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Incentivizing Murder: Plan Colombia and the Bitter Fruits of Empire

Chris Floyd

October 30, 2008

The War on Drugs meets the War on Terror, and the result, inevitably, is stone-cold murder: Colombia Killings Cast Doubt on War Against Insurgents (NYT):

Colombia’s government, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America, has been buffeted by the disappearance of ...dozens of young, impoverished men and women whose cases have come to light in recent weeks. Some were vagrants, others street vendors and manual laborers. But their fates were often the same: being catalogued as insurgents or criminal gang members and killed by the armed forces.

Prosecutors and human rights researchers are investigating hundreds of such deaths and disappearances, contending that Colombia’s security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing the corpses in guerrilla fatigues.

With soldiers under intense pressure in recent years to register combat kills to earn promotions and benefits like time off and extra pay, reports of civilian killings are climbing, prosecutors and researchers say, pointing to a grisly facet of Colombia’s long internal war against leftist insurgencies.

The wave of recent killings has also heightened focus on the American Embassy here, which is responsible for vetting Colombian military units for human rights abuses before they can receive aid. A study of civilian killings by Amnesty International and Fellowship of Reconciliation, two human rights groups, found that 47 percent of the reported cases in 2007 involved Colombian units financed by the United States.

....Even before the most recent disappearances and killings, prosecutors and human rights groups were examining a steady increase in the reports of civilian killings since 2002, when commanders intensified a counterinsurgency financed in no small part by more than $500 million a year in American security aid.

But more than 100 claims of civilian deaths at the hands of security forces have emerged in recent weeks alone, from nine different parts of Colombia. Cases have included the killing of a homeless man, a young man who suffered epileptic seizures and a veteran who had left the army after his left arm was amputated.
This is the imposthume of much greed and graft, and of the geopolitical power games played by the bipartisan elite in Washington. Any half-sentient person has known for years that the Clinton-Bush policy of lavishing endless cash and weaponry on the right-wing death squads in Colombia -- those in uniform and out -- has incentivized the murder of countless innocent civilians. Anyone who has opposed the Colombian elite, or stood up for the poor and the working people -- even if they have nothing to do with FARC or the narco freebooters, even if, indeed, they have also opposed their depredations also -- has long been at risk of sudden "disappearance" or gruesome death; the serial execution of union organizers, going back for many years, is just one example.
"We are witnessing a method of social cleansing in which rogue military units operate beyond the law," said Monica Sánchez, a lawyer at the Judicial Freedom Corporation, a human rights group in Medellín. The group says it has documented more than 60 "false positives" — the chilling term for cases of civilians who are killed and then presented as guerrillas, with weapons or fatigues — in the department, or province, of Antioquia...

The civilian killings have increasingly opened the United States to criticism because it is required to make sure Colombian military units have not engaged in human rights violations before supplying them with aid.

"If we are receiving aid and vetting from a government in Washington that validates torture, then what kind of results can one expect?" asked Liliana Uribe, a human rights lawyer in Medellín who represents victims’ families.
"A government in Washington that validates torture" -- this is the crux of the matter. A government -- or rather, an entire political elite -- that validates torture, wars of aggression, cross-border "incursions," "black ops," a military empire of more than 700 bases all over the planet, and the slaughter of more than one million innocent lives on just one front of the "Terror War" alone, will indeed produce results like the ones we see in Colombia. It is inevitable, unavoidable -- it is precisely what the system is designed to do: put the power of life and death into the hands of brutal elites, who will in turn kowtow to Washington's political, financial, military, and ideological agendas.

The Republicans do this without the slightest qualm, proudly (as we noted here earlier), frankly, without any finesse and very little pretense. The Democrats wring their hands a bit over the "excesses" and "aberrations" of the system, and employ more nuanced justifications, more rhetorical gilding. But both parties are in full agreement on the need to maintain -- and expand -- this massive militarist empire.

II.
And yes, it will continue under Obama. And no, the American empire is not about to collapse any time soon, despite the economic catastrophe and the murderous botching of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. As Princeton historian Arno Mayer notes this week in CounterPunch:
The United States may emerge from the Iraq fiasco almost unscathed. Though momentarily disconcerted, the American empire will continue on its way, under bipartisan direction and mega-corporate pressure, and with evangelical blessings. It is a defining characteristic of mature imperial states that they can afford costly blunders, paid for not by the elites but the lower orders. Predictions of the American empire's imminent decline are exaggerated: without a real military rival, it will continue for some time as the world's sole hyperpower.

But though they endure, overextended empires suffer injuries to their power and prestige. In such moments they tend to lash out, to avoid being taken for paper tigers. Given Washington's predicament in Iraq, will the US escalate its intervention in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia or Venezuela? The US has the strongest army the world has ever known. Preponderant on sea, in the air and in space (including cyberspace), the US has an awesome capacity to project its power over enormous distances with speed, a self-appointed sheriff rushing to master or exploit real and putative crises anywhere on earth.

The US spends more than 20% of its annual budget on defense, nearly half of the spending of the rest of the world put together. It's good for the big US corporate arms manufacturers and their export sales. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, purchase billions of dollars of state-of-the-art ordnance.
Underscoring that point, Jeff Huber notes at Military.com:
Iran's defense budget is less than one percent the size of ours. North Korea's entire gross domestic product is less than ten percent of our defense budget... Russia and China each spend ten percent or less on defense than we do. The Russians already lost the part they sit with trying to run with us in an arms race. The Chinese had sufficient ancient wisdom to learn from Russia's mistake rather than make it themselves. They're both so far behind now they'd never catch up, and they know it. They won't bleed themselves white economically trying to do the impossible.

We spend more money on defense than the rest of the world combined. We don't need a larger military. We don't need the one we have now. We don't need half of it.
But both McCain and Obama have pledged themselves to a massive enlargement of the American war machine. And they will still have vast resources to draw upon as they advance the cause of empire, as Arno notes:
The US economy, syncretic culture and Big Science are unequalled. Despite huge fiscal and trade deficits, and the Wall Street banking and insurance meltdown, which have unhinged its financial system and rippled across the global economy, overall the US economy remains robust and pacesetting in creative destruction. Never mind the social costs at home and abroad. But its shrinking industrial and manufacturing sectors may be the weakest link.

The US still holds a substantial lead in research, development and patents in cybernetics, molecular biology and neuroscience. This is facilitated by publicly, privately and corporately funded research universities and laboratories that establish outposts overseas as they draw in brains from around the globe...

The empire has extraordinary reserves of hard and soft power for persisting in its interventionism. The US has the wherewithal and will to stay a face-saving course in Iraq. There is a deficit of combat troops for large conventional ground operations and a strategic incoherence in the face of irregular warfare against insurgent, guerrilla and terrorist forces. But the deficit of soldiers will be remedied. Private contractors will raise armed and civilian mercenaries, preferably at cut-rate wages from third world dependencies.
Again, the point is not whether ordinary American citizens will thrive under such a system. For the most part, they will not. But their prosperity and security do not figure into the imperial power equations.  They are irrelevant. (Although that's not to say that unruly temper in the herd must not be allayed from time to time, occasionally by genuine reforms that head off popular discontent, or, very often, by promises, feints, fine rhetoric and symbolic gestures evoking hope for change.)

And the sad fact is, once a nation gets a taste for empire, many of its people become emotionally invested in it (not to mention financially invested). As Arno puts it:
This American empire has significant family resemblances with past empires in its grab for critical natural resources, mass markets and strategic outposts. Americans know they have a considerable stake in the persistence of their imperium. Some social strata benefit more from its spoils than others. Still, it is profitable socially, culturally and psychologically, especially for its intelligentsia, liberal professions and media.       
III.
The murder-for-bonuses scheme carried out by many American-trained and American-funded units in Colombia is just one more bitter fruit of the imperial tree. It was spawned by both the "War on Terror" and its twin in corruption, militarism, lawlessness and vast, needless suffering, the "War on Drugs," launched almost 40 years ago, and still going strong -- albeit without the slightest discernible effect on the level of drug use. As I noted in a column in the Moscow Times -- back in December 2001:
After all, as [the Bush Administration] tells us, the "war on terrorism" is just like "the war on drugs" – that is to say, a never-ending fount of profitable corruption for the ruthless, the murderous and the well-connected.

Certainly, the "war on drugs" makes little sense otherwise. We all know that if the ingestion of various arbitrarily chosen substances were no longer prosecuted, the level of violence, crime and repression in society would be reduced immeasurably. "Substance abuse" would then become what it is now for drugs like alcohol and nicotine: a matter of personal character and private consequence.

Crack addicts, for example, could have their nightly pipe in the safety of their own home, for the same price as a six-pack of beer, a carton of cigarettes or the latest Disney video. They wouldn't need to resort to crime to feed an expensive criminalized habit. And their resulting stupefaction would be no more harmful to the public good than that of millions of their fellow citizens sitting slack-jawed in front of the tube.

But decriminalization will never happen. Illegal drugs are simply too profitable for the various powerful criminal elements known as "mafias," "warlords" – and "intelligence agencies." For drug-running is the perfect way to fund your black ops – no budget restraints, no legal niceties, no pesky legislators looking over your shoulder....

Let's connect the dots. Drugs help stoke war. Defense firms sell the weapons of war – to governments, warlords, terrorists, whoever will pay. The investors and owners of defense firms – like, say, the Bush family and the bin Ladens [at that time recent partners in the Carlyle Group] – are directly enriched by war. And so the wars go on.
And they will keep going on, even if the bright sun of "pragmatic progressivism" rises on Inauguration Day 2009. Obama has rightly cited the murder of Colombian union activists as a cause for concern, even bringing it before a national television audience in the last debate. But again, this is a matter of nuance, of technocratic tinkering within the framework of the bipartisan consensus for empire. Obama has also supported the Colombian government in its Bush-style cross-border military incursions to "fight terrorism," and back the expansion of the "Merida Initiative," a Bush-created scheme that would essentially expand "Plan Colombia" -- with the "results" detailed in the New York Times story -- throughout Latin America, as the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reports:
Obama supports the extension of the Merida Initiative to create a more comprehensive regional security bloc within the Western Hemisphere. The Merida Initiative was proposed by President Bush as the keystone of his U.S.-Central America security plan, and is focused on the provision of military and police aid to Mexico (with much smaller amounts to Central American countries) to fight organized crime and drug cartels. It is a complete truism that the military and legal structures in Mexico and Central America have suffered from a history of corruption and human rights abuses, and critics of current U.S. policy argue that increasing military aid to the region only increases the capacity of local authorities to abuse power of an already deeply flawed law enforcement system. The Merida Initiative is in many ways similar to Plan Colombia, which provides military and police aid to fight narcotrafficking and organized crime there...
The Council goes on to note:
While the complete nature of Obama’s Latin American platform remains to be seen, there is no doubt that Obama’s stance on hemispheric affairs will differ from that of the Bush White House, but not so much from Clinton’s regional policy which was barely discernable from Reagan-era area policy.
That is a chilling conclusion indeed from this very mainstream, centrist organization, when one considers the murderous abomination that was "Reagan-era area policy" in Latin America. As I noted in the Moscow Times in June 2004:
Reagan willingly abetted the murder of countless thousands of innocent people throughout Central America, killed at the hands of U.S.-trained death squads and military units -- more than 200,000 civilians murdered in Guatemala alone, Consortiumnews.com reports. Many more were tortured and raped by U.S. proxies -- all this with the connivance of Reagan officials, who lied to Congress about the atrocities. One of these liars, Elliot Abrams, was convicted of perjury; but pardoned by George Bush I, he now directs Middle East policy for George Bush II. (For more, see Robert Parry's "Reagan and Guatemala's Death Files" and his "Reagan's Bogus Legacy.")
I don't believe this is the kind of "change" that most Americans are hoping for from an Obama administration. To be sure, Obama has talked about building his Latin American policies around the strengthening of civic structures, protection of human rights and nurturing the rule of law. These are good words; but then again, what American president has not claimed that his policies were designed to advance these noble pursuits? At the moment, Obama seems poised to take away with his right hand what he proffers with his left: bold words on human rights, but at the same time an extension of the murder-producing, elite-coddling "Plan Colombia" throughout the region.

We've said this many times before: within the American militarist empire as it now stands, there are spaces where factional differences among the elite can produce mitigations of the system's malign effects in various ways for a substantial number of people. This is not nothing, especially if you are one of those people. I don't believe in begrudging anyone's desire for relief, however partial and imperfect that relief might be. At the same time, it is clear that Obama fully accepts the logic, the structure and the overall agenda of the imperial system -- a system which inevitably, irresistibly generates atrocities on a mass scale.

Once you accept that -- and not only accept it, but even fight hard to take control of it, to make it yours -- then what won't you do? And how quickly and easily will you cast aside your mitigations if the needs of the system demand it? If you pick up a scepter still dripping with fresh blood, and wield it, will your hand not "incarnadine the multitudinous seas, making the green one red?"


:: Article nr. 48390 sent on 31-oct-2008 05:23 ECT

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