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Document Friday: 1992 “Threat Advisory – Columbus Day in Latin America”

October 7, 2011

The American Indian Movement's 1992 Protest of Columbus Day in San Francisco.

In 1992, American embassies in Latin America received a “threat advisory” warning that “The US intelligence community assesses that there is an increased potential for terrorist violence in selected Latin American countries in conjunction with the October 12 observance of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World.”

The “threat advisory” explained that, “several groups reportedly equate [Columbus Day] with the onset of Spanish imperialism, and the destruction of indigenous culture.  The groups generally view the US as the heir to Spain’s role in Latin America.”  

Notice the NOFORN (No foreigners) marking. Ironic? No. Never.

State Department workers were warned of “marches, roadblocks, sit-ins, and hostile [possibly violent] demonstrations at government offices and foreign embassies.”

The “threat advisory” also shared the specific threats that the CIA, NSA, and DIA intelligence picked up, including:

  • A bombing campaign planned by leftist organizations in the Dominican Republic which would correspond with Columbus Day and Pope John Paul II’s visit to the island.
  • Attacks on Bolivian and US interests by Bolivian terrorist groups in response to the October 8th death of Che Guevara.  (In 1967 the CIA and Bolivian forces cooperated to kill Guevara in Bolivia.)
  • Unspecified attacks by the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army (EGTK) in Bolivia.
  • A plan by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) to use Columbus Day as a “focal point” to bomb Colombian government institutions and multi-national corporations.
  • Unspecified reports that Pablo Escobar would use Columbus Day to attack “US official interests.”
  • The possibility that in Peru the leadership of the  Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement ordered followers to “enter Lima to attack US  interests.”
  • A chance that Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) could attack US interests in Peru to “garner increased publicity.”
  • Finally, “various groups in Guatemala and Ecuador, two countries with large Indian populations” were planning “protest observances,” of Columbus day which could have created “spontaneous random violence.”

So was the “threat advisory” accurate?

In several of the cases, yes.  

A 1992 Department of State report entitled, “Significant Incidents of Political Violence Against Americans” listed five attacks which occurred on or around Columbus Day in 1992.  Fortunately, no American deaths resulted. Several Mormon churches and a Citibank branch were damaged or bombed in Chile;  mortars were launched at –but did not hit– the US Ambassador’s residence in Chile; and –most bombastically– the United Press International office in Lima Peru was taken over by members of the Tupac Amaru movement, and were forced at gunpoint to make a radio broadcast denouncing Columbus’s discovery of America. 

I can’t recall if I’ve seen any recent “threat advisory” cables (post in the comments if you have), but I suspect that they are pretty similar to this –a smattering of all the general and specific threats that the intel agencies can pull together.

A final note is that at the end of the cable, there is an “unclassified tear line” that includes a generic, non-specific warning of threats around “the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage,” that can be shared (the actual targets listed above were classified and could not be disclosed to members of the public).

The unclassified warning below the “tear line” reads much like the non-specific threats terrorism threats we hear today.  This “dumbed down” verison is ostensibly used to protect the sources and methods of the intelligence agencies; but this declassified Columbus Day “threat advisory” makes me question if more information about the specific threats could have been –and can be today– provided to the public.

On the bright side, the Department of State has issued no international travel alerts or warnings for this Columbus Day.

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