Known as the “Red Dance,” 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 one of the most decorated spies in Israeli history.
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — 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 estalbishment 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.
Yair Klein arrives in Colombia
For Colombians, a different Israeli is well-known for his role in the death squad rampages that have plagued the country since the 1980s. While Eitan was advising President Barco, an Israeli mercenary named Yair Klein arrived in Colombia and began training narco-paramilitaries in how to defeat the FARC insurgency.
A retired military officer, Klein started a mercenary firm called Hod Hahanit (Spearhead) in 1984, drawing from the pools of former Israeli police and special operations units.
According to the book All Is Clouded by Desire: Global Banking, Money Laundering, and International Organized Crime, the mercenary outfit struck its first deal amid the civil war in Lebanon, supplying the notoriously brutal Christian Phalangist militias – the same force that massacred between 800 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps under direct Israeli military supervision in September 1982.
In 1987, Klein landed in Colombia to meet with Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Yithzakh Shoshani and Arik Afek, both of whom had established themselves years before with lucrative deals selling military equipment in Colombia. Shoshani subsequently became the main conduit between Klein and his Colombian customers.
In 1990, Afek’s decomposing body was found with multiple gunshot wounds in the trunk of a car at Miami International Airport after a pedestrian noticed the odor. He was reportedly being investigated by the CIA and was wanted by Colombian authorities.
Klein told me in a telephone interview that he was working through the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the state-owned weapons manufacturer, Israel Military Industries (IMI), which had a contract with a Colombian data surveillance company obtained through Colombia’s Ministry of Defense. He said he was originally hired to provide security for the banana-growing operations in the region of Uraba, where the American fruit company Chiquita had paid millions of dollars to Colombian death squads.
Shoshani, he explained, worked for a company called AMKAN, which is a subsidiary of IMI. The Colombian Federation of Cattlemen, long known for its ties to paramilitaires, contacted Shoshani to have Eitan train a force to fight guerrillas.
With Shoshani guiding him, Klein returned to Israel in 1988 and met with top paramilitary and military figures as well as wealthy businessmen. All of this, Klein assured me, was done with the full knowledge of the Israeli government. “You can’t do anything without permission from the Ministry of Defense,” he said.
Klein’s statement upends the claim of then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the Israeli Defense Ministry had denied Klein’s company a license and warned him to leave the country.
Death squad leader: ‘I learned an infinity of themes in Israel’
Klein held three training sessions, each for around 30 people. Assisting him were three trainers, all of whom were colonels in the Israeli army: Tzadaka Abraham, Teddy Melnik and Amatzia Shuali.
Klein trained brothers Carlos and Fidel Castaño, the squad leaders who would go on to form the notoriously violent United Self-Defense Forces, known in Spanish by its acronym, AUC. Under the patronage of wealthy landowners, drug lords, ranchers, politicians and the Colombian military, the AUC committed bloodcurdling massacres all over the country, even using chainsaws to murder and dismember peasants, all aimed at terrorizing communities into fleeing from their land. The United Nations estimated in 2016 that the AUC was responsible for 80% of the deaths in the conflict.
Eventually Carlos Castaño was killed, allegedly by his brother Vicente, another powerful paramilitary leader. And, though the AUC officially demobilized in 2007, the paramilitaries soon enough were reconfigured under various banners and new formations, remaining closely linked to the state and business interests.
But Israel’s influence in Colombia’s death squads is not only through Klein’s training. In his autobiography, AUC founder Carlos Castaño wrote that he had studied from 1983-1984 in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and in Israeli military schools. Castaño described the training in advanced weaponry and tactics he received that would become the basis of Colombian paramiltarism’s war against farmers:
I received instruction in urban strategies, how to protect oneself, how to kill someone or what to do when someone is trying to kill you. …We learned how to stop an armored car and use fragmentation grenades to enter a target. We practiced with multiple grenade launchers, and learned how to make accurate shots with RPG-7s, or shoot a cannon shell through a window.”
Castaño also “received lectures on how the world arms business operates, and how to buy arms.”
In addition to the military training he received, Castaño credits his time in Israel with revolutionizing his entire worldview. During that period, the soon-to-be mass-murderer became an ardent admirer of Zionism and became convinced it was possible to stamp out the insurgency at home in Colombia:
I admire the Jews for their bravery in confronting anti-Semitism, their strategy for survival in the diaspora, the surety of their Zionism, their mysticism, their religion, and above all for their nationalism… I learned an infinity of themes in Israel and [to] that country I owe a part of my culture, my achievements both human and military, and while I repeat myself, I did not learn only about military training in Israel.
It was there that I became convinced that it was possible to defeat the guerrillas in Colombia. I began to see how a people could defend itself from the whole world. I understood how to get someone involved who had something to lose in a war, by making such a person the enemy of my enemies. In fact, the idea of “autodefensa” [self-defense] weapons I copied from the Israelis; every citizen of that country is a potential soldier.”
Klein also trained Jaime Eduardo Rueda Rocha, who in 1989 assassinated Liberal Party presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, the overwhelming favorite to win the upcoming election. Not only had Klein trained the killer, but the weapon Rueda used was part of a shipment Klein orchestrated of 500 Israeli-manufactured machine guns from Miami to the Medellin drug cartel, according to a 1989 Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report. (In 2016, Miguel Alfredo Maza Márquez, head of Colombia’s then Administrative Department of Security (DAS), was convincted of participation in the plot to murder Galán and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He has since testified that top-ranking members of the military plotted Galan’s assassiation.)
As the revelations that a military reserve officer had been training death squads created an international scandal, the Israeli government filed charges, convicting Klein of illegally exporting weapons and military expertise.
In 2001, the Colombian government tried Klein in absentia, sentencing him to eleven years in prison. In 2007, Klein was arrested in Moscow on a warrant issued by Interpol, and spent three years in prison. Colombia sought his extradition, but in November 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Colombia could not guarantee his physical safety. The Russian government complied with the ECHR’s ruling and released Klein, allowing him to return to Israel. Colombia has since requested his extradition, but the Israeli government has refused.
Klein’s company, Hod Hahanit, remains active to this day.
A joint effort?
While Donadio’s groundbreaking investigation has created a controversy in Colombia, it does not answer whether Rafi Eitan and Yair Klein’s simultaneous and respective operations advising the government and death squads were a joint effort or merely coincidental.
For his part, the lawyer Ernesto Villamizar told Donadio that Eitan and Klein had nothing to do with each other.
Klein corroborated his claim, saying that he was unaware of any of Eitan’s activities in Colombia.
However, an AP article references an Israeli media report that Rafi Eitan (spelled Eytan in the article) was in Colombia at the same time as Klein and left days before the gunman armed and trained by Klein murdered presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán:
It [the media report] said Rafael Eytan, an Israeli counterterrorism expert, denied suggestions that he was a consultant to Israeli companies operating in Colombia and said he had cut all business ties to that country.
According to the report, Eytan confirmed he flew to Colombia a week ago for private reasons.
Beyond the vague suggestion of that article, there is no evidence of a connection between Eitan and Klein. In some ways, it is even more remarkable that two Israelis advising Colombian government in mass-murder of its political opponents were operating independent from and unbeknownst to each other.
Israel-Colombia relations cool
After the fallout of Israelis training Colombian paramilitaries, the relationship between the two top U.S. allies cooled, according to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. But as Plan Colombia was implemented, Israel and Colombia once again ramped up collaboration.
In December 2006, Colombia’s Ministry of Defense hired another private Israeli security company known as Global CST to “help the GOC [Government of Colombia] conduct a strategic assessment of the internal conflict.” Global CST is headed by Israel Ziv, a career officer who, like Yair Klein, leveraged his military experience into a profitable career advising and training despots around the world.
“General Ziv was a personal acquaintance of then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos,” the cable notes. William Brownfield, then U.S. ambassador to Colombia commented that “Ziv worked his way into the confidence of former Defense Minister Santos by promising a cheaper version of USG [United States government] assistance without our strings attached.”
Under Santos, Colombia sought to purchase Israel’s Hermes-450, a drone under development in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in wars against neighboring Lebanon.
However, according to the diplomatic cable, Tel Aviv-Bogota relations again soured after it emerged that Global CST interpreter and Argentine-born Israeli national Shai Killman “had made copies of classified Colombian Defense Ministry documents in an unsuccessful attempt to sell them to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” These documents contained “high value target (HVT) database information” – a reference to the FARC leadership the CIA assisted the Colombian government in assassinating. The resulting fallout, combined with pressure from the U.S., compelled Colombia to cancel the contract to buy Israeli drones.
Despite the strains in the decades-old relationship, the two countries have maintained strong ties. In 2016, then-Israeli Ambassador to Colombia Marco Sermoneta boasted that Colombia is the top recipient of Israeli aid.
The following year, as the extermination of social leaders and ex-combatants began, Israeli military advisors visited Colombian military bases to give training courses in “security.”
— Mayor General Gerardo Melo Barrera (@Ejercito_Div1) September 13, 2017
President Ivan Duque, the handpicked successor of far-right former President Álvaro Uribe, has worked assiduously to shore up Colombia’s ties with Israel. In March 2020, he appeared at the American Israel Political Action Conference, boasting about his ties with Israel. Months later, Duque and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the launch of the Israel-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Meanwhile, Duque has undermined and attacked the landmark 2016 peace accord at every turn, while turning a blind eye to the mass-murder of demobilized FARC guerrillas, trade unionists, human rights defenders, environmental activists and social leaders – a scenario eerily reminiscent of the political genocide of the Patriotic Union. Rather than a veteran spy advising the Colombian government, Israel now has an official presence. In January 2020, Israeli military Brigadier General Dan Glodfus visited a Colombian military base to reinforce ties between the two countries. Amid a spate of massacres in September 2020, Israel dispatched 10 instructors to train Colombian Special Forces in “counter-terrorism.”
In September 2020, as right wing paramilitaries carried out numerous massacres in Colombia, the Israeli military gave a several-day training to special forces of the Colombian military. They even made these hideous patches to commemorate their alliance. https://t.co/m8TqIoLBmP pic.twitter.com/oXaoAEoj2Q
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) May 27, 2021
With the recent assassination of Francisco Giacometto Gómez, an elder activist and founding member of the Patriotic Union, it seems that the campaign against the UP and the current slaughter are indistinguishable.
Feature photo | Graphic by Antonio Cabrera
Dan Cohen is the Washington DC correspondent for Behind The Headlines. He has produced widely distributed video reports and print dispatches from across Israel-Palestine. He tweets at @DanCohen3000.