A recent article in the Washington Post about the CIA’s participation in the precision bombing of FARC guerrilla leaders undermined some aspects of Colombia’s new narrative about the prowess of its security forces. However, it also illustrated an important difference between the US and Colombian approaches that may prove to be more important than anything Washington can offer.
The Post article, while laudable in its rigor, did not tell us much more than what we already knew: US intelligence played an important and perhaps decisive role in the killing and/or capture of numerous high level targets, guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries alike, especially after three Pentagon contractors were taken hostage by the rebels.[Full disclosure: ex-InSight Crime reporter Elyssa Pachico helped report the article]
The article made special emphasis on US eavesdropping services and a GPS guidance kit attached to lethal bombs.
“That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb,” the article says.
These bombs, with the help from intelligence obtained by National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, killed top level guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on at least four occasions, the article says.
The image is potent: one of US spies sitting in dark rooms with brightly lit maps around them, checking infrared movements and then sending GPS coordinates to their Colombian comrades (who, by the way, they have some trust issues with, because of their poor human rights record and history of infiltration by organized crime and paramilitaries).
And the reaction was predictable. El Tiempo, the country’s foremost newspaper, wrote in the first paragraph of its account of the Post’s story that sources in the Colombian army, “had confirmed that the secret assistance of the United States was critical for those attacks that changed the course of the internal conflict.” Ex-President Alvaro Uribe admitted via Twitter that the CIA helped “find” the targets. An opposition senator called for an investigation.
The revelations come at an awkward time for the Colombian government. It is in the midst of peace talks with the FARC, and it is still trying to repair relations with Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa over the death of FARC leader Raul Reyes, killed by one of these precision bombings in Ecuadorean territory in 2008.
What’s more, it undermines the current narrative being constructed about Colombia’s security forces. In the last few years, the Colombians have become the go-to trainers. From Brazil to Mexico, they provide courses in jungle warfare and intelligence gathering.
The image is part true, part fiction. There are real results — some of which the Post article chronicles. The efforts to find these criminals involved months and sometimes years of developing sources, infiltrating rings of security and intercepting communications. That work was done mostly by the Colombians, not the CIA or the NSA.
All of this would be unknown if the Colombians themselves had not started their own concerted effort to create heroes of the type the US has grown accustomed to via books, movies and television shows for years. This is the mythic part of the narrative.
The most recent manifestation of this effort is a Colombian television show called Elite Command. Like the US television show SWAT, the acronym for the special forces police unit that chased down evil in an unidentified California city in the 1970s, the Elite Command is about creating heroes of the security forces, albeit in a much more soap opera format.
The command operates from a sleek office, with bright, shiny computers that spit out information via complicated programs and illustrate multi-colored areas of the country where the forces are trapping their prey. They have psychologists and secure phone lines. Straight-talking colonels lead strategy sessions, and soft-spoken majors carry out missions. These police are decidedly middle class and educated; not the poor, thieving type that have long dominated the public’s imagination.
The show is an adaptation of a non-fiction book by German Castro Caycedo called “Four Targets.” To write his book, Castro Caycedo appeared to get unparalleled access to police intelligence sources who told him in detail how they tracked, then killed or captured their targets, which included both guerrillas and former right wing paramilitaries turned criminal bands (“bandas criminales” or BACRIM, as the Colombian government calls them).
The only target that coincides in the television show, the book and the Post article is Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario.” Mario took over a paramilitary faction in the northwestern corner of the country along the Panamanian border, which has since given birth to one of the most powerful criminal groups in the hemisphere, the Urabeños.
In the Post’s obviously abbreviated version, US sources say they worked tirelessly for seven days and nights crossing intelligence signals and positioning 250 commandos near where Mario was hiding. Neither Castro Caycedo’s book or the television show, which is still playing out, show any US presence.
Instead, Castro Caycedo chronicles a painstaking, two-year mission that involved a musician, carpenters, undercover police posing as tourists, the mother of one of Mario’s girlfriends, and Mario’s sex-starved nephew (who helped them track Mario because of his nightly phone calls to one of his girlfriends), among many others. The participants in the search for Mario describe how they failed, many times, but ultimately succeeded in capturing the “bandit” because of persistence, human intelligence, gumption and a little luck.
The narrative could not be more different from that of the US, a government that wages more and more of its battles from remote offices, via computers, using unmanned drones and soon, robots. The message is clear: US fights its wars from a room; the Colombians fight from the ground.
To be sure, neither narrative depicts reality, but they do reflect an important difference in approach that may help explain why the Colombians have decimated many of the BACRIM and have the upper hand with the FARC at the negotiating table.