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Military Cooperation Between the United States and Colombia Today: An Ongoing Dependence

Written in Spanish by Jessica Garcia


Between campaign promises and today’s reality

About two years ago I wondered if the then newly elected president, Gustavo Petro, would be able to reduce the militarization of Colombian territory and fulfill his campaign promise: to turn Colombia into a world power of life. I also wondered if the United States, which has been intervening in the internal affairs of its neighbors for more than 100 years in order to maintain its hegemony, would let him do so.

Petro and Biden in the White House (Photo: Cristian Garavito Cruz - Colombia Presidency)

Today, taking into account the regional context and the decisions adopted in the realms of continuity of bilateral military cooperation between the United States and Colombia, I can say that Petro's government has neither been able to reduce militarization nor likely will it be able to do so in the remainder of its term. Along with the advance of the U.S. military presence in the region, from which Colombia is not exempt, the militarization of Colombian territory continues, under new “forms”, but with the same content.

Regional context

The United States has advanced its military presence in the region as we can see through  the series of visits, announcements and agreements that the head of the Southern Command, Laura Richardson, made around Latin America.

Starting with the southernmost tip of the continent, Richardson recently visited Ushuaia, Argentina, where she met with President Javier Milei. Milei announced that the integrated naval base will be the closest port of development to Antarctica and will make Argentina and the United States the gateway to the white continent. In addition, Argentina’s General Ports Authority (AGP) signed a memorandum of understanding enabling the arrival of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Paraná-Paraguay waterway, in the north of the country.

A little earlier, in May 2023, Peru authorized the entry of U.S. military personnel with weapons into the country. Last week it renewed that permission. In January 2024, Richardson visited Ecuador and spoke about the importance of military cooperation highlighting “the portfolio of investments” of the United States in that country in terms of military assistance, which not only includes transfer of military equipment, but also “humanitarian assistance and disaster response” and training for Ecuadorian law enforcement. This month, she conducted a visit to Guatemala and visited the border with Honduras with other members of the Southern Command.

This is just a brief sampling of actions and announcements that remind us that none of this is coincidental, Latin America continues to be the backyard of the United States.

This is just a brief sampling of actions and announcements that remind us that none of this is coincidental, Latin America continues to be the backyard of the United States. Although until a few years ago Latin America was not among the U.S. priorities in terms of foreign policy, that does not mean that in the event that another power or powers tried to advance in the region the U.S. government would not do anything about it. This has become clear with this growing militarization process that is consolidating in the region, in the face of the advance of other powers. We can see that in the case of China whose investments and presence in Latin America and, in particular, in South America are more than important.

An Ongoing Dependence

In this regional context, Colombia has been a central actor in the maintenance of U.S. hegemony in Latin America. The continued militarization of the territory through military cooperation is not a novelty, but a mere expression of the impossibility to cut relations of dependency without a high political cost that the current government is probably either unwilling or unable to pay.

The continued militarization of the territory through military cooperation is not a novelty, a mere expression of the impossibility to cut relations of dependency without a high political cost that the current government is probably either unwilling or unable to pay.

Since Petro's arrival to the presidency, military cooperation with the United States has not been modified, but rather sustained. According to official estimates, the market share of U.S. imports in 2022 represented 27.6 percent of total Colombian military imports. At the end of 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken authorized the allocation of U.S. funds to strengthen Colombia's military capabilities and the Colombian ambassador to the United States, Luis Gilberto Murillo, assured that the “close security collaboration between Colombia and the United States is essential to address the challenges we face.” Thus, a new bilateral action plan “focused on the development of Colombian Special Forces capabilities” for the period 2025-2029 was signed and described as “historic” by the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.

These declarations are cemented into concrete actions that show that the militarization of the territories continues and that the only thing that changes is the discourse and excuses used to justify this process.

Always behind the northern neighbor

In July 2023, UNITAS LXIV (64), known as the world's longest-running multinational maritime exercise, concluded with a closing ceremony in Cartagena de Indias during which General Laura Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, stated that “By working together we can keep the Western Hemisphere free, secure and prosperous. During an exercise like UNITAS we need to work our hardest, because when we work harder during an exercise it makes the real thing a second nature to us.” One wonders how the Western Hemisphere will remain free, secure and prosperous if the main danger and cause of destabilizing violence in the region has for decades been the very country that the general represents.  

In November 2023, in manifestation of continuity with these deep ties of cooperation in pursuit of “regional security”, the naval forces of Colombia, the United States and Japan met in the waters of the Colombian Caribbean sea to conduct a series of naval exercises in November 2023. According to official communiqués, the objective was to increase interoperability between the countries and foster good relations to improve maritime security. Again, we wonder whose security will be improved, since it’s clearly not the security of the Colombian people.

Finally, during the last days of the past December, the Colombian Navy was invited to join the Combined Maritime Force (CMF), which is led by the United States Navy and operates in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden. It is worth asking what Colombia is doing in this region, beyond ingratiating itself with our northern neighbor and, apparently, the eternal ruler of our destinies.

 It is worth asking what Colombia is doing in this region, beyond ingratiating itself with our northern neighbor and, apparently, the eternal ruler of our destinies.

Bogota - a venue for war business under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense

At the same time that the Colombian navy was making incursions into seas far from its borders, yet very close to our great northern neighbor’s eternal desires for domination, the largest arms fair in Latin America, Expodefensa, was held for the ninth time in Bogota. At the fair, more than 200 companies that profit from war were present, and among them 51 companies from the U.S.

Demonstration against Expodefensa in Bogota, December 2023

Despite the call of civil society organizations to put an end to a fair that facilitates the connection between those who profit from repression and militarization of the territories, Expodefensa not only took place but was sponsored by the Colombian Ministry of Defense.

 This time, however, instead of exchanging readings, the companies exchanged contacts and experiences on methods of repression, surveillance, more efficient and less costly ways of killing, in short, ways to continue profiting from violence in all its forms.

Over 200 companies that do big business with the pain of millions of people around the world gathered at the same place where earlier a book fair was held. This time, however, instead of exchanging readings, the companies exchanged contacts and experiences on methods of repression, surveillance, more efficient and less costly ways of killing, in short, ways to continue profiting from violence in all its forms.

From the excuse of the fight against drug trafficking to the defense of the environment

In 2022, a plan, conceived several years ago, to build a National Navy coast guard substation with U.S. funding on Gorgona Island, in the Colombian Pacific, was put on hold, as environmental experts and activists warned of the risk that such a project would pose to the environmental wealth of the region. In 2023, the project was reactivated despite complaints and resistance from local communities and civil society organizations.

SOS Gorgona Campaign Graffiti (Photo: Comité Salvemos Gorgona)

The government has tried to greenwash the construction of this substation, denying its status as a military base. The government announced that the radar would no longer be financed by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy (INL), but by the Colombian Ministry of Defense. According to the announcement, the Embassy would only finance a research center on the island. It would be very naïve to think that the regional hegemonic power would finance a research project on an island in the Colombian Pacific, a key geostrategic location, out of pure love for science without any kind of conditioning.

 It would be very naïve to think that the regional hegemonic power would finance a research project on an island in the Colombian Pacific, a key geostrategic location, out of pure love for science without any kind of conditioning.

Likewise, it would be equally naïve and forgetful to believe that the financing of the radar by the Colombian Ministry of Defense, which is the primary recipient of security assistance from the United States in the region, does not have any kind of conditions set by our northern neighbor or that it does not further expand the militarization of the territory with all well-known consequences imposed on local communities. It will be enough to remember Olga Castillo and her struggle against impunity that lasted more than 15 years until her death without seeing justice for her and her daughter for crimes committed by U.S. military personnel in the service of Plan Colombia at a military base in Melgar, Tolima department.

It will be enough to remember Olga Castillo and her struggle against impunity that lasted more than 15 years until her death without seeing justice for her and her daughter for crimes committed by U.S. military personnel in the service of Plan Colombia at a military base in Melgar, Tolima department.
Olga Castillo, November 2022, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota demanding justice (Photo: Marcela Cárdenas)

 In the same vein, and using the environment as an excuse to advance or sustain the militarization of the territories, in July 2023, General William René Salamanca Ramírez of the National Police proudly announced the beginning of the construction of the Transnational Integration Center for the Control of Environmental Crimes in the Amazon, financed by the United States. According to the general, “The Center will facilitate the deployment of the capacities of the police and competent institutions of the countries of the basin, with the purpose of strengthening crime control prevention processes and planning of environmental operations in the face of the specific transnational phenomena.” All this in order to protect the environment, and with the financing of the hegemonic power in the region.

The organizations and communities are clearly neither naïve nor forgetful, which is why they continue to firmly oppose these types of projects. So much so that in the face of the military project in Gorgona, the Superior Court of Bogotá issued, after a lawsuit by the Community Council of Guapi, a historic ruling that temporarily suspended the project, due to the lack of prior consultation with the ethnic communities. This only confirms that the militarization of the territories does not have the consensus of the communities, since it is these communities who have suffered the worst impacts of military projects and not those who sign the agreements and submit to the designs of the prevailing power.

This only confirms that the militarization of the territories does not have the consensus of the communities, since it is these communities who have suffered the worst impacts of military projects and not those who sign the agreements and submit to the designs of the prevailing power.

Conclusion: militarization, neither before nor now, has ever solved nor will solve anything

It is worth remembering that the most militarized territories in this country are where the most violence against the civilian population continues to be exercised and where the most social leaders are assassinated. Such is the case of Cauca, where 38 social leaders were assassinated in 2023 alone, constituting 20 percent of the total number of assassinations of human rights defenders committed throughout the country, according to data published by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies.

It is worth remembering that the most militarized territories in this country are where the most violence against the civilian population continues to be exercised and where the most social leaders are assassinated.

There, in this department that occupies the sad first place in the number of murders of social leaders, the Colombian armed forces have a strong presence that is expressed in the existence of Specific Command of Cauca, a military unit of the Third Division, which has its command post in the municipality of Miranda. The command is made up of the Rapid Deployment Force No. 4 (FUDRA 4), the 29th Brigade and the Operational Command of Stabilization and Consolidation APOLO (COAPO). In addition, the Pacific Naval Force, a Major Operational Unit of the Colombian Navy, can execute maritime operations in the Colombian Pacific region, of which the Department of Cauca is part. But they are not alone, alongside a large presence of “public forces” (including the National Police), there is also a strong presence of illegal armed actors, such as the Central General Staff (EMC), the Second Marquetalia and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Presence of illegal armed actors in the department of Cauca (Indepaz).

All this only leads us to one conclusion: militarization has not ever solved nor will solve anything, much less the foreign military presence. On the contrary, militarization itself is part of the problem. The communities can solve their own problems, they only need to be able to exercise their rights freely. The role of the State should be to guarantee these rights and freedoms, not violate them.

 


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