Exposing Colombia’s dirty counter-insurgency operations

Researcher Oliver Dodd draws on interviews and field work to look at some of the tactics that the Latin American state, with the support and guidance of the US, has used against Marxist rebels in its 50-year civil war.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s when Colombia’s civil war existentially threatened capitalist interests in Latin America, the US responded with Plan Colombia — a military-oriented initiative that was aimed at addressing the growth of left-wing insurrection led by the Farc and ELN.

This initiative drew heavily on the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RIMA) — innovations enabling advanced weaponry, long-range precision and stealth technology: foliage-penetrating radar, sensory systems that can pick up guerilla movements in isolated locations and drones that can sit silently 24 hours a day on top of mountain ranges, undermining the traditional advantages of rural guerilla struggle.

While the more general and strategic features of counter-insurgency doctrine are well known, many of the routine day-to-day operations used by counter-insurgents are not. Counter-insurgency planners intentionally try to conceal knowledge of these tactical operations so that they can continue to prove effective.

As part of my research on Colombia’s civil war, interviews and discussions with current and former insurgents have revealed some of the most effective dirty tactics used by counter-insurgents.

One demobilised Farc guerilla recounted to me how when she was bathing in a river, she noticed a tiny microchip that had been inserted into the soap she was using to wash. Colombian intelligence had identified a local store they used and inserted a GPS into the soap to guide air strikes to their camp.

Mono Jojoy, one of Farc’s most skilled political-military leaders, was assassinated using a similar technique facilitated by RIMA. As Jojoy was diabetic, he needed special boots for the rugged conditions of guerilla life; Colombian intelligence, assisted by US support, intercepted the merchant responsible for providing the boots, threatening them with extradition to the US if he did not co-operate and a multi-million-dollar reward if he did.

A GPS inside the boots located him near the Farc’s largest guerilla camp. More than 100 planes and helicopters were used in Operation Sodom, provided mostly by the US and Israel, which wiped out Jojoy, his partner and 20 other guerillas.

In a statement to me, Rodrigo Londono, Farc’s commander prior to the 2016 peace agreement and the current leader of the legalised Farc political party, confirmed that “in everything that it was possible to insert GPSs they [the counter-insurgents] did.” In response to these measures, the Farc developed strict rules quarantining what came into camps.

Colombian insurgents often take advantage of borderland spaces in Venezuela and Ecuador, exploiting the sovereign territorial division between nation-states. Colombian military counteract this by sending private “contractors” — nicknamed “Rambos” — for these blatant violations of sovereignty.

Believing it is more effective that local populations do the bidding of counter-insurgency than “outsiders” who are often ignorant of the local conditions, Western counter-insurgents call for local proxies to play the central role in the War on Terror. In Colombia, this has taken the form of paramilitaries legalised by the state but funded by the wealthiest elements. As US funding increased, so too did the terror of the proxies.

In Colombia and elsewhere, the use of proxies is not just of a military-centred nature. Civilian-oriented “NGOs” play a similar role in terms of defending state and dominant class agendas.

Such “humanitarian” groups are often found in areas of high strategic value for the counter-insurgency, where these NGOs work to promote “social cohesion” and organise a separation between the “water” (the problematic working-class insurgent social base) and the “fish” (the anti-systemic struggles dependent on working-class willingness to join the rebels), through “self-help” projects, “popular education” and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor peasants and to co-opt local leaders.

By claiming to be humanitarian groups, corporate-oriented and Western-backed entities like the Crisis Group, which are often better understood as counter-insurgency proxies, get away with defending and reproducing the type of oppressive conditions that gave rise to conflict in the first place.

Another effective counter-insurgency trick has been the use of infiltration in all kinds of amoral ways. In Colombia, attractive women and men are schooled in left-wing rhetoric by the state and tasked to seduce guerilla fighters, including the commanders. Girls have been taken out of orphanages and offered such “economic opportunities” by the military.

This tactic has led to many deaths and strict regulations over relationships have been imposed as a result, to the angst of human rights activists.

A common task assigned to infiltrators is to poison the food of guerilla camps and assassinate commanders. As cooking duties rotate and every guerilla is required to take up collective responsibilities like cooking and standing guard, it can be very difficult identifying infiltrators before they are able to strike.

The US and Colombia systematically dish out hefty bounties to people who help them kill or capture rebels. In 2008 the youngest member of the Farc’s Central High Command and the commander of Farc’s Central Bloc Ivan Rios and his girlfriend were murdered by their bodyguard while they slept. To claim the multimillion-dollar bounty the assassin gave the military Rios’s severed hand.

Peasants and workers are also recruited by counter-insurgents and sent into guerilla strongholds, where they note down and report on local civilian and guerilla activity, while pretending to be poor migrating farmers.

Children are also recruited by the Colombian military. I have come across one child who lived in guerilla territory and claimed to have been offered money by the military to identify milicianos from the ELN — milicianos are guerillas who work in more civilian-dense areas.

A doctor confirmed how when he operated medically on a guerilla fighter after he had been wounded in combat, he was then reported by a colleague at the hospital. With the military having established a paid mercenary network reportedly numbering millions of “civilian” informants, such reports show the extent to which even civilian institutions like schools and hospitals have been compromised.

In hospitals around guerilla zones, before doctors are permitted to assist patients for medical emergencies like snake bites, gunshot wounds, or anything else that could conceivably suggest that the patient has been injured in rural guerilla struggle, the hospital is compelled to report to local military officials and make them aware of the identity of the hospital patient. If the hospital fails to do this, the person responsible could be reported by a colleague who is on the military payroll and then arrested — or worse.

While states like Colombia, Britain and the US all proudly promote “democracy” and their opposition to “authoritarian” forms of government, a look at the dirty tactics they use to repress working-class resistance movements throughout the world exposes this for a sham. Their routine reliance on ruthless state terrorism in their foreign policies is highly authoritarian, repressive, illiberal and fundamentally undemocratic.

Oliver Dodd, is a PhD candidate in Political Economy at Nottingham University and is researching Colombia’s insurgency and peace-making experiences. He can be contacted through his website www.ColombianConflict.com.

Given the widespread targeting of social leaders and activists in Colombia, the names and identities of research participants and interviewees have been intentionally concealed by the author.

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