The Phoenix Rises Again

Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. A prime example is Plan Colombia, the US initiative to send military aid to Columbia to squash leftist insurgencies there under cover of the War on Drugs. The parallels between Plan Columbia and the Vietnam War’s “Operation Phoenix” are notable and numerous, both actions relying on intimidation on the part of paramilitaries. And in both cases, the US was/is directly involved.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is on record as saying he supports the current policy in Colombia, but wants to “try to regionalize the approach, (and) get all of the nations in the area to recognize that the problem is theirs as well as Colombia’s.” What’s left unsaid here is that the US intends to make it their problem whether these countries see it that way or not. The recent construction of forward air bases in Ecuador and El Salvador make this clear.

If one recalls US involvement in Indochina in the early 1960s, there was also a push to “regionalize” that conflict in order to pursue Vietnamese revolutionary forces into their places of refuge in Cambodia and Laos. In Laos, another aspect of this operation was the hiring of Laotians opposed to the Pathet Lao insurgency to interrogate, torture, and kill civilian supporters of the Pathet Lao. It was the leaders of some of these US-created paramilitaries who eventually helped the CIA set up a heroin dealing operation. Since the infusion of U.S. money as part of Plan Colombia, the role of the right-wing paramilitaries has become more pronounced. In fact, the numerous massacres of “suspected guerrilla sympathizers” by these forces (over 70 killed in the first 17 days of 2001) is reminiscent of the role played by various Vietnamese extralegal armies just before the massive U.S. military involvement in that country back in the early 1960s. There were a number of counterinsurgency programs operating in southern Vietnam at the time under a variety of agencies. Foremost in all of these programs’ missions, however, was the isolation of revolutionary forces from the general population and intimidation of the civilian population to prevent them from actively supporting the revolutionaries. These extralegal forces were usually composed of career criminals, former Vietnamese Army troops accused of excessive brutality while in uniform, defectors from the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, and released prisoners. They achieved their goals by psychological intimidation, physical torture, imprisonment, and murder — all of which they learned from their CIA and US military trainers. Some of Colin Powell’s early military career was spent in the jungles of Vietnam leading squads of these men.

Eventually, the various programs were coordinated under one CIA-managed operation known as Operation Phoenix. This program of planned assassination resulted in the deaths of nearly 50,000 Vietnamese. The modus operandi used in Operation Phoenix was further refined during the US war in Central America during the 1980s. By refined, it is generally meant that the methods stayed the same, but greater US deniability is created, usually by having local troops and agents commit the actual torture and murder. As for Powell, he continues to support this type of operation, calling it the “drain the sea” approach in his 1995 memoirs. Until recently, US advisors were supposedly only in Colombia to train members of the regular army. In fact, various reports from Latin American media have reported the presence of US “trainers” actually helping to carry out raids and other missions in the Colombian countryside. All of this was set up in 1991, under the tutelage of the U.S. Defense Department and the CIA. This was accomplished under a Colombian military intelligence integration plan called Order 200-05/91.

The role the paramilitaries play is one that supplements the strategy of the regular Colombian army. Indeed, some of the players are members of both. Sometimes the role is purely intelligence — that is, gathering names of suspected revolutionaries — and other times their role is much more murderous. To put it succinctly, the paramilitaries commit the war crimes that the Colombian regular army can’t due to public relations concerns of the Colombian and US governments. Some officers were trained at the School of the Americas (SOA) in Georgia — a notorious military training center that specializes in interrogation, torture and other “counterterror” methods. Many of those officers have certainly transferred their training at this school and by advisors in Colombia to their after-hours paramilitary activities. Human Rights Watch reports that at least seven SOA graduates are highly involved with the paramilitary. With the assistance and training of the CIA, DEA, and the US military and their private contractors, these armies conduct search-and-destroy missions in the Colombian countryside, easing the way for the regular armed forces to move in and hold territory. In an article in The San-Antonio Express News, it was pointed out that the most impressive offensive by one of the paramilitaries – the AUC – “has come in Putumayo province, which will be ground zero in the military phase of Plan Colombia – the place where American-made helicopters will land American-trained troops to do battle with forces protecting the coca fields.” (1/17/01) In other words, this is where the Colombian military intends to begin its offensive against the revolutionary forces. It is no coincidence that the AUC has concentrated its attacks there.

It is important to note that the United States is not very supportive of the current peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government. This is because a negotiated peace would ruin their plans for the region. One cannot reiterate enough that the US does not want a settlement that would legitimize the revolutionary forces in any way. The only acceptable solution as far as the US is concerned is total victory over the rebel forces. This was clearly stated by the Pentagon well before Plan Colombia was put into action. Any other result would create a situation that would force the US to negotiate with the FARC and ELN — something it is philosophically opposed too. A similar scenario arose in Vietnam in the early 1960s: much of the Saigon government wished to reach an agreement with the NLF revolutionary forces in order to preserve some power for themselves and prevent further Americanization of the war. The US response to this desire was to increase its military presence and isolate those elements that preferred negotiations over military engagement. This may already be happening in Colombia where negotiations are taking place between FARC and the government while US-led forces cooperate with the local paramilitaries in counterrevolutionary and fumigation efforts.