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Why HMG and New Labour support Columbian death squads

Paul Rigby

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Johann Hari: Why is Britain allowing money and weapons to pass into the hands of right-wing militias?

Here are clues to why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have hit their current dead-ends

Monday, 24 March 2008, p.29

On the website of the British Foreign Office, a small photograph recently appeared. It shows Kim Howells, our Foreign Office minister, looking into the camera, smiling, as he is surrounded by gun-yielding men accused of murder. He had not been taken hostage. No: he was there to represent a government that gives these men money and military aid.

By tracing the story of this photograph, we can trace the worst aspects of British foreign policy – and find clues to why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have crashed into their current bloody dead-end.

Howells was in Colombia, a country locked in one of the nastiest civil wars of the past century. It began more than 40 years ago, when some parts of the hungry, mixed-race majority began to fight against the fact that a tiny, white, land-owning elite held virtually all the country's wealth. Since then, it has hardened into a conflict between two gnarled human rights-abusing wings.

To the left, there are a slew of guerrilla groups – most prominently the FARC and the ELN – who fund themselves by kidnapping, extortion and "taxing" drug-producers.

To the right, there is the Colombian government and the right-wing paramilitary death-squads it has unleashed against any community of civilians suspected of leftish sympathies, or of challenging the elite. That's why to be a trade unionist in Colombia – organising for better wages and working conditions for your colleagues – is to carry a tombstone on your back: more are murdered there than in the rest of the world combined. Between them, these violent wings have killed more than 30,000 people and driven three million people from their homes.

Howells – our representative – was posing with some of those alleged to be the worst abusers. He was huddled with the High Mountain Brigades, who Amnesty International says have been involved in hunting down and murdering trade unionists.

Here's what our taxes help deliver to ordinary Colombians. On 10 January, at 10.30am, Colombian soldiers wearing balaclavas burst into the house of Rosa Maria Zapata, a 56-year-old indigenous woman. When the soldiers pointed their guns at her and barked that they wanted to know where the guerrillas were, she screamed back that she didn't know; she doesn't know any guerrillas. They told her she was hiding weapons for the FARC. They told her they knew. She howled and protested. So they started searching – and a moment later she heard gunfire. The police announced they had killed the guerrilla. She went running – and found her severely disabled 22-year-old son dead.

The British pro-peace group Justice for Colombia believes these soldiers received British training. They have documented 36 other civilians murdered by potentially British-trained forces in a six-month period, and they are asking the Foreign Office to outline exactly where our money goes.

How has Kim Howells responded? Easy. He says his critics "support FARC, a band of gangsters and drug smugglers", and that FARC is responsible for "most" of the murders in Colombia. In reality, Justice For Colombia is supported by more than half of all Labour MPs, and opposes all violence within Colombia. And the FARC – while unequivocally disgusting – is responsible for far fewer murders than the government and right-wing death squads, according to every major study.

So how did this happen? How did a minister in a Labour government end up parroting the propaganda of the Colombian hard-right? The British government says they have become the second biggest military donor to Colombia – after the US – because they want to promote human rights there. But if you had a few million pounds to support human rights in that country, the idea you would support the High Mountain Brigades is simply surreal.

No – the explanations for British backing lie elsewhere. The first is a desire to support the United States, because we project our power by being a loyal adjunct to American military might. If Britain wasn't offering these funds, the Bush administration would be alone in the world in backing the Colombian military.

We also do it to support the global "war on drugs". Since Bill Clinton's presidency, the US has been spraying hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chemical poisons onto the vast tracts of Colombia where the coca leaves essential for cocaine production are grown. All plants and trees die in their wake. Birth defects and cancer rates are rising. And the effect on drug production? It simply moves to another area. Drug production is so profitable and so popular that it cannot be fumigated off the face of the real world. Drug prohibition simply hands great swathes of the Colombian economy to armed criminal gangs, from the FARC to the right. It ensures they will always have enough money to buy enough guns to preserve their patches of territory.

There is another way. More and more Colombians believe it is only by bringing drugs into the legal economy – where they can be controlled and taxed by the state – that the guerrillas and paramilitaries can be stripped of their cash-flow. From the current Conservative Interior Minister, Carlos Holguin, to the former Attorney, General Gustavo de Greiff, to the country's most popular singer, Juan Esteban Aristizabal, it is being argued that an end to drug prohibition is the only long-term solution to the civil war. Yet Britain demands the opposite.

There is one more crucial reason why we are supporting the Colombian military. The British oil firm BP controls half of Columbia's petrol output. The historian Mark Curtis argues the UK is keen to ensure resources "remain in the correct hands" – that is, "our" hands. In a highly unequal country angry at seeing its resources siphoned off by foreigners, that means supporting an elite who are willing to keep the majority in their place.

These three factors can help us to understand why the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone so wrong. As in Colombia, we got in, in large part, out of loyalty to the US. As in Colombia, we are inflicting the "war on drugs" on Afghanistan. If we turned up in any country and announced that we were there to destroy 40 per cent of their economy, the people would fight back. This is why we are losing southern Afghanistan even to the hated Taliban.

And as in Colombia, the US-UK Coalition has misgoverned Iraq so catastrophically because it has been primarily driven by a desire to ensure that control of the country's resources went to the Right People. The protection of the Oil Ministry, while Baghdad's museums and hospitals and universities were looted and burned all around it, is only the most bleak symbol of this.

The image of Kim Howells squatting with a unit who are alleged to have tortured and butchered trade unionists can be seen as a Rosetta Stone for the dark side of our foreign policy. It is a reminder that, if we want to turn Britain into a force for human rights in the world, we have to campaign long and hard to turn much of it around. If we don't, it will end with more women like Rosa Maria Zapata, clutching her dead disabled son and asking why.




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Guest David Guyatt

Interesting article, Paul.

I would offer an amendment: the "war on drugs" is a misrepresentative statement. It should read: the "war for drugs".

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A friend involved in Colombian issues sent this to me the other day.

These are the sort of 'friends' of the British and US governments. Birds of a feather flock together.

President Uribe of Colombia was identified by US Intelligence (sic) as being an important narco-traffiker in 1991. Then a senator he was "Dedicated to Collaboration with the Medellín Cartel at High Government Levels" He is/was a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar and campaigned politically on his behalf.

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For Release, August 2, 2004

For more information contact

Michael Evans - 202/994-7000




Then-Senator "Dedicated to Collaboration with the Medellín Cartel at High Government Levels"

Confidential DIA Report Had Uribe Alongside Pablo Escobar, Narco-Assassins

Uribe "Worked for the Medellín Cartel" and was a "Close Personal Friend of Pablo Escobar"

Washington, D.C., 1 August 2004 - Then-Senator and now President Álvaro Uribe Vélez of Colombia was a "close personal friend of Pablo Escobar" who was "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín [drug] cartel at high government levels," according to a 1991 intelligence report from U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officials in Colombia. The document was posted today on the website of the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research group based at George Washington University.

Uribe's inclusion on the list raises new questions about allegations that surfaced during Colombia's 2002 presidential campaign. Candidate Uribe bristled and abruptly terminated an interview in March 2002 when asked by Newsweek reporter Joseph Contreras about his alleged ties to Escobar and his associations with others involved in the drug trade. Uribe accused Contreras of trying to smear his reputation, saying that, "as a politician, I have been honorable and accountable."

The newly-declassified report, dated 23 September 1991, is a numbered list of "the more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection and enforcement of narcotics operations." The document was released by DIA in May 2004 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Archive in August 2000.

The source of the report was removed by DIA censors, but the detailed, investigative nature of the report -- the list corresponds with a numbered set of photographs that were apparently provided with the original -- suggests it was probably obtained from Colombian or U.S. counternarcotics personnel. The document notes that some of the information in the report was verified "via interfaces with other agencies."

President Uribe -- now a key U.S. partner in the drug war -- "was linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the United States" and "has worked for the Medellín cartel," the narcotics trafficking organization led by Escobar until he was killed by Colombian government forces in 1993. The report adds that Uribe participated in Escobar's parliamentary campaign and that as senator he had "attacked all forms of the extradition treaty" with the U.S.

"Because both the source of the report and the reporting officer's comments section were not declassified, we cannot be sure how the DIA judged the accuracy of this information," said Michael Evans, director of the Archive's Colombia Documentation Project, "but we do know that intelligence officials believed the document was serious and important enough to pass on to analysts in Washington."

In a statement issued on July 30, the Colombian government took exception to several items reported in the document, saying that Uribe has never had any foreign business dealings, that his father was killed while fleeing a kidnap attempt by FARC guerrillas, and that he had not opposed the extradition treaty, but merely hoped to postpone a referendum to prevent the possibility that narcotraffickers would influence the vote.

The communiqué, however, did not deny the most significant allegation reported in the document: that Uribe had a close personal relationship with Pablo Escobar and business dealings with the Medellín Cartel.

The document is marked "CONFIDENTIAL NOFORN WNINTEL," indicating that its disclosure could reasonably be expected to damage national security, that its content was based on intelligence sources and methods, and that it should not be shared with foreign nationals.

Uribe, the 82nd name on the list, appears on the same page as Escobar and Fidel Castaño, who went on to form the country's major paramilitary army, a State Department-designated terrorist group now engaged in peace negotiations with the Uribe government. Written in March 1991 while Escobar was still a fugitive, the report was forwarded to Washington several months after his surrender to Colombian authorities in June 1991.

Most of those on the list are well-known drug traffickers or assassins associated with the Medellín cartel. Others listed include ex-president of Panama Manuel Noriega, Iran-contra arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and Carlos Vives, a Colombian entertainer said to be connected to the narcotics business through his uncle.

Click here to read the document


23 September 1991 (Date of Information 18 March 1991)

Narcotics - Colombian Narco-trafficker Profiles

Defense Intelligence Agency, Intelligence Information Report, Confidential, 14 pp.

Source: Declassification Release Under the Freedom of Information Act, May 2004

Is the Document Accurate?

As stated in the document, the report is "not finally evaluated" intelligence information. In other words, the information reported in the document is only as good as its source. In this case, the DIA has withheld from release the source of the information as well as the comments of the reporting official from the Department of Defense, making it difficult to verify the accuracy of the information listed in the document. However, the document differs from the average field report in several ways:

1) The summary indicates that information in the report was cross-checked "via interfaces with other agencies," indicating that some evaluation had already taken place.

2) The summary offers no caveats or qualifications on the credibility of the information and is stated as fact. It thus seems likely that the originator of the report (the "source") believed the information to be true.

3) The report includes many details like identification card numbers and dates of birth, giving it the appearance of an official, investigative document. The fact that the numbered list corresponds to photographs that were provided with the original suggests that the report had a variety of uses, including criminal investigations and immigration cases.

4) Much of the information on other individuals identified in the report is accurate and easily verifiable.

5) It is evident that a significant amount of time and energy went into compiling this report, and that it did not come from a single source at a cocktail party as these reports often do.

Official Response

Full text of communiqué from the Colombian government (Casa de Nariño) - Spanish (English translation below)

"La Presidencia de la República ha tenido conocimiento en el día de hoy sobre información en poder de algunos medios de comunicación, relativa a un documento de la Defense Inteligente Agency de los Estados Unidos, elaborado en septiembre de 1991. Dicho documento fue revelado en virtud de un derecho de petición en ese país.

"El documento sugiere que Álvaro Uribe Vélez tenía en ese entonces relaciones con el narcotráfico y el Cartel de Medellín, que su padre fue asesinado por sus relaciones con los narcotraficantes, que era amigo personal de Pablo Escobar y participó en la campaña que llevó a este a la Cámara de Representantes como segundo renglón de Jairo Ortega, y que, como Senador, Uribe se opuso al tratado de extradición.

El documento señala que se trata de información que no fue evaluada (“Not finally evaluated”).

Frente a lo anterior, la Presidencia de la República informa lo siguiente:

1) Esta información es la misma que, en su momento, hizo parte de los ataques de que fue objeto el Presidente Álvaro Uribe Vélez como candidato durante su campaña presidencial.

2) En 1991, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, entonces Senador, estuvo en los Estados Unidos en un programa académico de la Universidad de Harvard, mientras sesionaba la Asamblea Constituyente, periodo durante el cual tuvo lugar la revocatoria del Congreso.

3) Álvaro Uribe Vélez no ha tenido negocios de ningún tipo en el extranjero. Como lo explicó durante su campaña a los medios de comunicación, cuando se debatieron los mismos temas, sólo tuvo dos cuentas bancarias en el exterior: una en un banco de Bostón, adjunto a la Universidad de Harvard y otra en Oxford, Inglaterra, mientras estuvo en esa universidad en 1998. No tiene un solo bien en el extranjero.

4) Alberto Uribe Sierra, padre del Presidente, fue asesinado por el 5º frente de las FARC el 14 de junio de 1983 al resistir un intento de secuestro. Uribe Sierra enfrentó a sus secuestradores; en el enfrentamiento resultó herido su hijo Santiago.

5) Álvaro Uribe Vélez fue elegido Senador en tres oportunidades: en 1986, 1990 y 1991 como miembro del movimiento “Directorio Liberal de Antioquia - Sector Democrático“. (Jairo Ortega, de quien Escobar fue segundo renglón, fue elegido a la Cámara de Representantes por un movimiento diferente en 1982).

6) En los anales del Congreso de 1989, consta la posición del senador Uribe Vélez sobre la extradición. La única que el Senador tuvo sobre el tema durante su desempeño como Senador.

Posición que fue reiterada en el año 2002 por el entonces candidato presidencial en entrevistas para los periódicos El Tiempo y El Espectador de Bogotá y la Cadena Radial Caracol:

"Después, en la segunda ronda, infortunadamente, la Cámara de Representantes incluyó ese mico para que se llevara un referéndum preguntándoles a los colombianos si rechazaban o no la extradición en lo que deberían ser las elecciones parlamentarias de marzo de 1990". (…) “yo me levante y dije que era altamente inconveniente que ese referéndum coincidiera con las elecciones parlamentarias porque entonces se corría el riesgo de que el narcotráfico presionara esas elecciones. Dije que una alternativa debería ser que, si se iba a llevar adelante el referendo se llevará adelante después de las elecciones parlamentarias y después de la elección presidencial, para que no hubiera lugar a presiones". (El Tiempo, 23 de marzo de 2003).

7) Durante su Gobierno, Álvaro Uribe ha autorizado la extradición de más de 170 personas solicitadas por diferentes países para ser juzgadas por narcotráfico y otros delitos, incluido el lavado de activos.

8) Como Presidente se opone a la modificación del mecanismo de extradición vigente.

Bogotá, julio 30 de 2004

Full text of communiqué from the Colombian government (Casa de Nariño) - English [unofficial English translation by Michael Evans]

"Today, the President of the Republic has learned about information in possession of the news media relating to a document from the Defense Intelligence Agency of the United States from September 1991. The document was released by virtue of a right to petition in that country.

"The document suggests that Álvaro Uribe Vélez then had relations with narcotrafficking and the Medellín Cartel, that his father was assassinated for his relations to the narcotraffickers, that he was a personal friend of Pablo Escobar and participated in his campaign to become assistant parliamentarian to Jairo Ortega, and that, as Senator, Uribe opposed the extradition treaty.

The document indicates that the information it contains is "not finally evaluated."

In the face of this information, the President of the Republic states the following:

1) This information is the same that, at the time, was part of the attacks that President Álvaro Uribe Vélez was subjected to as a candidate during his presidential campaign.

2) In 1991, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, then Senator, was in the United States in an academic program at Harvard University, while the Constitutional Assembly was in session, during which period the Congress was suspended.

3) Álvaro Uribe Vélez has not had business of any kind outside of Colombia. As he explained to the news media during his campaign, when these same issues were raised, he had only two foreign bank accounts: one in a bank in Boston, attached to Harvard University and the other in Oxford, England, while he was at that university in 1998. He does not have even one foreign asset.

4) Álvaro Uribe Sierra, father of the President, was assassinated by the 5th Front of the FARC on 14 June 1983 while resisting a kidnapping attempt. Uribe Sierra confronted his kidnappers; the confrontation resulted in the wounding of his son Santiago.

5) Álvaro Uribe Vélez was elected Senator three times: in 1986, 1990 and 1991 as member of the "Directorio Liberal de Antioquia - Sector Democrático" movement. (Jairo Ortega, to whom Escobar was assistant parliamentarian, was elected to the Parliament by a different movement in 1982).

6) In the congressional archives from 1989, Senator Uribe's position on extradition is clear. The only position that the Senator ever took on this issue during his tenure as Senator. A position that was reiterated in 2002 by the then-presidential candidate in interviews with the newspapers El Tiempo and El Espectador de Bogotá y la Cadena Radial Caracol:

"Later, in the second term, unfortunately, the House of Representatives included this rider to advance a referendum asking Colombians to accept or reject extradition when it should have been the parliamentary elections of 1990". (...) "I got up and said that it was highly inconvenient that this referendum coincided with the parliamentary elections because then they were running the risk that narcotraffickers would affect these elections. I said that an alternative should be that, if they are going to raise the referendum, to raise it after the parliamentary elections and after the presidential election, so that they could not bring these pressures to bear. (El Tiempo, 23 de marzo 2003).

7) During his Government, Álvaro Uribe has authorized the extradition of more than 170 individuals solicited by various contries to be tried for narcotrafficking and other crimes, including money laundering.

8) As President he opposes the modification of the mechanism of extradition now in force.

Bogotá, 30 July 2004

Press Reports

Joseph Contreras, "A Harsh Light on Associate 82," Newsweek, International Edition, 9 August 2004 edition

Also see: Joseph Contreras, "Blacklist to the A List," Newsweek 9 August 2004 edition -

Juan Forero, "'91 U.S. Report Calls Colombian Leader Ally of Drug Lords," New York Times, 2 August 2004

T. Christian Miller, "U.S. Intelligence Tied Colombia's Uribe to Drug Trade in '91 Report," Los Angeles Times, 2 August 2004

Dan Molinski, "U.S. Defends Uribe Over Alleged Drug Ties," Associated Press (via Guardian Unlimited), 3 August 2004

"Departamento de Estado de E.U. rechaza documento que vincula a Álvaro Uribe con el narcotráfico," El Tiempo, 1 August 2004

Semana.com - ENTREVISTA con Michael Evans

"La historia detrás del documento de inteligencia que acusó a Uribe de tener vínculos con el cartel de Medellín," 8 August 2004

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Here is the report. Uribe is listed at number 82.


Edited by Maggie Hansen
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