In March 2005, three trade unionists were
snatched from the shanty towns of Bogotá,
soldiers of the High Mountain Battalions. Taken to the outskirts of the city,
the three were beaten, castrated and then shot. Their bodies were then dressed
in the uniform of the Revolution Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in order to
disguise their murder as part of routine combat operations.
Since then such incidents have been
repeated many times over. Colombia
has the highest death rate for trade unionists in the world, with over 2,500
union members having been murdered over the past 15 years. Over 41 met their
deaths in 2008 alone.
Many of these atrocities are carried out by
army in conjunction with paramilitary death squads. In what might seem
surprising to some, it would also appear that such forces have been receiving
military aid from the British government since the 1980s.
In late 2008, the Justice for Colombia
(JFC) campaign published a report on British involvement in the Colombian
military. The document alleges the UK’s status as “reportedly the second largest
donor of military aid to Colombia”
and describes its relationship with the High Mountain Battalions, who have a
“history of involvement in the torture and murder of trade unionists”.
Liam Craig-Best, a member of JFC said:
“There is not one reason for the UK’s involvement but a set of
reasons, one of these being economic…The two biggest foreign companies operating
are both British, those being British Petroleum and SAB Miller – the brewing
company – whose presence is much larger than the American and Spanish
multi-nationals currently investing there."
The government has been under pressure for
the past several years to distance itself from the Colombian army out of fear
that military assistance could lead to further human rights abuses.
And there is no shortage of said abuses.
Like much of Latin America, over 65% of the population of Colombia live below the poverty
line, with foreign corporations eagerly taking advantage of cheap labour and
trade union repression.
The gentle dictates of the world market
have ensured Colombia’s
status as a neo-colony. The nation now imports over 70% of its foodstuffs from
abroad, something which has led to backbreaking poverty for the country’s
remaining peasantry. In desperation these destitute farmers often become
involved in the drug trade in order to make ends meet, in the process falling
prey to criminal elements active nationwide.
The plight of Colombian workers and
peasants has not gone unnoticed however. For some time trade unions in Britain and Ireland
in particular have been attempting to put pressure on the UK government to cut its military
Such efforts appeared to bear fruit last
March when the government declared it had disbanded its training scheme. After
some initial optimism, JFC believes that that the training regimes – some of
which are thought to involve the SAS – are continuing.
Liam said: “What we saw very recently was
the dropping of the two less offensive parts of the aid, those being operations
regarding human rights training and the clearing of land mines. The Foreign
Office then claimed that they had stopped a large part of their aid to Colombia.
But really this only made up a tiny
minority of what aid was being received. The counter insurgency training – or
counter narcotics as they are calling it now – continues.”
According to Bob Ainsworth, MP for Coventry North East and Minister of State
for the Armed Forces, the government keeps “a record of Colombian security
force personnel who have received UK training in Colombia for future monitoring
purposes, including any accusations of human rights abuses” and that “to date,
there have been no cases of any UK-trained personnel being involved in such
Unfortunately there is no way of knowing if
that is the case, as by Ainsworth’s own admission the “names of trained
personnel are withheld as their release would, or would be likely to, prejudice
Again in 2005, soldiers from the 17th
Brigade assaulted the community of San
Jose, killing eight people – several of them children
– in the process. In this instance, JFC contacted the British MOD for comment,
which subsequently refused to confirm or deny that the 17th had
We can gain some understanding of Britain’s involvement
from statements given by Colombian army officers themselves. High ranking
personnel have made numerous statements on the effectiveness of British
assistance, with one officer, who appears to have received training in jungle
warfare operations, being openly quoted in the newspaper El Tiempo.
evidence suggests that the British government is unconcerned as to who it is
working with was provided in December 2007. This was
when Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Kim Howells was photographed with
soldiers of the High Mountain Battalions, troops which, as mentioned, have been
implicated in varying abuses.
Howells also posed for the camera alongside
General Mario Montoya; a man implicated in the deaths of multiple trade
unionists and political dissidents. Montoya has a 30 year history of
involvement with right wing paramilitaries, death squads and drug traffickers.
The man has also had the luxury of being
flown over to Northern
Ireland for seminars on counter-insurgency –
or what is officially known as counter-narcotics – training. A great deal of
Colombia military brass also enjoy the same treatment, with one event held in
March 2008 being attended by none other than Juan Carlos Pinzon, the current
Vice Minister of Defence for Strategy and Planning in Bogotá, as well as
assorted high rankers from both Britain and the US.
General Montoya’s fortunes took a turn for
the worse last November, when a UN investigation unearthed some of his more
unsavoury activities. After resigning his position in the military however,
Montoya escaped trial and now serves as Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
There is more to Britain’s involvement than
immediate commercial interests, however. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP and long
standing campaigner on Latin American issues, believes that the “special
relationship” between Downing Street and the
White House dictates a high level of cooperation on the military field.
Speaking during an interview outside of
Parliament, he said: “Colombia
is important in that it has the most pro-US administration found in Latin America. The reason why such things as western
involvement in human rights abuses are ignored by much of the press is that the
government agenda fits in with everything the West wants.
A lot of multi national investment in coal,
oil and gas can be found in Colombia.
Alongside the substantial US
presence across the continent, British military aid can become a Trojan horse
for much deeper involvement.”
Although Howells was to lose face under the
scrutiny of negative media coverage, the government still sees fit to continue
providing assistance to their Colombia
allies. The “Trojan horse” for further involvement, it seems, is still standing
tall. The need for the working class to organise both industrially and
politically has never been greater – the involvement of British imperialism in
propping up the rotten murderous regime in Columbia
underlines the importance of the international struggle against capitalism and
for a socialist federation of Latin America.
Visit the Colombia page at the www.marxist.com page.