'Israel of Latin America' Colombia struggles to shed its skin

'Israel of Latin America' Colombia struggles to shed its skin
5 min read

Simón Rodríguez Porras

21 May, 2024
Colombia has severed ties with Israel, breaking decades of relations and reliance. But, as Simon Rodríguez Porras writes, that may be easier said than done.
Colombia and Israel have a military, intelligence, and economic relationship that stretches over 40 years, writes Simón Rodríguez Porras [photo credit: Getty Images]

On May 1, after eight months of verbal confrontations and retaliatory boasts, Colombia severed diplomatic ties with Israel, becoming the third Latin American country — after Belize and Bolivia — to cut relations since October 7, and the fifth Latin American country overall.

Netanyahu’s response was predictable, launching a tirade against Colombian President Gustavo Petro and calling him, like other detractors, an “antisemitic supporter of Hamas.” In response, the left-wing politician replied, “A genocidaire is a genocidaire, no matter if he has a religion or not.”

The move didn’t make international headlines, and many glossed over the divorce, attributing it to the growing tide of international pressure opposing Israel’s genocide. But they aren’t familiar with Latin American history. In Colombia, the symbolism of the rupture is significant.

By breaking off relations with Israel, Gustavo Petro’s Colombia has broken decades of convention between Colombia and Israel, one built on a shared reliance on the United States and a mutual disregard for human rights.

Colombia and Israel: More than just friends

It wasn’t so long ago that Colombia was dubbed “the Israel of Latin America”.

A combination of the 1999 US-imposed 'Plan Colombia' – which aimed to crush guerilla forces and drown poppy and cocoa farms in glyphosate in the ‘War on Drugs’ – and the extensive use of Colombian military bases by the US crystallised the belief in the 1980s and 1990s that Colombia was, like its friend Israel, an American client state.

They weren’t wrong. Under the approving gaze of the United States, for over 40 years Colombia and Israel nurtured a military, intelligence, and economic relationship that has had disastrous consequences for the Colombian people.

From 1958 to 2018, between 450,000 and 800,000 Colombians were killed. Another 121,000 and 210,000 were forcibly disappeared, many of them victims of ultra-right-wing paramilitaries or the Colombian state apparatus. 

For their part, Israeli contribution towards Colombian insecurity extended beyond intelligence sharing and military assistance. Rather, the most atrocious element of their relationship came from Colombia’s secretive use of Israeli spies and advisors.

In the mid-1980s, while Israel was arming the regime in El Salvador and advising the Mayan genocide in Guatemala, the Israeli spy Rafael “Rafi” Eitan was helping to engineer the extermination of the left-wing Patriotic Union political party in Colombia.

Holding a position in Israel’s state-owned chemical company, Rafael Eitan conceived the operation, known in Colombia as “the red dance”. 5,733 members and ‘sympathisers’ of the Patriotic Union were believed to have been killed, according to the Truth Commission established after the peace process of 2016.

The operation has since been labelled a “crime against humanity” and a potential case of political genocide by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Rafael Eitan wasn’t the only Israeli linked with the Colombian state and ultra-right-wing paramilitaries. Between 1987 and 1988, another retired Israeli military officer, Yair Klein, trained hitmen in Colombia, including the Castaño brothers, who founded the most powerful ultra-right-wing paramilitary group, the AUC.

Although Klein acted on behalf of a private Israeli mercenary company called Spearhead, he was recruited by the CIA and worked with the Colombian political police, the DAS. And when asked about his inspirations, Carlos Castaño was clear: “I learned an infinite amount of things in Israel, and to that country, I owe part of my essence, my human and military achievements.”

Those 'achievements' include the assassination of thousands of union leaders, journalists, students, and activists. The Israeli-imported model became notorious throughout Colombia, associated with gruesome deaths such as dismembering by chainsaws and using crematoriums to disintegrate corpses. Some of the paramilitaries who excelled at these achievements were sent on to Israel for extra training.

It’s no surprise that when Gustavo Petro and Benjamin Netanyahu first traded blows in October 2023 Petro brought up the legacy of Rafael Eitan and Yair Klein, commenting: “Someday the Israeli army and government will apologize to us for what their men did in our land, unleashing genocide.”

Will Colombia and Israel’s relationship outlive Gustavo Petro?

Despite the Colombian President’s strong rhetoric and action on Israel – such as labelling Israel’s actions in Gaza a “genocide” and suspending Israel’s arms purchases – Israel continues to enjoy links with Colombia's right-wing establishment and military and, like Israel, remains reliant on the United States.

Before Petro’s arrival, the Colombian state had already acquired the Israeli spy software Pegasus to persecute dissidents. In 2020, the two countries signed a Free Trade Agreement, with Israel buying up to 1% of Colombia’s exports. Furthermore, Colombia’s air force is largely Israeli-built, its military uses Israeli rifles, and the country uses Israeli cybersecurity software.

Perspectives

For his part, Gustavo Petro and his government are going through serious internal difficulties. His reforms haven’t advanced through parliament and there are fears that his attempt to change the constitution will also fall flat, despite having only been in office for two years.

And whilst the Colombian president faces allegations of financial irregularities in his election campaign and members of his close circle have been accused of corruption, Colombia and Israel’s shared history continues to come to light. 

In March, in the drug trafficking trial of former right-wing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez — another former ally of Israel — a witness pointed at an Israeli embassy official in Colombia for laundering between $150-200 million for the Sinaloa Cartel between 2008 and 2010.

By severing ties to Israel, Gustavo Petro is doing his bit to restore the dignity of the Colombian people, settling accounts with their history. But the past has a way of rearing its head, and there remain serious fears that, as news of Colombia and Israel’s dirty past continue to emerge and Petro’s tenure in office remains in doubt, the 'Israel of Latin America' may not be free from its namesake just yet.

Simón Rodríguez Porras is a Venezuelan Socialist and writer. He is the author of "Why did Chavismo fail?" and editor at Venezuelanvoices.org.

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