Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ingrid Betancourt, FARC, and Death Squad Democracy

"I cannot understand how a revolutionary organization can end up behaving worse than the very people it is fighting."

-----Ingrid Betancourt, Even Silence Has an End

"The starkest reality of war is that the enemy is never really a monster, never inhuman."

-----Retired U.S. Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff

Few have sought to rationally evaluate Ingrid Betancourt's above claim in the wake of her rescue from six plus years of captivity in the Colombian jungle at the hands of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a rebel group engaged in a half-century long war with Colombian security forces. Almost all discussion of Betancourt's harrowing experience as a prisoner takes it as an axiom that FARC violence is (1) evil, and (2) the principal cause of the war. It is apparently heretical to ask if - or even to what extent - this is really true.

Betancourt describes FARC members as full of class hatred, "with which they [are] brainwashed daily." She pronounces them "cowardly" and "cruel," dedicated to killing, lying, and betrayal, along with ritual humiliation of their captives.

Political figures like Betancourt, who was abducted while running for president, are treated as criminals, she says, for having voted to fund the war against FARC. All politicians are regarded as parasites, prolonging the war in order to profit from it. In Betancourt's judgment, "most of these (FARC) young people [do] not really understand the meaning of the word 'political.' They [are] taught that politics [is] an activity for those who managed to deceive and then amass wealth by stealing taxes." As a prisoner, Betancourt found it difficult to offer a rebuttal, since "for me the problem with their (FARC's) explanation was that to a large degree I shared it."

Nothing could convince the FARC members that their hostages were anything but bitter class enemies engaged in self-serving rationalizations of criminal conduct. "For them," writes Betancourt, "anyone who wasn't on the side of FARC was scum." When she tried to explain that she had gone into politics in order to fight corruption, injustice, and war, her captors replied dismissively: "You all say the same thing."

In short, what made FARC's belief system credible was the behavior of those who served the Colombian state, including Betancourt, a former Senator and presidential candidate.

Although Betancourt's book (Even Silence Has an End) is the story of her captivity, not an account of the civil war, it is impossible to make proper sense of a hostage's experience without some understanding of the wider war of which it is a part. In this respect, Betancourt's account of the Colombian civil war is disappointing, evidencing a distinct liberal bias, portraying the Colombian army as caught between right wing paramilitaries and FARC "terrorists." This is standard imperial apologetics for a vicious class war against the poor by the state and its affiliated death squads (backed up by Washington). The pretense is that the paramilitaries are independent of the state, which seeks to bring them under control, when in reality they are an expression of state policy that it is convenient for governing officials to deny. [Colombia's rulers play a major role in sustaining the death squads. Hundreds of FARC guerrillas have been dehumanized and tortured in Uribe and Bush's appalling high-security "special prisons."]

At the time of her abduction in February, 2002 Betancourt was running for president as the candidate of the Green Oxygen reformist party, which had the aim, she said, of "establish[ing] dialogue simultaneously with everyone involved in the conflict, while maintaining strong military pressure to ensure that the illegal factions had an incentive to sit at the negotiating table." She claims that the Colombian army fought both "the FARC" and "the paramilitaries."

In fact, however, the paramilitary death squads are not fundamentally opposed by the Colombian army. Both are an outgrowth of the Colombian state and have class enemies in common, including labor organizations, popular movements, indigenous organizations, opposition political parties, peasant movements, intellectuals, religious currents, youth and student groups, even neighborhood associations. This means that FARC's claim that the state is fundamentally criminal can't simply be dismissed as Marxist dogma.

"During the 1980s," writes Betancourt, "the Colombian government offered a peace agreement to the FARC, and a truce was signed and political reforms were voted in Congress to support the agreement." She blames the FARC for the failure of negotiations. "But with the rise of drug trafficking, the FARC found a way to finance its war and the peace agreement collapsed." She adds that "The FARC brought terror to the countryside, killing peasants and rural workers who would not accept their rule. A rivalry between the drug traffickers and the FARC gave rise to a new surge of violence." Paramilitaries emerged as a defensive reaction to FARC terror: "The paramilitaries emerged as an alliance between the political far right - in particular the landlords - and the drug traffickers, striving to confront the FARC and expel them from their regions."

But was "peace" ever really offered? In the mid-1980s the FARC agreed to a cease-fire and many of its members joined the electoral process. Thousands of guerrillas and their sympathizers formed a political party, the Patriotic Union, fielding candidates at all levels of government. But during the entire period of its announced cease fire the paramilitary AUC carried out military actions against civilians. In less than five years, five thousand activists, candidates, and elected officials were murdered by the military and "private" death squads, including two presidential candidates, several members of congress, scores of mayors, hundreds of city council members and local politicians. The survivors rejoined the guerrillas, fled into exile or disappeared underground. Betancourt's account makes no mention of these events.

Only when the FARC managed to extend its control to within 40 miles of the capital of Bogota did the government of Andrés Pastraña agree to another round of negotiations in an extensive demilitarized zone under FARC influence (1999-2002). In these years FARC engaged in peace negotiations with the Pastraña government, which, incidentally, rejected the "terrorist" characterization of the group. Moreover, many prominent business leaders from Wall Street, London and Bogota, along with notables like Queen Noor of Jordan, met with FARC leaders in the demilitarized zone during the peace negotations, and came away impressed with their efforts.

The radicalization of the Bush Administration after 911 served as a convenient pretext to break off the peace talks. Under pressure from Washington and Colombia's right wing, the Pastraña government abruptly terminated negotiations in 2002, and in less than 24 hours dispatched the Colombian Army to the demilitarized area in an effort to capture the FARC negotiators. The surprise attack failed, but did manage to provoke an escalation of the war.

During the three years of negotiations, open debates organized by the FARC had covered fundamental social, economic and political issues. Land reform, public investment in job creation, foreign investment and public ownership, economic alternatives to coca farming, education and health care, all had been debated without fear of death squad retribution. Many formerly hostile observers from Europe, Latin America, and North America, had left the negotiations convinced that peace for Colombia could be reached at the bargaining table.

In the post-911 world, rhetorical overkill through applying the word "terrorism" has become nearly an addiction. The Uribe Administration (2004-2010), like its patron the Bush Administration, quickly developed the habit of smearing virtually all of its critics as "terrorists," an apparently irresistible way of disposing of political opposition. Leaving this vulgar political tactic aside, we can say that whatever else might be claimed about FARC, it is the longest lasting, largest peasant-based guerrilla movement active in the world today. Prior to 911, it was recognized as a legitimate resistance movement by most countries in Latin America and the European Union, with the European Union rejecting the Clinton Administration's 1997 designation of the organization as "terrorist." (The Clinton administration never considered the Colombian government terrorist, even in 1998 when pilots from Palanquero air base dropped cluster bombs on a civilian target, killing 17 civilians.)

With the election of Alvaro Uribe, the FARC was officially branded a "terrorist" organization, with the EU deferring to Washington in accepting this label. In short order FARC negotiators and international representatives were arrested in Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador. Protected by Washington's "War on Terrorism" President Uribe savagely repressed trade union general strikes and massive rural protests by major agricultural organizations opposed to his promotion of a "free trade" agreement with the U.S. Impunity was the order of the day.

In the midst of government sponsored butchery, the FARC pursued a policy of tactical retreat to jungle and mountain strongholds, and made offers of mutual prisoner releases as a confidence building step toward future peace negotiations. Washington opposed any prisoner swap and Uribe took the same position.

Meanwhile, the U.S. extradited two FARC prisoners held by the Colombian government and put them in solitary confinement, shackled 23 hours a day. Simon Trinidad was corralled into a show trial for "drug trafficking" and "terrorism" as well as "kidnapping." What are the chances that Trinidad will be allowed to write about the cruelty of his captors to a world-wide audience receptive to the idea that Washington's violence is inherently terroristic? There is plenty of evidence to substantiate this point of view, but few are likely to ever hear about it.

When Andrés Pastraña ran for president Betancourt supported him, and upon her release praised his successor, Alvaro Uribe, a rightwing politican with a history of ties to Colombian death squads. Uribe's victory inaugurated one of the bloodiest campaigns of state terror in the history of Colombia, with the paramilitaries committing about 80 percent of the human rights violations, compared to 16 percent by guerrillas. As mentioned before, the death squads are not independent of the state, but an outgrowth of it: police even patrol side by side with the paramilitaries.

In the Uribe years U.S. military officials and their Colombian partners funded a 31,000 member strong death squad force which sowed terror throughout the country, killing thousands of peasants in areas where FARC was influential. Hundreds of trade union activists were assassinated by hit men in broad daylight in towns and cities occupied by the army. Human rights workers, as well as journalists and professors who dared to report on the military's massacres, were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. It was not a rare occurrence for them to be beheaded or disemboweled, in order to spread the kind of paralyzing terror that renders resistance unthinkable. Millions of peasants were driven off their land into wretched urban slums, their lands taken over by prominent paramilitary chiefs or large landowners. The purging of political undesirables from the countryside was strictly in accordance with Pentagon counterinsurgency training, which counseled the Colombian military to destroy the "social infrastructure" of the FARC, which had longstanding and extensive family, community and social ties with the peasantry. [The guerrilla moves among the people, said Mao Tse Tung, as the fish swims in the sea. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine therefore calls for "draining the ocean." Without water (i.e., social support networks) all the "fish" (i.e., guerrillas) inevitably die. Not without reason Colombia has been called the "genocidal democracy." Ninety-seven percent of its human rights abuses go unpunished.]

Although few now seem willing to concede the point, the long political history of the FARC, its longstanding ties with a wide swathe of the Colombian rural population, its program of social reforms, its targeted use of force in its conflict with the Colombian military and security forces, its continued pursuit of peace negotiations based on the need for social and military reform, all militate strongly against any simple-minded designation of the organization as merely "terrorist." They are an army fighting a war, and war is always cruel. Which is not to justify the specific abuses Betancourt describes in her book. But let us not forget the thousands of mutilated corpses produced by Colombian security forces. Betancourt, at least, emerged with her life.

The real origin of the Colombian civil war is not FARC "evil," but savage poverty. In a country of roughly 45 million people, about 11 million people cannot afford even one nutritious meal a day. Close to two-thirds of the population is unable to regularly meet its most basic subsistence needs. In rural areas the poverty rate rises to as high as 85 percent. There is no way of maintaining such a status quo without major applications of state violence, which is to say, death squads.

Betancourt has praised Uribe as a "great president," though before her abduction she was harshly critical of him, and in her latest book she accuses him of a do-nothing hostage policy designed to "let time pass, hoping that our lives would become less valuable, forcing the guerrillas to release us without obtaining anything in return."

How "great" does his record show Uribe to be? His name is in the files of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the C.I.A. as a narco-trafficker, one of the most wanted international drug traffickers, in fact. A declassified National Security Archives report dated September 23, 1991 accuses him of being a collaborator of the Medellin cartel and a personal friend of the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, whom Betancourt describes in a previous book as "a monster who had showed his fourteen-year-old son how to dig out a victim's eyeball with a red-hot spoon." The D.E.A. report states that Uribe was one of the "more important Colombian narco-terrorists contracted by the Colombian narcotics cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection, and enforcement of narcotics operations in both the U.S. and Colombia. These individuals are also contracted as 'hit men' to assassinate individuals . . . and to perform terrorist attacks against Colombian officials, other government officials, law enforcement agencies, and groups of other political persuasions."

When he was governor of the Department of Antioquia, Uribe was one of the ideologues and financiers of the paramilitaries. He was responsible for the massacre of tens of thousands of peasants and for chemical contamination of the Amazon, which has spread cancer and other diseases among the people of Putumayo and Caqueta, leaving vast tracts of once fertile land unusable. He was George Bush's staunchest ally in Latin America, and cooperated with him in converting Colombia to a semi-colony of the U.S., armed to the teeth with high technology weaponry and nearly 400,000 troops, necessary for carrying out policies of unrestrained state terrorism against labor organizers and the rural poor.

A complete bill of indictment against Uribe would take considerable time to draw up. He collaborated in the crimes of the paramilitary death squads; caused massive forced displacement (over 4 million Colombians have been uprooted from the land); ignored structural problems in the rural economy linked to high unemployment and under-employment; allowed funds for the poor and social sectors to be systematically transferred to drug lords, paramilitaries, rich industrialists, and personal friends; pursued a high-growth economic strategy at the expense of creating jobs; denationalized companies in the telecommunications, oil, and mining sectors; closed down some of Colombia's biggest public hospitals, eliminating over 4000 medical jobs; carried out a policy of systematic murder of trade union organizers; sponsored an illegal invasion of neighboring Ecuador, carried on a childish confrontation with Hugo Chavez, costing Colombia dearly in trade with Venezuela; used the judicial system to attack civilians and political opponents; bought votes in Congress to amend the Constitution (in order to allow him to run for an illegal second term); illegally assigned contracts to personal relatives; approved "free trade" treaties and other legislation to advance the interests of a tiny few at the expense of the many; and violated Colombian sovereignty by permitting seven U.S. military bases in Colombia (the Colombian constitution does not allow the stationing of foreign troops on Colombian soil). In short, he has worked long and diligently to convert the Colombian state into a major criminal enterprise. If all this is the work of a "great" president, perhaps we would be better off with failures.

Upon her release Betancourt embraced and praised General Mario Montoya, who commanded the clandestine Anti-Communist Alliance that murdered thousands of Colombian dissidents, almost all of them hideously tortured beforehand. Betancourt, who repeatedly emphasizes the cruelty of her FARC captors, has had nothing to say about the ferocious barbarity of the Colombian security forces, and continues to endorse the Colombian army's prosecution of the war in order to achieve "peace" (through negotiations). But she offers no proposal for how to reign in the state terrorists who have shown no interest in peace.

Betancourt nowhere makes mention of the pronounced role of the United States in creating and maintaining the war. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the hemisphere, and, not coincidentally, is also the worst human rights violator in the Americas. Much of the blame goes back to the Kennedy Administration, which went to great lengths to convert the Colombian army into counterinsurgency brigades that would fight "Communism" via death squads. This ushered in the National Security Doctrine that labeled all political resistance a form of treason, justifying making war on the Colombian people (the "internal enemy") with large doses of state terror. In 1966 the field manual U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Forces specified that while anti-guerrilla efforts should not employ mass terror, selective terror against civilians was justified.

The liberation of Betancourt strengthened Uribe's terrorist regime and lent it renewed credibility, assisting its increasing militarization of the countryside while covering up ongoing murders of trade unionists and peasants. While regrettable, her suffering is nothing in comparison to what the Colombian poor have been forced to endure for fifty years at the hands of the butchers who set her free.


Geraldo, Javier, S. J., Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, (Common Courage: 1996)

McClintock, Michael, Instruments of Statecraft - U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, Counterterrorism, 1940-1990, (Pantheon, 1992)

Goff, Stan, Full Spectrum Disorder - The Military in the New American Century, (Soft Skull: 2004)

Betancourt, Ingrid, Even Silence Has an End - My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, (Penguin: 2010)

Betancourt, Ingrid, Until Death Do Us Part - My Struggle To Reclaim Colombia, (Harper-Collins: 2002)

Morgan, Nick, "Colombia Elections,"

Petras, James, "An Open Letter to the People and Government of the U.S. (and a reply to the FARC)," November 20, 2006,

Rodrigues, Miguel Urbano, "Reaffirmation of Solidarity With FARC-EP, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,"

Petras, James, "Fidel Castro and the FARC: Eight Mistaken Thesis of Fidel Castro," July 7, 2006,

Petras, James, "Colombia, Laboratory of Witches: Democracy and State Terrorism," August 12, 2008

Petras, James, "Leader of Deathsquads Wins Colombian Election," June 27, 2010,

Petras, James, "Colombia: State Terror in the Name of Peace," May 4, 2010,

Pimiento Susan and John Lindsay-Poland, "U.S. Base Deal for Colombia: Back to the Status Quo," October 8, 2010,

Lindsay-Poland, John, "Army Commanders Fired For Killings," November 21, 2008,

Bennett, Hans, "Neoliberalism Needs Death Squads in Colombia," September 3, 2009,

Rozental, Manuel, "The Circle Opens Out: New Evidence of Criminality in Colombian Regime," May 25, 2010,

Carroll, Rory, "Why the war on drugs in Colombia may never be won," February 16, 2010,

Betancourt, Ingrid, September 27, 2010, Democracy Now,


dissent said...

What sort of perspective do you expect Ms. Betancourt to adopt? While trying to help these people achieve peace and social justice, she was abducted and held against her will by these scum for years.

I've searched all over the net and have yet to find a legitimate reason why Farc would do this besides pure contempt for democratic process and the sort of democratic Green politics that Betancourt represents.

In other words, both in theory and practice Farc seems to be the worst kind of reactionaries. A bunch of thug militarist drug lords who rely on brainwashed children to carry out their crimes.

Michael Smith said...

Hostage taking and prisoner exchange are hardly the invention of the FARC. If the FARC had adopted the tactics of the Colombian state, Betancourt's mutilated body would have been found within a few hours of her capture, dumped in a prominent place for propaganda effect.

There may be criticism of FARC that is not at the same time apologetics for the Colombian state, but if so, I have yet to find it.

Ex-hostages, of whatever group, are unlikely to say anything favorable about their captors, which is a perfectly understandable bias. But bias it is.

Those in a position to evaluate the situation more objectively should attempt to correct the bias, as we would with any other.

If Colombia has a "democratic process" in play, how come FARC's "brainwashed children" can't be weaned away from their "reactionary" leaders with free food, housing, medical care, and education?