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Israel & Colombia: Mercenary Allies
The systematic murder of the Patriotic Union remains one of the most extreme cases of political violence in Latin America and new evidence suggests that it was concocted by top Israeli operatives
On April 6, 1984, a group of men dressed in police uniforms arrived at the home of Milcíades Contento in the town of Viotá, Colombia. Contento was a peasant, communist and member of the Patriotic Union (UP), a newly-formed experimental political party born out of the 1985 peace negotiations between the conservative President Belansio Betancourt and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The men seized Contento, tied him up and dragged him away. The next day, his corpse was found in a nearby village.
The murder of Milcíades Contento marked the beginning of a nearly two-decade extermination campaign. From 1984-2002, at least 4,153 UP members – including two presidential candidates, 14 parliamentarians, 15 mayors, nine mayoral candidates, three members of the House of Representatives and three senators – were murdered or dissapeared, in what a Colombian court deemed was a “political genocide.”
According to data presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the purge claimed more than 6,000 victims through murders, disappearances, torture, forced displacement and other human rights violations. From May 1984 to December 2002, not a month passed without a murder or disappearance of a UP member. In the 2002 elections that brought Álvaro Uribe to power, the Patriotic Union had been so thoroughly wiped out that it failed to meet the electoral threshold and the government removed the party’s legal status.
According to a recent investigation by renowned Colombian journalist Alberto Donadio, the extermination of the Patriotic Union was devised by Betancourt’s successor, President Virgilio Barco Vargas, implementing a plan concocted by of one of the most decorated spies in Israeli history, Rafael ‘Rafi’ Eitan.
The revelations underscore the pivotal relationship that has developed between Israel and Colombia – the United States’ respective top allies in the Middle East and Latin America. Both countries are testing grounds for military weapons and strategies that have long been exported around the world. Following the success of the U.S. government’s Plan Colombia in debilitating the FARC guerrilla movement, it has been hailed as an exportable counterinsurgency model to be applied from Mexico to Afghanistan. Israel, for its part, maintains the world’s largest repression- and weapons-testing laboratories in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where it has a captive population of several millions Palestinians.
Through the presence of Rafi Eitan in Colombia, the burgeoning alliance of junior partners of the U.S. empire deepened. Despite a series of scandals, the Israel-Colombia relationship has only grown stronger over the years. Under President Iván Duque, the two countries have renewed ties and Israeli military personnel have trained their Colombian counterparts in “counter-terrorism.”
Yet the systematic murder of the UP remains one of the most extreme cases of political violence in Latin America. The scale of killing is especially striking because, unlike many of the bloodiest U.S.-backed regimes of the 1980s, Colombia never became a dictatorship. The killing of the UP – known among its perpetrators as El Baile Rojo (The Red Dance) – took place in an ostensible “democracy.”
‘All intelligence work is a partnership with crime’
Involved in Israeli espionage since the establishment of the state, Eitan is primarily remembered for capturing the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. However, he also played a central role in several of the Mossad’s most unsavory operations. “All intelligence work is a partnership with crime. Morals are put aside,” Eitan once remarked.
In 1965, Eitan advised Moroccan King Hassan II on how to abduct and murder the leftist politician Mehdi Ben Barka.
During a 1983 Mossad mission in the United States, he disguised himself as an assistant prosecutor in the Israeli Ministry of Justice and met with the inventor of the PROMIS surveillance software. After a visit to the Department of Justice, Eitan obtained the software and had an Israeli working in Silicon Valley install a backdoor in the program. Fellow Mossad agent Robert Maxwell, (father of Ghislaine Maxwell, the notorious child sex trafficker and partner-in-crime of Jeffrey Epstein), sold the PROMIS technology to dozens of countries around the world, including Colombia. This gave Israel unfettered access to intelligence the program collected in every country using it, friend and foe alike.
In 1985, Eitan initiated a spying operation on Israel’s top ally, the United States. Eitan’s team recruited Jonathan Pollard, the Jewish-American Naval Intelligence Service analyst, who went on to deliver 800 classified military intelligence documents relating to military capabilities of Arab states, Pakistan and the Soviet Union. Seymour Hersh reported that the documents on U.S. intelligence capabilities were passed on to the Soviet Union in exchange for release of Soviet Jewry.
According to a declassified CIA damage assessment, Eitan urged Pollard to obtain material on signals intelligence and “dirt on Israeli political figures, any information that would identify Israeli officials who were providing information to the United States, and any information on U.S. intelligence operations targeted against Israel.” According to a court document, Pollard refused some of Eitan’s requests “because he suspected that Eitan would use such studies for improper political blackmail.”
The discovery of the spying operation landed Pollard in prison. U.S. federal prosecutors named Eitan as one of four co-conspirators but declined to file charges. With Eitan at the center of a national embarrassment, he returned to Israel, never to set foot again in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Eitan’s elite status ensured he landed in a comfortable position. In the 1970s, he had served as deputy to Ariel Sharon, then national security advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Sharon, then a general in the army, arranged for Eitan to be appointed as president of Israel Chemicals, the largest state-owned company in the country. This new position left Eitan with ample free time to leverage his experience in black ops into a position as a clandestine national security adviser to Colombia’s president, Virgilio Barco Vargas. With the Patriotic Union beginning to coalesce into a formidable political party, Barco looked for any way to stop them. And Eitan’s lifetime of experience waging war against the Palestinian peasant population made him the perfect man for the job.
Eitan goes to Colombia
In 1985, Colombian President Belisario Betancourt and the FARC rebels negotiated a peace accord to end nearly three decades of armed conflict. The agreement formalized the creation of the Patriotic Union and saw ex-guerrillas join with communists, trade unionists, communal action boards and leftwing intellectuals to form a party that would integrate the FARC into the electoral political system. As negotiations were underway, Patriotic Union members were being killed. In May 1986, Liberal Party leader Virgilio Barco won the presidency. Shortly after he took office, the pace of assassinations of UP members skyrocketed. A whopping 400 members were assassinated in the first 14 months of his term.
According to an investigation by Donadio, Barco secretly brought the veteran Mossad agent Rafi Eitan to Colombia on August 7, 1986, seeking advice on how to defeat the FARC. After an initial clandestine meeting in Colombia’s presidential palace, Eitan spent months touring the country with Colombian advisors, secretly funded by the Colombian energy giant Ecopetrol.
During the second meeting, President Barco explained Eitan’s recommendation to Secretary General Germán Montoya and a figure from the high military command present. Eitan even offered to preside over the killings himself in exchange for another honorarium, but the military commander rejected his offer, insisting that an all-Colombian force carry it out
For decades, Eitan’s role in the Colombian genocide sat in plain sight, even as his presence flew under the media’s radar. The February 1, 1987 edition of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador featured a buried report on the hiring of Eitan, noting he was brought in for his expertise in “counterinsurgency.” In 1989, veteran journalists Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv reported in The Washington Post that the Israeli had been hired as a national security advisor to Colombia’s government.
When Donadio began searching for documentation of Eitan’s role, he found a memo and contract draft with an Israeli security firm called “Ktalav Promotion and Investment Ltd” in the files of Barco’s legal secretary, Fernán Bejarano Arias, who is today the vice president of legal affairs at Ecopetrol. The document valued the deal at almost $1 million, including a fee of $535,714, which covered “up to 50 tickets for air transport purposes, round trip, on the Tel Aviv-Bogotá route,” amnog other expenses. The memo indicates that portions of the contract were agreed upon with the lawyer Ernesto Villamizar Cajiao.
When Donadio contacted Villamizar and asked him about the contract with KPI, though not mentioning the Mossad spy’s name, Villamizar answered him with a question. “Rafi Eitan?”
While Eitan sought to keep his activities in Colombia discreet, a profile in the Israeli magazine Makor Rishon revealed that he played a central role in the March 1989 purchase of 20 Israeli Kfir fighter jets. Eitan “organized a visit by top army brass from Colombia – a visit which was followed by the Colombians ordering many things from the [Israeli] air force, and it brought Israel much benefit – but he himself was not permitted to participate in the meeting.” Following the purchase, Colombia sent several pilots to Israel for training. The jets were flown in numerous operations against the FARC over three subsequent decades.
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About the Author
Dan Cohen is a journalist and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. with Behind the Headlines, a new viewer-supported investigative journalism series. Dan has also contributed to a wide range of news outlets, including Al-Jazeera, Alternet, The Grayzone and RT. His film, “Killing Gaza,” explores Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli assault on the highly populated strip. His latest article, which is discussed today, is called “New Investigation Reveals Role of Israeli Operatives in Colombia’s ‘Political Genocide.’”