According to Renan Vega, professor at the National Pedagogical University of Colombia, there are reports of approximately 50 US military units, each with 200 to 300 military personnel, in addition to the personnel of 25 secret US agencies, headed by the CIA and the DEA, which operate daily and freely to intervene in the country “also in economic, political, social and cultural terms”. “All this is spread as very positive by the media,” he warns.
Doctor in Political Studies from the University of Paris, with a masters in History and a degree in Economics from the National University, Renan Vega recalls that “in the last 25 years, Colombia has been ranked as the third country with the greatest military investment of the United States”, incorporating “with its manuals, the counterinsurgency and anticommunist logic, in which they teach to torture, kill and disappear” the opponents. The professor was part of the Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims at the peace negotiation table between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). Vega has published more than 10 books, including: Gente muy rebelde (4 volumes); Capitalismo y Despojo; Colombia y el imperialismo contemporáneo.
Prof. Renan Vega was intervewed by by Caio Teixeira and Leonardo Wexell Severo / Comunica Sul.
Translation by Mark Burton.
LEONARDO – From your extensive experience and your studies of the U.S. military presence in Colombian territory, how do you assess its impact on sovereignty, social stability, and the guarantee of human and constitutional rights in the country?
RENÁN – I have been investigating the presence of the United States, not only in military terms but also in economic, political, social, and cultural terms for many years. I am referring to the mid-19th century, a period in which I studied the role of the United States in the separation and independence of Panama from Colombia; in its responsibility for the Banana Massacre in December 1928 [when more than 3,000 Colombian workers of the US multinational United Fruit Company were murdered, according to the writer Gabriel García Márquez]; the automatic alignment with the US when Colombia participated in the Korean War in the middle of the last century and, also, research aimed at different aspects of the US presence in our country in the last 50 years.
Perhaps the most systematic study I have presented – and the most synthetic – was the report I did as part of the Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims for the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC-EP, in which I evaluated the presence of the United States in multiple aspects throughout our republican life until today.
CAIO– How do the operational and administrative structures of the U.S. military forces in Colombia function? Acting under whose command? What is the role of the Colombian government in their performance? Are they autonomous? What kind of weaponry and equipment do they have and what threat do they pose to other countries in the region?
RENAN- Well, it is a very complex issue because there are two realities. There is a reality that is made public and an actual reality that is secret. So, what is known is little, considering the harsh reality of what is not known. Between the U.S. and Colombia there are open military pacts and others that are secret or little known. Since the middle of the 20th century, we are talking about a continuous presence, of practically 80 years, during which Colombia became the main US ally in the region and this role has been strengthened in the last 25 years with the signing of the so-called “Plan Colombia”, which was drafted directly by the US, originally written in English, and later translated into Spanish. Through it, the direct presence of the U.S. in Colombian territory increased.
In the last 25 years, Colombia became the third most important country in the world in terms of U.S. military investment. In 2009, shortly before the end of Alvaro Uribe’s second administration, the signing of what appeared to the public as a shameful treaty for the country and for Latin America was made public, through which seven US military bases were opened and installed in Colombian territory. Later, a judicial decision contrary to the one taken in the country gave the impression that such bases could not exist, could not function. But the government of Manuel Santos opted for another type of policy, which is to allow the arrival of U.S. military personnel to move in Colombian territory as if they were in their own home, without the need to sign agreements approved by the Senate or by different bodies of Colombian Executive Power.
So, when it is said that the U.S. is present with seven military bases that is not correct, because that presence is much greater than in just seven places in Colombian territory. There has been talk of U.S. presence in more than 50 places, with more than 50 military units. What some scholars call “quasi-bases” operate here. They are not presented as formal bases, although those also exist, as places of transit, as places from which different U.S. forces operate permanently or temporarily. Some investigators assure that, daily, between 200 and 300 U.S. soldiers move through Colombian territory from the main base, which is the U.S. embassy.
But as I say, there are a series of secret pacts that we do not know about and there is the presence of 25 secret U.S. agencies in Colombian territory, among which, of course, the best known are the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), but there is also another number of agencies that move freely here without any kind of oversight, without any kind of control. Even in this sense, there is a positive image in the media that shows this presence as a guarantee of security in Colombian territory. Thus, it is very difficult to know exactly, due to its secrecy.
And I have a fact to add: the U.S. embassy in Venezuela operates in Colombia! Let’s remember that the neighboring country broke diplomatic relations with the United States and, shortly after, with the approval of the Colombian government, the United States reopened its embassy in Venezuela in the city of Bogota. And what does this represent? A series of secret and not so secret mechanisms of sabotage against the Venezuelan government that operate from Bogota with impunity and from here all actions against the Venezuelan government are planned. The best-known case was Operation Gideon. In May 2020, mercenaries, trained in the Colombian Guajira territory with direct participation of the United States, tried to disembark in Venezuela to assassinate President Nicolas Maduro. [The operation was dismantled by the Venezuelan intelligence service and the mercenaries were killed or imprisoned.] This demonstrates the magnitude of the U.S. presence in Colombian territory, without the need to comply with any formality.
That is why it is wrong to say that they are present only in seven places, in seven bases, because they are present in many more places in Colombian territory, in strategic zones, especially in the border regions with Venezuela. A tenacious presence was created to encircle Venezuela with military bases covering the entire Caribbean from Colombian territory. This is an issue that we always have to bring up when dealing with this subject.
LEONARDO – There are reports of torture and teaching techniques practiced against “opposing forces”. Are these cases identifiable and do they relate to the National Security Doctrine and the identification of a supposed “internal enemy”?
RENAN – I will start at the end. Colombia has been adhering to the National Security Doctrine of the United States since the middle of the 20th century, and it reproduces this same conception from which the Armed Forces have been nurtured, educated, and trained in this terribly anti-communist doctrine, created during the Cold War period. I have a thesis that in Colombia the Cold War did not end, and that it is one of the few countries in the world, and the main one in Latin America, where it did not end. Therefore, the treatment of security issues in Colombia is based on a counterinsurgent and anticommunist conception.
And this logic was taught by the U.S. military with their declassified manuals [previously sealed as reserved, confidential, secret, and top secret, they could not be consulted], in which they effectively taught how to torture and kill. This is documented. We know there are exceptions, but this is the rule.
We know that more than 50,000 Colombian military and police officers were trained at the School of the Americas in the United States, which teaches, among other practices, to kill, torture and disappear, and to see those they consider “internal enemies” as despicable animals that they must kill. This is the language used in these training centers.
The Colombian military reproduced these teachings in various ways, but they have also outsourced this work. There is a sector that is directly linked to the military, which is the paramilitaries.
About 20 years ago, when there were five military divisions in the country, a document was drafted called “The Sixth Division”, which were the paramilitaries, linked to the Colombian Army. What is the particularity of this Sixth Division? That they are the prostheses of the Colombian Army, sponsored, financed, trained, and supported by the United States, which have carried out all kinds of atrocities that the Armed Forces, openly, cannot legally carry out. So, the paramilitaries are in charge of committing those crimes.
They kill and execute in a colossal way, torture, decapitate, cut with chainsaws, and throw the heads of opponents to crocodiles, even burn them alive in Nazi-style crematoria. All this has been seen in the country for the last 30 years. In all these criminal practices, the Army, and the Colombian Armed Forces [integrated by the Police] have a direct presence.
To give an example: a few days ago, the extradition of the head of the Gulf Clan, Dairo Otoniel Úsuga, known as Otoniel, made headlines. The fact is that Otoniel participated in a notorious massacre in Colombia, now 25 years old, which took place in July 1997. The Mapiripán Massacre was the cold-blooded execution, with sadistic methods, of peasants in a town in the eastern plains of the country.
How was this massacre carried out? Paramilitaries who were on the other side of the country, in Antioquia, were transported in Colombian Army planes. They were taken to the place of the massacre where at that time joint operations were being carried out between green berets of the U.S. Army and the Colombian Army. The fact is that the paramilitaries responsible for the massacre passed through there.
Shortly before being extradited, Otoniel recalled this massacre, giving the full names of the Colombian military who participated in this action. We have then the same conjunction of forces: paramilitary, Colombian Army and U.S. forces that were implementing training courses to kill guerrillas, and what they killed were “civilian guerrillas”, as they call them, “accomplices of terrorists”, as they say in today’s language.
Those soldiers who allied themselves with the paramilitaries and made the massacre possible, said they had taught the guerrillas a lesson. And what was that lesson? Beheading, torturing, massacring children, women, the elderly and young people. More than 60 Colombians were murdered there, with the complicity and direct participation of paramilitaries and the Colombian Army. The Colombian Army battalion that took in the paramilitaries was doctrinally trained by the U.S. Green Berets. This is a very concrete example, one among many. Examples like this are repeated with massacres all over Colombia in the last 40 years. Most recently, in March, we had the Putumayo massacre, in which 11 Colombian peasants were killed, accused of being members of the FARC dissidence. This was the last massacre carried out in broad daylight.
CAIO – Plan Colombia was created with the excuse of fighting drug trafficking in Colombia, but today it is clear that even with all this U.S. military and intelligence operationd, drug trafficking continues to grow. Do you think that the Colombian people are beginning to understand this farce and that is why Gustavo Petro is leading the polls for the presidential election on the 29th?
RENAN– Well, let’s start with Plan Colombia, which was a bunch of lies and fallacies. It has always been said, even in the most renowned academic studies, that it was a plan against drugs, when in fact, from the beginning, it was conceived as a counterinsurgency plan that sought to destroy the social bases of the guerrilla, which at that time was very strong in Colombia mainly in the territory in the south of our country. Plan Colombia was designed for that. But it was disguised under the banner of the fight against the production and commercialization of narcotics. This became clear when economic resources and weapons were transferred to supposedly fight drug trafficking, which, in reality, were transferred directly to fight “terrorism”, a name that came to be used after September 11 and that served precisely to try to confuse public opinion.
At that time, many people, including myself, denounced the true nature of the Plan. The facts proved us right. In the end, the Armed Forces claimed that it was a successful operation, not in terms of narcotics, but in terms of counterinsurgency. The thesis defended by the Colombian Armed Forces is that Plan Colombia forced the FARC to sit down at the negotiating table. This is presented as a defeat of the FARC against the authority of the Armed Forces. Drug trafficking was an accessory, secondary. Plan Colombia militarized our society in an impressive way, propelling the growth of the Colombian Armed Forces to unthinkable levels.
Today these forces, including the Police, which in our country is part of the military, have a contingent of 500,000 troops, constituting one of the sixteen largest armies in the world. But that is not all. Around the military forces there is an impressive power at a social level, at a civilian level, since they have radio stations, universities, hospitals, airlines, transport companies, banks. Therefore, they are a very powerful force in a country that proclaims the condition of never having had dictatorships, although the power of the military is unimaginable.
This will manifest itself in the next government, regardless of who wins the elections, the first signs are already being felt that the Armed Forces of Colombia, and certainly those of the U.S., are not satisfied with the possibility of Gustavo Petro’s victory. They have already started to show this dissatisfaction, even spreading rumors that there will be a coup d’état through the non-recognition of the electoral result. This is very possible in Colombia because here electoral fraud is “daily bread”. That there is fraud in these elections would not even be a novelty. It would be news if there were no fraud. The cuadrilla that reached the presidency in 2018 only arrived by electoral fraud.
Electoral fraud is not only possible as such, but also by the non-recognition of the election result in case Gustavo Petro wins. As well as by all the forces that move behind to pressure and blackmail and that are moving at this moment and that are the Armed Forces. Its commander, Eduardo Zapateiro, demonstrating politically, something that is forbidden by the Constitution, has said that he would not recognize a victory of Petro and that there were many “Zapateiros” willing to oppose a former guerrilla to become president. That they are not willing to accept that any of the unequal structure of Colombian society be touched. This is the current image, speaking frankly and directly.
LEONARDO – Within Plan Colombia there are many examples of atrocities. Would you like me to talk about the executions of thousands of civilians as if they were guerrillas, the so-called false positives?
RENAN -These “false positives” are a euphemism, a lie, they are state assassinations. Much less were they extrajudicial executions, a misnomer because there is no death penalty in the country. They are State crimes. They are old in the country, they did not start with Plan Colombia, it is an old practice of the Colombian Army. But they gained strength and became generalized in the two Uribe governments, under the logic that war is won with liters of blood of the adversary.
So, it was necessary to have a lot of enemy blood. And what did they do? Many Colombians were disguised as guerrillas, even people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities were massacred. The number is not known exactly, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace speaks of 6,500 dead, but in reality, it may be more than 12 or 15 thousand. The deaths were generalized to say that the Colombian State was winning the war against the guerrillas, especially against the FARC. The killings were generalized.
This was presented as something very positive to the public, which initially accepted the idea, but now there is criticism of these crimes, although without holding those at the highest level responsible. And who are those people at the highest level responsible? The presidents of the Republic, several… Starting with Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), but also with Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) and currently with Iván Duque. In other words, almost all the presidents of the last 50 or 60 years are responsible for these state murders. But limiting numbers were established for those directly responsible to be tried. Thus, there seems to be no justice to convict them, even though the necessary evidence exists for this to happen.