EL ESPECTADOR, July 2, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
In a dialog with EL ESPECTADOR, analyst Michael Evans, the head of the Colombian chapter at the National Security Archive (NSA), talked about the details of the declassified documents, and furnished some keys to understanding the relationship between the United States and Colombia. He also referred to the importance of having this country be able to learn more quickly what it is that the classified archives contain.
The declassified documents that the Truth Commission had access to were keys to understanding the role of the United States in the Colombian conflict. From your point of view, what are the principal findings from those documents?
The Truth Commission is an opportunity for these secret archives to speak after all this time. And for us, at the National Security Archive, it’s a key moment after many years of labor, trying to achieve declassification of these United States national security records. We hope to be part of the contribution to a lasting peace through the Truth Commission. I believe that one of the principal patterns, in terms of the role of the United States in the armed conflict, is the way that my country used its considerable economic influence in its relationships, and also in strengthening its military assistance and intensifying the war on drugs.
Are you referring to what happened in the decade of the ‘80’s?
That’s it. They took advantage of certain situations to intensify antinarcotics operations, like the aerial fumigation of illegal plantings, extradition, augmenting the counter-guerrilla and anti-terrorist operations. You see an example of that in a cable in May of 1984, in which the United States Embassy describes efforts it thinks the government ought to implement during that period.
Talk about the cable sent after the assassination of Rodrigo Lara Bonilla
Yes. What you see there is the United States Embassy indicating ways to take advantage of that emotional moment to pressure Colombia to be more aggressive in the war on drugs. It’s just one example of what we see all through the ‘80’s and the ‘90’s. In certain situations, the U.S. would see an opportunity to take advantage of a kind of intensification of antinarcotic operations in key moments. Using the leverage to provide a flood of emotion, like after the assassination of Lara Bonilla or later on in the ‘80’s.
And now the Commission is criticizing exactly that kind of policy that governments were taking at that time….
Exactly. They were policies, as the Commission says now, that exacerbated the conflict, like fumigation or extradition. There was a lot of pressure from the United States to make that happen. Of course, we now know what the results were.
You mentioned other patterns that you could see in the archives. What other patterns did you identify?
There’s another very representative pattern where the U.S., for a long time, knew very well that the government’s security forces were connected to the paramilitaries, the massacres, and the drug traffickers. Because of that, the CIA dispatched a report in 1988 that connected Colombian Army Brigades 10 and 4, their commanders, and their B2 intelligence sections with several acts of paramilitary violence and the elimination of the political left, as in the case of the Patriotic Union Party, plus the massacres at Honduras and La Negra. Those are, as you know, extremely important and very well known cases, and that is something that we see again and again in the declassified archives. That means, the United States was following these connections between the paramilitary groups and the Colombian security forces very closely.
And what position did they take on this problem?
That raised a whole heap of compromises in terms of what the United States was disposed to tolerate and the kind of relationships it firmed up with some of those undesirable personages in Colombia. Ultimately, while they expressed concern about some of those things, such as the relationships of those illegal groups with the government, they did very little to dissuade them.
In addition to the declassified archives, the NSA has in its possession some documents donated by the journalist Mark Bowden. What can you say about those?
There’s one that’s really interesting, that I think is unique, as it discusses the possible threats against DEA personnel stationed in Colombia after the killing of Luis Meneses, also known as Ariel Otero. He was the leader of the self-defense forces in Magdalena Medio. And the reason for the concern, according to this document, was that those DEA officials had been in regular contact with Meneses and his predecessor, Andrés Pérez. What the agents said was that there were signs that Meneses had been tortured and that therefore, he might have talked. I think the document contained a whole lot of questions about relationships with other individuals and groups that the U.S. was trying to cultivate.
What are you referring to?
The United States was trying to cultivate sources or contacts with some of the most infamous figures in history. So what did the United States know? What was the nature of those relationships exactly? What was the nature of the cooperation with them against Escobar, and what did the U.S. know about all of the illegal acts that those people were involved in, at the same time they called them on the phone and received faxes from them?
That same cable explains that the agents thought it was “logical” to talk with those enemies of the people that they were trying to . . .
That’s another version of the old saw that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The type of connections that seemed logical at the time. And you look back and you say, “You know that you were working with some of those people, who eventually turned out to be some of the worst butchers and murderers in Colombia. So what commitments did you make? What kind of promises did you give those people? Who else were you talking to? And I think that raises an interesting point about that kind of document.
Because it’s just the beginning, not the conclusion. It’s the same thing with the Final Report. The hope is that the Commission and the Report having put together all of this evidence could be a way of creating a kind of inventory of the truth. It’s like a road map to learn the direction we should go in the future What new sources can we find about the conflict, and how can we make use of the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations to get more transparency and more declassification of information, not just that of the United States, but also in Colombia.
One of the Commission’s recommendations is that Colombia declassify its intelligence reports. What about that?
Of course. Even though there are many and very important recommendations. I don’t want to minimize the importance of any one of them, but for me, one of the greatest recommendations of all is to change the period in which intelligence archives are treated as confidential in Colombia. Although it’s said to be 30 years, in practice it’s been 40. That ought to be reduced to 15 years, a much more reasonable period. Especially now that we know from this Report that has revealed so much of that “other truth”. Colombians ought to have the opportunity to review, hopefully, their own archives, and not just what the government is willing to turn over. Also the most sensitive archives. We know the story because of the archives of the United States. We know the story because we saw it with our own eyes. That’s why I think it’s foolish, and damages the credibility of the government and its agencies, to maintain that level of secrecy of its archives.
Can you mention some examples of ways the insistence of the United States on its national policies affected this country?
For example, the operations to fumigate illegal plantings. They drove people from their homes, and created internal displacements with immeasurable negative impacts on the environment. The United States imposed those fumigations forcefully, in spite of the resistance that existed to many of the policies that the United States wanted to impose on Colombia in the name of the war on drugs. There was a kind of externalization of the drug problem in our country. They weren’t focusing on the demand in the United States, but rather trying to eliminate the supply. They externalized the fault and blamed the Colombians for what was essentially a United States problem.
Another matter that came to light in the declassified documents has to do with the presence of the petroleum multinationals in this country that ended up immersed in the conflict. What considerations can you share with us on this matter?
The U.S. always saw problems in the private sector. For example, the petroleum sector. There’s a fascinating document in the collection that we published, with the concerns about the way those multinational petroleum corporations were being pulled more deeply into the conflict, and for the U.S. there was a variety of reasons why they were interested in the security of the petroleum sector. Not only financial, but also in terms of trying to assure stability in Colombia. It talks about multinational corporations that had carried out their own intelligence operations. They formed their own paramilitary groups, using contracts. It was something generalized.
Did those concerns coincide with the launching of Plan Colombia?
We have some key information about 1998, when Plan Colombia was at the point of getting started, and the idea was to support this plan for peace and for attacking the plantings of coca. But there were a lot of other interests and other concerns. One of them, I think, was a kind of privatization of the conflict. In areas where the Colombian Army and the Colombian security forces were in retreat, there were fruit companies and petroleum companies with major economic interests that were operating in some very dangerous parts of Colombia. There you could see how the conflict got privatized and was turned over to the illegal armed groups.
Another of the most polemical documents is the one about an agent of the Pentagon who describes the “success” of Plan Colombia by the number of guerrillas killed in combat. Now, in light of what we know about the extrajudicial executions, what do you think about that?
Right. And so this crucial issue can be put in context, it happens during the Presidency of Álvaro Uribe and of President George Bush, right after the attack on September 11 in New York. At that time, in the name of the fight against terrorism, they raised the restrictions that had existed on the security assistance being provided by the U.S. They thought that assistance was very limited and was just for anti-narcotic operations, because it could be involved in human rights violations. There really was an effort to protect the ways that security assistance was being used in Colombia, and much of that was owed to the concerns of the United States and the United States Congress about getting involved in another Vietnam. Because of that, the successful result of Plan Colombia had to be clear.
And they chose to do that according to the number of kills….
That’s what the document reveals. But, how do you really measure, for example, the progress against the plantings of narcotics? That turns out to be very difficult. You could measure the number of hectares destroyed, but you also have to measure the number of new hectares planted, and all of those dynamics ended up being very difficult for the United States. That’s why they went to measuring the success in a very crude manner. That happened exactly in measuring the counter-insurgency battle by Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department. So their solution was to count the bodies.
Didn’t anybody call them on that?
Some of the military advisers at the highest level said explicitly that counting bodies was not a good way to measure success; that they needed a more holistic approach. But in the following year we started seeing documents in Rumsfeld’s office that reported achievements against the FARC, and they were all about combat kills. I don’t have any military training; I don’t know if it’s often done that way, but now we know that the body count practice led to more than 6,000 documented killings of individuals at the hands of soldiers that were trying to meet goals to impress their superiors. And the 6,000 were all civilians. I think what this illustrates is how the U.S. was operating in its relationships with its most important ally, while also holding all of the cards and all of the advantages. Certainly the U.S. is not the only party responsible for the conflict in Colombia, but it’s easy to see the connections between United States policies and the exacerbation of the violence.
What’s your perspective about what really went on with Plan Colombia?
Plan Colombia changed and evolved. At the start, they sold it as something that Andrés Pastrana and his advisers thought up, but it really responded to United States pressure, and it was a formula for the United States government to help with the peace process. But what they were really interested in was being able to fumigate coca plantings in Putumayo and Caquetá without any restrictions. They didn’t want anything else but that. The program was changed because they couldn’t achieve that objective if there were FARC present everywhere they were going to fumigate. It was very dangerous. There was always an element of security and that’s how it turned into war. For me, that was the problem with Plan Colombia: security operations were connected to the fumigations and when the Pastrana peace process broke down, it went into another phase.
At the time that Bush became President, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell were in the State Department. They all had the same mentality: restricting the operations just to anti-narcotics was ridiculous, and their plan was to take the conflict to the next level. Of course, after September 11, things changed into terrorism terms. Colombia brought up its argument in meetings with the U.S. like this: you all are experiencing terrorism, we know terrorism, we have been experiencing it for 30 years, we are experts, let’s work together. From there it went to using the term, counter-terrorism. Thus, Plan Colombia, which had started like something directed toward peace that could lead to the end of the conflict, ended up making the conflict much more violent.