March 6, 2001
by Liam Craig-Best
[Editor's note: As part of its war-on-drug efforts, the United States is becoming increasingly involved in Colombia's civil war with the guerrillas. The U.S. has pledged more than $1.1 billion toward Plan Colombia, a multi-billion effort to cut Colombia's coca crop in half by 2005. Liam Craig-Best is a freelance writer based in Colombia, and he files regular reports about Colombia including the following report in February, 2001.]
On Thursday February 1, 2001 the European Parliament voted 474 to 1 against the U.S.-backed "Plan Colombia" and announced that the path to peace in Colombia lies in dialogue and land reform.
The European Parliament urged the European Union to pursue "its own, non-military strategy combining neutrality, transparency, the participation of civil society and undertakings from the parties involved in negotiations." This recommendation pointedly excluded the possibility of a role in negotiations for the paramilitary death squads who have recently been running a P. R. campaign with the aim of being declared a legitimate force in their own right.
"Lasting peace cannot be achieved in Colombia without deep-seated changes to the means by which wealth is distributed," says the resolution, "since many of the problems confronting the country stem from the fact that peasant farmers do not own land."
The E.U. parliament's slap down of "Plan Colombia" came ten days after Colombia President Andres Pastrana, on a visit to Paris, urged Europeans to support the U.S.-designed plan with 750 million euros.
In its resolution, the European Parliament said: "Stepping up military involvement in the fight against drugs involves the risk of sparking off an escalation of the conflict in the region. Military solutions cannot bring about lasting peace."
Guerrillas from both the FARC and ELN guerrilla movements appear to be stepping up their attacks against foreign multinationals involved in exploiting Colombian mineral wealth. According to the Financial Times (31/01/01), Alejandro Martinez, president of the Colombian Oil Association, said that the situation is becoming so grave that "there could be a rush for the door by foreign oil companies. We are very worried."
The latest attacks, on January 31, targeted two U.S. multinationals working in Colombia.
In the first incident, FARC guerrillas blew up a section of railway line as a locomotive pulling ninety wagons of coal was approaching. The train, which was derailed, and the railway line it was travelling on were both owned by the U.S. coal-mining firm Drummond Ltd. The company operates the Loma mine, Colombia's second largest, in northern Cesar province, where production averages ten million tons a year. In October 2000, in the face of strong guerrilla and civil society opposition, Colombia sold off its state-run mining company Carbocol for $384 million to a consortium formed by British mining group Billiton Plc, South African natural resources giant Anglo-American Plc and Switzerland's Glencore International.
The second incident involved ELN guerrilla units bombing the Cano Limon oil pipeline six times. The 485-mile long pipeline, Colombia's second largest, is owned and operated by U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. It was bombed a record 98 times last year costing the government and Occidental hundreds of millions of dollars. . In August of last year the bombings reached such a level that Occidental was obliged to declare "force majeure" at the Cano Limon field and could not meet export contracts because hardly any oil could be pumped. In neither attack was anybody injured.
Both guerrilla groups attack such targets to protest foreign corporate dominance of Colombia's mineral industries. They argue that the wealth from such resources should be used to alleviate poverty in Colombia rather than, as is the present situation, being transferred to affluent shareholders in Western nations.
Note: News has just come through today (Feb 6th) that the tenth front of the FARC has blown up the Cano Limon pipeline in 12 separate places over the past few days.
Although Colombian military officers are notorious for spreading all sorts of lies when attempting to hide their relationship with the paramilitaries and simultaneously discredit guerrilla forces, it is rare that they are publicly exposed for such things. In the past few days, however, two senior Colombian army officers have both not only been exposed but have also been made to look absolutely ridiculous when it was discovered that the pair of them were lying to journalists and, in both cases, doing it live on television news programs.
The first incident, on February 2, involved General Francisco Rene Pedraza Palaez, the commander of the Cali-based 3rd Brigade of the Colombian Army. On that morning the general held a well-attended press conference at his headquarters at which he announced that a senior member of the guerrilla movement, FARC Secretariat Commander Jorge Briceno (alias "Mono Jojoy"), was dead. The general's version of the death, which was timed to coincide with delicate talks being held between senior FARC commanders and the government, was confusing to say the least.
At first Pedraza appeared to imply that Briceno was not actually dead but had in fact left Colombia: "The fact is 'Mono Jojoy' hasn't been seen since November, which makes us think he was taken to Cuba after another guerrilla attacked him in a dispute over a woman." He went on to say that Briceno was probably not in Cuba and was in fact dead after having been "killed in a car accident."
Two days later, on Sunday, February 4, the general was exposed when Camilo Gomez, the government's top peace negotiator, announced that while the general had been holding his press conference he himself had been at a meeting with Commander Briceno who was alive and well.
General Pedraza -- who also claimed that Briceno's brother, local level FARC commander German Briceno (alias "Grannobles"), had died -- has a history of making up stories to try and damage the guerrillas. In June 2000, while he was commander of the Seventh Brigade, based in Villavicencio, Meta department, Pedraza told the Panama office of the Spanish news agency EFE that the FARC was using Iraqi money obtained from drug sales to Saddam Hussein to buy up land in southern Colombia!
It is perhaps not surprising to discover that the US military invited Pedraza to be a guest instructor at the US Army "School of the Americas" for four months in 1987. His subject of expertise? Counterintelligence operations.
The second General caught out was General Fabio Bedoya Correa, commander of the First Brigade of the Colombian Army based in Tunja, Boyaca department. On Monday February 5, Bedoya went on television to announce that Eric Steven Viloria, a four-year-old boy whom FARC guerrillas had kidnapped 22 months ago, had just been rescued that morning by troops under his command. According to the General the 28th front of the FARC had taken the boy when he was two and demanded a hefty ransom from his "millionaire relatives."
What the general didn't mention during his triumphant speech was that the child had actually been living with his aunt in the town of Chita, where his parents also lived, due to the fact that his family was too poor to care for him. When the Colombian RCN television network asked General Bedoya to remark on this during the Monday evening news he declined, saying that it was wrong for him to comment on the case and that it was now in the hands of the civilian authorities. To add insult to injury, RCN revealed that the supposed guerrilla of the FARC that had been captured when the child was "liberated" was in fact the boy's aunt.
The charge that they kidnap children is regularly leveled against the FARC by the Colombian armed forces, yet they rarely provide any evidence for the accusations. Indeed, it is believed by many in Colombia that a spate of kidnappings of minors earlier last year, at a time when peace negotiations were in a difficult phase, was actually the work of factions allied to the armed forces.
General Bedoya too has a history of being involved in campaigns to discredit the guerrillas. In May last year, he was the first senior military officer to publicly accuse the FARC of responsibility for the famous "collar bomb" incident in which Elvia Cortes was murdered. The General's remarks, which were widely reported by the international media, led in part, to the government's suspending the peace process. Four days later they were resumed as normal when evidence emerged that the bomb was more likely the work of military intelligence seeking to disrupt negotiations. Although the FARC were later completely exonerated in the incident, the international media, who had been so quick to pick up the original story, paid no attention to the new facts, and people around the world (who saw the famous photograph of the victim) were left with the impression that the outrage had indeed been the work of the guerrillas.
As with General Pedraza, Bedoya too has spent time in the U.S. In spring 1998 he served for a time as Colombia's Assistant Military Attache at the embassy in Washington. The U.S. government apparently had no qualms about playing host to a man who, just before being sent to Washington, had commanded the La Popa Battalion -- one of the military units that had some of the most thoroughly documented links to paramilitary death squads in all of Colombia.
On Sunday 18th February 2001 US personnel were involved in a heavy firefight with guerrillas of the FARC near the town of Curillo in the southern Colombian department of Caqueta.
The incident began when four crop-spraying planes, all piloted by US personnel, accompanied by six helicopters, three of which were also piloted by US personnel, took off from Larandia military base on a anti-narcotics fumigation mission in southern Colombia. This airborne force included four Huey II helicopter gunships, a command craft and one US State Department Air Wing owned Bell 212 ‘search and rescue’ (SAR) helicopter which was flying well above the others should it be required.
According to reports, as the aircraft approached the town of Curillo, guerrillas of the FARC opened fire on them hitting the Colombian pilot of one of the helicopter gunships in the legs and forcing him to land. A second gunship then landed and managed to evacuate one of the four crewmembers of the downed helicopter before being forced to takeoff again due to heavy guerrilla gunfire.
At this point the four remaining helicopter gunships, two of which were piloted by US personnel, engaged guerrilla positions in heavy fire whilst the SAR helicopter moved in to collect the remaining crewmembers. This last helicopter, which also had a US pilot, is known to have had another group of US personnel on board most of whom were apparently armed with M-16 automatic assault rifles. US paramedics were also on this State Department SAR helicopter and it is possible that US personnel were also manning the door-mounted machine guns.
At this point the facts become somewhat obscured as although official sources said at first that this SAR unit never in fact landed and that the three remaining crewmen jumped aboard and were thus rescued, other reports tell a very different story. Indeed the official story also seems to have changed in the last couple of days.
It is now understood that in fact the SAR helicopter, with its heavily armed team of US personnel, did indeed land and that the team actually disembarked and stayed on the ground for some minutes. According to a Miami Herald article on February 22nd the team, including US personnel who are believed to be ex-Special Forces members, removed the machine guns and radios from the downed helicopter before, along with the remaining three crewmen on the ground, they embarked and took off again. As this all took place in the midst of a heavy firefight it is highly likely that the US personnel engaged with the guerrilla forces. This however, is still being denied. According to Colombian police source at least 4 US personnel were on the ground for around ten minutes.
The extent of US involvement in these missions is revealed by a few facts:
Larandia, from where the mission originated, is home to a large number of US Special Forces troops. The base also houses other US personnel including pilots, mechanics, search and rescue teams, paramedics and consultants.
US personnel pilot nearly all of the aircraft used in these missions and most of the helicopters used are part of the US military aid package ‘Plan Colombia’. When Colombian pilots are used US personnel have usually trained them.
The majority of the aeroplanes involved in such missions are owned by the US State Department Air Wing and are only on loan to the Colombian police.
SAR teams of heavily armed US personnel flying in State Department Air Wing owned helicopters always accompany the fumigation missions into guerrilla held territory.
These SAR teams are believed to have engaged in about 15 operations in recent years, about half of them being in combat areas where team members have been fired at.
Although the personnel involved in these missions are not officially part of the US military they are mostly ex-military personnel who are contracted to the US State Department. In the case of operations out of the Larandia base a US military company known as DynCorp employs these men although their orders come from the US Embassy in Bogota and the State Department direct. The company, which was heavily involved in operations during the Vietnam War, is thought to have around 30 US personnel permanently based at Larandia.
Other US military companies are known to operate in Colombia with one of the most important of these being Virginia-based Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI). The company is also directly contracted by the US State Department to help the Colombian security forces and it is known that among other projects they have a team made up of around ten retired senior US military officers in Bogota advising the military high-command on strategic, tactical and logistical issues.
Little is known about the actual types of operations that these companies are involved in, nor are accurate figures available for how many US personnel they use in Colombia. This is due in part to the fact that their State Department contracts forbid them and their employees from speaking with the media and in part due to the classified projects that some of these companies are no doubt involved in.
Yet, despite the secrecy, it is known that at least three DynCorp pilots have been killed whilst on missions over guerrilla-controlled areas. Another DynCorp employee, 34-year-old Michael Demons, is also known to have died in Colombia in October 2000 although no further details are known about this fatality. It is obvious that the US State Department, and a compliant mass media, are very tight-lipped about such incidents fearing that public knowledge of Americans being in combat in Colombia could undermine support for US intervention there.
Other guerrilla attacks on US helicopters in recent days include:
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