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The War Nerd August 23, 2002
Colombia:A Hundred Years of Slaughtertude
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 4 of 5
The FARC can operate close to the cities because the geography of Colombia is as confused and strange as everything else about the place. Colombia's military situation, with rebels and soldiers within a few miles of each other but rarely making contact, doesn't make sense unless you see a good map showing the mountains and rivers. Basically, there's the Andean highlands where the big families and most of the people live. Then there's the hot swampy coast, where the people are a little less bloodthirsty by all accounts. Then there's the jungles east and south of the highlands and sometimes right in between mountain ranges. A few miles as the crow flies may mean going from sea level to 10,000 feet. Good ground for rebels, but good ground for defenders too -- and all the Army has to do is defend its positions around the major cities. The real dirty work of the war can be left to the Army's "paramilitary" friend -- and the Americans, who are probably going to wade in and start bribin', defoliatin', and arc-lightin' their way through the rebels' strongholds any day now.

The Army and its "paramilitary" allies are even harder to sort out than the rebel groups. For starters you've got the official Colombian Army, which is estimated at 55,000-90,000 combat troops -- not nearly enough for the 10:1 ratio you usually need for counterinsurgency warfare. They're not exactly world-class soldiers, but they held better than expected against the FARC's last push for the cities, so they're feeling fairly cocky at the moment.

But it's not the army that really does the search-and-destroy stuff these days. At least not officially. That part of the CI job is left to "the paramilitaries," a half-dozen rightwing militias whose job is simply to kill anybody who even smells like a "rebel." The Army/Paramilitary divide is for public relations purposes only. Government soldiers moonlight as paramilitaries. A guy can be a government soldier all day -- doing the nice-nice stuff like guarding a bridge, not hurting a fly...then go home, change into civilian clothes, hop on a pickup and go off to kill villagers as a paramilitary.

You see the same thing in Algeria, where nobody can be sure whether those weird massacres are done by real "Islamic extremists" or soldiers dressed up like Imams to discredit the Islamic parties. Confusing isn't an accident, it's the whole idea. Nobody -- not the government, the paramilitaries, or the guerrillas -- wants to clear it up. They want to win, "by any means necessary" as the man said.

One tactic that's very important in this kind of war, where confusion is a basic strategy, is the "false flag" technique.. "False flag" means inventing a fake group -- rebel or paramilitary -- that takes responsibility for unpopular but necessary murders. What this means is that the same guy who kills for the Army in the daytime and the paramilitaries at night sometimes gets paid to dress up as a rebel and kill pro-rebel villagers. It's an old tactic, but it's still working well all over the world. In places where propaganda's more important than actual casualties -- pissant little pseudo-wars like Northern Ireland -- there are dozens of "false-flag" groups that take credit for killings, so the real players like the UDA or IRA can stay squeaky-clean for the news cameras.

In Colombia, "false flag" killings aren't so much about faking out the media. (The fact is, the world media couldn't care less who kills who in Colombia.) False flag killing in Colombia is about a much more basic rule of counterinsurgency warfare: breaking down the trust between the villagers and the guerrillas. Your soldiers dress up as rebels, roar into a village blasting, shout a few "Viva Che!" leftist slogans, then zoom off leaving a few bodies on the street. It stands to reason that the next time the real rebels come to the village asking for food and info, they're not going to get a friendly reception. Of course, the false flag deal works both ways, so sometimes the rebel groups put on government uniforms and kill a few people, just to keep the peasants from trusting the government.

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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Save The eXile: The War Nerd Calls Mayday
The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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