The Secret CIA War in South America You Haven't Heard About


The news: On Saturday, the Washington Post released an investigative report into eight year’s worth of CIA-assisted bombings in Colombia. In 2006, while the United States’ armed forces were occupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the CIA apparently busied itself by helping Colombia’s military retrofit bombs with GPS guidance systems. Those bombs were then strapped to small aircraft, and used conduct a series of satellite-aided killings of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the communist rebel group that has been waging war in Colombia’s countryside since 1964. The operation, which has crossed outside of Colombia’s borders, raises questions about the United States’ increasing reliance on targeted killings, both to combat terrorism in the Mideast, and, apparently, as part of the drug war. 

The background: FARC was founded in 1964 as a Marxist group that ostensibly fought for peasants’ rights and against income inequality. While the organization spent the latter half of the 20th century governing an area the size of Switzerland in the south of Colombia — schools, infrastructure, and all — it also became a dangerous armed organization that recruited child soldiers, fueled international drug trade, and kidnapped thousands of individuals, some for a decade or more. The rebels clashed with right-wing paramilitaries funded by the likes of Pablo Escobar throughout the 1980s, and by the 1990s, Colombia had attained one of the highest murder rates in world history.

The United States responded to FARC’s cocaine trafficking by classifying it as a terrorist organization. In the late 1990s, it began an initiative called Plan Colombia, through which the United States currently provides the Colombian government with $9 billion in military and other anti-trafficking assistance (the country is one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid, even though it receives far fewer U.S. headlines than recipients like Israel and Egypt). However, the CIA’s development and implementation of precision guided missiles — which was paired with wiretapping assistance from the NSA — came outside of, and in addition to, Plan Colombia. 

The takeaway: According to the Washington Post’s report, the clandestine bombing campaign lacks “reports of misuse, misfires, or collateral damage” — unlike its drone war counterparts, and despite the fact that the targeted missiles have been accompanied by conventional carpet bombing. Between the killing of leaders and attrition, FARC’s forces are at half of what they were at the turn of the century, and the resulting disarray helped spur the peace negotiations between President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leaders that began last year.

Credit: Washington Post

However, the bombings again raise the question of where, and how, the United States draws the line between “targeted killings” and assassinations. After all, while the latter remain banned by executive order, the former are increasingly become America’s tactic of choice in conflicts around the world.