Colombia: the reasons behind torture

The relation between US “aid”, human rights violations, wide scale repression and a good economic climate explains to a large extent the Colombian drama.

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Last May 18th, a report in the New York Times revealed the persistence of the military culture and the State policies that, during the governments of Alvaro Uribe, produced the scandal of the “false positives”: that is, the assassination of thousands of civilians who were subsequently disguised so as to be passed off as guerrillas. In mid-June, Senator Gustavo Petro, who lost the last Colombian elections to Ivan Duque, seen as the successor of Uribe, suggested an interesting hypothesis: that the bestiality of the Colombian army is due to the inhuman training – including torture – that their soldiers receive in clandestine bases in the jungle. He showed videos of these practices to sustain his report.


But Colombian reality, including the systematic torture and massacre of civilians by the State and its associated paramilitary forces, needs no hypothesis: it is solidly documented. The “false positives”, for their part, represent barely a footnote, the visible portion of a phenomenon that is still obscure, thanks to the cover-up practiced by the press and other socially compromised institutions, from which an accurate representation of reality should normally be expected.


The internal enemy


After the Second World War, the doctrine of “National Security” produced a 180-degree turn in the mentality of the Latin American armies, that were subject to the financing, modernization and collaboration of the US government.  From seeing themselves as an institution dedicated to the defense of their territory, the armies in question redirected their attention to the “internal enemy”, made up of civiian elements who were represented as “outsiders” and “opposed to progress”. Although the new counter-insurgent doctrine claimed to have “communism” as its target and took part in the combat against illegally armed actors, it also served to assassinate, disappear or silence thousands of peaceful and unarmed civilian actors, such as activists, social leaders, trade union members, teachers and, in brief, anyone who felt discontented with the status quo and dared to say so out loud.


The history of Colombia, as happens with the majority of countries in the region, is a history of inequality, of small criollo elites, who were too small-minded and racist to yield an ounce of their power and privilege in favour of the rest of society, and always received foreign support within a world order that situates the Third World in a subordinate role of “service” with respect to the global economy.


Popular discontent, added to the social stagnation resulting from the inequality and political and economic discrimination of broad sectors of society, was easier to silence or to justify up to the mid twentieth century. During and after the Second World War, discourse about freedom and the fundamental and inalienable rights of all human beings were heard and embraced by increasingly widespread and more popular social sectors in Latin America, that traditionally had been relegated to the margins. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, strengthened this perception of equality among people and of universal access to political participation. Thus, democracy became dangerous for the “elites” and they began to speak of “too much” democracy: the subordinated elements were raising their humiliated heads.


After this gradual process of raising awareness on the central place of citizens in a democracy, on their rights and their power of decision about their own destiny, domination by an oligarchical elite was only to become possible through intimidation and bloody repression, whenever modern propaganda failed to justify the differences.


Torture as a modus operandi


As Noam Chomsky explains: “There is nothing especially new in the relation between atrocious violations of human rights and US aid. On the contrary, the correlation is quite consistent. The most important academic specialist on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, found, in a study in 1981, that US aid ‘tends to direct itself disproportionally to Latin American governments that torture their citizens...’”.


The economist Edward Herman, for his part, found a clear correlation between US aid and an improvement in the business climate; “...just as one would expect”, Chomsky adds in the preface to the book “America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia”, by British writer Doug Stokes, director of the Centre for Advanced International Studies of the University of Exeter.


It is this relation between US “aid”, human rights violations, wide scale repression and a good economic climate (for a small local and international corporate elite) which explains, to a large extent, the Colombian drama, which without doubt also serves to understand what forces give form to the rest of the region. The climate of positive investment “is achieved by assassinating union leaders, torturing and assassinating peasant farmers, priests, human rights activists and so forth...” We saw a clear example of the method in action when, following the demobilization of the FARC and the Peace Treaty of November of 2016, the assassination of social leaders and activists rose in the zones abandoned by the guerrillas and later taken over by the State and its paramilitaries.


A conclusive argument of Schoultz describes with precision Colombian and Latin American reality after the end of the world war, extending to the twenty-first century, with the “false positives”: the objective of State terror is “to permanently destroy the threat to socioeconomic privilege through the elimination of the economic participation of the numerical majority...the popular classes”.


If there exists any fundamental difference between Colombia and the majority of Latin American countries, it is, in the words of Colombian historian Marco Palacios, that: “The governing classes and leaders of the ‘oligarchic republic’ never suffered defeat and hence, their experience and political sensibilities are quite limited in being able to see themselves ‘on a plane of equality’” (UNDP Colombia 2003).


As Stokes explains, the techniques of physical and psychological coercion were part of the counter-insurgency doctrine promoted by the United States for Latin American armies. Torture was a “legitimate part of the counter-insurgency arsenal”. To make such an affirmation, Stokes cites the manuals of the US army and their intelligence agencies. It is also worth recalling that the formerly named US “School of the Americas” trained, over decades, tens of thousands of Latin American military personnel in counter-insurgency, among them the Peruvian Telmo Hurtado, perpetrator of the massacre of Accomarca, in 1985. The list of Peruvian former students is long and includes various military men tied to drug trafficking and massacres of civilians, such as that of La Cantuta and Barrios Altos (Hermoza Rios).


In the training and manuals for savagery, there are no grey areas. There is no intermediate point. In one of the many manuals revised by Stokes, the primary objective of the psychological propaganda operations is the civilian population. “Civilians in the operative area can be on the side of the government or that of the enemy”. The British scholar emphasizes a deliberate extension of the concept of subversion that went beyond armed combatants to include large segments of civil society, seen as potential collaborators, which also helps to understand the terror perpetrated by the Peruvian State against tens of thousands of civilians during the 1980s and 1990s.


Thus, for example, some of the US counter-insurgency manuals revised by Stokes mention a series of “indicators of insurgent activity”, which were “taken to be definitive signs of subversion”. These vary from a refusal to pay the rent or some monetary loan, the characterization of the armed forces as enemies of the people, or an atmosphere of excitement among workers, to an increase in student activities, a growth in journalistic articles critical of the government, strikes and increased petitions to the government, among other “highly dangerous” activities considered subversive and intolerable in a democracy.


In July 2018, Michael Forst, a UN rapporteur, confirmed that this tendency was still active, referring to the extermination of social leaders: “They face campaigns of defamation that seek to discredit their work, associating them with the political opposition, accusing them of having connections with paramilitaries or calling them anti-patriots, criminals or even traitors (...) They are also stigmatized by various sectors of society that call them guerrillas, informers or persons opposed to development” (Semana 12/07/18).


It is also necessary to clarify that torture, contrary to what is painted by Hollywood – that legitimizes the practice under the slogan that it “saves lives”, such as in the 2012 Oscar winning film “Zero Dark Thirty” –serves not so much to glean information as to intimidate and terrorize the social and political segment from which the tortured person emerges.


Paramilitarism was another aspect incorporated into Colombian law for several decades. In 1968, Decree 3398 became “Law 48", which established the bases for the formation of civilian squadrons that were to be supplied by the army with weapons restricted for civilians.


“(The) civilian irregular forces were central for the networks of intelligence and the system designed to link the battalions in brigades I, III, VI and VII, with the population and authorities, the police and the air force. This intelligence network was provisioned and trained by the United States” (Stokes, 2005).


Plausible negation


Paramilitarism is a State tool that permits “plausible negation”, a figure much in use by the United States government to deny their participation in every kind of misdeeds. Paramilitaries, according to the official version, are illegal actors outside the control of the State, led by their own ideological convictions and their own rentier interests. A moderately in depth analysis derails these claims, religiously repeated by those whom we can read or hear in the mass media and many representatives of the academy. Today there is even an attempt to deny the existence of paramilitaries (officially disbanded since 2004) assuring us that they are “criminal bands” (BACRIM). Journalistic reports, meanwhile, suggest that the great Colombian slaughter is the responsibility or consequence of the guerrillas, which have been evolving over time, passing from being “communists” to “drug guerrillas” and then to “drug terrorists”.


US foreign policy defined these terms: during the Cold War, any dissidence fell under the umbrella of “communism”, although in many cases the “communists” in fact proposed a nationalist and protectionist capitalism like that exercised by the United States throughout its history. This was the case with Jacodo Arbenz, in Guatemala, in the 1950s. When the Soviet Union fell, the war against “communism” gave way to a new war against “drugs” that was later to be replaced or complemented with the war on “terror”. The distinct denominations allowed many intellectuals aligned with the official versions to affirm the existence of a “discontinuity” in US policy on Colombia and parts of Latin America. It also allowed for conferring some legitimacy to their policies and objectives, by opposing them to real and changing issues over time.


What is demonstrated in the work of Stokes or that of Jasmin Hristov, of the University of British Columbia, Canada, is that although the rhetoric was progressively adapted to the times and mentalities of each epoch, the real targets were always marginalized civilian elements that were demanding the respect of their rights and access to the res publica.


But plausible negation only functions with the collaboration of the traditional press, whose journalists hide or omit reality while they confirm the official declarations. This is argued by Nick Cullather, a historian that the CIA contracted in 1990 to write up – for internal consumption – the history of the US Coup d’Etat against Guatemala in 1954.


According to Cullather, in the Guatemalan case, the negation of the US government concerning their participation in the overthrow of Arbenz was “plausible” only through the conscious concealment carried out by numerous journalists involved in the coverage of the events and their respective media outlets.


Why does journalism not inform us about Colombian reality and, instead, conceals it with their silence and the repetition of official versions? Why do our daily papers never editorialize – whatever happens – on the countries aligned with the US economic and political order, while they dedicate extensive columns to their enemies?



(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)

Translator’s note: Most of the quotes from English language sources have been retranslated from the Spanish, so may not be textual.


-Publicado el 14 de junio de 2019 en "Hildebrandt en sus trece", Lima, Perú.
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