Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, the aircraft used to drop “smart bombs” (Photo by the Defense Department)

A major investigative report by The Washington Post’s Dana Priest shows the CIA has overseen and helped the Colombian government target and assassinate rebel leaders. Forces from Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have also provided assistance to the Colombian government, mounting operations to find hostages taken by guerrilla groups. It is all a part of a military assistance program called “Plan Colombia.”

Since 2006, the CIA has contributed “real-time intelligence” to allow Colombian forces to “hunt down” leaders from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). They have transformed “less-than-accurate” 500-pound gravity bombs into precision-guided munitions (PGMs) or “smart bombs” by attaching a “$30,000 GPS guidance kit” to the gravity bombs.

The bombs have been used to kill around “two dozen rebel leaders,” including Luis Edgar Devia Silva, who was known as Raul Reyes. He was “considered to be the No. 2 in the seven-member FARC secretariat” and was killed in Ecuador in an operation that the government of Ecuador strongly condemned as a violation of its sovereignty. The White House viewed it as an act of “self-defense” because Ecuador would not attack the FARC in Ecuador.

As Priest noted, two presidential findings “authorizing covert action” already exist. One permits the CIA to conduct operations against “international terrorist organizations,” and the other, which President Ronald Reagan signed in the mid-1980s, authorizes action against “international narcotics traffickers.”

Congress apparently refused to allow US military involvement to escalate as it did in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama in dirty wars of the 1980s. So, the CIA has played an indirect role in the “targeted killing” of FARC or ELN leaders.

Lawyers for the White House, including officials in the CIA, Justice Department, Defense Department and State Department, initially wondered if it was legal for the US to target individual FARC leaders with “smart bombs.” Would this be assassination, something prohibited under US law? One lawyer asked, “Could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?”

The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel decided to employ the same legal basis used to justify targeting and killing alleged members of al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” Lawyers determined, “Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia. Also, none of the FARC commanders could be expected to surrender.” Plus, FARC was a “threat to US national security” because of Reagan’s finding issued in response to “crack cocaine epidemic” on the streets of America. (Note: Much of this “epidemic” was fueled by the Contras in Nicaragua, which Reagan was backing in a violent struggle against the Sandinistas.)

The US government recognized that Colombia might use the “smart bombs” to go after “perceived political enemies.” From 2006 to 2010, the CIA retained control over the use of “smart bombs” by inserting an encryption key into the bomb. It would be impossible for a bomb to hit its target without the key. If misuse occurred, “the CIA could deny GPS reception for future use.”

The National Security Agency has provided intercepts to troops on the ground or pilots before and during an operation, which are considered a “game changer.”

The use of “smart bombs” to kill rebel leaders in Colombia began before the US began to escalate “targeted killing” operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Therefore, the decision to target rebel leaders should not be seen as one directly influenced by what the US was doing to fight known and suspected members of al Qaeda in the Middle East. That is what makes the existence of this program so alarming.

As noted, the legal basis for the CIA’s involvement in the “targeted killing” of Colombian rebel leaders stems from the same dubious criteria used by the US government to argue it can launch drone strikes against “suspected al Qaeda militants” in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen. It is influenced by the doctrine of preemptive war developed by President George W. Bush’s administration.

No member of the FARC or ELN could reasonably be said to pose any immediate or imminent threat of violent attack against the US. They are fighting the Colombian government, not the US.

It is not even remotely true that FARC or ELN members cannot be captured, as White House lawyers apparently contend. A secret US State Embassy cable from February 2010—and published by WikiLeaks—indicates:

The number of public forces killed in service increased by 25% — from 373 in 2008 to 468 in 2009. The number of public forces wounded in service increased by 10% — from 1,692 in 2008 to 1,852 in 2009 — the highest level in five years. Conversely, kills of FARC members by the Colombian military were down 46% for the year (545 in 2009 compared to 1,010 in 2008), and ELN kills were down 80% in 2009 (34 in 2009 compared to 172 in 2008). Colombian forces captured 1,938 FARC in 2009, down 10% compared to 2008 when 2,168 were captured. Total ELN captures in 2009 (286) were down nearly 10% compared to 2008 levels. Part of the explanation for the decreased numbers is that there are simply fewer FARC to fight, and they have been pushed to increasingly remote areas of Colombia — making it harder for them to demobilize and harder for Colombian forces to engage them. [emphasis added]

The application of government legal theories used to justify “targeted killings” of al Qaeda to “targeted killings” of FARC leaders is inappropriate because, unlike Pakistan or Yemen, where the majority of drone strikes have taken place, Colombia has been experiencing an armed conflict between liberation armies and government forces. The government could not make the argument that these sort of operations are covered by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force signed after the September 11th attacks, which the Obama administration has cited to justify targeted assassinates of alleged al Qaeda suspects.

A Brief History of Colombia’s Internal Armed Conflict

In effect, the US has chosen to take sides in a decades-long class war, which the Colombian government has fueled through its actions intended to suppress revolts by peasants. Brief highlights from the history of Colombia are necessary in order to understand that the Colombia is not simply plagued with “terrorist groups.” It is dealing with the consequences of making it impossible for opposition groups to organize and flourish in the country.

According to a story written by Ricardo Vargas Meza for the NACLA Report on the Americas in 1998:

The origins of the FARC lie in the peasant struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. The harsh working and living conditions imposed on peasants by owners of large coffee-producing estates as well as disputes over property rights led to a process of peasant and indigenous organizing around labor demands and broader political concerns. This process first took hold in the rural areas of southern Tolima, a department in central Colombia. It soon spread to Viota, in the heart of the coffee-producing Cundinamarca department, and then to the rest of that region. These organizing efforts were met with brutal army repression, setting the stage for the emergence of armed self-defense strategies within the peasant movement by the end of the 1940s. Such self-defense strategies sought to protect peasant interests and prevent external forces from disrupting social and economic life.

A “ten-year period known as La Violencia” began in 1948 when populist leader Jorge E. Gaitan was assassinated. Violence erupted and “peasant self-defense and guerrilla groups became the central focus of the Colombian Communist Party (PC) during this period, particularly as a result of the dismantling of the workers’ movement and the proscription of the PC.”

Alfredo Molano, weekly columnist for the newspaper, El Espectador, wrote in a story titled, “The Evolution of the FARC,” that between 1948 and 1958, “La Violencia took the lives of more than 300,000 Colombians.” The government armed Conservative peasants to “subdue” Liberal uprisings and provided support to them through the National Police.

“In 1953, an anti-Communist military strongman, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, came to power by force, backed by elements within both traditional parties and—significantly—by Washington. Once securely in power, the General decreed an amnesty which was welcomd by the armed peasants of the eastern plains and by many Liberals and Conservatives as well,” according to Molano.

He further recounted, “In 1955, a military operation was launched against rural regions that remained strongholds of agrarian guerrillas who had fought in the name of Gaitan, and where Communist guerrillas were also concentrated. Backed by Washington’s National Security Doctrine and a $170 million US loan, Rojas Pinilla began bombing guerrilla and opposition peasant positions. The guerrilla movement tried to dig in and hold out in the highlands, but was ultimately forced to retreat to the jungles of the Andean foothills.”

Anti-Pinilla demonstrations erupted in the country and were violently repressed as the government accused Communists of “disturbing public order.” Liberal and Conservatives brought La Violencia to an end with an agreement to “share public offices and alternate in the presidency.” That left land conflicts unresolved and violence persisted. It became apparent that “rigid political and agrarian structures” were not going to permit peaceful revolution so, in the 1960s, the ELN, the People’s Liberation Army and FARC formed.

“By dismantling the possibilities for the existence of a democratic left, the state created conditions for the emergence of an opposition that was almost entirely extraparliamentary in nature,” Meza argued.

The 1980s saw the government of Belisario Betancur attempt to bring about a ceasefire between the FARC and Military High Command by trying to incorporate some of the FARC’s socioeconomic demands. Betancur appeared to recognize “guerrilla violence was the product of real social conditions and he understood the relationship between those conditions and the demands of the insurgents.” But, in 1986, the government of Virgilio Barco reversed all that had been initiated by Betancur and members of a political front started by the FARC called the Patriotic Union began to be targeted.

“Once again, the state’s discourse reduced the guerrillas to a symptom of dysfunctions at the local-level,” Meza described. “In this context, the state unleashed a dirty war, primarily against the Patriotic Union. During 1988 alone, close to 200 leaders of the Patriotic Union were assassinated.”

The FARC grew “rapidly as a result of a government crackdown on the legal opposition.”

It was also around this time, as Molano detailed, that paramilitary forces in the country financed by Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin Cartel, were growing. “With Escobar’s financing and the army’s tolerance, paramilitaries began decimating the leftist [Patriotic Union] with impunity. It was during Barco’s subsequent administration that most of the UP’s activists were murdered. The final days of Barco’s government were notably violent. Gunmen assassinated four presidential candidates.”

More than ten years ago, Meza concluded:

As the war in the Colombian countryside expands, even small spaces within which political dialogue could take place are rapidly disappearing. The armed actors are preparing themselves for a larger confrontation that will not brine the conflict to an end–despite the opinion of some who believe that the armed forces could defeat the guerrillas if they only had more fire power. But few argue that even a military defeat of the guerrillas would allow the Colombian state to regain its monopoly over the use of force and the administration of justice, much less bring peace to Colombia. The problem goes much deeper. As long as the war is not recognized as an expression of the structural crisis of Colombian society and of the virtually nonexistent legitimacy of the Colombian state, it will be impossible to take serious steps toward institutional restructuring at both the regional and national level which could in any way provide a framework for a resolution of the conflict. Until this changes, the country will continue to oscillate between justifications for the war and a choreographed dance of peace, all the while ignoring the underlying problems that plague Colombian politics. [emphasis added]

Under Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the CIA and JSOC began its program of helping Colombian forces drop “smart bombs” on FARC leaders. Uribe refused to admit that his country was embroiled in war, preferring to characterize the actions of the FARC and ELN as “terrorist activities,” just like the US government.

Colombia Has Refused to Acknowledge It is Waging a War, Preferring to Address FARC or ELN as ‘Terrorist’ Problem

This attitude of downplaying the severe nature of the conflict and its impact on civilians—as well as the reality that it is not one-sided and entirely a result of violence from the FARC—has upset human rights organizations.

Refugees International put out a report in 2005, where it declared:

For months Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has downplayed the armed conflict in his country, a conflict which has displaced over two million Colombians and forces up to 370 Colombians from their homes every day as the result of atrocities committed by all sides. President Uribe denies there is a conflict in Colombia, and instead refers to the perpetuation of violence as “terrorist activities.” By characterizing the conflict as a terrorist threat, the government is able to deny civilians protection guaranteed under international humanitarian law. In some cases civilians themselves are seen as part of the problem, rounded up in mass detentions, encouraged to act as informants against their neighbors, and formed into rural militias as “campesino soldiers.”

The US government could have attempted to bring government and revolutionary leaders to the table to negotiate peace. Yet, because the US sides with the Colombian government against peasants, who have engaged in violent struggle, and always has opposed them, the government chose to engineer “smart bombs,” which the Colombian government could use to kill FARC leaders.

CIA, JSOC Fueling a Conflict Favored by the Military Establishment?

Juan Manuel Santos, who was the country’s defense minister when Uribe was the country’s leader, is the current president. The US is even more trusting of his government, as evidenced by the fact that he was given the encryption key for the “smart bombs.”

The Colombian government has been negotiating with FARC leaders in Havana for the past year, but, as Priest explained in the last part of her story, “On Dec. 15, the FARC said it would begin a 30-day unilateral cease-fire as a sign of good will during the holiday season. The Santos administration rebuffed the gesture and vowed to continue its military campaign. Later that day, security forces killed a FARC guerrilla implicated in a bomb attack on a former minister. Three days later, the army killed another five.”

The government cannot continue to kill FARC members (with full US support) and expect to achieve any meaningful success in negotiations for peace. Of course, the Colombian military establishment may not truly desire peace. They may want to keep on fighting FARC and the peace talks in Havana may be an avenue to further coerce revolutionary groups into submitting to the government’s power.

On Apri 23, 2012, according to Nazih Richani, a professor of Latin American studies at Kean University, more than 100,000 people participated in a “Patriotic March” in Bogota, Colombia, to call for an “end to political violence, oppression and poverty” that has plagued the country.” The march was a result of organization by the National Patriotic Council, which consisted of 4,000 representatives from more than 1,700 grassroots organizations. However, General Alejandro Navas, the head of the Colombian Armed Forces, “accused the Patriotic March of being infiltrated by guerrillas.” Two retired generals also called for a coup because Santos was willing to hold peace talks with the FARC while the strength of a popular movement was increasing.

The bloated Colombian military–including 500,000 soldiers and police–cannot be sustained unless the civil war continues, or unless the United States can find an international role for the behemoth institution,” Richani concluded. “The enemies of peace and social justice in Colombia are many, but their friends are potentially much more numerous. The question is: Can the Patriotic March harness this potential to empower and unite the millions to reach a tipping point for peace?”

Does Colombia Have a Nelson Mandela That Who Has Been “Smart Bombed”?

Finally, the African National Congress, in its struggle against apartheid in South Africa, had a military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which Nelson Mandela co-founded. MK employed sabotage. This is because Mandela believed whether to use nonviolence or violence in struggles was dependent on conditions.

“When the only way of making a forward movement, of solving problems, is the use of force: when peaceful methods become inadequate. That is a lesson of history, right down the centuries and…in every part of the world,” Mandela said.

The CIA helped facilitate the arrest of Mandela, who was charged with attempting to overthrow the apartheid government through violent means, put on trial and eventually convicted and sentenced to prison at Robben Island. In 1988, the State Department listed the ANC as a terrorist organization and Mandela was considered a “terrorist” until he was removed from the a watchlist in 2008.

What if the CIA under Reagan had this technology in the 1980s? Would they have been dropping “smart bombs” on militant leaders in the struggle to end South African apartheid? Would it even have been possible to argue the government was not helping the white government go after its “perceived political enemies,” as the US government seems to contend as it helps Colombia carry out assassinations?

The US has a rich history of using targeted assassination to go after groups—including the Phoenix program in the 1960s.

The Obama administration may insist it is not continuing a policy of assassination that was supposed to have been outlawed by President Gerald Ford, but, in fact, this program continues a dirty war, which America has been fueling for decades through its actions.

It is easy for Americans to look at the record of violence by guerrillas from the FARC and ELN and conclude the Colombian government is justified in bombing its leaders to crush them. It is much harder, especially if one is ignorant of history, to understand that the US has played a role in enabling violent oppression of peaceful resistance. But, history must be consulted and it should be recognized that the government bears responsibility for contributing to conditions that led to the emergence of liberation groups willing to use violence to achieve political objectives.