Colombia’s corporate killers

People living in Colombian villages and cities have intimate contact with the US government’s drug war. US-backed paramilitary death squads move in and butcher unarmed peasant farmers with machetes and chainsaws and feed their dismembered bodies to the pigs. Multinational corporations then take the land and exploit it for oil, gold and a variety of other money-making projects. The farmers weren’t necessarily growing banned plants ? they were just in the way of multinational corporate development.
In previous articles, we have explored how international institutions conspire to create human rights abuses in South America. We have uncovered the Inter-American Dev-elopment Bank’s (IDB) self-described “involuntary resettlement program,” to remove peasants from their land and make room for corporate development (CC#19, Death to South Americans, Inc). We have discovered how Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, imported to South America by the CIA, trained paramilitary death squads to quash labour movements and annihilate the rights of those living on the land, in gut-wrenching campaigns of terrorism and murder (CC#20, South American Holocaust). We have unveiled the interests of the US government and the UN in funding and promoting an environment of corporate oppression.

We have shown that in South America, “drug war” really means a war against national and nature-based economies, including, but not limited to, the economies of marijuana and coca production. We have revealed that international lending bodies, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, have acted on behalf of corporations to implement so-called “free trade.” This free trade then opens markets to corporations to sell their patented, synthetically-produced or altered foods and medicines, despite public concern for the widespread health problems associated with these products.

In this issue, we will investigate what the drug war means to those living in villages and cities in Colombia. We will examine the connection between paramilitary death squads and the corporations who benefit from their activities.

Corporate butchery

The Economist of London described it as “butchery.” It was January 1999, and Pastrana, the new Colombian president, had promised to negotiate peace with the leftist FARC revolutionaries, self-proclaimed champions of peasant farmers and the working class. Right-wing paramilitary death squads, closely aligned with corporate interests and the Colombian military, moved to upset the balance and prevent peace.

The paramilitary squads, known ironically as the “United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia” (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC) coordinated attacks on villages in six different provinces in Northern Colombia. Tellingly, the FARC was not the target. Unarmed civilians, whose independence and prosperity competes with corporate development, were cut down.

In the village of Playon de Orozco in Magdalena province, 70 AUC gunmen grabbed 27 villagers, including children, from a baptismal mass and shot them in front of a church. The priest and their families were forced to watch. In El Tigre, reports The Economist, another 30 peasants were “shot, decapitated, or hacked to death with machetes”, by paramilitary death squads that arrived in troop transport vehicles provided by the Colombian army’s 24th brigade.1 Local businesses were burned to the ground.

Peace with the FARC has still not been negotiated. It is likely that, if anything, the FARC’s membership increased that day.

Who pays the butchers?

Funding and training for the extensive slaughter and oppression of villagers and workers in Colombia comes partly from the US government, under the aegis of the War on Drugs.

In July of this year, Clinton proposed giving a billion dollars to Colombia for the “drug war.” The US government is still considering it. The International Monetary Fund, which has been strong-arming countries into free-trade style reforms since 1982, will give Colombia $3 billion.2

The US Department of Defence is directly involved. According to the Dallas Morning News, the Clinton administration used some of that billion dollars in August to create a multimillion-dollar program that will send mercenaries, military contractors and military personnel to Colombia to help fight the drug war. Included in this program are “a few figures from covert CIA-backed operations in Central America during the 1980’s.”3 Mass graves were one notable result of such CIA-backed operations.

The US government has a long history of meddling in Colombia. Throughout the past decade, the CIA has organized close ties between the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary death squads. The 20th Brigade of the Colombian army, responsible for heinous human rights abuses, and for collusion with paramilitary groups, received extensive CIA training. Since 1946, the US Department of Defence has trained Colombian military officers in the finer elements of terrorism, torture and murder at a military base known as the “School of the Americas.”

As we shall see, multinational corporations are also involved in funding paramilitary death squads in Colombia.

Drugs for arms

Paramilitary organizations, closely aligned with the US drug-war machine, are more involved in Colombia’s trade of marijuana and cocaine than most of the people they kill.

The leader of Colombia’s AUC, Fidel Casta?o, worked for Pablo Escobar, former leader of the now defunct Medell?n cartel. In the 80’s, the Medell?n cartel made billions smuggling cocaine to the US under CIA protection in return for sending a portion of the profits north to Nicaragua’s US-backed Contra movement.4 The Contras themselves were involved in exchanging “drugs for arms” with the CIA, in a scandal that rocked Reagan’s presidency.

In an interview with Cannabis Culture, Cecilia Zarate of the Colombia Support Network says that right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia are also funded largely with money made from smuggling cocaine.

“The northern lands that have been seized by the Casta?o brothers [Fidel and Carlos] are used for refueling the planes that are smuggling cocaine from the south,” says Zarate. “There is also a good chance that those lands close to the west coast are being used for packing and shipping cocaine. It is hard to know for sure what is going on in any detail, because if you try to find out, you are killed.”

Another Northern Colombian right-wing paramilitary group known as the C?rdoba and Urab? Peasant Self-Defence Force (ACCU) is heavily involved in the cocaine and marijuana trade, and supplies most of Europe with the powdery white stuff.

The fact that the leftist FARC revolutionary movement is involved in the trade of cocaine and marijuana is well known. In fact, it is the only thing presently justifying the US drug-war presence in Colombia. Yet the involvement of US-backed paramilitaries in the cocaine and marijuana trade is rarely an issue.

Strategic land seizures

Northern Colombia is important to the US military and corporations alike. Strategically connected to Central America, it is the last stop for cocaine and marijuana headed north, and for arms and war-machinery headed south. It is rich in emeralds, gold and oil. Major trade infrastructure projects are scheduled for this region, including a possible canal to replace the Panama canal (which the Americans must vacate this year), and mega-highway development.

Paramilitary death-squad activity occurs almost exclusively in regions of Northern Colombia which have value to multinational corporations.

“Carlos Casta?o has consolidated his zone of influence in the Uraba region, straddling the departments of Choco and Antioquia in the north-west, along the route of the inter-ocean canal that is planned to duplicate the Panama Canal,” states the Organization for Geopolitical Drug Watch (OGD) in their 97/98 report. “The AUC has stepped up its mass killings in these departments.”

Between the Casta?os brothers and the emerald-rich Carranza family, says the OGD, paramilitary groups have seized about 3.5 million hectares of land “by means of assassinations and massacres,” an area which represents about 1/3 of the most productive agricultural land in the country.

Women for peace

Apartad? is the largest city in Antioquia, a province of Northern Colombia with a history of paramilitary terrorism and corporate development. When Gloria Cuartez became mayor of Apartad? in 1994, she did so with a courageous anti-corporate platform. Her story is but a few pages in what has become officially known as the “pacification of Uraba”, a region which includes Apartad?.

“In Colombia, the most humble are being exiled from the land in order to be sacrificed for international development,” said Cuartez in a videotaped interview.5

The general in command of the area, Rito Alejandro del Rio, publicly proclaimed Gloria Cuartez to be “on the other side.” General del Rio was trained at the School of the Americas and encouraged close ties between the military and paramilitaries in the area. When his second in command, Colonel Carlos Alfonso Velazquez, complained about collusion with paramilitary forces, Velazquez was dismissed from the army.

Cuartez stood opposed to the plans for a canal, and for expansion of the pan-american highway. She enjoyed the support of her thirteen member council, every single one of whom were assassinated by paramilitary hit men during her first year in office. With close ties to human rights factions of the United Nations, Cuartez was apparently too political ? or too lucky ? to kill, but the intimidation continued until her term of office ended in 1997.

“On August 21st [1996] I was in a primary school with children,” recalls Cuartez. “We were talking about doing homework for peace. Two men passed wearing no uniforms or insignia. They grabbed a child and they beat him. Then they cut his throat and threw the head of the child toward where we were standing. Immediately there was a firefight between guerillas, paramilitaries and security forces.”

Gloria Cuartez is currently in hiding.

When anyone speaking out against development, or calling for improved conditions of labour had been murdered or driven from the country, General del Rio declared the “pacification of Uraba” complete. American drug-war dollars, training and military cooperation not only support campaigns of oppression like General del Rio’s, they create them. The US drug war is a marketing ploy to dupe the world into supporting what is, in reality, a corporate agenda.

Corporate death squads

Paramilitary death squads have been growing in membership and ferocity for years, leaving behind ghost towns once filled with peasant farmers that were murdered in their homes, terrorized from their lands. The paramilitaries call their victims “FARC revolutionary sympathizers.” And perhaps they are, after the paramilitaries have killed their families. Most revealing about these massacres, however, is that they occur wherever there is gold, oil, or emerald-rich land.

“It is noteworthy that for several years the expansion of the paramilitary groups, which have close ties with the drug trade, has very closely paralleled that of the oil drilling and production areas, in Uraba as in the rest of Colombia,” states the 1997/98 OGD report.6

Dennis Grammenos is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and director of the Colombian Labour Monitor, a labour-rights organization.

“BP/Amoco [British Petroleum] have long had close relations with death-squads which they have armed, trained and paid,” said Dr Grammenos in an interview with Cannabis Culture. “Several executives have been let go because of scandals, but it is said that especially in Canare the paramilitaries are still working for the oil company.”

The multinational oil company British Petroleum allegedly paid a dollar and a half per barrel for “military protection” of their drilling and pipeline development sites. Ian Stewart, a spokesperson for BP, admitted that the Colombian military had received $5.4 million from BP over three years.7

As a result of the various paramilitary massacres, known in financial circles as “involuntary resettlement programs,” Colombia has seen over 1 million people forced from their homes since 1990.8 Refugees wander the country in search of food or work? enough of them to keep the costs of labour down in big corporate sweat shops.

Oil workers in the cities are also targets. Should they demand higher than abject-poverty level wages, they are rounded up and killed. The Northern Colombian city of Barrancabermeja has a history of labour organizing, and a parallel history of paramilitary terrorism. On May 16 and 17, 1998, thirty two labour organizers were slaughtered and vanished from the city.

Oil workers are not the only targets. The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the biggest Colombian labour organization, has lost 2,300 activists to assassination since 1986. Over 400 teachers and members of the teachers’ union were killed in 1997 alone. Those killed are routinely denounced as “narcoterrorist bands” and accused of collusion with “narcoguerrillas” after the slayings.9

According to Professor Grammenos, there is evidence to suggest that multinationals like Coca-Cola and Nestle use similar tactics to repress organization among their Columbian workers. Grammenos refers to the Colombian Labour Monitor website, which contains a translation of a document from Colombia’s National Union of Food Industry Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajodores de la Industria de Alimentos, or SINTRAINAL). The document chronicles the assassination and torture of labour organizers, police raids against labour headquarters, and various other heinous oppressions.

According to SINTRAINAL, police raids were made under the pretence that the labour groups were “terrorist organizations”, and included fruitless searches for “armaments, explosives and subversive documents.” If a nation-wide union was similarly suppressed in North America, there would massive public response. Yet in South America, such protests join the millions of other voices that go unheard in the furor of the war on drugs.

US drug war funding plays a role in these acts of violence, as it legitimizes and funds the drug war machine without regard for where the money goes or how it is used, so long as it is used against “narcoguerrillas” which ? according to the Colombian Labor Monitor ? includes the so-called terrorist bands who organize to demand better than starvation-level wages.

Included under the rubric of “narcoguerrilla” is anyone that lives on gold-rich land. In June of 1998, paramilitaries swept into villages near the Serrania de San Lucas, in the northern province of Bolivar, cutting unarmed civilians down with guns, chopping victims to death with machetes. According to the Economist, 6,000 villagers were eventually driven from their homes into the city of Barrancabermeja.11

The Inter Press Service of Colombia later reported that eight delegates from this group met with Colombian president Andres Pastrana on August 21, 1998. The delegates’ complaint was that the paramilitaries had been created and funded by British and US multinational corporations involved in gold mining, and that peaceful people had been robbed of their land for profit.12

IDB involvement

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) works behind the scenes, providing funding for drug-war atrocities, promoting “free trade”, and organizing “involuntary resettlement programs.” They are implicated in a plethora of multinational corporate development schemes across Colombia.

The IDB was first proposed in 1958, as a lending institution that would further the goals of the Organization of American States (OAS), an even older organization that dates back to 1889. The OAS is a little talked-about governmental organization that brings together the heads of state of Canada, the US and South America to share information and receive orders. Two main agendas of the OAS are promotion of free trade and escalation of the drug war.

When the US government announced that it was considering $1 billion in funding for the Colombian drug war over the next year, the IDB promised to match that with another $2 billion investment.13 The IDB has multi-million dollar investments in the pan-american highway, which has been broken up into a number of smaller projects because of the demographical realities of South America. Still, they are heavily invested in Colombian highways, especially in the northern regions. According to Professor Grammenos, the IDB is also interested in the proposed Northern Colombian canal, and is ready to pour millions into the project should it become a political reality.

The IDB is also involved in the oil industry. So far they have issued $60 million in bonds for an oil pipeline project put together by Oleoducto Central SA (OCENSA), a Colombian company owned in part by British Petroleum and Ecopetrol,14 both of whom are implicated in Colombian death squad activity.

Enslaved trade

Although the colonization of Colombia has been well underway for hundreds of years, so-called “free” trade has been an active force in Colombia since about 1990, when the country began signing into a large number of such agreements with its neighbours. Free-trade style reforms have opened Colombia’s doors wide to multinational corporations, who thieve the wealth of Colombia from its own peoples, by allowing them to extract resources with impunity. The drug war has become a tool to suppress those who fight against corporate domination, who argue for their rights as individuals and as citizens.

You can make a difference in the lives of third world people worldwide by raising awareness about the drug war and about free trade. Contact some of the groups below and offer their your assistance or support. Also remember that the products produced by multinational corporations are less expensive because they are made in factories that draw their power from human suffering. Buy locally, use less gas, and boycott companies like Coca Cola and Nestl?.


? Preamble Centre – an anti-free trade organization in the US: 1737 21st Street, NW Washington, DC 20009, USA; tel (202) 265-3263; fax (202) 265-3263; email [email protected]; web
? Colombia Support Network – providing information about the plight of Colombians: PO Box 1505, Madison, Wisconsin, 53701, USA; tel (608) 257-8753; fax (608) 255-6621; email [email protected]; web
? Colombian Labor Monitor: 2618 W. Gregory St.Chicago, IL 60625; email [email protected]; web
? Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world: (215) 563-7116; web
? SOA Watch – Anti-School of the Americas activists: PO Box 4566, Washington, DC, 20017-0566, USA; tel (202) 234-3440; email [email protected]; web
? Council of Canadians – most active free-trade opponents in Canada: 502 – 151 Slater St, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5H3, Canada; tel (604) 688-8846 or 1-800-387-7177; fax (613) 233-6776; email [email protected]; web
? Public Citizens’ Global Trade Watch – Ralph Nader’s organization opposing free trade in the US: 1600 – 20th St NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA; tel (202) 546-4669; fax (202) 547-7392; email [email protected]; web


1 Butchers Strike Back.” The Economist [London]. January 16, 1999.
2 Figures provided by the Preamble Centre and used in the article “Just Say ‘No’ to a Billion Dollars for State-Sponsored Terrorism,” appearing in the Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News. July 24, 99
3 “US Launches Covert Program to Aid Colombia Military,” by Tod Robberson. Dallas Morning News. August 19, 1998.
4 Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St Clair. p 309
5 The Courageous Women of Colombia,by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Videotape. 1996.
6 The OGD’s 1997/98 report can be found on their website at
7 From the 1997/98 OGD report.
8 “Transnationals Allegedly Fund Paramilitary Groups.” Inter Press Service. Aug 21, 98
9 Ibid.
10 From a translation of a document from SINALTRAINAL (the Colombian food industry workers’ union)
11 “The Colombian Clearances.” The Economist [London]. Sept 5, 1998.
12 “Transnationals Allegedly Fund Paramilitary Groups.” Inter Press Service. Aug 21, 98
13 Figures provided by the Preamble Centre.
14 Visit the IDB website at and search for “petroleum.” A search for “involuntary resettlement” also produces informative results.