclusion is that, “Members of Cerrejón and the parent companies are responsible for their actions that have led to serious human rights violations against the people of the Guajira region. They are blameworthy and have a responsibility to remedy the situation” (36). A resistance based on appealing to the moral conscience of corporate officials is irredeemably naïve. Again, the rest of the book yields substantial empirical evidence that rebukes the implicit politics behind Reiter’s chapter. A second, more serious, failing of the book is the contribution by Jaime Ernesto Salas Bahamón, described in his bio as, “a civil engineer and specialist in environmental policy and energy technology who coordinated Cerrejón’s Environmental Management Plan in 2002-2003” (84). Why his chapter – a none-too-subtle defence of neoliberal mining capitalism – is included is difficult to comprehend. Finally, the book would have benefited from an additional introductory chapter on the basic contemporary context of Colombia’s war economy and political hisotry over the last three decades. There is a useful timetable at the outset, but this is insufficient in my view. The rest of the book is highly accessible, but such a contextual backdrop would undoubtedly help the uninitiated reader digest some of the empirical detail with greater ease.


These shortcomings should not take away from the very important achievements of this book. The editors have very clearly been intimately involved with the developing international solidarity campaign and, in their interactions with community struggles and the labour movement in Guajira, are living examples of what scholarly-activism, rooted in real struggle, can achieve. People Behind the Coal is full of useful testimony, analysis, and reflection on the state of contemporary capitalism as it expresses itself in the mining zones of Guajira, Colombia. The book provides empirical verification of Harvey’s notion of accumulation by dispossession, reveals the potential power of social movement unionism, opens a window into courageous indigenous and Afro-Colombian resistance, and explains the existing foundations and future possibilities of international solidarity with Colombians struggling against the economic and state terror of the status quo. People Behind the Coal will therefore be a valuable resource for activists, students, and critical scholars alike.

-Jeffery R. Webber is an editor of New Socialist and a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. He first visited Bolivia in 2000, and has been following events in Latin America intensely since 2002.


[1] For the best account of the Colombian military’s incursion into Ecuador and its regional effects see Forrest Hylton, “Colombia’s Cornered President Raises the Stakes,” Nacla News, March 5, 2008, available at:

[2] See William I. Robinson, “Photo Essay: Colombia – Massive Demonstrations against Paramilitary and State Terror,” Upside Down World, March 7, 2008, available at:

[3] Adam Isacson, “Human Rights Takes a Beating in Colombia: Paramilitary Threats and Assassinations,” Counterpunch, March 21, 2008, available at:

[4] For the important role played by Canadian capital and the Canadian state see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “Imperialism and Resistance: Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America,” Third World Quarterly 29, 1: 63-87, 2008.

[5] William Avilés, ‘Paramilitarism and Colombia’s Low-Intensity Democracy,’ Journal of Latin American Studies 38 (2), 2003. p 380.

[6] Forrest Hylton, Evil Hour in Colombia, London and New York: Verso, 2006, p. 4.

[7] Francisco Ramírez Cuellar, The Profits of Extermination: How US Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia, pp 84-85.

[8] Aviva Chomsky teaches Latin American History at Salem State College in Salem, Massachusetts. She is the author of Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia and the Making of a Global Working Class; “They Take Our Jobs!”and 20 Other Myths about Immigration; and West Indian Workers and the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, 1870-1940. She is also co-editor of The Cuba Reader and Identity and Struggle at the Margins of the Nation-State. Garry Leech is a journalist and teaches Political Science at Cape Breton University. He is the author of Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil and the New World (Dis)Order and Killing Peace: Colombia’s Conflict and the Failure of US Intervention. Colombia Journal, the on-line publication he edits, is available at: Steve Striffler teaches Anthropology at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food and In the Shadow of Capital: United Fruit, Popular Struggle and Agrarian Restructuring in Ecuador, 1900-1995. He is also co-editor of Banana Wars: Power, Production and History in the Americas.

[9] See David Harvey, The New Imperialism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; and David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism, London and New York: Verso.

[10] Kim Moody, Workers in a Lean World: Unions in the International Economy, New York and London: Verso, 1997, p. 207.

Colombia crisis strengthens Venezuela, isolates U.S.


Monday, April 7, 2008
Colombia crisis strengthens Venezuela, isolates U.S.

War preparations that might have involved three or more Latin American nations, came quickly to a halt March 7 at the Rio Group Summit in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. A Venezuelan-brokered deal ended a crisis that began with a Colombian military incursion into Ecuador. The great fear in Venezuela was that such a war would have ended up pitting Venezuela against U.S.-backed Colombia, the proxy war against the U.S. that has been feared for years. Instead, the resolution of the deal has weakened the hand of the U.S., and strengthened the prestige of Venezuela throughout the region.

The crisis began March 1, when Colombia’s air force attacked a training camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a camp based over the border in neighbouring Ecuador. According to the Colombian military, the raid killed 17 FARC guerrillas, including Raúl Reyes, a senior FARC leader. Colombian defence ministry spokespeople called it “the most important strike yet” against the FARC.[1]

There are not many countries in the world that can bomb a neighbour, kill and maim dozens, and then boast about it. The fact that Colombian government spokespersons could so boast, gives an insight into the role Colombia plays on the northern edge of the South American continent. Colombia is a military client state of the world’s biggest imperialist power. The U.S. currently gives Colombia more than $600-million a year in military aid,[2] a rate of arms shipments that has been ongoing for years. From 1999 to 2004, U.S. military aid to Colombia totalled $3.6-billion, an average of just under $600-million a year, and the most of any country in Latin America – in the world trailing only Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan.[3] With good reason, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez referred to Colombia as the “Israel of Latin America.”[4]

And just like in Israel, this aid does not come without strings. In exchange for these billions (more than $3-billion a year in Israel’s case), both Israel and Colombia are expected to act as “proxies” for the U.S. So in 2006, when the U.S. was testing the waters for an expanded war beyond the borders of Iraq, it was its client state, Israel, which (unsuccessfully) opened a second front in Lebanon.

Colombia plays the same role in Latin America. It is no secret that the U.S. would like to see the back of Chávez, but it is also no secret that, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is in no position to carry out his overthrow directly. But, as happened in the 1980s against Nicaragua, a proxy war waged by U.S. allies has always remained a possibility. The most likely proxy has always been Colombia.

So hard in the wake of Colombia’s bombing raid in Ecuador, the war drums were beating throughout North America. Canada’s Globe and Mail did not warn against the attack on Ecuador’s sovereignty. Instead, it talked about “Chavez’s role in terrorism” saying that laptops recovered in the raid showed that Chavez had been a “state sponsor of terrorism.”[5] Chávez denied funding the FARC telling the newspaper El Universal “I would never do it.”[6] The issue of the funding of the FARC is a little wide of the mark in any case. We already know that the U.S. backs Colombia to the hilt, and the terror of the Colombian government’s use of this money is widely documented. As of one year ago, at the time of a state visit by Bush to Colombia, eight congressmen, “all tied to the president” had been “jailed for working with right-wing death squads.”[7]

But the crisis evolved in a direction that caught Bush and his supporters completely by surprise. Ecuador of course cut diplomatic ties with Colombia, but so did Venezuela, joined on March 6 by Daniel Ortega’s newly-elected government in Nicaragua. Ecuador expelled Colombian diplomats, as did Venezuela. Ecuador of course sent troops to the region attacked by Colombia, but again, they did not stand alone – March 2, Venezuela ordered 10 battalions “usually amounting to at least 6,000 troops”[8] to the border with Colombia.

The “Israel of Latin America” suddenly found itself completely isolated, surrounded by neighbours who are increasingly confident to act in defiance of the United States, and unwilling to sit by while a U.S. client-state blatantly violates the sovereignty of a neighbour with a murderous bombing raid.

So it was that, just one week later, a chastised Colombian president Uribe had to agree to a resolution backed by the 20 member Río Group, which “included a rejection of the violation of Ecuadorian territorial sovereignty and an endorsement of the resolution of the Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced Colombia's attack.”[9] If this represented a profound humiliation for Uribe, it was even more humiliating for the United States. March 18, the OAS approved the Rio Group resolution by a vote that would have been unanimous except for the United States, which expressed “reservations.”[10] U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said, “we believe they [the Colombians] were acting in a justifiable way.”[11]

Of course Negroponte thought they were justified. As U.S. ambassador to Honduras, he was closely associated with the barbaric violation of Nicaraguan sovereignty in the 1980s, the proxy war carried out by the right-wing “contras”. But twenty years later, the U.S. stands completely alone.

We know from the long and bloody history of imperialist intervention into Latin America, that there are two big dangers facing any government attempting to break imperialism’s grip – coup d’état and invasion. In 2002, one million of the poorest in Caracas took to the streets and prevented a right-wing, U.S. supported coup against Chávez. Now in 2008, a proxy war with Colombia has been averted by solidarity between Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua, backed ultimately by every country in the Americas except the United States.

The reach of the U.S. in Latin America has weakened, and the new movements towards sovereignty and independence, without question led by Venezuela, are gaining strength.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Cited in Simon Romero, “Colombian Forces Kill Senior Guerrilla Commander, Official Says,” The New York Times, March 2, 2008,
[2] According to Romero, “Colombian Forces Kill Senior Guerrilla Commander”
[3] The Center for Public Integrity, “U.S. Military Aid Before and After 9/11,”
[4] Associated Press, “Chavez: Colombia has become the Israel of Latin America,”, Marcy 7, 2008,
[5] Editorial, “Chavez’s role in terrorism,” The Globe and Mail, March 7, 2008
[6] Cited in Alexei Barrioneuvo, “U.S. Studies Rebel’s Data for Chávez Link,” The New York Times, April 7, 2008,
[7] Juan Forero, “Colombia’s Uribe Faces Crisis on Death Squads,” All Things Considered, NPR (National Public Radio), March 16, 2007,
[8] “Venezuela troops ‘move to border,’” BBC News, March 5, 2008,
[9] James Suggett, “Venezuela and Ecuador Resolve Differences with Colombia at Regional Summit,” March 8, 2008, – The Rio Group “was created in 1986 to be a political forum for Latin American heads of state.”
[10] Kiaraz Janicke, “OAS Rejects Colombia’s Military Incursion into Ecuador,” March 18, 2008,
[11] DPA, “OAS rejects Colombian military incursion in Ecuador,” Thaindian News, March 18, 2008,

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