Over a Decade of US Covert Action in Colombia

October 20, 2016

For the last 50 years, Colombia’s most prominent guerrilla group, the FARC or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have fought violently for land reform and justice for the poor. Formed in 1964, the Marxist peasant movement has used violence to bring attention to their cause, which has mostly been funded by the lucrative drug trade. However, over the last year in Havana, Cuba, negotiators from both the FARC and the Colombian government have been meeting in an effort to end the 50-year war. Once both sides agree on reforms regarding land reform, political participation, illegal drug distribution, disarmament, and rights of the victims, a peace agreement will be put into place and both sides will officially lay down their arms. Nearly 250,000 people have died during the war and thousands more remain missing. With a reputation for being an extremely violent nation, these peace talks have shed light on the now flourishing country. Nearly 10 years ago, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. Professors, human’s rights activists, and journalists were routinely murdered. In one year, 3,000 people were kidnapped. Much of this violence was attributed to cartels, paramilitary groups, corrupt military forces and lastly the FARC. It is because of this violence which eventually affected three US citizens, that led to the United States government and the CIA secretly backing the Colombian government in their fight against the FARC. These CIA covert actions have slowed the FARC immensely by killing more than two dozen rebel leaders. In recent months, these actions and missions have been confirmed by over 30 former and current US and Colombian officials who mostly remain anonymous.

Beginning in 2000, the National Security Agency began a surveillance program of the FARC in Colombia. A program named “Plan Colombia” was already in place and was public knowledge; it sent $9 billion to Colombia in military aid. This new program that was enacted in secret, along with a large undisclosed budget, was approved by George W. Bush and continues today. Various military, intelligence and diplomatic officials have anonymously confirmed this program’s existence. In 2000, it was estimated that the FARC had grown to 18,000 members, and were quickly making their presence known. Local officials were being assassinated, a presidential candidate was kidnapped, and presidential front-runner, Alvaro Uribe, survived numerous FARC assassination plots. Uribe, who would later become president of Colombia, has a solid stance against the FARC who assassinated his father in 1983. With the FARC’s actions becoming bolder and more consistent, US fears that Colombia would collapse and drug trafficking would grow exponentially caused the Bush administration to increase the amount of military aid being sent to Colombia. By 2003, US involvement in Colombia included 40 US agencies and involved around 4,500 people, many of which whom operated out of the US embassy in Bogota. At the time, this embassy housed more US officials than any other embassy around the world and would remain the largest until 2004 when Afghanistan’s embassy would surpass it. The US ambassador to Colombia from 2003 to 2007, William Wood said, “There is no country, including Afghanistan, where we had more going on.”

Following September 11, 2001, many programs similar to this arose in drug-heavy countries. Currently, Mexico is second only to Afghanistan when it comes to US intelligence assistance. While aid and intelligence, both public and secret, was increasing in Colombia, two services were being provided; intelligence that fueled Colombian forces to find and kill FARC leaders and the weapons to kill them. During this time in the Bush administration, there were two presidential findings that allowed this type of action. The first allows CIA operations against international terrorist organizations and the second, approved by president Ronald Reagan, allows actions against international narcotics traffickers. Findings require notification and approval from Congressional Intelligence Committees and, if approved, can allow for providing of spy equipment, support of foreign political parties, planting of propaganda, and lethal training. With regard to Colombia, the CIA was not approved to participate directly because of past secret roles in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama that ended poorly. As FARC actions escalated, the US prepared to increase their actions in response.

A new, stronger covert push began following February 13, 2003. On this date a single engine plane crashed in FARC occupied jungle and the guerillas in the area executed the Colombian officer on board as well as one of the four US citizens. The remaining three, who were working on cocoa eradication, were taken hostage. Since the FARC was already considered a terrorist group the CIA quickly began organizing to find the hostages. In Bogota, the US embassy Inter Fusion Cell formed and was nicknamed “The Bunker.” Eight people worked using satellite images to try and find rebel camps, track the movement of tagged vehicles, and collect radio and cell phone communications that were sent to the NSA to be decrypted and translated. This technology as well as informants were used to track the flow of drugs, money, and weapons of the FARC. Within months a nationwide computer intelligence system was in place, including various local centers throughout Colombia. The US also paid for encrypted communications gear and taught Colombian forces how to recruit informants. Also during this time the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) arrived from Afghanistan and began training Colombian forces while simultaneously looking for the hostages. The hostages proved hard to find so the CIA and JSOC began targeting FARC leaders using collected intelligence regarding their locations. However, this task also proved to be very difficult. The intelligence gathered made it easy to locate the FARC leaders, however, they were challenging to capture and kill. US Black Hawk helicopters would drop Colombian troops approximately six kilometers from the FARC camp but by the time the troops would reach the camps they would be empty. Fortunately for the FARC, their rings of security surrounding the camps allowed them to warn others to escape before the arrival of Colombian forces. Frustrated with these many failed efforts the new Mission Chief of the US Air Force pushed forward with a new proposal.

As a solution to the failed ambushes, the Mission Chief pushed forward with a proposal to use inexpensive guidance kits to strap to 500lb bombs. In 2006, three years after the hostages were taken, a proposal to use a $30,000 GPS guidance kit was proposed. These precision-guided munitions (PGMs) make bombs incredible accurate if the exact coordinates of a target are known. The proposal went to Donald Rumsfeld who met with then president Alvaro Uribe who both approved the new measure. The US sent engineers to Colombia to figure out how to fit the bombs and guidance technology to Colombian planes. After many tries, the bombs were ready to test. Their target was a 2x4 stuck vertically into the ground. The first test by the pilots and engineers resulted in the bomb landing within a foot of the 2x4. Knowledge that these bombs had been made accurate caused a bit of conflict among those who knew of the operation. Tensions were high over the use of US bombs by the Colombian government to kill the FARC leaders they sought, however the operation eventually proceeded because the government was covered under the two findings and also there was strong belief that the FARC posed and ongoing threat to the United States. The final concern was over the misuse of the PGMs to kill Colombia’s political enemies or other enemies. To prevent this the CIA was in control of the encryption key, which allowed the bombs to function. As a result, Colombians had to seek approval for each target. The first 20 smart bombs came directly from the CIA and overall cost about $1 million, the following bombs were purchased by Colombia through the Foreign Military Sales Program.

On September 1, 2007 the first target was approved and hit with a US bombs on Colombian soil. Tomas Medina Caracas, or “Negro Acacio,” was considered to be the FARC’s chief drug trafficker and the leader of the 16th front. Several Enhanced Paveway II bombs were dropped on his camp shortly after midnight, killing him. Six weeks later, 37th front leader Gustavo Rueda Díaz or “Martin Caballero” was killed in another bombing. These two attacks were considering the reason behind the collapse of the two main FARC fronts. According to the 2008 US State Department wire, as a result of the bombings, desertions became common and slow disintegration of the FARC’s organization began to occur.

In order to hide these actions from the public, CIA officials developed a way to cover up the use of US bombs. First A-37 Dragonflys, flying at 20,000 feet, would turn on the GPS within three miles of the target and then drop the smart bombs. Following this, an A-29 Super Tucanos flew a little lower and would drop “dumb” bombs nearby, killing anyone nearby but also destroying the surrounding jungle and evidence of the use of smart bombs. Flying even lower, an AC-47 would heavily shoot at the targeted area with machine guns in an attempt to kill the wounded and survivors. Finally, ground forces came to collect prisoners, cell phones, computers, and hard drives as well as account for the dead. The CIA spent three years training Colombian air support to use lasers to guide the pilots and smart bombs. The NSA also played a pivotal role in these operations, intercepts allowed for massive amounts of intelligence to be collected before and during the operations. The NSA’s secret work during this time was exposed after WikiLeaks released a cable from the State Department. The CIA also became very active during this time. On top of helping pilots hit their targets, they also trained Colombian interrogators to more effectively question FARC deserters. The CIA also created a database to keep track of debriefings that built a bigger and more complex picture by allowing for searches and cross-referencing. The Colombian government also began to pay deserters and allowed them to reintegrate into society. Many deserters provided information about the FARC’s chain of command, travel routes, camps, supply lines, and drug and money sources. Others helped to make sense of NSA intercepts by giving insight into code words. A few more deserters even infiltrated FARC camps to plant listening devices or beacons to signal a smart bomb. Various Colombian officials have said their success was due to US help and training. This list of thankful Colombians also includes current president Juan Manuel Santos, who in a recent visit to Washington DC praised the US assistance in Colombia: “It’s been of help. Part of the expertise and the efficiency of our operations and our special operations have been the product of better training and knowledge we have acquired from many countries, among them the United States.”

In early February 2008, the US hostages were spotted for the first time in five years. As a JSOC and Navy Seal team began a reconnaissance effort with increased NSA monitoring, another FARC leader was being targeted, except he was just over the border in Ecuador. Raul Reyes, considered to be second in command of the FARC at the time was about a mile over the border into Ecuador when his location was discovered in March 2008. The US viewed an action against Reyes to be self-defense on the part of Colombia. According to the United States, if a terrorist group was attacking a country and showed no sign of stopping, that country could defend itself with force and could cross into another country to do it. Following this decision, a Colombian pilot in a Colombian plane used a US bomb that was controlled by the CIA to kill Raul Reyes from Colombian airspace. Colombian troops then rushed in to gather remains and computers from the strike zone. The attack infuriated both Venezuela and Ecuador who immediately moved troops to the border and called Colombia a “terrorist state.” Nicaragua completely broke ties with Colombia. A bit later, president Uribe apologized to Ecuador and this action angered many US officials who felt that Uribe’s apology meant admitting fault and gave up certain legal positions.

Following the controversy surrounding the bombing of Raul Reyes, the JSOC felt they had enough intelligence to rescue the hostages. On July 2, 2008 Operation Checkmate took place. Colombian forces pretended to be members of a humanitarian group and convinced the FARC to release the three US hostages along with 12 others being held. Not a single shot was fired and even though the JSOC and US aircrafts were on standby, they were not needed. With the hostages safely back in the United States, CIA involvement dropped in Colombia.

In 2010 the US government handed over the encryption keys to the GPS of the smart bombs to the Colombian government. Although Colombia had proved responsible when it came to the use of the smart bombs, the encryption keys were handed over with the strict rule of only using the smart bombs to attack isolated jungle camps. Although much of the US involvement had dropped, actions against the FARC have nearly tripled. Current president Juan Manuel Santos has targeted and killed 47 FARC leaders and members, compared to the 16 who were killed under Alvaro Uribe. 23 of these attacks were air operations that used smart bombs against important rebel leaders. Many of the FARC leaders s have been targeted and killed and attacks are not moving onto mid-level commanders who are mostly regional and mobile commanders. Last year in 2013, Colombia upgrade their air capabilities and fitting their newly acquired Israeli made fighters jets with a laser guided bomb system. Santos has also moved to target weapons and financial support for the FARC. Critics of this ongoing violence of the FARC argue that the Colombian police and army should occupy FARC territory and disrupt the drug and weapon trade rather than just killing leaders. On the other hand, the killing of these leaders has severely disrupted the organization of the FARC and has frankly changed the way the rebel group operates. The remaining leaders have fled or remain in hiding which has damaged the bond with ground troops who fight daily and has also greatly slowed recruitment. FARC leaders are also very much aware of the amount of intelligence known on them and move camps frequently. Executions within the organization have also become more frequent as leaders fear spies within their ranks.

Despite this level of paranoia and the disruption of their once powerful organization, the FARC is still attacking Colombia and its people. On December 7, 2013 a car bomb was detonated in front of a police station, killing seven police officers and two civilians. With the group on the run and disjointed, more recent attacks have been hit and run with explosives and snipers being the most common form of attack. After 50 years of fighting with the most recent years being the most violent and progress slowing significantly, the FARC is now divided over what to do. Leaders who remain in hiding or exile remain confident in their efforts. Those who fight directly on the front lines are more supportive of the peace negotiations taking place in Cuba. On December 15, the FARC promised a cease-fire for 30 days as a sign of good will during the holidays. In response, president Santos and his administration vowed to continue the military campaign. The same day as the announcement, Colombian forces killed a FARC member accused of a bomb attack against a foreign minister. Three days later the army killed another five rebels.

As FARC groups remain on the run and attacks by the Colombian government continue to kill members, the peace talks taking place in Havana are becoming more and more important. For 50 years both sides have fought extensively but these peace talks show signs that would allow for both sides to finally lay down arms. However, the progress that has been made by the Colombian government that has nearly crippled the FARC is a result of expensive and extensive covert actions by the United States. With this information slowly becoming more public, there is certainly going to be ample criticism of yet another situation of US involvement in Latin America. Even though many may disagree with this involvement, it does not matter to the FARC who now must consider ending their 50 year struggle before their entire organization is captured or killed.

About Author(s)

Kelcey Hadden-Leggett
Kelcey Hadden-Leggett is an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a degree in Spanish, a Certificate in Latin American Studies, and a related area Certificate in Portuguese. She recently completed the Pitt in Ecuador program in the Amazon.