The Coastal Post - April 2000

The Democratization of Corruption-Colombia,
the US and the War on Drugs

By Sandy Leon

President Clinton's $1.6 billion military aid package to "fight the drug war," will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia into the US. It will do nothing to stop the demand for reality transformation in the US that drives the record consumption of cocaine and its nasty stepsister, crack. It will do nothing to discourage the embittered classes in the US from packing white powder-or whatever substance is available- into pipes, and inhaling their own death sentences.

Clinton's "anti-drug money" will do nothing to stop the economically better-off but nonetheless bored and disillusioned classes of young people in middle America from dropping out of their understaffed, underfunded schools to wait tables. Nor will it stop the record numbers of young people who smoke cigarettes on their work breaks and/or drink so much alcohol after work, that snorting god-knows-what through filthy currency shoved up their noses becomes the only "stabilizer." It will do nothing to keep these same young people from becoming part or full-time drug dealers themselves to avoid sharing any responsibility for the consumer-driven mess their elders have created.

Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey's strategy of eradication by fumigation is a failure. Recent studies by the CIA estimate that even when coca plants receive a direct hit, only 25 percent of them die. Since 1994, the US has spent billions to spray millions of gallons of poisonous chemicals. They have succeeded only in destroying the fragile ecosystem of jungle rainforests, and making its people sick, while coca production has surged. Fumigation pushes the growers somewhere else and keeps the ranks of the guerrillas swelling with new life.

The US-style "war on drugs" has done worse than nothing to stop the murderous drug-dealing of wealthy Colombian landowner Ramon Isaza and his compadres, for whom the $1.6 billion US aid package will likely serve as a funding bonanza.

One of the ruling elite's "best and brightest," Colombia's Ramon Isaza is also one of that country's most notorious leaders of its right-wing paramilitary death squads. A major drug-trafficker, Isaza is protected by the Colombian security forces who have long relied on him to do much of their dirty work.

Isaza's ties to the US go back to the late 1970s, when he was a key figure in organizing what would become the Colombian paramilitary "death squads." Mentored by the CIA, Isaza received most of his financing from Texaco Oil Company, and today Isaza, along with Carlos Castano, are at the top echelon of Colombia's infamous death-squads.

On February 18, 2000, an article appeared in the Chicago Tribune bearing the headline, "Paramilitary leader admits ruthless acts." Journalist Paul de la Garza interviewed Ramon Isaza at his vast estate in the mountains of Colombia. He identifies Ramon Isaza as, "the founder of Colombia's notorious right-wing paramilitary movement," and writes that Isaza spoke of his murderous assaults against Colombian civilians, "without a tinge of remorse." Isaza, says de la Garza, "believes his movement" is the answer to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, who have been at war with the government since 1964. In fact, so much so that an associate of Ramon Isaza told the Chicago Times reporter, "Ramon is the government can assume he operates with the military's blessing." In his article, de la Garza noted that, "if a foreign journalist could track him would seem logical that the Colombian authorities could nab him."

One would think.

Unfortunately, in this beleaguered and blighted Latin American country, it's not that simple. Any peasant will tell you that in many villages the paramilitaries are stronger than the government-as one of Isaza's henchmen told the Chicago Tribune, "simply because there is no government."

It should come as no surprise then that Professor Dennis Grammenos, who teaches Geography at Northeastern Illinois University, and publishes the Colombian Labor Monitor in Chicago says, "the $1.6 billion in US aid will only strengthen the hand of the death squads in their campaign of terror against the civilian population."

In fact human rights activists from Amnesty International, Rainforest Action Network and other organizations too numerous to list, have documented the torture, atrocities, disappearances and outright murders of civilians in Colombia's protracted civil war. They consistently allege that it is the paramilitaries or "death squads" who bear responsibility for a vast majority of Colombian carnage.

Even the Colombian government has been forced to concede in the face of overwhelming physical evidence that the paramilitaries are the main perpetrators in a series of massacres, and have played a major role in the displacement of up to 1.5 million Colombians trapped in that slaughterhouse.

Demands by some in Congress that Colombian President Andres Pastrana and his military "rein in the paramilitaries" as a precondition for receiving the additional $1.3 billion (the other $240 million has already been received) may be well-intentioned, but they miss the point. The paramilitary forces are an integral part of the very system the Clinton administration seeks to sustain. Its existence depends on-is fueled by-he same brutality and intimidation the US says it wants 'reined in.'

In fact, it has come to characterize the very heart of Colombia's ruling class.

Fighting The FARC-Will The Real Narco-Traffickers Please Stand UP

While the FARC (and the ELN, a lesser-understood yet active insurgency) are hardly without sin in the violent chaos that has come to epitomize Colombia, their very existence stands in stark contrast to that of the paramilitary death squads whose sole purpose has always been to protect Colombia from its own. In the life of a paramilitary soldier, the systematic stifling of pesky peasant uprisings-including any utterings of dissent among the rank and file and the "enforcement" of gag orders on human rights workers and activists of any kind-are all part of a day's dirty work. Their mission, too lucrative for any respectable member of the underclass to refuse, is to serve and protect at any cost the minority landowning classes in Colombia.

There is plenty of evidence that the FARC are guilty as charged of "drug-taxing" for profit and other nasty deeds, but it is historically well-documented that the FARC and ELN both were born of suffering and deprivation. In other words the FARC's guerilla war on the Colombian government began as-and still is-a class war.

The ELN has a point to make when it blows up the oil pipelines of Texaco or Occidental Petroleum. Big Oil is rapidly replacing not only the once-pristine rainforest environment of Colombia's jungles, but its indigenous people as well. The recent "relocation" of the U'wa by Occidental Petroleum should serve as a cruel reminder to anyone who cares, of US-style "manifest destiny" policies of past centuries, responsible for the genocidal slaughter and "relocation" of indigenous people here in the northern hemisphere.

The Privatization Of Public Wealth, aka State-Sanctioned Stealing

The so-called "anti-drug package" is not that at all. Instead, it is a blatant effort by the Clinton administration and its corporate neoliberal champions of privatization to prop up and protect a ruthless system of government from its own people-all in the name of stability. The mandate of corporate manifest destiny-as embodied in US policy-is to make the world safe, not for democracy, but for corporate investment/privatization. Toward that interest, the Clinton administration seeks to support the same corrupt regime whose rotten underpinnings are responsible for the systematic obliteration of its own people and environment. Scrutinized in the eerie light of reality, the concept of mitigation or reining in (the death squads) is little more than a tragic joke.

It is no secret that distribution of wealth in Colombia, and for that matter most of Latin America, is-quite bluntly-nonexistent. At least since the days when European corsairs, pirates and buccaneers blundered into the Caribbean, any wealth discovered in this resource-rich land was confiscated and jealously hoarded by a few, to the exclusion of the vast majority.

Those fortunate enough to be inside those circles of wealth and power have never been eager to share the bootie, but about a decade ago a funny thing happened. An almost-transparent shift in terminology began to trickle down from within the elite inner sanctum of global corporate governance. The story of how the confiscation, no, swindling of public wealth became known as privatization is a shameful one-and its chapter should be well-marked in the history books of corporate globalization.

Colombia is a tragic example of one of globalization's cruelest casualties. Private Gain = Public Loss; The Shameful Ripoff Of Columbia

In what has been called "the biggest white-collar hold-up in Colombia's history," in the early 1990s a little-publicized incident became a tragic example of how simple linguistic trickery can and does enable the forces of privatization to legitimately steal public wealth.

Back in 1990 Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, a member of Colombia's Liberal Party and elected Colombian president, became neoliberalism's newest convert and an ardent subscriber to the multinational corporate agenda. He opened up Colombian markets for globalization, and the landgrab that followed was to change Colombia's geopolitical landscape forever.

In brief, during the early 1990s Colombia still had five nationalized ports-Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Buenaventura and Tumaco. They were all run by a single organization known as Colpuertos.

When the newly converted neoliberal president Gaviria organized a hugely successful public relations campaign claiming the ports were in a mess, and needed to be privatized, they were subsequently privatized. That precipitated a massive state sell-off of assets and machinery, in which French journalist Maurice Lemoine says, "equipment and tools...vanished into thin inventories of the dock installations, no calls for tenders issued..."

The business of awarding contracts [to private corporate interests] was left to the discretion of a civil servant, the superintendente portuario, who placed them where he saw fit. This was all quickly legalized, under legislation hastily put-together by Gaviria and his cronies.

So it was that Colombia's state assets were transferred to private businesses. But that's not all.

According to Lemoine, "Behind the front men who rushed to land this lucrative deal were all the top brass of the liberal and conservative parties...political leaders like Vidas Lacouture and Davilas, powerful families from the coastal strip, like that of Francisco Villas Cos, cronies of those in power and people to whom the president owed favours..."

At the time, the five ports employed over 15,000 workers, who belonged to eight trade unions and a federation that had won for them major privileges. Gaviria's solution-a massive firing of all 15,000, the likes of which Colombia had never before seen in its entire labor history.

The port installations were then handed over for next-to-nothing to corporations that had sprung up out of nowhere, and to private parties with no experience in this kind of business venture. Further complicating matters, written into the transference contract was a clause that provided that " shouldered by the national exchequer...the nation responsible for paying retirement pensions of whatever kind, other social benefits and compensation and costs for which Puertos de Colombia are liable." In other words, as Lemoine puts it, "the sting was set up and ready...there were going to be lots and lots of costs," not to the profiting parties, but to the Colombian Government-which still hasn't made good on its debt to the workers.

That incident marked the beginning of a state-sponsored corporate ripoff, the ramifications of which still have not been fully realized. It marked one of Colombia's first adventures in privatization; even the word, "privatization" seemed to have cropped up in the vernacular of the Colombian corporate elite almost overnight. The ripple-effect of the mess it created is felt to this day.

Eight years later in Bogota, Senator Ingrid Betancourt called the [Gaviria] privatization scheme, "no more than a diversionary tactic to open the way for the biggest hold-up in the history of Colombia." But it was all perfectly legal under Gaviria's new legislation. So, writes Lemoine, "All these happy incompetents... become instant millionaires."

And, of course, "the ports invoice their services in US dollars."

Just Say No To U.S. Support For Drug Dealers

Now welded into Colombia's sad history, stories like the one above are all too common in the wake of a current corporate fad that is sweeping the globe, and known euphemistically as privatization.

It is worth noting that during this time, with the support of the US Government, ex-president Gaviria has been reinstalled as secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS). And, faced with an unprecedented economic crisis, President Andres Pastrana has asked for help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Tragically, the methods employed by the Colombian military and its paramilitary death squads to maintain stability in order to placate their US/IMF benefactors come at a horrendous cost.

On December 20, 1999, the IMF granted $2.7 billion to Bogota-roughly equivalent, notes Maurice Lemoine, "to the amount that has disappeared into the pockets of the politicians." But IMF loans never come without strings, and the loan to Colombia includes a demand by the IMF for serious tightening-up on the part of the Colombian government. In "IMFese," that means still deeper cuts in already-emaciated budgets for schools, hospitals and roads, reforms in social security and public-sector pensions, greater flexibility in the labor market. The all-too-obvious cure when these gutted state agencies prove inept and unable to efficiently provide their services? Natch-further privatizations.

The history of Colombia-with it's impoverished peasant farmers forced to grow a death crop under the watchful eyes of gun-wielding desperados, its government-sanctioned campaign of terror against hundreds of thousands of workers and their labor union representatives (including the systematic deployment of death squads with US weapons) and its genocidal collusion with Big Oil companies including Texaco and Occidental Petroleum in the relocation of the indigenous U'wa people from their ancestral homeland- could still offer a chance of redemption.

The plight of the Colombian people under the relentless onslaught of neoliberalism underscores the need for a closer look at the morality of privatization and its brutal underpinnings. The $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia's military-currently designated primarily for new radar-equipped helicopters, US training to Colombian forces and a fraction (about $31 million) to build Colombia's economy, is only the beginning. It is well understood within the circle of friends, that more US money will be needed-and by then the US investment will be too big to fail.

For now the US aid package serves its purpose-it's a useful insurance policy for Colombia's ruling classes and the forces of corporate privatization. Besides, if the aid package is approved as is, United Technologies Corporation-based in Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd's home state of Connecticut-stands to be the beneficiary of a $400 million contract for the 30 Si-korsky UH-60L Blackhawks, in what the NY Times describes as, "Christmas - not only for the... Colombian military...but also for United Technologies Corporation." That may explain the uncharacteristically hawkish positions assumed by both Senator Dodd and Democratic Congressman Sam Gejdenson.

A competing push was made by Bell Helicopter Textron-the Texas subsidiary of Textron that also happens to produce the so-called Huey II, considered a possible alternative to the Blackhawk. Congress is now debating President Clinton's $1.6 billion aid proposal for Colombia that includes the 30 additional Blackhawks and 32 upgraded "Super-Huey" choppers.

Both Bell Helicopter Textron and United Technologies Corporation are major military contractors and generous political contributors to both major parties. By 1997, sending Blackhawks to the Colombian National Police had become what the NY Times called, "an obsession for several powerful Republican legislators." Colombia represents "a critical foothold in a rich and growing Latin American market," according to industry officials.

The Times reported that in the 1996 and 1998 election cycles, Textron and its employees gave $551,816 to Republicans and $364,420 to Democrats. It was only when the State Department cut financing for some development programs that the plan came under attack by the same Republican legislators who once championed Blackhawks for the Colombian police.

The 30 Blackhawks (along with a temporary fleet of 33 surplus UH-1N helicopters) are intended to fly American-trained battalions of the Colombian Army into the coca-growing regions of southern Colombia dominated by leftist guerrillas. But even if US-trained soldiers succeed in beating back the traffickers and the rebels who protect their operations, they still will do less than nothing to stem the flow of drugs from Latin America-or anywhere else-into the US.

Colombia now sports a whole new class of drug dealers; they've turned in their battle fatigues for silk suits and their pick-up trucks for BMWs; and they have very good friends at very high altitudes, who gravitate in the very same circle of friends as the recipients of that anti-drug money. They are well taken care of by the same military/paramilitary henchmen who will-in the absence of massive protests in the US and abroad-receive $1.6 billion in US taxpayers money.

President Clinton's request for another $1.3 billion is still in committee. Once it reaches the floor of the House of Representatives and the inertia has begun to take hold, it will be more difficult to weigh in. The time to voice your dissent is now.

Sandy Leon is a freelance journalist and producer of news/public affairs programming at Marin County radio station KWMR and KPFA in Berkeley. Her program, 'Global NewsBeat' can be heard on KWMR at 90.5 FM. Her work on Colombia has received national distribution in a documentary entitled, "Narco Cover," distributed by the National Radio Project. Her most recent documentary, "The Tyranny of Corporate Benevolence," is scheduled to be produced in April by the National Radio Project's "Making Contact."

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