U.S. Casualties on the Rise in Colombia

August 3, 2003

By Maria Engqvist (reprinted from New Colombia News Agency)

As in Iraq, the number of US military personnel killed in Colombia is on the rise. The US military has lost at least 8 soldiers and pilots since February, including three CIA intelligence experts who were taken prisoners after leftist guerrillas shot down their spy plane. A total of three US airplanes have been shot down this year.

17 US military and mercenary contract employees have been killed in Colombia since 1998, according to a June 16th. Washington Post editorial. But nobody outside of the US government is sure of the true figure of US casualties due the secrecy surrounding Washington’s increasing military involvement in Colombia.

The total number of US soldiers and mercenaries fighting in Colombia is not known either. According to US government, the number does not exceed 1.000, but a spokesman for the leftist FARC guerrilla force, Javier Cifuentes, has stated to the Chilean e-journal El Mostrador that the real figure is more likely the double of that.

The FARC rebel movement is Latin America’s oldest and strongest guerrilla insurgency. The rebels are fighting for social reforms and an end to privatisations and neoliberal policies. The United States has listed the FARC as an international terrorist organization and is providing the Bogotá government with a daily average of 2 million dollars, in mostly military aid, to fight the guerrillas.

5 months in captivity

Since February 13th, when three CIA agents surrendered to a FARC guerrilla unit after a fire-fight that killed a fourth CIA agent and a Colombian soldier who had been aboard a downed US spy plane, thousands of Colombian troops, assisted by US intelligence and operations planners, have been searching the jungles and mountains of southern Colombia without success.

The FARC has offered to release the three captured US agents together with a number of captured Colombian military officers and high-profile politicians also held by the insurgents, in exchange for the release of captured guerrillas. The government of right-wing extremist Alvaro Uribe has so far rejected the proposal. Instead Uribe has called for increased US military intervention to assist the government's besieged forces.

On several occasions, FARC spokespersons have stated that the guerrillas are not enemies of the people of the United States. However, the high-ranking FARC commander Andrés París has previously also told ANNCOL in an interview that "all Colombian or foreign military personnel who are in combat zones will be military targets."

Latin American mercenaries

US mercenary companies such as DynCorp employ numerous foreigners for their missions in Colombia in an effort to circumvent US Congressional restrictions on the numbers of US citizens allowed to directly participate in the Colombian civil war. The DynCorp mercenaries frequently come under fire from guerrilla forces, and pilots of El Salvadorian and Peruvian nationality have been reported killed in combat on several occasions in the last two years.

At least 17 US mercenary companies are paid by the US State Department to perform different tasks in Colombia’s war, according to a fact-sheet published last month by the government-friendly Bogotá daily El Tiempo. The activities range from providing bodyguards for Colombian top officials to directing air strikes.

The mercenary companies include Lockheed-Martin, DynCorp, Northrop-Grumman, California Microwave Systems, Matcom and Arinc.

British involvement increasing

Also British troops -- including members of the elite SAS unit -- participate in the brutal counterinsurgency war in Colombia. A recent investigation by the British daily Guardian identified an increasing British military assistance to Colombia in key areas such as SAS training of Colombian jungle commandos, a surge in the supply of military hardware and intelligence equipment, and military advice to the Colombian army's new counter-guerrilla mountain units.

The report also said that the UK is now the second biggest donor of military aid to Colombia, lacking behind only the US.

No British casualties have however been confirmed since June 1989, when former SAS-instructor Peter McAleese -- who had been contracted by Colombian army officers and the Gacha drug cartel to attack a FARC guerrilla headquarter -- was fatally wounded in a helicopter crash.