The saga of Colombia: tragedy and rebellion in Latin America, XX-XXI century

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, considering not only the very high and massive levels of poverty, but the also concentration of wealth in few hands.

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The United States (US) strategic deployment in Latin America presents an extensive record. Since the so-called Monroe Doctrine (1823, "America for the Americans"), there has been no letup in the interference processes that took on various forms, intensities, continuities and mixed effects. By the end of World War II, the liberal order was formed and could be defined in terms of polarities. US vs USSR bipolarity was unfolding. Two forces in a multidimensional dispute, on a global scale, moving towards balance and the rest of the actors turning as satellites, proxies or forming the Third World. The end of the USSR was followed by the era of unipolarity, which still persists despite rearrangements and multipolarity tests, having neoliberalism expanded with devastation throughout the world and the US turned into The Sole Superpower, along with constituted hegemony and "Americanized" societies. Throughout the 20th century, Latin America was turned into a territory that provided vital sustenance for that hegemony and power.


There is of course the Middle East or Asia Pacific scenario where the US has a massive presence, which exceeds, in material terms and global impact, its presence in Latin America, e.g. military footprint, recent or current confrontational scenarios, direct investment. Nonetheless, Latin America constitutes a territory where sophisticated strategies have been devised, making this continent a lynchpin to the US hegemony formation process, and therefore vital for its rivalry with other world powers (Ceceña). After World War II, the US deployed a massive continental offensive that overdetermined destinies in American nations, installed social policies, influenced or shaped actual (or potential) economies and diplomatic processes; it even stablished military/civilian "puppet" governments, while rebellions and confrontational libertarian/liberation movements grew. In doing so Colombia became one of the US’ closest allies in the world and the scenario for a colossal and unique counter insurgency experience. Here we will address the case of Colombia, where more than 450,000 people died because of the armed conflict between 1948 and 2018.


The burden of history


Would it be feasible to tell that is how Colombia came to be a sort of continued domination model? Either way it is safe to say an oligarchic bloc has consolidated itself in power during that period, providing continuity to anti-popular and repressive governments, carrying out strong and persistent policies in favor of a handful of powerful families. This resulted in large masses of dispossessed, displaced, landless, poor and marginalized people with countless unfulfilled demands in a democracy that has had 5 progressive presidential candidates assassinated since the beginning of the second half of the 20th century.


The first one was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (April 9, 1948), a mass leader, professional politician with enormous and popular support who had been projecting himself as the next president, making the foundations of the economic and political regime tremble. At that time, similar leaders also emerged in Latin America, most of whom came from the military. Gaitán, instead, was a civilian. Perhaps, in the eyes of the local oligarchy and American imperialism, that was even more dangerous. On the same day of his assassination, the world witnessed the so-called "Bogotazo", a massive and violent uprising, a chaotic response by masses of people to the killing of their leader – which somehow meant the annihilation of their hopes –, resulting in a popular defeat and thousands of deaths. The oligarchic rule and the landowner model deepened.


From then on, a civil war started, formally called “La Violencia” (1948–1958/64), during which fights between the main parties (Conservative and Liberal) had left more than 200,000 people dead, most of them from poor rural communities, of which Colombia still has many.


At that time, the so-called National Security Doctrine or the installation of military dictatorships trained at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA) was implemented in order to sustain or restore order in the face of rising and powerful revolts and revolutions.


Starting in 1950s, Colombian low and middle class peasants and farmers organized themselves as "independent republics” based in Marquetalia (Tolima) and grew outside the control of the state. Denounced by the government as communist communities that threatened national security, Colombian Army and paramilitary groups persecuted the insurgents, but they resisted. Finally, as part of John F. Kennedy anti-communist LASO plan (Latin American Security Operation), Operation Marquetalia was deployed on May 18, 1964, the largest counterinsurgency operation carried out until then in Latin America: 1,000 soldiers under US leadership landed in the area. Whole communities were bombed and besieged. A large number were killed. Entire families starved. Survivors managed to break the military siege, took refuge in Riochiquito and formed the South Bloc, giving birth, in union with the Communist Party of Colombia, to FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla, having reached an all-time high of 20,000 fighters. Shortly after, other powerful guerrillas also were born (ELN, National Liberation Army; M-19, etc.). The peaceful and democratic route had been violently closed again by landowner and militaristic fury.


In the beginning the USAID was created


April 1961. The world witnessed the first major US military defeat in Latin America: the failure of the CIA invasion of Cuba at Playa Girón. Shortly thereafter, on November 3, the Alliance for Progress was officially launched: the first strategic (anticommunist) US plan with claims of continental leadership. Just one month later, JFK visited Bogotá and installed the Peace Corps and several governmental organizations, including USAID (US Agency for International Development). Two weeks later (January 2, 1962) Cuba declared the Socialist Revolution and became an opening or a catalyst for a resounding cycle of national liberation struggles.


The relevance of this kind of policies and their persistence over time set the tone for Colombia's relations with the US. USAID Director General Mark Green recently visited Colombia (May 13, 2019) and announced a fresh $160 million assistance program for a brand new Colombian government. President Iván Duque welcomed the orientation given for the money. He said the funds would primarily be used in productivity projects involving former FARC militants and to improve security and state presence in isolated regions where FARC and other guerrillas were present. Green underlined the tenor of the relationship between both nations: “It’s worth celebrating because we’re much more than mere partners, we’re close neighbors and true friends…There is an unshakable bond between our two nations…This special relationship has grown throughout the years as we’ve helped honor each other in moments of crisis or challenge”.


During the Alliance for Progress term – imbued by a thriving democratic rhetoric –, US military and political interference actions multiplied throughout the continent. Military intervention is usually flanked (or vice versa) by multiple non-military activities, among which the USAID programs stand out. Nonetheless, in general terms (with some exceptions), direct and open intervention started losing support from US Congress and civil society. Meanwhile, other intrusive doctrines such as Counterinsurgency were born as convergence of multiple US experiences around the world, from Vietnam, Afghanistan to Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama and more recently, Colombia (also local experience, e.g. “long hot summer” and the repression of African American liberation movements). Since then, USAID together with other agencies, has been very active in the country and the region, supporting or funding social activism, NGOs, universities, and political parties compatible with the US exceptionalist program.


Paramilitary heaven


Violence against leftist parties and revolutionary forces was unleashed in the country. Leadership and members of parties and civil society organizations created out of the different insurgent demobilization process were systematically massacred, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1984 and 2002, Colombian State and paramilitary organizations kidnapped, killed or disappeared around 5,000 members belonging to the legal FARC-affiliated Patriotic Union: a whole political party was annihilated. Between 2002 and 2008, during president Alvaro Uribe’s government (a far-right hardliner), his military and paramilitary mates killed at least 2,300 non-belligerent civilians in extrajudicial executions by passing them off as casualties in combat: the infamous "False Positives". By 2008, Colombia became the most dangerous place in the word for trade unionists. At that time, about 60% of all those trade unionists assassinated or disappeared in the world, were in Colombia, at the hands of state or paramilitary agents. The vast majority of cases still remain unpunished.


Here we have another of the major actors in this tragedy: the paramilitary organizations. We will address the link between them, the Colombian state, political elites, landowners and drug traffickers in a next article. Suffice it to say for now that Colombian paramilitary groups consolidated in April 1997 into the powerful Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC), a far-right anticommunist armed umbrella organization. In 2006 AUC was disarticulated and 30,000 members were demobilized. Although a large number of them became reservoir for new criminal gangs still operating. By 1994, legislative decree 356 already had loosened the regulations surrounding security companies allowing individuals and corporations to set up multiple “special security services” known as Convivir (live together) for non-offensive operations, authorized for the use of heavy weaponry, which became a sort of façade for new and old paramilitaries.


From their primal experience in fighting Marquetalia rebels, criminal organizations grew, expanded their range of action and consolidated, penetrating everything around. These groups drew support from and operated with elements of the Colombian military, police, politicians, landed elites, drug traffickers and big energy or agriculture corporations impacted by guerrilla revolutionary activities. The so-called “para-politics” scandal (that broke out in 2006) triggered investigations into over 11,000 politicians and businessmen because of their relations with far-right illegal paramilitary groups or drug trafficking, sending 60 congressmen and 7 governors to jail. Land holders, cattle ranchers and agricultural and industrial corporations (e.g. Coca-Cola, coffee or banana growers) contracted their services to fight guerrillas and crack down on the leftist rebel groups, agrarian leaders and trade unionists. Chiquita Brand, for example, admitted paying AUC for protection and agreed to pay a total of $25 million in fines. Furthermore, the company supported paramilitaries by facilitating the use of its fruit shipments as containers for weapons and drugs. The main objective: uphold the prevailing order.


Drug trafficking was to provide resources for the war against the popular classes, and is the argument and the moral justification for US interventionism through Plan Colombia.


Counterinsurgent military dimension


The Colombian Army is not just any army. According to the “The Military Balance 2019” report (International Institute for Strategic Studies -IISS) Brazil, Colombia and Mexico are the countries that invested the most in defense in 2018 and have the largest armies in Latin America. Colombia has nearly 293,000 active military units (militia 223,150; navy 56,400; air force 13,650). During 2018, the Colombian government invested $10 billion in military and defense (+ 3% of its GDP).


The Colombian Army, widely viewed today as Latin America’s best-prepared and most professional military, has become what it is because of the evolution of the country's internal struggles, the illegal military operations, the fight against (and alongside) drug cartels and paramilitaries, repression of the insurgents, and because of the over-determination by the US military and government influence.


At the turn of the century, the Colombian government had already lost control over half of its territory to powerful non-state actors. Civil war, paramilitaries, drug trafficking, powerful revolutionary groups. In a framework given by the decline of neoliberalism and the emergence of new disruptive popular leaders (e.g. Hugo Chávez winning the 1998 elections in Venezuela), the US got down to business.


Pablo Escobar’s unrelenting violence against both state forces and criminal rivals led to the formation of the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (Los Pepes), which included drug traffickers and assassins. Many agencies participated in the hunt for Escobar (1992-93). The US Delta Force trained a Colombian police unit called Bloque de Búsqueda (Search Block) with which the Pepes worked jointly. Certainly, a very outstanding cooperation landmark.


Among the military/security cooperation programs developed by the US and Colombia, it is necessary to highlight the so-called Plan Colombia, initially launched in 2000. Hatched in the aftermath of the Cold War, it was conceived to fight drug trafficking and coca plantations that continued to expand following the killing of Pablo Escobar. Quickly, the fight turn from counter-narcotics to counter-insurgency. After 20 years and $11 billion dollars invested by the US, this security aid package is celebrated by many Republicans and Democrats in Congress as one of the top foreign policy achievements of the 21st century.


This tragic saga has led to the installation of 9 military bases with US troops and mercenary contractors all around Colombia, along with the design and implementation of the so called Forward Operating Location (F.O.L.), a military scheme that allows strategic mobility, the capacity to trigger sudden wars from U.S. bases, rapid deployment of airborne troops, driving the proliferation of security agreements with various countries, partnering with the US in its recolonization initiative.


Colombian ended up being the third-largest recipient of US military assistance at a global scale, only behind Egypt and Israel. Duque will receive $448 million in aid in fiscal year 2020. About half of the money would go for military and other security programs. This budget line reached its historic ceiling with George W. Bush, who sent $600 million dollars a year. In Obama's time it reached a ceiling of $450 million a year.


In August 2002, President Bush signed antiterrorism legislation authorizing Colombia to use this aid to directly combat FARC, ELN and AUC. That same month, Álvaro Uribe became president and signed the National Security Presidential Directive 18, formally expanding the uses of Plan Colombia to include counterterrorist objectives. The country was fully back at war.


Along with the “legal” cooperation, as revealed by The Washington Post in 2013, the US, together with several Colombian governments implemented a top-secret program that was particularly devastating to the insurgent groups, funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. US provided Colombian forces with all kinds of training and equipment. For example, the satellite-guided bomb “kits” that killed more than two dozen FARC main commanders, including the aforementioned Mono Jojoy and Reyes. American intelligence agents working with Colombian teams coordinated the strikes. Precision ammunition enabled the Colombian military to penetrate the dense jungle and obliterate rebel encampments. The CIA also trained Colombian interrogators to more effectively question thousands of FARC deserters. In 2013, the air force upgraded its fleet of Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets, fitting them with Israeli-made Griffin laser-guided bombs. It has also fitted smart bombs onto some of its Super Tucanos.


A main thrust of this offensive was to wipe out the insurgent leadership. Targeting the FARC leadership. Exactly what the CIA and JSOC had been doing against al-Qaeda or ISIS leaders among others. Early March 2008: an unprecedented air strike from Colombia on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory is conducted: senior commander Raul Reyes is killed. (At the end of the same month, the mythical FARC founder Manuel Marulanda Vélez died of natural causes). September 2010: "Operation Sodom" wiped out Jorge Briceño Suárez (Mono Jojoy) in another air assault. Alfonso Cano, fenced and fallen in combat, November 2011. “We are breathing down his neck", President Santos declared a few days before. Detected and eliminated. Along with them, many more combatants dead or detained. Constant political and military pressure. Finally, the path of the Peace Accords was imposed. Before moving to legality the Tenth National Guerrilla Conference (2016) stated that the Peace Agreements expressed the social correlation of forces and the political-military and historical-concrete balance of the war. However, Santos himself began to dismantle the Agreements shortly after they were signed. ¿Was the reconciliation a farce and peace nothing more than a web of lies?


From 2012 onwards a complex mechanism for dialogue was deployed, becoming a milestone in international politics and diplomacy. It seemed that peace was a realistic prospect after many unsuccessful attempts since the 80's, all of which ended up in tragedy, along with thousands of deaths among those who were demobilizing and developing a public political life, as the Patriotic Union party already mentioned. Duque’s government continued Santos' legacy: disarm, breach and dissolve the content of the pact while trying to display the idea that its implementation was on the right track. Since the signing of the pact in Havana, demobilized leaders have been imprisoned, there has been judicial persecution, attempts at extradition to the US; anathema, stigmatization, slander has been installed (Santrich=drug trafficker; Marquez=mafia), along with more killings of course. More than 500 social, union or political leaders and 200 demobilized guerrilla fighters have been assassinated since 2016. On the way to the 2019 elections, another 22 candidates have been killed and 200 received threats. You may find it again tomorrow in the news. Those are some of the main reasons why a group of FARC commanders had no choice but to resume armed struggle. In light of this situation, it seems that a clear objective was to impose a defeat on the insurgency on the level of public life, which ends up working by double effect: punishing the idea of the armed uprising against the current social order, and disciplining, forestalling and containing future rebellions.


Last but not least, it is worth remembering that Colombia has been forging relations with the 29-nation NATO alliance since 2008 to finally become its first Latin American global partner. Colombia and NATO will cooperate on global security areas like cyber and maritime security, terrorism and links to organized crime.


Undoubtedly, Colombia has turned into a prominent component in the US imperialism military experience scheme.


Against the axis of evil


The Colombian government’s corrosive stance towards Venezuela is well known. Duque has made it very clear: “diplomatic blockade”. In this approach, Maduro must be defined as a dictator who violates human rights of his own population and rules a country where there is no freedom, which is being shattered by a humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the threat of invasion, an option that is repeatedly brought back to the table, seems to be displaced from the center and some governments in the region (Lima Group) are working with the US and Canada to get Maduro out of government demanding new elections while they all recognize Juan Guaidó as “interim president” (recently honored by Trump at State of the Union). Here is also where Colombian criminal organizations come into play. Venezuelan authorities reported a recent capture of 14 members of the narco-paramilitary group 'Los Rastrojos', in the city of Boca de Grita, state of Tachira, bordering Colombia. 'Los Rastrojos' are accused in Colombia of being a paramilitary organization dedicated to drug trafficking and illegal mining, and responsible for hundreds of murders on both sides of the Venezuelan-Colombian border. More recently, they became widely known after controversial photos were leaked of its members with Venezuelan opposition congressman Juan Guaidó in 2019, before the 'Venezuela Aid Live' concert held in the Colombian city of Cucuta. As we know, 21st century wars are being fought in multidimensional scenarios.


Colombia is also playing an important role as part of a strategic maneuver that goes far beyond the Venezuelan issue and the continent's borders. This year, on January 20, Bogotá hosted the III Hemispheric Ministerial Conference to Combat Terrorism. Mike Pompeo was there and specially praised Colombia’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, joining Argentina, Paraguay and Honduras. Washington is pushing the narrative that together with Iran, the Lebanese party is working along with Maduro’s government and other non-state actors such us FARC-EP, or countries with anti-American governments and of course, other criminal and drug trafficking organizations. “We all know too that the Iranian regime’s top terrorist proxy Hezbollah has found a home in Venezuela under Maduro” Pompeo said in Bogota. “We have seen the presence of Hezbollah cells in countries like Venezuela, seizing the consent and connivance of the Nicolas Maduro dictatorship” Iván Duque added.


Adm. Craig S. Faller, head of the U.S. Southern Command, speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill (31 January 2020) made the strategic lines clear: that represents a "vicious circle of threats that deliberately erodes the security and stability of this region (LatAm)… Transnational criminal organizations and external states actors like China, Russia, Iran, and violent extremist organizations are trying to advance their interests at the expense of U.S. and partner-nation security.”


During his most recent visit to Washington (March 2020), Duque shared a last minute joint press conference with Trump, gave a lecture at the CFR, and delivered a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Addressing in English, Duque reminded attendees that his government has been receiving support from the US and Israel to fight terrorism over a protracted time, and along with other Latin American countries they have “decided to adopt the terrorist lists of the US and the EU… organizations such as Hezbollah need to be destroyed (applauses), like ELN, like the FARC dissidences, like Hamas… The dictatorship of Venezuela has also the traces of anti-semitism, and they have also opened the doors for Hezbollah”. Ultimately he announced a visit to Israel to set in motion a free trade agreement between both countries.


Final words


Latin America hides immense natural wealth. It is no secret. The largest oil basin on the continent is located only a few kilometers away from Florida (Venezuela, Colombia and the Gulf of Mexico). Argentina, Chile and Bolivia are part of South America’s so-called “lithium triangle” which holds 54% of the world’s lithium resources. The Amazon rainforest is the planet's richest region in terms of biodiversity. South America has the largest availability of fresh water resources both per capita and per area at global scale. Undoubtedly, natural resources have always been at the core of US interest over the continent, and Colombia has become a platform situated right in the center of the continent, crucial to the full-spectrum dominance that the US is looking for (Ceceña), pierced by a 70-year-old armed conflict during which more than 460,000 people lost their lives, 200,000 between 1948 and another 260,000 between that date and 2018 (conservative figures).


Whilst US discourages direct action, it delegates or fulfills coordination functions, within an enormous radius of action, relying on military positions that have multiplied since the Obama and Hillary Clinton government. Along with the 9 US military bases in Colombia, another 60 military bases are deployed on the continent (outside the US and Canada), concentrated specially in Central America and the Caribbean, to which other possible clandestine or contingent-use bases should be added.


Considering all its accumulated experience, projecting its security model to the greatest possible extent, the Colombian military started transferring their skills to other countries, having trained thousands of military and police forces in Central America, Mexico, and other countries.  A role model for Latin America.


Colombia may be turning more relevant to the US by becoming a stable stronghold where to retreat, sustain itself, obtain support and operate outward in the midst of a burning situation at a global and continental level. Historical allies are going through chaotic situations. Since November 2019 for instance, Chile, one of its strongest allies in the region, has been experiencing an unprecedented outbreak, a popular revolt that has demolished every myth surrounding one of the economic models most extolled by capitalists and liberal governments. Duque also faces unmatchable challenges.


Unparalleled numbers of Colombians have taken to the streets. There have been protests against the announcement of unpopular reforms that seek to deepen the neoliberal model. Innovative manifestations on multiple fronts with massive support, heterogeneous social components and a strong anti-systemic tone, including confrontation against the security forces, resulting in hundreds of wounded and some protesters killed. After years of terror and fear, street scene occupation seems to be back and consolidating (something that has been common in other countries for decades) along with the national agrarian strikes, trade union strikes, student strikes; all of them astounding mobilizations developed in parallel with the peace dialogues channel.


Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, when considering not only the very high and massive levels of poverty, especially in rural areas, but the also concentration of wealth (and land) in few hands. Nearly half of its population is poor and more than 6.3 million had to leave their land after having survived massacres carried out by the army and paramilitaries or the glyphosate sprayed by Plan Colombia.


Complex systems of domination have been forged in Latin America. Local elites (media, politics, business men and women, police-military, etc.) converge with external apparatuses that are part of the US system of power, shaping a capitalism underpinned by plundering of natural resources, financial speculation and growing marginalization among the population (Beinstein). Despite all this, we are facing an open-ended dispute between social forces that seek to survive, and that in doing so – confronting that domination system –, may bring forth vast national regeneration and radical anti-systemic movements.


You can check it at the Encyclopedia Britannica: “United States continues to exercise a proprietary role at times of apparent threat to its national security, and the Western Hemisphere remains a predominantly US sphere of influence.” Or listen to Trump at the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (2018): "Here in the Western Hemisphere, we are committed to maintaining our independence from the encroachment of expansionist foreign powers. It has been the formal policy of our country since President Monroe that we reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere and in our own affairs”. One way or another, at this point we should agree that the Monroe Doctrine seems to be alive and kicking. But let us not forget that Latin America has always been a rebellious territory.




- Facundo Escobar is an Argentinian anthropologist, journalist, researcher and International Relations and Political History Professor at the National University of La Plata (UNLP), Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is editor in chief at



Some basic references


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-ANTON, Michael. 2019. Trump Doctrine. Foreign Policy magazine. Spring 2019.


-BEINSTEIN, Jorge. 2018. Las nuevas dictaduras latinoamericanas.


-BIDEN, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. 2020. Why America Must Lead Again. Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump. Foreign Affairs. March/April 2020


-CECEÑA, Ana Esther. 2017. Los territorios de la guerra, las guerras del territorio.


-CECEÑA, Ana Esther. 2010. Militarización en las Américas. Conferencia en el Foro Social Américas Paraguay.


-ESTECHE, Fernando. 2015. Colombia. La Paz como victoria y el compromiso de los patriotas nuestroamericanos.


-GONZALEZ CASANOVA, Pablo. 2017. La guerra y la paz en el siglo XXI.


-HAASS, Richard. Liberal World Order, R.I.P. Project Syndicate. March 21, 2018.


-LINDSAY-POLAND, John. 2018. Plan Colombia : U.S. ally atrocities and community activism. Duke University Press.


-MERINO, Gabriel Esteban. 2016.  “Tensiones mundiales, multipolaridad relativa y bloques de poder en una nueva fase de la crisis del orden mundial. Perspectivas para América Latina”. Geopolítica(s). Revista de estudios sobre espacio y poder, vol. 7, núm. 2, 201-225.


-PUTIN, Vladimir. 2014. Club Valdai Speech.



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