Colombia: a mercenary state serving US imperialism

In the two days after Oliver Dodd published this article in the Morning Star newspaper on 4th December, Colombia’s state again sent highly trained commandos into Venezuelan territory as part of two separate covert operations falling under the strategic rubric of “hybrid warfare”, assassinating alias Romaña and alias Paisa, two of the five secretariat members of the Farc-ep (Segunda Marquetalia). As tied to these secret hybrid warfare operations and to avoid attribution and public scrutiny for invading Venezuelan sovereignty, Colombia’s state has claimed “plausible deniability” and blamed the killings on dissident guerrillas fighting for strategic routes on the border. Colombia’s establishment media, such as El Tiempo, have happily pushed this lie, thereby acting as a representative for the Colombian state and counter-insurgency interests.

OLIVER DODD says Colombia’s regime is not just an abuser of its own people, but a lynchpin of US dominance in Latin America

As the gateway to both Central and South America and providing strategic access to the Panama Canal, US imperialism has long prioritised Colombia as a client-state and bulwark to counter working-class and peasant forces in the Americas.

Through the installation of at least seven military bases that we know about, US imperialism exploits Colombian territory as a strategic beachhead to combat anti-imperialists, especially threatening revolutionary movements in Colombia and Venezuela.

This can be seen most clearly in the attempted 2019 assassination of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The mercenaries involved positioned their training camps close to US and Colombian military bases and launched their operation from Colombian airstrips, rivers and shores.

Having observed and interviewed ELN and Farc guerrillas in the countryside and mountains, I find it inconceivable that an armed group could establish mercenary training camps for an extended period and then plot the assassination of a foreign president, without either acceptance or support from Colombian state institutions.

In May 2021 highly-trained commandos were sent to assassinate Farc-EP leader Jesus Santrich in Venezuela and retreated back to Colombian territory via helicopter. The killers cut off Santrich’s little finger, most likely as evidence to collect the hefty $10 million bounty on his head.

Nicknamed “rambos” by the guerrillas themselves, the Colombian state has a long record of sending small units of mercenary commandos covertly into neighbouring countries to assassinate communist insurgents.

These special military operations are part of a broader hybrid strategy of proxy warfare, which is combined with economic sabotage, lawfare, propaganda and deception.  

By relying on mercenary “private military contractors” and paramilitaries to conduct cross-border military operations, the Colombian state seeks to claim plausible deniability and avoid public attribution and scrutiny for crimes of aggression and violations of sovereignty.

As part of these hybrid warfare efforts, the US created the Venezuelan Affairs Unit (VAU) in 2019 and established its headquarters in Colombia’s capital city Bogotá.

With the assistance of British billionaire Richard Branson (who has economic interests in Colombia), Venezuelan businessman Tony Intriago (whose Miami-based mercenary company assassinated the Haitian president Jovenel Moise this year) and US State planners, Colombia’s right-wing government organised the 2019 “aid concert” in Cucuta on the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

Crudely described by propagandists and “NGOs” as an “aid convoy,” the mission was part of the ongoing campaign to ferment a coup and legitimise Juan Guaido, the right-wing politician who has declared himself Venezuelan president.

For its collaboration over the years, in 2017 Colombia became the first and only Latin American state to be accepted into Nato, primarily to ensure the safe passage of US and European capital and to undermine working class and peasant resistances to imperial designs in Latin America.  

Exploiting the demobilisation of communist rebels in economically strategic areas since a peace agreement was signed in 2016, US, Canadian, British and German multinationals have been expanding their investments into areas previously off limits.

With mining and oil enterprises seeing the 2016 peace agreement as a business opportunity, enabling them to penetrate former guerrilla territories more effectively, this drive towards “extractivism” has been environmentally devastating and undermined agricultural production, especially for peasants and indigenous groups.

Palm oil production, spearheaded by German multinationals, has also expanded and is responsible for increasing the already extreme concentration of land ownership in the hands of the rich and the forced displacement of peasants.

Despite a peace agreement signed five years ago that was supposed to address land inequality, Colombia’s land distribution continues to be among the worst in the world.

More extreme now than it was in the 1960s when the civil war with Farc-ep began, Colombia’s land distribution is the worst in Latin America, with approximately two thirds of the land owned by 0.4% of the population, and approximately 84% of the smallest farms controlling less than 4 percent of the productive land.

The vast majority of the cultivated land, approximately two-thirds, is used by agribusinesses usually owned by foreign companies.  

A mercenary client-state

Through the blatant intervention by the US state into Colombia’s civil war, imperialism has restructured, trained and upgraded the Colombian armed forces with the intention of making it the most powerful state-military force in Latin America. Driven by this support, Colombia is today a leader on the global mercenary marketplace.

Colombian state-military forces have been designed not only to combat progressive struggles, but also to be contracted out to protect the private property of multinationals, thereby turning official forces into state-sponsored mercenaries acting for transnational interests.

The US oil multinational, Occidental Petroleum, which operated along the border of Venezuela in Colombia’s Arauca province until it sold its on-shore operations to US private equity multinational the Carlyle Group in 2020, benefited from a state-military taskforce exclusively dedicated to protecting its investments.

British-American oil multinational BP (then British Petroleum) signed an agreement with Colombia’s Ministry of Defence in 1995 worth $11 million USD.

When the BP deal was signed and in response to the growth of communist insurgency led by Farc-EP, Colombia’s state had recently legalised in 1994 the use of mercenary paramilitaries, which even then had a notorious reputation for human rights abuses.

These mercenary paramilitaries have been essential to counter-insurgency operations in Colombia. Referred to as “depriving the fish of oxygen to swim,” paramilitaries intentionally use intimidation and terror as a weapon against civilians to prevent them from joining trade unions, left-wing political parties and communist guerrilla groups.

State-sponsored mercenary paramilitaries have also been sponsored by Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Company), Drummond and Coca-Cola.

A retired Lieutenant Colonel of Colombia’s National Police, Omar Rojas, recently told me during an interview that the use of mercenaries by the Colombian state in the civil war is extensive and that state-sponsored mercenaries are found across the country.  

Rojas also suggested that, because it is very risky for official state-military forces to directly commit assassinations in a foreign territory like Venezuela, the killers of Santrich were likely professional mercenaries with connections to Colombian state forces.

Trained by the US in assassination techniques as part of special operations against “high-value-targets,” battle-tested in rugged terrains like jungles and mountains to fight communist guerrillas — and much cheaper than similarly skilled competitors on the global mercenary marketplace — Colombia’s state-sponsored mercenary industry is thriving.

They are found from Mexico and Honduras to places as distant as Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The 28-man mercenary hit squad that assassinated Haitian President, Jovenel Moise, on July 7 this year, was made up largely of former members of Colombia’s armed forces and can only be understood as intimately connected with the US and the Colombian state’s support for mercenaries and right-wing paramilitarism in counter-insurgency operations over the years.

Despite pretences to being a democracy, Colombia is anything but democratic.

In the face of a horrendous human rights record advancing the interests of the dominant classes, the state continues to push for right-wing militarism and repression. It has an interminable interest in maintaining its cross-border military activities, violating the sovereignty of neighbouring countries.

Every vital stride forward for the popular forces in Colombia brings hope to the eventual prospect of peace and stability in the region and represents a strike against the US hegemony and imperialism to which the present Colombian state is fatally aligned.  

Oliver Dodd is a journalist and PhD Researcher at the University of Nottingham in England working on Colombia’s armed conflict. Earlier this year he travelled to the mountains of Colombia’s Catatumbo region to conduct the first ever face-to-face interview with a senior commander of the recently remobilised Farc-EP (Segunda Marquetalia). He can be followed on Twitter @Olivercdodd.

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