WASHINGTON — The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, the Washington Post reported, citing interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.
The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.
The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Barack Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed for the Washington Post article on Sunday spoke to the newspaper on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.
The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation's battle against the rebel group known as the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army: real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.
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. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in a triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb's small computer brain.
In March 2008, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials, the Colombian air force, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.
Asked to comment on U.S. intelligence assistance, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the Washington Post during a recent trip to Washington that he did not wish to speak about it in detail, given the sensitivities involved. "It's been of help," he said. "Part of the expertise and the efficiency of our operations and our special operations have been the product of better training and knowledge we have acquired from many countries, among them the United States."
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.
Colombia and the FARC have been in peace negotiations in Havana for a year. They have agreed so far on frameworks for land reform, rural development and for allowing insurgents to participate in the political process once the war ends. The two sides are discussing a new approach to fighting drug trafficking.
A little more than a decade ago, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. Random bombings and strong-arm military tactics pervaded daily life. Some 3,000 people were kidnapped in one year. Professors, human rights activists and journalists suspected of being FARC sympathizers routinely turned up dead.
The combustible mix of the FARC, cartels, paramilitaries and corrupt security forces created a cauldron of violence unprecedented in modern-day Latin America. Nearly a quarter-million people have died during the long war, and many thousands have disappeared.
The FARC was founded in 1964 as a Marxist peasant movement seeking land and justice for the poor. By 1998, Colombia's president at the time, Andres Pastrana, gave the FARC a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone to encourage peace negotiations, but its violent attacks only grew, as did its links with the narcotics trade.
By 2000, the emboldened insurgency of 18,000 took aim at Colombia's political leaders. It assassinated local elected officials. It kidnapped a presidential candidate and attempted to kill a presidential front-runner, hard-liner Alvaro Uribe, whose father the FARC had killed in 1983.
Fearing Colombia would become a failed state with an even greater role in drug trafficking into the United States, the Bush administration and Congress ramped up assistance to the Colombian military through Plan Colombia. By 2003, U.S. involvement in Colombia encompassed 40 U.S. agencies and 4,500 people, including contractors, all working out of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, then the largest U.S. embassy in the world. It stayed that way until mid 2004, when it was surpassed by Afghanistan.
"There is no country, including Afghanistan, where we had more going on," said William Wood, who was U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 2003 to 2007 before holding the same post in Afghanistan for two years.
The covert push against the FARC began in 2003, after a Cessna 208 crashed in rebel-held jungle. Nearby guerrillas executed the Colombian officer on board and one of four American contractors who were working on coca eradication. The three others were taken hostage. Afterward, Bush asked the CIA to find them and the FARC was targeted.