Colombia: US poised to boost intervention

April 5, 2000


Colombia: US poised to boost intervention

The United States House of Representatives passed a bill on March 30 which approves US$1.7 billion in military aid to Colombia. The package, which includes the setting up of two new Colombian military brigades and the supply of 30 Huey helicopters and 30 expensive, high-tech Blackhawk helicopter gunships, may still face difficulties passing through the Senate this week.

Even before this bill, Colombia had been the third largest recipient of US military aid, aid justified as part of the fight against drug trafficking. Colombia is the largest producer and exporter of cocaine in the world. Most of Colombia's cocaine exports end up in the US.

But the Clinton administration is increasingly candid that this is not its only interest in supporting the Colombian military. That the aid is intended to be used against Colombia's left-wing guerilla armies is no longer concealed.

According to the February 26 Economist, Thomas Pickering, a senior US State Department official, said in the Colombian capital of Bogota on February 14: "If the guerrillas are taking part [in drugs production], and I've no doubt they are, then they will be targets of our fight".


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - Peoples Army (FARC-EP) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been fighting a civil war against the Colombian government since the early '60s. They have grown in strength over the last few years: the ELN numbers around 5000 troops and the FARC around 15,000. They have inflicted defeats on the Colombian military in almost every encounter.

Although both organisations have begun or are about to begin peace negotiations with the Colombian government, the government is not in a strong enough position to force a cease-fire as a precondition for talks.

The situation has caused alarm in Washington. Left to its own devices, the Colombian military has no chance of eliminating the guerillas or even halting their growth.

The guerillas deny Washington's accusations that they are drug traffickers but are quite open that they derive revenue from the coca trade through taxes levied on all economic activity in the areas they control. The taxes fund their military operations, as well as things such as improving local roads and infrastructure.

Many of the peasants who live in areas controlled by the guerillas, and especially in those controlled by the FARC, grow coca. As they are very poor and have often been forced out of better land by wealthy landowners, coca is often the only crop from which they can make a subsistence living.

The guerillas defend the coca crops from attempts by the government, under pressure from the US, to eradicate them. They also protect the peasants' right to trade their crops.

Human rights

Opponents of the bill say the money is mostly being directed toward the Colombian army. Even moderate members of the US legislature have had jitters about giving large sums of money to such a dubious organisation.

Most of the concern has been over the military's appalling human rights record. In an alert asking people to oppose the aid package, Amnesty International USA pointed out that the Colombian army is "widely recognized as the most abusive army in the Western Hemisphere".

The bill explicitly recognises that some funding will need to be allocated to help "civilians displaced by the push into southern Colombia", the Amnesty alert states.

In another recent statement, Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International USA's advocacy director for Latin America and the Caribbean, wrote, "this package will more than likely result in a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe. There is already a human rights emergency in Colombia: in 1999, 3,000 civilians killed or 'disappeared' for politically motivated reasons; approximately 300,000 internally displaced by the violence. This package will only exacerbate this.

"The [US] administration's acknowledgement that they will create more displaced people is an ominous echo of free fire zones and strategic hamlets of Vietnam and the model villages of Guatemala. This package appears to be classic counterinsurgency, a deepening involvement in the Colombian dirty war."

Many of the human right abuses, including regular massacres of civilians, are carried out by paramilitaries known to be supported by the army and drug cartels. A Human Rights Watch report released on February 23, two weeks before the House Appropriations Committee gave its approval to the aid package, documented links between the paramilitaries and half of Colombia's 18 military brigades.

The report said that Colombian government investigators found "compelling evidence that [as recently as last year] army officers set up a 'paramilitary' group using active-duty, retired, and reserve-duty military officers along with hired paramilitaries who effectively operated alongside army soldiers and in collaboration with them".

A number of the military officers named in the report were trained at the US army's School of the Americas.

Drug addiction

Opponents of the bill also point that, if one takes seriously its ostensible aim of stopping drug addiction, it merely continues a failed strategy. Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine exports have increased dramatically since the US began pouring money in to fund the forcible eradication of peasants' coca crops.

Since sections of the military itself are widely thought to be involved in drug trafficking, it is an unreliable instrument with which to prevent the trade.

Trafficking has even taken place through the US military presence in Colombia. The wife of Colonel James Hiett, head of US anti-drug operations in Colombia, was arrested in 1999 for smuggling cocaine to the US, via diplomatic mail carried by the US Air Force.

The money could be better spent in the US, on policies such as decriminalisation, education and improved services for curing drug addiction.

Even the conservative Economist warned that the US plan would neither stop the drug trade nor the guerillas. In an article called "A muddle in the jungle" in its March 4 edition, the magazine said that if US policy was directed at the supply side rather than the demand side of the drug trade it would merely have a "balloon" effect: "squeeze the drugs industry at one point, and it will reappear somewhere else".

One of the bill's opponents, Democrat Janice Schakowsky, said recently "Treatment is ten times more effective than drug interdiction schemes".

The bill has been strongly championed by the Clinton administration, even though it has had a mixed reception within the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was initially approved by the House Appropriations Committee on March 9 by a vote of 33 to 13 and then on March 30 in the House by 213 to 146. Attempts by Democrat David Obey to attach human rights strings to the funding were defeated at both stages.

Important advocates of the bill include Democrats Sam Gejdenson and Christoper Dodd. Both Gejdenson and Dodd, an article in the Legal Times revealed, have received large campaign donations from the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. Sikorsky, which manufactures the Blackhawk helicopter, stands to earn around US$360 million from the passing of the bill.

It is not certain that the bill will pass through the Senate. Senate majority leader Trent Lott announced his opposition to the bill on March 21, on the grounds that it is fiscally irresponsible.

The Colombia aid was just part of the bill, which was also to have approved a total of US$9 billion of special emergency spending, including money for US operations in Kosova. The figure climbed to US$13 billion as it passed through the House. Lott has indicated that he supports military aid to Colombia but thinks it should be worked into the regular budget for the next financial year beginning in October.

But even without the aid package, US funding is still sponsoring the human rights abuses carried out by the army and paramilitaries. There have also been a number of reports of covert US operations against the guerilla opposition, which would not be included in official funding.


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