Muscling Latin America | The Nation


Muscling Latin America

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Traditionally in most counterinsurgencies, the "clear" stage entails a plausibly deniable reliance on death-squad terror--think Operation Phoenix in Vietnam or the Mano Blanca in El Salvador. The Bush administration was in office by the time Plan Colombia became fully operational, and according to the Washington Post's Scott Wilson, it condoned the activities of right-wing paramilitaries, loosely organized as the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC in Spanish. "The argument at the time, always made privately," Wilson writes, "was that the paramilitaries"--responsible for most of Colombia's political murders--"provided the force that the army did not yet have." This was followed by the "hold" phase, a massive paramilitary land grab. Fraud and force--"sell, or your widow will," goes many an opening bid--combined with indiscriminate fumigation, which poisoned farmlands, to turn millions of peasants into refugees. Paramilitaries, along with their narcotraficante allies, now control about 10 million acres, roughly half of the country's most fertile land.

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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After parts of the countryside had been pacified, it was time to "build" the state. Technically, the United States considers the AUC to be a terrorist organization, part of the narcoterrorist triptych, along with FARC and the narcos, that Southcom is pledged to fight. But Plan Colombia did not so much entail an assault on the paras--aside from the most recalcitrant and expendable--as create a venue through which, by defining public policy as perpetual war, they could become the state itself. Under the smokescreen of a government-brokered amnesty, condemned by national and international human rights groups for institutionalizing impunity, paras have taken control of hundreds of municipal governments, establishing what Colombian social scientist León Valencia calls "true local dictatorships," consolidating their property seizures and deepening their ties to narcos, landed elites and politicians. The country's sprawling intelligence apparatus is infiltrated by this death squad/narco combine, as is its judiciary and Congress, where more than forty deputies from the governing party are under investigation for ties to the AUC.

Plan Colombia, in other words, has financed the opposite of what is taking place in neighboring Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, where progressive movements are fitfully trying to "refound" their societies along more inclusive lines. In place of the left's "participatory democracy," Colombian President Álvaro Uribe offers "democratic security," a social compact whereby those who submit to the new order are promised safe, even yuppified cities and secure highways, while oppositional civil society suffers intimidation and murder. Colombia remains the hands-down worst repressor in Latin America. More than 500 trade unionists have been executed since Uribe took office. In recent years 195 teachers have been assassinated, and not one arrest has been made for the killings. And the military stands accused of murdering more than 2,000 civilians and then dressing their bodies in guerrilla uniforms in order to prove progress against the FARC.

It also seems that many right-wing warriors are not cut out for the quiet life offered by the Paz Uribista. The Bogotá-based think tank Nuevo Arco Iris reports mini civil wars breaking out among "heirs of the AUC" for control of local spoils. Yet Plan Colombia continues to be hailed. Flying home from a recent Bogotá-hosted GCOIN conference, the former head of Southcom wrote on his blog that Colombia is a "must see" tourist spot, having "come a long, long way in controlling a deep-seated insurgency just over two hours flight from Miami--and we could learn a great deal from their success."

Seen in light of his escalation in Afghanistan, Obama's support for the Colombian base deal endorses the kind of elastic threat assessment that has turned the "long war" against radical Islam into a wide war where ultimate victory will be a world absent of crime--"counterinsurgen-
cies without end," as Andrew Bacevich recently put it.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Washington tried to conscript all of Latin America in the fight. In October 2003 it pushed the Organization of American States to include corruption, undocumented migration, money laundering, natural and man-made disasters, AIDS, environmental degradation, poverty and computer hacking alongside terrorism and drugs as security threats. In 2004 an Army War College strategist proposed "exporting Plan Colombia" to all of Latin America, which Donald Rumsfeld tried to do later that year at a regional defense ministers meeting in Ecuador. He was rebuffed; countries like Chile and Brazil refuse to subordinate their militaries, as they did during the cold war, to US command.

So the United States retrenched, setting about to fight the wide war in a narrower place, creating a security corridor running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico. With a hodgepodge of treaties and projects, such as the International Law Enforcement Academy and the Merida Initiative, Obama is continuing the policies of his predecessors, spending millions to integrate the region's military, policy, intelligence and even, through Patriot Act-like legislation, judicial systems. This is best thought of as an effort to enlarge the radius of Plan Colombia to create a unified, supra-national counterinsurgent infrastructure. Since there is "fusion" among Latin American terrorists and criminals, goes a typical argument in a recent issue of the Pentagon's Joint Force Quarterly, "countering the threat will require fusion on our part."

At the same time, schemes like the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project are using World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank financing to synchronize the highway, communication and energy networks of Mexico, Central America and Colombia, blending the North American and Central American free-trade treaties and, eventually, the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement into a seamless whole. Thomas Shannon, Bush's top envoy to Latin America and Obama's ambassador to Brazil, called these initiatives "armoring NAFTA."

"Fusion" is a good word for this integration, since the melding of neoliberal economics and counterinsurgent diplomacy is explosive. One effect of Plan Colombia has been to diversify the violence and corruption endemic to the cocaine trade, with Central American and Mexican cartels and military factions taking over export of the drug to the United States. This cycle of violence is reinforced by the rapid spread of mining, hydroelectric, biofuel and petroleum operations, which wreak havoc on local ecosystems, poisoning land and water, and by the opening of national markets to US agroindustry, which destroys local economies. The ensuing displacement either creates the assorted criminal threats the wide war is waged to counter or provokes protest, which is dealt with by the avengers the wide war empowers.

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