Thursday, July 10, 2003

UK/Colombia - a curious connection...

If you have been paying attention, you might remember that a while back, several IRA Volunteers were arrested in Colombia of all places, where they were alleged to have been engaged in co-operation with the FARC. (Supposedly, the men had been testing weapons and equipment. At the time, the news aroused indignant denials from all concerned (except for the Colombian cops) and yet another of Northern Ireland's frequent political crises. Oddly enough, though, it seems that while the Provos were helping out their fellow terrorists, the British state was lending a hand to the Colombian military. And possibly also, whether intentionally or not, Colombia's vicious right-wing terrorists. The Guardian
reported yesterday at some length on this....Link to report

According to the Grauniad story, British military, intelligence and quasi-police assistance to the Colombian government has been rapidly expanding in a variety of fields, of the conceptual kind and, I should think, the coca and battle kinds too. It's hardly surprising that after the US introduction of "Plan Colombia", America's Gurkhas would be called on. Neither is it too surprising to see an increase in such activity as the Colombian war escalates. But the full details of British involvement are rather more remarkable. It has been an open secret for some time that small numbers of SAS soldiers have been training Colombian troops and gendarmes/police commandos (the mission goes back to 1989), and the Royal Navy publicises drugs busts made by its West Indies guardship heavily. The news that an MI6 station leading the operation exists in Colombia is hardly surprising - nor is the idea that those maritime drugs busts might be aided by a special force or policing mission there. The weight of British involvement in the civil war, though, has so far either been much less or much more secret. After all, the people always described in the English-speaking world as "narcotics police" are called the Fuerza Jungla. I don't speak Spanish, but that sounds very much like "Jungle Force" to me. And that isn't quite the same thing as yer friendly (or not) local drug squad.

Also in that direction, British Army trainers have been working with army mountain battalions, which is some distance over the line from merely pursuing drug smugglers. (Although BATTs - British Army Training Teams - are active in many countries around the world.) The curious connection with Northern Ireland, though, shows up in the people who the Blair government have sent to Bogota - a Northern Ireland Office head of security (what could be more emblematic of the secret state?), Sir John Steele, as well as the controversial former commander of the 22 SAS Regiment, Sir Michael Rose and an old Chief of the General Staff, Sir Roger Wheeler. Curiouser yet, a Colombian general has been "received in Belfast". "The intention of the exchanges was partially to improve the Colombian security forces' respect for democratic government and human rights". Well....this sort of "defence diplomacy" has been a theme of Labour's foreign policy. And
however bad things have been in NI, Colombia can trump them by several orders of magnitude. But what the hell did the Foreign Office mean when it declared that Britain had provided advice on "urban warfare techniques, counter-guerrilla strategy and psychiatry"?

Now there's respect for democratic government and human rights for you. After all, what was the next Colombian news story but this? I wouldn't be too astonished if a fair number of British servicemen might soon have a good reason to learn Spanish and pack mozzie repellent by the gallon.

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