Another Contra Scandal?
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration became mired in the Iran-Contra scandal following revelations that it illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to covertly arm and fund Nicaraguan Contra forces attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government. Last year, Israeli arms dealers bought 3,000 assault rifles and ammunition from the Nicaraguan security forces and covertly sold them to Colombia’s counter-revolutionaries (Contras), the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The fact that President George W. Bush’s Latin American policymaking team includes former Reagan administration Contra war warriors Otto Reich, Elliot Abrams and John Negroponte, raises questions regarding the possibility of a Washington connection to the purchasing, selling and shipping of these weapons to Colombian paramilitaries who are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
While the Reagan administration had the audacity to illegally sell arms to Iran, an archenemy of the United States, the Colombian arms deal involved a cast of far more likely characters. The principal brokers of the deal were Israelis working for a Guatemalan-based company, GERSA, which is a representative of the Israeli government’s arms industry. The weapons, mostly Soviet-era AK-47 assault rifles, were purchased from the government of Nicaragua, which, like Israel, is a U.S. ally.
The arms entered Colombia on November 10, 2001, and were delivered to right-wing paramilitaries closely allied with the U.S.-supported Colombian military. According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Oliver P. Garza, was informed about the sale of the weapons beforehand, but denies knowing they were destined for Colombia.
Washington has provided more than $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia over the past two years–making Colombia the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid behind Israel and Egypt. The United States has provided weapons, helicopters and training to a Colombian military that is closely-allied to right-wing paramilitary death squads responsible for more than 70 percent of the country’s human rights abuses, especially civilian massacres.
Critics of U.S. military aid have repeatedly called for stronger human rights conditions, including an end to the collaboration between Colombia’s security forces and the paramilitaries. The Clinton and Bush administrations have ignored such demands. Former-president Clinton dismissed a State Department report that Colombia had failed to meet six of the seven human rights conditions stipulated by Congress when he issued a “national security” waiver that allowed $1.3 billion in aid to be delivered.
President Bush continued his predecessor’s blatant disregard for human rights in Colombia when he appointed Otto Reich and Elliot Abrams to his Latin American policymaking team. Reich, who is now the top U.S. official for Latin American affairs, was chief of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD), which served as the propaganda office for the Reagan White House, from 1983 to 1986 (see, The Colombian Contras). He was responsible for fomenting fear among the U.S. public of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and promoting the U.S.-backed Contras, a counter-revolutionary group consisting primarily of thugs and soldiers loyal to deposed dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Elliot Abrams was also instrumental in the Reagan administration’s illegal Contra war, which caused the deaths of more than 40,000 Nicaraguans during the 1980s. Abrams was convicted of perjury as a result of his testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings, although Bush Senior later pardoned him.
The younger Bush appointed a third Contra player to a key post when he made John Negroponte the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte also played an important role in the Contra war as ambassador to Honduras, the country from which the Contras launched their attacks against Nicaragua.
The presence of three prominent former-Contra players in the Bush administration raises questions regarding the possibility of the Colombian arms deal being another Iran-Contra affair. While there are many unanswered questions regarding Washington’s role in the deal, it is clear that several close allies of the United States supplied arms to a terrorist group whose goals coincide with U.S. political and economic interests in Colombia.
There have been numerous statements made by the various parties involved in the deal. GERSA’s director claims that another Israeli arms dealer in Panama, Shimon Yelenik, told his company that the weapons were destined for Panama. Nicaraguan military officials also say that they were told the arms were being sold to Panama’s police force, but Panama says it knew nothing about the deal. The Panamanian government’s claims of ignorance have been buttressed by a Nicaraguan army colonel who says the assault rifles were unfit for police duty. Meanwhile, a recent statement by U.S. State Department spokesman Wes Carrington claimed that Ambassador Garza believed the weapons were being shipped to gun collectors in the United States.
The deal between the Israeli arms dealers and Colombia’s paramilitary forces is not the first military link between the two countries. In the past, AUC fighters have received training from Israeli mercenaries.
At the very least, Washington bears some responsibility for the arms deal because of the militaristic policies of the Reagan administration, which led to the inundation of Nicaragua and other Central American countries with weapons. One of the legacies of U.S. military support for the Nicaraguan Contras, as well as the Salvadoran and Guatemalan militaries, is a massive surplus of weaponry that has contributed to record-high crime rates in these countries and a lucrative black market arms trade that has helped fuel Colombia’s ongoing civil conflict.
The worst-case scenario would have the Bush White House directly arranging the Colombian arms deal through the Israeli arms dealers, which is exactly what occurred during the Iran-Contra affair when covert arms shipments to Iran were brokered by Israel. Another possibility is that U.S. officials, including Ambassador Garza, were not directly involved in arranging the arms deal, but that they merely turned a blind eye upon discovering the weapons were destined for paramilitary death squads fighting against Colombia’s leftist guerrillas.
Clearly, many questions regarding the Colombian arms deal remain unanswered. Furthermore, they may never be answered. It is unlikely that the Bush administration will be forthcoming regarding its role in this affair and given the current post-September 11 political climate, doubtful that Congress has the stomach to confront the Bush White House. Washington’s inability to police itself became evident during the farcical Iran-Contra hearings when it was obvious that the Reagan administration had blatantly broken the law and violated the Constitution. If a U.S. connection to the Colombian arms deal is ever established, we must ensure that the Bush White House does not enjoy the same level of impunity.
This article originally appeared in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).