The Colombian Left Has Every Reason to Condemn Israel

This week, Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing president, severed diplomatic ties with Israel over Gaza. It’s a long time coming: Israeli mercenaries aided in the wholesale slaughter of Colombia’s insurgent leftist party, Patriotic Union, in the ’80s.

President of Colombia Gustavo Petro gives a speech as part of the 2024 International Workers' Day celebration on May 1, 2024, in Bogotá, Colombia. (Diego Cuevas / Getty Images)

On International Workers’ Day, Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing president, announced that the country would sever diplomatic ties with Israel over its ongoing genocidal assault on Gaza. “Tomorrow we will break diplomatic relations with the state of Israel for having a government, for having a president who is genocidal. . . . If Palestine dies, humanity dies,” Petro said.

Petro has been one of the foremost critics of Israel on the Left in Latin America. On October 16, Israel suspended arms shipments to Colombia after a diplomatic spat between Petro and Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat. In the dispute, Petro condemned Israel’s siege on and sanguinary bombardment of Gaza, as well as the involvement of Israeli mercenaries in the mass murder of members of the Patriotic Union (UP) party in Colombia. “Neither Yair Klein nor Rafael Eitan will be able to describe the history of peace in Colombia. They unleashed massacre and genocide in Colombia,” Petro tweeted.

The involvement of Mossad intelligence operative Rafael Eitan and Israeli lieutenant colonel Yair Klein in the mass extermination of the UP is a buried chapter of Colombian history. In the wake of the government’s unprecedented suspension of diplomatic ties with Israel, it’s a history worth revisiting.

The Patriotic Union

The UP was born out of El Acuerdo de La Uribe, a 1984 peace deal between the FARC guerrillas and then president Belisario Betancur. Its emergence was a serious rupture in Colombian politics, a left-wing alternative to an archaic electoral duopoly among two sects of the country’s ruling elite. The party’s electoral platform promoted agrarian reform, the cancelation of foreign debt and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs, and the nationalization of Colombian oil, gas, and mineral resources. The UP brought together a coalition of university students, trade unions, members of the Colombian Communist Party, and peasants. For many, the UP represented a potential end to Colombia’s then quarter-century-long internal conflict.

From the inception of the UP, its members, elected officials, and sympathizers were marked for death. For nearly two decades, “not a month passed without a murder or disappearance of a UP member,” leaving 5,733 or more dead by 2002. In February of 2023, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the Colombian state was responsible for the elimination of the party. Colombia’s Justice and Peace court ruled the extermination a political genocide. However, the role played by Israeli operatives in the extermination of the UP is often suppressed or outright denied by Colombia’s mainstream press.

“They Cut Off Our Wings”

In August of 1986, shortly after his election, President Virgilio Barco Vargas secretly contracted Mossad-agent-turned-mercenary Rafael Eitan as an unofficial national security adviser. Eitan was tasked with laying a blueprint for eradicating the FARC, despite the existing peace deal negotiated by Betancur. As argued by journalist Dan Cohen, Eitan’s expertise in “waging war against the Palestinian peasant population made him the perfect man for the job.”

Following a covert trip across the country financed by Barco, Eitan briefed the President on how to eradicate the guerrillas. His recommendation was simple: “Eliminate members of the Patriotic Union.” The veteran Mossad agent offered to carry out the extermination of the party in exchange for a second contract, the first of which was valued at nearly $1 million (almost $3 million adjusted for inflation.) The Colombian military high command rejected Eitan’s bid for a second deal. It, not a transient mercenary, would carry out the extermination of the UP itself. Even so, as described by investigative journalist Alberto Donadio, who broke the story of Eitan’s involvement in 2021, “in a few minutes, the fate of the leftist militants who had signed the peace deal was decided.”

Over four hundred UP militants were killed by State and paramilitary forces in the first 14 months of Barco’s tenure, constituting 60 percent of all victims of political violence in Colombia from 1986 to 1987. On March 2, 1987, the US ambassador to Colombia, Charles A. Gillespie Jr, cabled Washington an encouraging projection: “If enough UP leaders are murdered (how many would be enough, can only be speculative), the UP will be driven to depart from Congress and the FARC from what remains of the peace process.”

Yaneth Corredor, who told me that she and thousands of trade unionists like her in Colombia’s public sector “plunged headlong into the Patriotic Union,” described this period in the party’s history in vivid and macabre detail. “President Barco and his Mossad friend had a dramatic strategy, didn’t they? One asks oneself why this [extermination] happened. Because we had a vocation for power. We had fourteen congressmen and councilors; that is, we began to govern. But of course, they cut off our wings, no?”

Yair Klein’s Gifted Student

From December 1987 to May 1988, Klein, a retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) lieutenant colonel, trained fifty men at a “school for assassins” in the Magdalena Medio, just three hours away from Medellín. Operating with an official Israeli government license, Klein trained his students to carry out drive-bys in cars, assassinations by bombs and sniper fire, and door-to-door attacks on entire towns. Klein has since alleged that the CIA recruited him to train the Colombians and that he met with the now dissolved Colombian intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), upon arriving in the country. “The Americans have the problem of public opinion, international image. We don’t have this problem,” one Israeli working for Klein’s Spearhead mercenary corporation said of the operation.

Five months later, Klein’s trainees Fidel and Carlos Castaño, Alonso de Jesús Baquero, and thirty other men carried out a massacre in the mining town of Segovia. There, Rita Ivon Tobón Areiza, a young woman from UP, had won the 1988 mayoral race by an overwhelming margin. Working with the US-backed Colombian Armed Forces, Jesús Baquero, one of the Castaño’s paramilitary chiefs, headed the massacre. His targets were suspected supporters of the UP.

On November 11, the day of the massacre, the military removed its checkpoints ordinarily positioned at the town’s entrance. According to an Amnesty International report, “regular garrisons of the police and military stood by while the killers moved freely through the town for over an hour.” Jesús Baquero’s forces, armed with a list of targets, carried out door-to-door killings of suspected UP supporters and an assault on the town square, killing forty-three people and wounding more than fifty others. “Yair Klein always considered me a gifted student,” Jesús Baquero would later recall.

The Castaños would eventually form the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) paramilitary. In 2001, Human Rights Watch determined the AUC was effectively a division of the Colombian military and, according to author John Lindsay-Poland, “the worst violator” in a conflict that claimed 262,197 lives in six decades. In 2002, GIRSA, an Israeli firm in Guatemala tied to the IDF, sent three thousand assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition to the AUC — arms they used to massacre leftists and displace thousands.

Colombia: No Longer the “Israel of Latin America”

In the above-mentioned Amnesty International report on the carnage in Segovia is a child’s drawing — a Cassandran presage of a massacre. Ten-year-old Francisco William Gómez Monsalve drew the picture eight days before the bloodshed, after the image came to him in a nightmare. Francisco was one of three children killed by the Israeli-trained death squad in the Segovia massacre.

Francisco William Gómez Monsalve’s drawing (Courtesy Pietro Paolini)

Klein and Eitan’s presence in Colombia and involvement in the anti-communist violence against the UP was not by chance. Colombia began buying arms from Israel in the 1980s, including twenty Israeli fighter jets in March of 1989, a deal facilitated by Eitan. Israel has since trained Colombian Special Forces in counterterrorism and, until now, provided the country with massive arms shipments. Israel was likewise the “largest weapons distributor” to Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, trained the Contras in Nicaragua, facilitated the Guatemalan genocide, and backed reactionary forces throughout Latin America during the Cold War.

Colombia has long been the United States government’s foremost ally in the region, the “Israel of Latin America,” as the former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, once described it. The involvement of Israeli operatives in the systematic extermination of the UP is a crucial part of that story and follows a global pattern of US-backed anti-communist violence during the Cold War. Although different in scale, historically, both the Colombian left and Palestinians have endured the calculated brutality of the United States and a US-backed Israeli state. More broadly, Colombia has the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced people, with over 6.8 million individuals displaced due to internal conflict. The violence of displacement is an experience shared by the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees across the planet and the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza displaced by the IDF in just the last six months.

An argument made by historian Greg Grandin in Empire’s Workshop captures the present situation in Colombia:

And one would think that Latin Americans, after all they’ve suffered, all the tortures and terrors of the Cold War, would have given up on the idea that history is redeemable. It turns out that repression had the opposite effect, searing into the region’s political culture . . . an ability both to recognize the dialectic lurking behind the brutality and to answer every bloody body with ever more adamant affirmations of humanity.

Now an insurgent left, once the target of systematic mass murder carried out by the Colombian army and Israeli-trained paramilitaries, holds the country’s highest office — and, in a novel act of solidarity, has severed diplomatic ties with Israel over its ongoing genocide in Gaza.