A few months ago, I, along with about a dozen others sat back and enjoyed a boat ride on our way to visit an indigenous community in Colombia that could only be reached by river. It was a warm August day, and the spray from the river provided a perfect reprieve from the heat.
As a student I was eager to be in the beautiful country I had been studying and whose complexities provided me with both wonder and infuriation. Swaddled by a warm swath of contentment, I was unsuspectingly jolted from my relaxed stupor when our journey was stopped by a Colombian marine boat.
We were hailed to the bank of the river where a handful of young marines, some probably around my age, asked for our IDs and cast our crew of activists’ glances of contempt and suspicion.
Our group’s safety was derived from our nationality.
Most of us were United States citizens, clearly a bunch of rag tag activists with no intention of trafficking drugs on this river route. But what brought us to this juncture? How did we arrive at a point where mention of the United States in Colombia could evoke both rage, disappointment and hope throughout varying sectors of the Colombian populace? When did the United States begin to increase the force of its wielding hand in Colombia?
In 1959, under the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States sent a Special Survey Team comprised of experts with “irregular warfare” experience in Europe, Asia, and Latin America to Colombia to assess the condition of the nation after a civil war between Conservatives and Liberals, known as La Violencia, that had ravaged the countryside.
After a two-month period between 1959 and 1960, the team produced a report of recommendations outlining a variety of counter-insurgency tactics. Counter-insurgency, a term well known but vaguely understood in today’s militaristic society, incorporates a corpus of psychological operations, civil action initiatives (in which the military participates in local community building projects to win the favor of the people), physical territory consolidation, and killing insurgents.
Today, counter-insurgent (COIN) tactics are advertised as culturally sensitive tools utilized by a humanitarian army. Talk of counter-insurgency often evokes images of U.S. troops liberating oppressed populations. Militarized media, entertainment, and films elide the reality of COIN tactics and dust over the complexities and devastation of war with sensationalized battles and soldier superstars. The truth is much messier and not as fun to watch.
In Colombia, counterinsurgency, or low-intensity conflict (LIC) operations, have been in practice since long before the infamous Plan Colombia, and U.S. recommendations have shaped the landscape of battle.
Recommendations made by the 1959 Special Survey Team sent to Colombia included a call to establish a counter-guerrilla combat force in the Colombian army, and suggested the formation of a government public information service with covert psychological warfare capability”.
In 1962, a follow-up United States Army Special Warfare team, led by the head of the Army Special Warfare Center, William P. Yarborough, emphasized the need for more developed intelligence systems (critical for counter-insurgency operations), as well as for increased security measures.
A supplemental recommendation by Yarborough established grounds for the formation of paramilitaries, which would come to be one of the deadliest forces throughout the conflict. This recommendation advised that civilians and military members be covertly selected to develop an underground civil and military structure.
As written by Yarborough, “this structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents.” This would be supported by the United States.
The first paramilitaries
Following this recommendation, decree 3398 was passed in 1965 to allow Colombian authorities to organize citizens into militia groups. It stated that “all Colombians, men and women…will be used by the government in activities and work that contribute to the reestablishment of order”.
This decree was solidified with a law in 1968, a law that the Colombian military cited as legal justification for working with paramilitaries. Yarborough’s 1962 recommendation, and its deadly repercussions, underscores the desire of the United States to guide the path of Colombian development, and highlights the power a single United States proposal can have on the course of history.
After the completion of the Yarborough report, the Kennedy administration, following its penchant for low intensity conflict, launched the Alliance for Progress in 1962. This plan was advertised as an “economic development strategy for Latin America” that combined a “bullets and beans” strategy, heavy on the bullets. Colombia created a similar plan entitled Plan Lazo that drew from the United States’ previous recommendations.
Under Plan Lazo, Colombia attempted to eliminate independent republics communist guerrillas had established, improve intelligence structures, increase unconventional warfare capabilities, and enact military civic action programs to regain the trust of the populace.
This strategy, like the United States’ Alliance for Progress focused heavily on military intervention with few resources or administrative structures directed towards social reforms. It was largely unsuccessful. The majority of funding and focus of Plan Lazo and the Alliance for Progress was on military control of citizens and situations.
Claims to statehood were based on assertions to a monopoly on violence, not a monopoly on care-taking. Because both plans failed to address necessary structural reforms and economic, political, and social equality, these initiatives failed.
Under the Kennedy administration, United States Special Forces troops were expanded and counter-insurgent strategies prevailed. As it became clear that nuclear weapons were not enough to deter alternative opinions about the veracity of the status quo, the United States began a significant shift in its use of counter-insurgent strategy. Though counter-insurgent strategy continued fail throughout the 60’s, military tacticians began again to tout its effectiveness at the dawn of the 21st century, welcoming a new era of COIN warfare in Colombia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Relying on mantras that depict COIN as a more advanced culturally sensitive type of warfare, PR campaigns have masked that fact that counter-insurgent tactics erase the divide between “civilians” and “combatants”. Divisions are simplified into the notion that “you are either with us or against us”. This does not lead to “culturally sensitive” warfare. It leads to civilian deaths and a strong sense of mistrust among the population. There is no such thing as a culturally sensitive war.
Fast-forward 50 years now and imagine a nerdy 24-year-old student from the United States and a combination of Colombian activists and United States citizens squished together on a boat on their way to visit a small Colombian village. Enjoying the breeze of the wind, the mist of the river, and lost in thoughts about Colombia and its beauty that 24 year old was shaken from her silent stupor as a Colombian marine boat waved hers down.
As she sat and waited for all ID’s to be check by the military she was struck with a fear and mistrust unknown to her in the United States. The presence of these Colombian soldiers, many who might have joined the military for economic mobility and security, placed unease in her stomach and an apprehension in her breath. These emotions lasted only minutes while she sat and waited for their boat to move on.
The 24-year old was granted a reprieve. Yet, for many Colombian citizens there is no liberation from the fear. The bated breath, the pause in action, is sustained and impacts livelihoods, health, and psychological well-being. The United States trains and funds these Colombian troops.
In fact, on September 27th despite significant evidence to the contrary, the State Department certified that the Colombian government was in compliance with the human rights standards required by the United States in order to receive full annual funding. This certification allows Colombian Armed Forces to receive all of its allotted aid from the United States.
Since 2000, the United States has provided about $9.4 billion in aid to Colombia, of which about 6.8 billion has been in the form of military and police assistance. The United States government throws around buzz words like security, democracy, and development and assumes that their definition is universal, correct, and infallible.
For many in Colombia, security does not come in the form of a weapon, democracy is not delivered on the backs of military forces, and development is not something that comes by way of a military uniform. Counterinsurgency is not enlightened warfare nor is it humanitarian.
At its best, counterinsurgency is an effort by the military to understand the communities with which they work. At its worst, counterinsurgency is a form of neo-colonialism designed to understand a population in order to better control them and incorporate them into an economic and socio-cultural model that benefits the occupying country.
Unfortunately, I have never seen nor heard of war “at its best”. Instead war is ripe with unintended consequences and collateral damage. Unfortunately such injurious outcomes have been repetitively demonstrated by Plan Lazo, Plan Colombia, and National Consolidation with few policy changes indicative of learning from past mistakes.
The same President Eisenhower whose administration sent the first Special Survey team to Colombia famously said that “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Ironically, military recommendations given to Colombia under President Eisenhower began to shape a long history of United States military intervention in Colombia. We have fallen down the rabbit hole Eisenhower so eloquently warned against.