Private security and ‘the Israelites of Latin America’

An Israeli defence consultancy is assisting with dirty work in Colombia previously monopolised by the United States.

Global CST, a defence industry firm, got close to Colombian President Santos over a period of years [EPA]

Much fuss has been made in recent years in neoconservative circles in the US and among Israeli foreign ministry officials, regarding the danger to global security posed by an alleged Islamist infiltration of Latin America.

A pet factoid wielded by self-appointed experts on the matter is that it is currently possible to travel by air from Caracas to Tehran with only one stop in Damascus. Lest policymakers and the general public fail to respond with adequate alarm to such news, the severity of the threat is underscored via invented links between Muslims in Latin America and every potentially unfavourable regional trend, resulting in a spectre of Islamo-narco-socialist crime cartels menacing the southern border of the US.

In a WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in Bogota dated December 1, 2009, a rather unexpected entity joined the usual lineup of Latin America-based threats. The cable discusses the manoeuvres in Colombia of the Israeli firm Global Comprehensive Security Transformation (Global CST), founded by Major General (Res) Israel Ziv – former head of the Operations Directorate of the Israeli military – and contracted to aid in the fight against both criminal organisations and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as well as to evaluate potential perils emanating from Ecuador and Venezuela:

“Over a three year period, Ziv worked his way into the confidence of former [Colombian] Defense Minister [Juan Manuel] Santos by promising a cheaper version of USG [US government] assistance without our strings attached. We and the GOC [government of Colombia] learned that Global CST had no Latin American experience and that its proposals seem designed more to support Israeli equipment and services sales than to meet in-country needs”.

It is not clear why the US government should express surprise at the apparent failure to address “in-country needs” when its own Latin American experience includes the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, inaugurated more than a decade ago ostensibly as a means of curbing drug production and trafficking. In 2009, I spoke with farmers in the southern department of Putumayo who outlined in-country effects of the plan, such as repeated airborne fumigation of their subsistence crops, livestock, water supplies and children.

A substantial portion of Plan Colombia funds went to US-based private security contractors. Today, 97 per cent of cocaine that reaches the US reportedly hails from said country.

As for the strings that are allegedly attached to official US assistance, Amnesty International has objected to the fact that “the State Department continues to certify military aid to Colombia, even after reviewing the country’s human rights record” – which happens to hold the distinction of being the worst in the hemisphere.

Global CST’s experience

Ziv’s contention regarding the international relevance of his background in the Israeli military – “We felt that our experience could contribute tremendously to the world security and the world peace [sic]” – is, meanwhile, challenged by the following passage from the Bogota cable:

“In February 2008, [Colombian National Police] sources reported that a Global CST interpreter, Argentine-born Israeli national Shai Killman, had made copies of classified Colombian Defense Ministry documents in an unsuccessful attempt to sell them to the [FARC] through contacts in Ecuador and Argentina. The documents allegedly contained high value target (HVT) database information. Ziv denied this attempt and sent Killman back to Israel”.

Colombia’s new scheme to reach reconciliation

Ziv’s denial becomes less compelling in light of the fact that Global CST has lent its services to both the armed forces of the nation of Georgia as well as to Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia. The firm’s peaceable aims are furthermore called into question by the arms and training it reportedly provided to the Guinean military junta responsible for massacring pro-democracy protesters in Conakry in 2009.

Present on the board of Global CST is former Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Ephraim Sneh, whose recent efforts on behalf of peace have included defending the mass slaughter of Palestinians during Operation Cast Lead because Hamas had failed to “bring… investors to Gaza”. The former minister did not explain how investors were expected to navigate an Israeli military blockade when smaller items such as pasta and pencils were not permitted passage.

‘The Israelites of Latin America’

The encroachment of Global CST into the imperial realm of the US government was facilitated by Juan Manuel Santos, current president of Colombia, who has explained that the firm was recommended to him during his term as defence minister by his friend, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

In a promotional video for Global CST, Santos characterises the company as follows: “They are people with a lot of experience; they have been helping us to work better. It’s like the person who is in the gym, and when you go and you do the exercise he tells you how to do it better.”

More effusive praise is offered on behalf of the athletic trainers in a video for an Israeli television programme – in which Santos announces: “We’ve even been accused of being the Israelites [sic] of Latin America, which personally makes me feel really proud.”

This pronouncement occurs shortly after the programme’s narrator has described Colombia’s 2008 raid into Ecuador and assassination of FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes. The narrator’s Hebrew assessment of the operation is transcribed with English subtitles: “All of a sudden, the methods that proved efficient in Nablus and Hebron begin speaking Spanish.”

In addition to a shared pride in illegal extraterritorial targeted killings, there are other reasons Colombia might qualify as the Israel of Latin America. For starters, the late Carlos Castano Gil – father of modern Colombian paramilitarism – acknowledged copying the paramilitary concept from the Israelis during a training excursion to Israel in the 1980s.

In matters requiring the displacement of human beings from land, the Zionist example is undoubtedly invaluable, though the Colombians unfortunately lack the option of citing Biblical endorsement of territorial claims. In both locales, the liberal application of the term “terrorist” provides convenient justification for the elimination of excess sectors of the populace, be they Palestinians in refugee camps or Colombian peasants whose existence infringes on the designs of international corporations vis-a-vis area resources.

That the death and destruction wrought by the Jewish state and the paragon of military-paramilitary collusion that is the state of Colombia quantitatively and qualitatively outweighs that wrought by their respective nemeses has meanwhile not jeopardised their positions as top recipients of US military aid.

Military creativity

The necessity of casting victims in the role of aggressors has resulted in a range of creative military performances in both the original Israel and its Latin American apprentice. In 2008, Colombian soldiers were revealed to have murdered possibly thousands of civilians and then dressed the corpses in FARC attire in order to receive bonus pay and extra holiday time.

Juan Manuel Santos was serving as defence minister under President Alvaro Uribe when the “false positives” scandal broke. Despite this and other details – such as that, since Uribe’s assumption of office, more trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined – Santos managed to comment on the aforementioned Israeli television programme that fear “no longer exists” in Colombia and that “now we feel free”.

As for Israeli military creativity, spokeswoman Avital Leibovitch explained in the aftermath of the 2010 massacre on the Mavi Marmara – part of the Freedom Flotilla endeavouring to break the Gaza siege – that the victims of the incident were not the nine slain Turkish humanitarian activists – but rather the commandos who had shot them.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry dutifully uploaded a Flickr photo set entitled “Weapons found on Mavi Marmara“, which underscored the violent tendencies of the seafarers and consisted of images of water bottles, kitchen knives, screwdrivers, keffiyehs, and a slingshot decorated with pink and purple stars and the word “Hizbollah”. That the slingshot was not actually “found on Mavi Marmara” but rather resurrected from an irrelevant archive is suggested by the label accompanying the image, according to which “This photo was taken on February 7, 2006 using a Nikon D2Xs”.

Colombians were given the opportunity to defend their position as the Israelites of Latin America when, upon completion of Uribe’s presidential term in 2010, he was recycled into the post of Vice-Chairman of the UN panel tasked with investigating the flotilla massacre. The resulting report – which determined that a group of flotilla activists had engaged in an “extreme level of violence”, and which upheld the validity of the Israeli siege of Gaza in spite of the UN’s own classification of the siege as illegal – presumably benefited from Uribe’s professed notion that human rights organisations often serve as fronts for terrorists.

The peace community of San Jose de Apartado

Defending her position as de facto Colombian paramilitary of The Wall Street Journal editorial board, meanwhile, Mary O’Grady reported an alliance between FARC terrorists and “peaceniks” in a 2009 article about the Colombian peace community of San Jose de Apartado, affiliated with various NGOs.

The peace community, which I visited that same year, was founded in 1997 in the Uraba region in northwestern Colombia as a response to decades of armed conflict. Employing a system of collective work groups dedicated to the cultivation of crops ranging from miniature bananas to cacao, the community rejects collaboration with all armed actors: military, paramilitary and FARC guerrillas alike. Nevertheless, as of its twelfth anniversary in 2009, it had suffered 184 assassinations out of a population of approximately 1,500.

Twenty-four assassinations have been attributed to the FARC, while the remainder is attributed to the armed forces and/or paramilitary formations. Such calculations render all the more ludicrous O’Grady’s advertisement of the claim that “the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights”.

Community co-founder Maria Brigida Gonzalez – whose 15-year-old daughter Elisena was murdered in her sleep in 2005 by members of the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade, which claimed Elisena was a FARC combatant – speculated to me that the ultimate purpose of such attacks was “to sow terror so that we all flee and the land’s resources can be exploited”.

Colombia as regional security model

In a WikiLeaks cable from March 2009, the US embassy in Bogota specified that the region of Uraba was one of “17 strategic focus areas” within one of “two key swathes of territory” in Colombia where Global CST was assisting the Uribe government in “achiev[ing] irreversibility” in the battle against the FARC. Nine months later, the same embassy sounded the alarm that the firm had infringed on US territory.

It is doubtful, of course, that the Israelis will usurp the US legacy in Colombia, one ironic manifestation of which was contained in the email update I received last year from the peace community listing recent instances of harassment and killing of area residents: “John Kennedy was assassinated the afternoon of Wednesday, May 11 when he left his house to meet some neighbours for a game of soccer.”

Whether or not Colombians start naming their offspring David Ben-Gurion, the fact that the country has been applauded by the US State Department and the Inter-American Development Bank as a regional role model in confronting security threats ensures the fortification of a system in which profits depend on the perpetuation of insecurity.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in Nov. 2011. She is an editor at PULSE Media, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.