Useful Narcoterrorism

1 March 2005
Why Washington, against its principles, supports negotiations with Colombia's paramilitaries, whom the State Department officially considers "narcoterrorists", asks Amira Armenta.

Despite legal loopholes in the peace process launched by the Colombian government with organisations considered by the United States to be narcoterrorists, and the risk that the process could end in impunity, the State Department has expressed its support for the talks. That support is a good example of how values are set aside when strategic interests in a region are at stake. Regardless of one's view of the moral and financial support being provided by the United States, that support cannot be reconciled with essential principles of US antinarcotics policy.

In September 2002, the Bush Administration accused Carlos Castaño and Saltavore Mancuso of conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC, for their Spanish initials) joined the list of international terrorist organisations. Two months later, the AUC announced a cease-fire, and in July 2003, the Colombian government and the self-defence forces signed an agreement for the group's gradual demobilisation. Washington expressed its support for the demobilisation, as long as it was accompanied by the dismantling of drug laboratories and routes under the paramilitaries' control and the enforcement of extradition agreements. Both conditions were non-negotiable.

One year and eight months have passed since the accord was signed in Santafé de Ralito, and the Colombian government has been unable to establish a legal framework for such a sweeping phenomenon. In other words, compliance with Washington's demands is not guaranteed. If the 10,000 members of the self-defence forces laid down their arms today (which is unlikely), no one knows what would happen next. It is unclear what obligations the paramilitaries would have with regard to their drug-related activities (which is what interests Washington), nor does anyone know what to do with people who have raped, murdered and displaced entire populations, illegally appropriating land (which is what the Colombian victims are concerned about).

Although the Colombian government made a cease-fire and a halt to drug trafficking and all other violence conditions for the peace talks, those requirements has not been met. According to the Colombia-Europe-US Coordinating Committee, a network of NGOs, between September 2002 and September 2004, the AUC murdered or forcibly disappeared 1,899 people. That, however, did not stop the talks.

Nor would anyone know what to do if the 10,000 paramilitaries decided to break off the demobilisation, take up arms again and go back to the jungle. There is no Plan Patriot targeting paramilitaries.

Meanwhile, the demobilisation itself, which so far has basically involved laying down arms (barely 20 percent of the total to date), is no guarantee that the paramilitaries will be dismantled. The economic and political power that the paramilitaries have amassed in the past 15 years has become deeply rooted in society. Because it is unable to enforce a demand that this power be identified and dismantled, the Colombian state prefers not to bring it up.


Given the improvisation that has characterised the process from the outset, and Washington's lack of tolerance for narcoterrorism, it is surprising that the State Department has recently reiterated its support. It may be one of those paradoxes that can only be explained by the arguments of realpolitik.

It is surprising, however, because Washington does not tend to be very pragmatic in drug policy matters. It's not that the paramilitaries' narco coté doesn't matter to Washington. In fact, it is the only thing that matters. The massacres, the displacement, the humanitarian crisis, what could be the paramilitaries' terrorist coté, become irrelevant beside the drug-related crimes. The way things stand for the Colombian president right now, Washington cannot allow itself - without running the risk of jeopardising it - to condition support for Uribe too explicitly, to the point that it appears to be tacitly ceding on an essential element of US policy, which it has termed narcoterrorism.

Uribe is a model for the type of president that Washington would like to see in the other countries in the region. Fewer Chávezes and more Uribes. Success in the negotiations with the paramilitaries would give a big boost to Uribe's hopes for re-election. Failure could result in the rise of leftist sectors, adding Colombia to the list of Latin American countries about which Washington has misgivings.

Right now, the 'success' of the process with the paramilitaries is determined by their acceptance of the legal framework proposed by the government. And they have already made it clear that they will not accept a juridical model that implies confessing to crimes, serving certain prison sentences and making restitution for ill-gotten goods, which they would consider a "humiliating submission to justice." As the saying goes, either I win or you lose.

The State Department knows that the Colombian state is too weak to enforce the law. The success of the process will consolidate that weakness. It will go hand in hand with the consolidation of the para-state that the AUC have established over these years, the legalisation of their political power and wealth that they have accumulated by force of arms, the legitimising of the control that they exercise over local governments, with power to influence the selection of candidates. None of this has been demobilised, and with the negotiated peace, it will become normalised and institutionalised.

The United States is aware that the 'success' of the peace process will involve acceptance of a generous measure of impunity and, with luck, a little moral reparation and a tiny bit of monetary reparation. In Colombia, the fear that the paras will walk away from the table - since there is nothing to stop them - and put an end to what is now seen as a possibility for peace is pushing public opinion toward giving in to the paramilitaries' interests. Let God punish them! In fact, some people have even hinted that divine justice should replace the rule of law. The result would be that a person caught shoplifting in a supermarket could serve more prison time than a member of the AUC, an organisation that is still on the international terrorist list.

Washington has already allocated US$3 million of USAID's social program funds for the reinsertion of the self-defence forces into society. Why not force the now-wealthy paramilitary commanders, who are millionaire drug lords, to pay for the reinsertion of their peasant soldiers? Would that be too humiliating for them? What has become of Washington's earlier requirements, such as confession, the only way of knowing how much they have, the restitution of illegally acquired property, and the dismantling of drug laboratories and trafficking routes?

In its February 7-13 issue, the Colombian magazine Cambio published the following commentary in its Secretos column: "More than a year ago, the United States turned over to DAS a quarter of a million dollars confiscated by banks in that country from Miguel and Víctor Mejía Múnera, "The Twins," whose extradition it is seeking. DAS invested that money in the purchase of 1,500 of the latest-model M-16 rifles and 3,000 pistols, and the creation of a special strike force. Last week, a hundred of these men, provided with those modern weapons, were sent to the meeting area in Santa Fe de Ralito, in Córdoba, to protect Salvatore Mancuso and the other members of the AUC negotiating team, among them The Twins.

In its efforts to smooth the way for the re-election of Uribe, Washington's main political ally in the region, the United States is willing to turn a blind eye to a process that is legitimising groups that, although they are 'narcoterrorists,' are useful right now in the region's political context.

About the authors

Amira Armenta

Amira Armenta (Colombia/Netherlands) has a degree in Latin American history from the Université de Jussieu (Paris).

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