Military Crisis in South America: The Results of Plan Colombia
This post is also available in: Spanish
The military operative executed by Colombian soldiers on Ecuadorian soil to kill the FARC commander
Raul Reyes is part of the strategy of the United States to alter the military balance in the region.
In the crosshairs is Venezuelan and Ecuadorian oil; however it also serves as a check on Brazil as an
emerging regional power.
In official declarations, the objective of the operative is the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia), or rather narco-terrorism. But in reality, the Colombian-American military operative that
violated the sovereignty of Ecuador is directed specifically at Hugo Chavez. What we are witnessing could
be the first phase of a vast offensive to destabilize the "Bolivarian Revolution" and to alter
the relationship between the powers in South America. This strategy has been implemented in stages. First
there was Plan Colombia, intended to strengthen the military capacity of the Colombian state and place
it among the most powerful on the continent. Next came the "spilling over" of the internal
war into neighboring countries. The third stage seems to be "pre-emptive war," which has become
the Pentagon’s most widely used military strategy since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
This is the first time in a long time that Washington has taken the offensive in the region, and it
is capable of putting a significant portion of Latin American countries behind its strategy. It is also
a show of force during moments in which Chavez is encountering serious internal difficulties and is unable
to receive support for this strategy of responding to tension with more tension.
The first thing that stands out is the lack of decency of those involved. The FARC present themselves
as a revolutionary and popular organization, when in reality they are an armed group that violates human
rights, recruits minors for its ranks, abuses women and the hostages that they maintain in their power,
and are financed thanks to drug trafficking (see sidebar). Many countries consider them a terrorist organization.
On the other side, president Alvaro Uribe Vélez has integrated drug trafficking and was aided
by paramilitary groups, as it appears in the U.S. National Security Archive. This finding was revealed
by Newsweek in 2004. There it was established that in the 1990’s Uribe had a role in the Medellin
cartel, which was commanded by his close friend Pablo Escobar.1 This
is the kind of person whom on March 4 George W. Bush called "our democratic ally." Uribe has
become the main operator of White House policies in the region.
New Regional Balance of Power
The Business of War
The origin of the FARC is different from that of other militant groups. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán,
The liberal origins of many of the FARC’s members—among them Manuel Marulanda Vélez,
A second and even more important facet has its roots in the campesinos’ need
Until the beginning of the 1980s, the FARC had between 1,000 and 3,000 combatants. In
Beginning in 1986, during the administration of Virgilio Barco, a peace process was undertaken
In 1998, a new peace process was begun under President Andrés Pastrana and a 40,000
Since 2000, under the Uribe administration, things have only gotten worse. The FARC had to retreat,
Its financing is an important factor. Of its income, that is, several billion dollars annually, 78%
That between 20% and 30% of its members are minors—many recruited by force, according to a report
But there is something even worse. The average Colombian perceives that the war harms them and benefits
In 2004 the Brazilian magazine Military Power Review made a list of South American armed forces
including all of the variables—from the amount of available soldiers and the quality of the units/training
to defense plans and strategic projection. The analysis established a score for each nation according
to its military might. Brazil came in first place with 653 points, followed by Peru with 423, Argentina
with 319, and Chile with 387. Next came another group in which Colombia had 314, followed by Venezuela
with 282, and Ecuador with 254.2 At that time, which was approximately
four years ago, the difference in favor of Brazil’s armed forces was considerable while two relatively
equal groupings of countries followed.
In 2007 the same magazine reported information on the amount of soldiers of the different armed forces
in each country using figures from the previous year. The statistics taken from the armies concludes
that Colombia, with 178,000 soldiers, has moved into second place on the continent, very close to Brazil
(190,000 soldiers). In just a few years, the military might of Colombia has climbed the rankings at an
exponential rate. That same year France’s army had 137,000 troops and Israel’s had 125,000. In 2008,
there are already 210,000 troops on the ground in Colombia, overtaking Brazil, which has a population
four times that of Colombia, and seven times more territory. The military expenditure of Colombia is
the highest on the continent: 6.5% of Gross Domestic Product, much higher than that of the United States
(4%), NATO countries (2%), and the rest of South America (1.5-2%).
If we observe the progression of the Colombian armed forces, its growth is astonishing. In 1948, when
the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán initiated the period in Colombian history known
as La Violencia, there were 10,000 soldiers. In 1974, there were 50,675, which would rise to
85,900 in 1984, during which time the beginning of peace negotiations to demobilize various armed groups
had begun. In 1994 there were 120,000 troops, a number that was raised to 160,000 during the first phases
of Plan Colombia. Presently, the three branches of the armed forces have 270,000 uniformed members, not
to mention 142,000 police officers. In total, there are more than 400,000 armed men and women in seven
divisions, with a Rapid Deployment Division and an Elite Anti-terrorist Forces division.3
In 2007 alone the Colombian army created 52 new units. They received donations of Black Hawk helicopters
from the United States, bought 13 fighter planes from Israel, and 25 Super Tucano fighter planes from
Brazil in 2006. The Colombian armed forces are superior to those of its two neighbors. The ratio of troops
is 6:1 with Venezuela and 11:1 with Ecuador. But the main difference is in the training: Colombian troops
have been trained in jungle combat and can count on the logistical backing of Washington.4
In only a few years, there has been a drastic change in military power in South America. It is the
result of Plan Colombia. Under the guise of combating the FARC and drug smuggling, since August of 2000,
when the U.S. Congress approved Plan Colombia, the recipient of the plan has received over $5 billion
dollars in military assistance. Add to that Uribe’s government’s application of special taxes to those
with the highest income in order to arm the armed forces. Transport and attack helicopters, light armor,
infrared goggles, pipeline protection, swift boats, turbo-powered airplanes with ground-attack capabilities,
spy planes, and air traffic control and radar to follow illegal flights are the principal purchases.5
Getting the Neighbors Involved
In 2003, sociologist James Petras pointed out that the main worry of the U.S. Southern Command, who
is the real architect behind regional politics, is that "Colombia’s neighbors (Ecuador, Venezuela,
Panama, Brazil), who are suffering the same adverse effects of neoliberal politics, shift politically
against the military domination and the economic interests of the United States."6 This
is why the strategy thought up for Plan Colombia does not consist so much in winning the internal war
as it does in spilling it over into neighboring countries as a form of neutralizing their growing autonomy
from Washington. Militarizing the relationships between nations is always a good business for whoever
supports the hegemony with military superiority. In this sense, the FARC play a functional role in Washington’s
Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa mentioned that the cost of controlling the border with Colombia,
where there were some 10,000 soldiers stationed before the events of March 1, is more than $100 million
dollars per year. Colombia does not control this border and pushes the guerilla forces toward Ecuadorian
soil, as a way of creating instability. In recent years, Ecuador has dismantled some 40 FARC campgrounds
at its border and has voiced dozens of complaints for the fumigation of supposed coca crops that end
up affecting Ecuadorians who live at the border.
Brazil had already decided to make its border impermeable during the presidency of Fernando Hernique
Cardoso. In response to the Clinton administration’s attempt to involve Brazil in the objectives of Plan
Colombia, in 2000 Plan Cobra was launched (initiated by Brazil and Colombia) to prevent the war in Colombia
from spilling over into the Brazilian Amazon, and Plan Calha Norte to prevent guerrillas and drug smugglers
from crossing the border.7 Control of the Andean region is considered
key for U.S. hegemony on the continent, as much for political reasons as for the mineral wealth that
it contains. It allows U.S. corporations to regain the territory lost since the 1990s when they were
partially displaced by multinational European corporations; it would also assure that the supposed benefits
of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas would impede other emerging powers (Brazil, but also
China and India as well), from gaining a favorable position in the region.
And there is always the question of oil. In 1973, the United States imported 36% of its oil needs.
Today, the United States imports 56% of all crude oil that it consumes. Venezuela is the fourth largest
provider, who provides the United States with 15% of its necessities, and Colombia is the fifth.8 Assuring
the continued flow of this energy source requires territorial control of this enclave with a military
presence on the ground.
The Destabilization of Venezuela
Since the blow to Chavez’s government in the referendum to reform the constitution on Dec. 4, 2007,
the internal and regional tension has come to the forefront. As many analysts predicted, the economic
crisis appears to be out of control and is generating problems between the government and the population.9 Now
seems like the right time to attempt to destabilize Venezuela.
In effect, evidence indicates that Reyes, the most visible face of the FARC for his status as negotiator,
had been located in previous occasions, but it was never decided to attack him. The decision to unleash
an action of this type and at this moment has various interpretations. On one side, it takes advantage
of the internal situation in Venezuela, and also undermines Correa’s ability to govern at a time when
his program of change, which includes state control of oil as one of its axes, and a solitary alliance
with Brazil as an essential supporter, has just gotten underway.
A destabilization in the region would also have very harmful effects for Brazil, the emerging regional
power that is coming out stronger from the current world economic crisis. In 2007 Brazil had an 84% increase
in direct foreign investments compared to 2006 and in January of 2008 investments were double what they
were in the same month one year ago. With this in mind, the magazine Exame published a report
indicating that "the country is currently experiencing its best economic times in three decades" and
that it has the opportunity to "enter among the elite of world capitalism."10
Occupying this position requires removing others from it. In other words, Brazil is filling the void
that the growing weakness of Washington is leaving in the region. For this reason the chancellor’s office
is hoping for peace: both to promote business and to limit the effects of militarism, which is always
the best "business" for a super-power in decline. Clovis Brigagao, director of the Center of
American Studies at Cándidos Mendes University in Rio de Janeiro, pointed out that the present
is "a unique opportunity" to establish a collective mediation similar to the Contadora
group that promoted the pacification of Central America in the 1980s.11
Finally, Venezuela is suffering a type of destabilization that can serve as a model of reference for
other countries. Julio García Jarpa, senator of Táchira state, on the border with Colombia,
has observed the extension in Venezuela on the paramilitary phenomenon. "Because of the demobilization
of paramilitaries in Colombia, certain groups have concentrated on the border with the Venezuelan states
of Apure, Zulia, Mérida, Táchira, and Trujillo."12 From
there they smuggle gasoline, hoard food supplies, and help create insecurity, corrupting local officials
and generating a climate of violence.
Those states make up a third of the country, have the most important hydrocarbon resources, and, according
to one claim by the Venezuelan senator, are included in a secession plan similar to that which is developing
in the Bolivian departments of Santa Cruz and Tarija. After the recent events in Kosovo, where independence
promoted by the West appears linked to the oil business, the theory that the Venezuelan right, defended
by U.S. interests, are promoting the secession in the western region does not seem far-fetched.
At the same time, the information that has recently come to light allows the conclusion that a good
part of Chavez’s complaints about a conspiracy against his government are not just a figment of his imagination.
The issue at hand is how to contain the tendencies toward war and how to put a stop to the polarization.
In this sense, Brazilian diplomacy continues to show signs of common sense and know-how. They have not
signaled out one party as the aggressor, but they have implicated the North in a plan to create a stable
peace, based on regional integration, within the region. For this reason, the construction of the South
American Community of Nations is more urgent than ever.
- Newsweek, Aug. 4, 2004: www.newsweek.com/id/54793.
- See www.militarypower.com.br/frame4-ranking.htm.
- José Fernando Isaza Delgado and Diógenes Campos
Romero, "Algunas consideraciones cuantitativas sobre la evolución del conflicto en Colombia," Dec.
- "Uribe listo para ir a la Guerra," Página
12, Mar. 5, 2008.
- Fabián Calle, "La crisis Venezuela-Colombia: las
capacidades militares que esconden las palabras," Mar. 4, 2008, www.nuevamayoria.com.
- James Petras, "La estrategia militar de Estados Unidos en
América Latina," in América Libre, No. 20, Jan. 2003.
- "Os militares, o governo neoliberal e o pé americano
na Amazonia," in Reportagem , www.oficinainforma.com.br.
- Raúl Zibechi, "El nuevo militarismo en América
del Sur," Americas Program, May 2006.
- Raúl Zibechi, "Venezuela: Debates a raíz de
la reforma de la Constitución," Americas Program, Dec. 2007.
- "O Brasil que acelera," Exame, Mar. 6, 2008
- Mario Osava, "Brasil se resiste a mediar en conflicto
andino," IPS, Mar. 4, 2008.
- Miguel Lozano, "Paramilitarismo, punta de lanza del separatismo
en Venezuela," Prensa Latina, Mar. 7, 2008.