November 20, 2006
On November 9, 2006, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-Peoples Army, (FARC-EP) sent an “Open Letter to the People of the United States.” It was specifically addressed to several Hollywood producers and actors (Michael Moore, Denzel Washington and Oliver Stone) as well as three leftist academics (James Petras, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis) and a progressive politician (Jessie Jackson). The purpose of the open letter was to solicit our support in facilitating an agreement between the US and Colombian governments and the FARC-EP on exchanging 600 imprisoned guerrillas (including two on trial in the US) for 60 rebel-held prisoners including three US counterinsurgency experts.
FARC-EP: Terrorist Band or Resistance Movement?
Contrary to the US government position characterizing the FARC-EP as a ‘terrorist organization,’ it is the longest standing, largest peasant-based guerrilla movement in the world today. Founded in 1964 by two dozen peasant activists, as a means for defending autonomous rural communities from the violent depredations of the Colombian military and paramilitary, the FARC-EP has grown into a highly organized 20,000 member guerrilla army with several hundred thousand local militia and supporters, highly influential in over 40% of the country. Up until September 11, 2001, the FARC-EP was recognized as a legitimate resistance movement by most of the countries of the European Union, Latin America and for several years was in peace negotiations with the Colombian government headed by President Andrés Pastrana. Prior to 9/11 FARC leaders met with European heads of state to exchange ideas on the peace process. Numerous prominent business leaders from Wall Street, City of London and Bogotá and notables like Queen Noor of Jordan met with FARC leaders in the demilitarized zone during the aborted peace negotiations (1999-2002).
Under heavy pressure from the White House, particularly its leading spokespersons, the right-wing extremists like the notorious Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and, John Bolton, the Pastrana regime abruptly broke off negotiations and in less than 24 hours sent the Colombian Army into the demilitarized area, in an attempt to capture the FARC leaders engaged in negotiations. The ‘surprise’ attack failed but did set the stage for the escalation of the conflict.
US Role in Conflict
Beginning with President Clinton in 2000 and continuing with Bush, the US has poured over $4 Billion dollars in military aid to the Colombian regime in order to destroy the guerrilla army and its suspected social base among peasants, urban trade unions and professionals (especially teachers, lawyers, human rights activists and intellectuals). Washington vigorously pushes a military solution by subverting any peace negotiations, through a substantial number of military advisers, contracted mercenaries, Drug Enforcement operatives, CIA agents, Special Forces commandos and a host of other undercover personnel. From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, Washington maintained the fiction that its military programs were part of an anti-narcotic campaign, though it failed to explain why it concentrated most of its efforts in FARC-influenced regions and not in the vast coca-growing areas controlled by the Colombian military and paramilitary forces. With the launching of Plan Colombia in 2000, Washington explicitly underlined the counter-insurgency nature of its military aid and presence. Profoundly disturbed by President Pastana’s acceptance of peace negotiations and the advances of the social and guerrilla movements, Washington backed a rightwing politician with a history of ties to Colombia’s death squads for President, Álvaro Uribe. His electoral victory inaugurated one of the bloodiest extermination campaigns in the violent history of Colombia.
US military officials and their Colombian counterparts funded a 31,000 strong death squad force which ravaged the country, killing thousands of peasants in regions where the FARC was influential. Hundreds of trade unionists were assassinated by hired killers (sicarios) in broad daylight in the towns and cities occupied by the military. Human rights workers, journalists and academics who dared to report on the impunity of the military involved in village massacres were kidnapped, tortured and killed; not infrequently they were decapitated or disemboweled to sow even greater terror. Over two million peasants were forced off their land into squalid urban slums, their lands seized by prominent paramilitary chiefs or large landowners. The ‘class cleansing’ of the countryside was right out of the counter-insurgency manuals of the Pentagon, instructing the Colombian military to destroy the ‘social infrastructure’ of the guerrilla movements -- especially the FARC which had longstanding and extensive family, community and social ties with the peasants.
President Uribe embodied the classical authoritarian South American ruler: At the throat of the poor and on his knees before his Washington patron. His perpetual large-scale offensive campaigns decimated the countryside but failed to weaken the guerrillas or even capture any of the FARC general command. After six years of massive and costly extermination campaigns, top US and most Colombian military officials conceded that a military victory over the FARC was highly improbable. The best that could ensue, military strategists argued, was a severe weakening of the FARC, forcing them to negotiate a ‘peace agreement’ favorable to the regime.
Peace Negotiations: A Brief History
During the Presidency of Belisario Betancourt (in the mid 1980s), the FARC agreed to a cease-fire and many joined the electoral process. Thousands of guerrillas, their sympathizers and many independent leftists formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica) and ran candidates at all levels of government. In less than 5 years, 5000 activists, candidates and elected officials were murdered by the military and their death squads, including two presidential candidates, several congresspeople, scores of mayors, hundreds of city councilors and local party leaders. The survivors rejoined the guerrillas, fled into exile or went underground. Contrary to claims by the government, Colombia was not a ‘democracy’ in the usual sense, but a ‘death squad democracy’ in which the most elementary conditions for electoral campaigning and political norms were absent. Less than two decades later, when the FARC had extended its influence within 40 miles from the capital Bogotá, the government of Andrés Pastrana agreed to another round of ‘peace negotiations’ in an extensive demilitarized region under FARC influence.
While the negotiations proceeded, hundreds of ‘visitors’ from all sectors of Colombian society as well as foreign political and business notables participated in public forums. Open debates organized by the FARC covered fundamental social, economic and political issues. For the first time in recent memory, issues of land reform, public investment in job creation programs, foreign investment and public ownership, economic alternatives to coca farming, education and health were debated without fear of death squad reprisals. The image of the FARC as a ‘militarist narco-guerrilla force’ was challenged; many former hostile observers from Europe, Latin America and North America, while not necessarily agreeing with some of the FARC’s proposed reforms, nevertheless came away with the impression that they could be negotiated with and agreements could be reached to end the civil war.
The radicalization of the Bush regime following September 11, 2001 served as a pretext to force a break in the peace negotiations. Subsequently with the election of Álvaro Uribe, the FARC was included in the list of ‘terrorist’ organizations. The European Union, which had publicly met and consulted with the same FARC leaders, followed the US lead. Soon afterward, FARC negotiators and international representatives were arrested in Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador. The latter two countries handed FARC representatives over to the notoriously brutal Colombian political police (DAS). Under cover of Washington’s ‘War on Terrorism,’ President Uribe proceeded to severely repress trade union general strikes and massive rural protests by the major agricultural organizations against his signing of a ‘free trade’ agreement with the US.
In the midst of government-sponsored carnage, the FARC pursued a strategy of tactical withdrawal to its jungle and mountain strongholds and issued offers for mutual prisoner release as a ‘confidence building’ step toward future peace negotiations.
The FARC held over 60 Colombian politicians and military officers prisoner, including a former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt and three US self-described ‘military contractors’ engaged in an intelligence collecting mission. The Colombian government holds over 600 guerrillas. The US currently holds two FARC members. The FARC proposed a meeting to arrange a prisoner exchange in a demilitarized zone. The families of the FARC prisoners were naturally unanimously in favor of the proposal as were most civil society organizations, humanitarian, church and human rights groups. The US has opposed any prisoner exchange and Uribe echoed his master, at least during his first term of office. Their slogan was that through military action they would liberate the prisoners. No prisoners have been ‘liberated’ in the past five years. On the contrary in a recent failed military incursion, 10 prisoners were killed, including an ex-minister of defense, a governor and eight military officers. Under enormous pressure from Colombian civil society, the European Union and most Latin American governments, President Uribe declared, on his re-election, that he would be willing to enter negotiations for an exchange. Within a month, however, he reneged using as a pretext a bomb set off in a military installation, which he attributed to the FARC despite its denials. Experts suspect this was a covert operation by Colombia’s secret service to undermine any move toward a prisoner exchange.
Prospects for Peace Negotiations
Outside of Washington and President Uribe’s immediate entourage, everyone agrees that the beginning of any peace process should begin with confidence building measures, specifically the prisoner exchange.
Immediately complicating those negotiations, the US extradited two FARC prisoners held by the Colombian government on December 31, 2004 and has confined them to solitary confinement, shackled 23 hours a day. On October 16, 2006, one of the FARC political prisoners, Ricardo Palmera -- whose better known ‘nom de guerre’ is Simon Trinidad -- was put on trial for ‘drug trafficking’ and ‘terrorism’ as well as ‘kidnapping’. This is a classic ‘political show trial’ in which an illegal seizure, fabricated evidence and prejudicial judicial procedures have been mounted to secure a guilty verdict.
The most suspicious aspect of this political charade is the characterization of Trinidad’s role in the FARC. He was their principal peace negotiator, as was evident when he was recognized as the FARC’s principal interlocutor with Colombian President Andrés Pastrana during the peace negotiations of 1999-2002. There are numerous photographs, news reports and interviews in the Colombian and European media of the time clearly identifying Trinidad as a key peace negotiator. Equally important, Trinidad was the principal FARC peace intermediary dealing with United Nations Human Rights representative, James Lemoyne, appointed by the US Government and a former New York Times journalist based in Latin America.
Recognizing that Trinidad’s status as a FARC peace negotiator concerned mainly with diplomatic missions severely compromised Washington’s case, the Federal prosecutor modified the charges from direct involvement in the ‘kidnapping’ of three US counter-insurgency officers held as prisoners of war by the FARC, to ‘association’ with kidnappers and ‘conspiracy’ to commit the crime of ‘hostage taking.’ The Federal prosecutor has taken advantage of the language of the new anti-terrorism legislation passed by Presidents Clinton and Bush to indict Trinidad. This legal framework has been denounced by all leading US civil liberties organizations and the American Bar Association as violating the US Constitution.
The charge of ‘association’ is based on the unsubstantiated charges that Trinidad ‘met’ with the three US counter-insurgency officers, subsequent to their capture, an accusation which lacks any concrete proof -- the Prosecution has neither witnesses nor documents of such a meeting, not does it specify time, date or place of the alleged meeting. In fact, Trinidad was in another province directing a FARC educational program at the time. The charge of ‘conspiracy’ is based on Trinidad’s membership in the FARC, which was labeled a ‘terrorist organization’ by President Clinton in 1997, a characterization which was rejected by the European Union which played host to a touring group of FARC leaders and peace negotiators shortly thereafter. Moreover, Colombian President Pastrana, who was engaged in peace negotiations with the FARC between 1999-2002, rejected the ‘terrorist label’ considering Trinidad a legitimate interlocutor.
The long political history of the FARC, its historic ties with a large segment of the Colombian countryside, its political program of social reforms, its targeted use of force in its conflict with the armed forces of the Colombian state, its continued pursuit of peace negotiations based on reforming society and the military are in strong opposition to any and all definitions of a ‘terrorist’ organization.
The entire notion of ‘kidnapping’ three US intelligence or military personnel engaged in a military surveillance operation in a combat area against an insurgency targeted by the US is absurd. As captured combatants, they are, by the definition of the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war and, as such, subject to possible prisoner of war exchanges if the warring parties should agree. The Federal Prosecutor charged that Trinidad was engaged in the prisoner exchange when he was illegally seized in Ecuador and transferred to Colombia and later extradited to the US. In court, Trinidad rebutted that allegation by demonstrating that he was in Ecuador to set up a meeting between Lemoyne and a top guerrilla leader. The prosecution presented no written or taped evidence linking Trinidad to any ‘prisoner exchange.’
The Illegal Seizure and Arrest of Simon Trinidad
Any juridical process worthy of its name would throw out the prosecution’s case on the most elementary basis of wrongful arrest. In late December 2003, Trinidad traveled to Quito, Ecuador to contact James Lemoyne about possible peace negotiations with the Colombian government, beginning with confidence building, humanitarian measures related to prisoners and captives. During the earlier peace negotiation Lemoyne had been a decent peace mediator, rejecting pressure from the US Embassy to scuttle the proceedings. Given the massive military escalation undertaken by President Uribe, there was no opportunity for Trinidad to meet with Lemoyne in Colombia. Word reached the FARC that Lemoyne would be available for conversations in Quito.
Under CIA direction, a joint Colombian-Ecuadorian squad illegally seized Trinidad. The entire operation violated Ecuadorian sovereignty, judicial procedures and the rights of political appeal. Extra-territorial seizures of opposition leaders and their transfer to imperialist courts resemble the practices of the Roman Empire and not contemporary international law.
While in captivity, Trinidad has been denied access to translations, documents and writing materials. He was manacled in an isolation cell for 23 hours a day for over 21 months without access to legal counsel. The Federal Judge, Thomas Hogan, and Federal Prosecutor have acted to prejudice the trial even before its start. Over 30-armed police in a caravan of police vehicles accompanied by helicopters bring the chained Trinidad to court. He has been denied any selection of attorney and assigned a team of court-appointed lawyers. When his attorneys attempted to provide a relevant historical context including the FARC’s attempts to participate in electoral politics and the subsequent massacre of 5,000 activists and candidates, including two presidential candidates, the Prosecution objected. The Prosecution also objected to the defense’s description of the massive, sustained State violence in Colombia and the role of the US counterinsurgency forces in alliance with the paramilitary groups.
In this Kafkaesque nightmare of a courtroom, the judge was asked by the Prosecutor to withhold the names of the jurors to protect them from ‘retaliation from Trinidad’s ‘terrorist organization’ (deep in the Colombian jungle) -- further prejudicing an already frightened jury and biased judge.
The court-appointed defense attorneys have failed to challenge the most elementary prejudicial statements by the Prosecution’s key witness, a Colombian Army Colonel, who referred to Trinidad as a ‘terrorist’ despite the obvious fact that he has yet to be convicted. Judge Hogan has refused to allow jurors to take their notebooks containing trial notes from the court and denied them access to transcripts, preventing them from rationally evaluating the evidence.
Trinidad’s refutation of the Prosecutor’s chief Colombian witness and the outrageous nature of this political show trial were evident from the first day the jury reported to the judge. The jury declared that they were deeply divided on all charges and asked the court to declare a mistrial. After 18 days of highly charged prosecution, demagogy and inflammatory political rhetoric, the jurors spent a little over seven hours deliberating before reporting that they were deadlocked. A note from the jurors to US District Judge Thomas Hogan stated: “We believe our differences based on deep thought are irresolvable.” Judge Hogan rejected Trinidad’s request for a mistrial and told the jurors to keep deliberating, stating he would declare a mistrial if the jurors repeated their declaration of a deadlock a second time.
The ‘political show trial’ of Simon Trinidad is a striking example of the threats to constitutional freedoms, which we and the citizens of the world face before the unbridled power of the American President to overrule all the rights of sovereign states and their citizens, international law and constitutional freedoms.
Equally important is the current reality of extraterritorial, lawless seizures, abductions and kangaroo proceedings at the service of bloody imperial policies and client rulers whose actions have devastated Colombian society. More than 2.5 million Colombian peasants and urban slum dwellers have been displaced by the savage counter-insurgency program called ‘Plan Colombia’; the number of displaced persons is second only to Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency programs, variously called ‘Plan Colombia,’ ‘Plan Patriótica’ and ‘Democratic Security’ are financed and directed by the United States and promoted by its client President Álvaro Uribe. The US AFL-CIO documents over 4,000 trade unionists assassinated between 1986-2002; the Colombian government has only investigated 376 of which only five cases led to a conviction of the killer. According to Colombian human rights groups, between 2003-2006 Uribe’s military and paramilitary allies have murdered nearly a thousand more trade unionists. Over the past five years, 30,000 peasants, rural teachers, and peasant and indigenous leaders have been killed with impunity. State repression (‘Democratic Security’) has been directed at weakening trade union resistance to the US-Colombian Free Trade Agreement, not at countering guerrilla armies. With over 68% of the Colombian people living under the poverty line of $2 dollars a day, and land seizures by paramilitary leaders, cattle barons and military officers concentrating land ownership to an unprecedented level, it is no wonder that the guerrilla resistance is recruiting and successfully countering Government-sponsored military campaigns, each bearing a triumphalist title and all ending in abysmal failure. Without fundamental political and social reforms and lacking an economic model that integrates the millions displaced, terrorized and excluded, there is no military strategist or strategy, no matter how well funded and directed by Washington which will end the civil conflict.
The first step toward a resolution of this half-century conflict is the recognition that Colombia is in the midst of a civil war, not a ‘war on terror.’ The second is to release the protagonists of the peace process, Simon Trinidad and his comrade ‘Sonia’ as a concrete move toward a humanitarian prisoner exchange and confidence building measure opening the way to full-scale peace negotiations.
Paradoxically, the end of the Colombian blood letting could begin in Washington, in a Federal Courtroom, or possibly in the US Congress with the recognition that the US is an armed party in Colombia’s civil war, that their combatants are prisoners of war and that their ultimate release depends on recognizing the limits of US military power (and that of its Colombian client) and that a diplomatic, negotiated agreement is the only realistic option.
I look forward to joining with such artists and intellectuals as Denzel Washington, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis, named in the FARC appeal in a common effort to pressure the US government to agree to exchanging imprisoned guerrillas (both here and in Colombia) for rebel-held prisoners, including the three American combatants.
James Petras, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50-year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in Brazil and Argentina, and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed Books). His latest book is, The Power of Israel in the United States (Clarity Press, 2006). He can be reached at: email@example.com.