Washington's Next Dirty War
Global Exchange newsletter, Summer 2000
The citizens in the streets were cautiously optimistic. Last
fall, on October 24, millions of average people from across war-torn
Colombia turned out for demonstrations to demand an end to the
country's 35-year civil war. More than 2 million people marched
through the center of Bogota. One million demonstrated in Medellln
and Cali each, and thousands more marched in hundreds of villages
across the country. The marchers had a simple message: "No
Mas"-No more, peace now.
In a gruesome return to interference in Latin American civil
conflicts, the US is now set to throw fuel on the fire already
consuming Colombia. In early January, 10 weeks after the "No
Mas" rallies, the Clinton Administration betrayed the Colombian
people's appeal for peace and proposed a two-year, $1.3 billion
aid package for Colombia, over 80 percent of it for military and
police assistance. In late March the House of Representatives
approved the increased military spending in a 263 to 146 vote.
Two months later the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a
smaller version of the aid package. By early June, when this newsletter
went to press, the full Senate had not voted on the package. Though
it is expected to pass, last minute grassroots lobbying could
tip the balance. (See Action Box.) And if it does pass, the bill
still must go to conference committee, where, again, citizen pressure
could help to craft a less deadly military package.
According to its supporters in the White House and Congress,
the aid package is designed to limit drug abuse in the US by targeting
drug production in Colombia, already the third largest recipient
of US foreign aid after Israel and Egypt. But the facts are clear:
The most effective way to fight drug addiction is through education
and treatment here at home, not by attacking supply in another
country. A close inspection of the geopolitical reality in Colombia
and domestic politics in the US shows that, in fact, the logic
behind the aid is a mix of old-fashioned arms dealer hucksterism,
anachronistic Cold War mentality, and economic self-interest.
Once again, the US is involving itself in another country's civil
conflict for its own narrow and misguided concerns.
The humanitarian crisis created by Colombia's civil war is
nightmarish. An average of 12 political killings occur each day.
The war has cost more than 35,000 lives in the last decade alone.
Another 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes,
500,000 of those in the last two years. The increase in US military
equipment and training will only worsen this situation.
Public opinion in Colombia is split on whether the aid will
help end the war or worsen the conflict. But most of the support
for the package comes from the Colombian elite, and it is clear
that the progressives of Colombian civil society unanimously oppose
the arms package.
"This isn't 'aid' and it won't help the people of Colombia,"
Alfonso Velasquez Rico, a spokesperson for Colombia's United Federation
of Workers (CUT), told Global Exchange on a recent trip to the
US. "This is going to deepen the war in Colombia. "
Before the Drug War
Long before US politicians declared a "war on drugs,"
there was a civil war in Colombia. The country is often described
as "the oldest democracy in Latin America." This fact
obscures an important truth: For most of the last 40 years, constitutional
guarantees and civil liberties have been suspended in successive
"states of siege," and the country's politics have been
so exclusionary as to belie the label "democracy."
The roots of the current conflict stretch back to the 1940's,
when animosities among a growing labor movement, a newly organized
peasantry, and the two official parties, the Liberals and Conservatives,
erupted into violence. In 1948, the populist Liberal leader Jorge
Eliecer Gaitan, who had led a mass mobilization against the country's
ruling oligarchy, was assassinated, sparking intense partisan
fighting. In five years, the conflict, called "La Violencia,"
claimed 300,000 lives. The fighting ended in 1953 when the Colombian
military staged a coup d'etat. The military held power for four
years, surrendering control of the government after the Liberals
and Conservatives signed a power-sharing agreement called the
Frente Nacional, or National Front.
The National Front's coalition government ended the terrible
bloodshed, but it also consolidated the economic elite's near-total
control of Colombia. Under the National Front agreement, the Liberals
and Conservatives alternated the presidency and received equal
shares of government jobs. Over time, this arrangement blurred
the ideological distinctions between the two parties and prevented
other political factions from sharing power. As the political
programs of the Liberals and Conservatives converged, the two
parties increasingly concentrated their energies on remaining
in power and siphoning off state resources. The pressing issues
of wealth inequality and land distribution festered, receiving
only superficial treatment from the coalition government. By the
early sixties, the Liberal-Conservative duopoly was using the
military to repress independent political voices.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, these exclusionary politics led
to armed insurrection. In 1966, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias
de Colombia, or FARC, declared themselves in rebellion against
the Liberal-Conservatives oligarchy. Other groups such as the
Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) and smaller Ejercito Popular
de Liberacion (EPL) also formed around this time. Most of the
groups were inspired by Cuba's recent popular revolution and advanced
a program of agrarian reform.
To combat the guerrillas, the Colombian military created and
provided logistical support to paramilitary groups. By the 1980's
narco-traffickers and the country's older wealthy elite started
funding their own private militias to terrorize the guerrillas'
More than 50 years after La Violencia began, the conflict's
root causes remain unaddressed. In fact, the situation has worsened.
The country is currently trapped in the worst economic crisis
of its history. Last year the economy shrank by five percent,
and 20 percent of the country is unemployed. Inequalities are
deepening-57 percent of Colombians live in poverty, and malnutrition,
already high, is on the rise.
The war, too, has worsened in the last 10 years. Right wing
paramilitaries, now organized nationally under the umbrella group
Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, number 5,000. The FARC claims
15,000 soldiers (compared to the government's 130,000) and controls
territory that, though sparsely populated, accounts for 40 percent
of the country. Despite ongoing peace talks, political killings
continue to ravage the country, and up to 1,000 people flee the
country every week.
Colombia's narco-economy-illegal drugs are the country's third
largest export-is fueling the civil war by funding both sides
of the conflict. The guerrillas, the right wing paramilitaries
and the government all benefit from a system of corruption, bribery
and extortion. At the same time, the country's deadly chaos provides
excellent cover for drug trafficking. The drug trade and the civil
war feed each other.
US policy makers say they can fight the drug war without getting
involved in the country's civil war. But in Colombia such distinctions
Colombia is the world's number one source of cocaine. In recent
years, it has also become a growing supplier of heroin. The country
produces 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the US and half
of the heroin. The Clinton Administration says its plan for Colombia
will reduce drug production and thereby fight drug abuse here
in the US. Drug policy experts strongly disagree with this strategy.
They say the best way to fight drug addiction is with education
and treatment here at home. But US politicians, frightened of
appearing "soft" on crime and drugs, have ignored this
The Clinton Administration's plan focuses on eradication of
coca and poppy plants grown in Colombia's mountainous jungle.
Under the plan, the US will help the Colombian military and police
forces push into drug cultivation regions and destroy drug crops.
Specifically, $600 million of the aid will go to train and equip
two additional Colombian military battalions to make the drive
into the country's remote southern region where most of the coca
is grown. Another $350 million will upgrade radar stations in
Colombia and provide intelligence assistance to the counter-narcotic
soldiers. A further $100 million will go to Colombia's national
police force to pay for drug crop fumigation programs.
Only a fraction of the aid package will go to non-military
assistance. A mere $145 million is slated for promoting economic
assistance programs and crop substitution projects. Even less,
$79 million, will go to support judicial reform, anti-corruption
programs, human rights protection, and the peace process.
The plan's strategy for fighting drug abuse is fundamentally
flawed. The last 20 years of drug prevention initiatives have
made at least one thing clear: fighting drug supply does not decrease
drug demand. As long as US users crave drugs, desperately poor
peasants will grow coca and poppy. A drop in production would
lead to only a modest increase in retail price. Also, drug production
tends to move like a balloon: press down on one end, and it just
pops up somewhere else. Even if drug production were ended in
Colombia, it's certain that traffickers would simply move to other
Even the plan's basic tactic for eradication-fumigation by
crop dusters-is poorly conceived. A recent report in The New York
Times revealed that the fumigation flights frequently kill legitimate
crops such as beans and potatoes. Indiscriminate spraying has
poisoned fields and endangered the health of already humbled communities.
Moreover, by destroying subsistence crops, the government is undermining
its own attempts at crop substitution. "Spraying only exacerbates
the drug problem by destabilizing communities that are trying
to get out of illicit crops and grow legal alternatives,"
a representative from Colombia's Pesticide Action Network told
If our goal is to fight drug addiction, this $1.3 billion
could be spent in better ways. A study by the RAND Corporation
found that, dollar for dollar, providing treatment to cocaine
users is 23 times more cost effective than eradicating coca. For
the same price as dozens of helicopters for the Colombian military
we could provide treatment for almost 200,000 addicts.
The Clinton Administration has said repeatedly that the Colombian
aid package is counter-narcotic, not counter-insurgent. But this
is an artificial distinction. In Colombia, political strife and
drug commerce are inextricably connected. Any involvement in the
drug war is also an involvement in the civil war.
Though US officials at first denied that the US was entering
Colombia's civil conflict, those protestations have since dissolved.
General Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's "drug czar"
and the main architect behind the military package, last year
told the Miami Herald that it was "silly at this point"
to try to differentiate between anti-drug efforts and the war
Colombia's right wing paramilitaries, based largely in the
North, are just as involved in the drug trade as the leftist guerrillas,
whose strongholds are in the South. The guerrillas receive payments
from coca growers to provide protection from aerial fumigation,
and the paramilitaries traffic in processed cocaine. But the US
plan focuses on eradication of coca plants, not interdiction of
processed cocaine. By driving into the regions where coca growing
is most widespread, the Colombian military will also be advancing
into FARC territory. The conflict will certainly intensify, with
the new US-supplied firepower coming down hard on the FARC.
The close overlap of counter-narcotic and counter-insurgent
aims threatens to destroy the delicate peace process underway
in Colombia. Talks between the FARC and the government have been
progressing slowly since January 1999, and the government began
talks with the smaller ELN earlier this year. The US military
aid is tearing at these fragile bonds and strengthening the most
militaristic factions on both sides. Hardliners in the Colombian
military see the aid as a boost to their struggling war effort
and say they should use the new strength to crush the guerrillas
without making further concessions. For its part, the FARC says
the aid proves the Colombian government is not really committed
Statements from US officials bolster that sort of speculation.
"For negotiations to succeed," General Charles Wilhelm,
the chief of American forces in Latin America, told a congressional
committee last year, "I'm convinced that the government must
strengthen its negotiating position, and I believe that increased
leverage at the negotiating table can only be gained on Colombia's
Just as in Vietnam, we are told battlefield victories are
needed to negotiate more favorable terms from a position of strength.
The comparison to Vietnam should not to be taken lightly Like
the conflicts of Southeast Asia, this is an "unwinnable"
war with no exit strategy.
It is very likely that the current two-year military package
is just the first in a series of blank checks to support one side
in a tragic civil war. The two-year plan for Colombia contains
no definition of "victory" and no clear benchmarks for
success. Are we aiming for a 20 percent or 100 percent reduction
in drug production? Or are we trying to push the guerrillas south
of the equator? What goal must we achieve before we declare success?
How many Colombians, and Americans, will we sacrifice to do it?
So far, none of these questions have answers.
Caught in the Crossfire
The new military aid will not ease drug addiction in the US.
It will, however, deepen Colombia's humanitarian crisis. Even
the plan's architects recognize this. The aid package includes
funds to help an estimated 10,000 people who will be displaced
by the US-funded offensive into drug production regions. By intensifying
the country's civil war, the US will contribute to Colombia's
dismal human rights record, already the worst in the Western Hemisphere.
The Clinton Administration and Congress have largely ignored
the Colombian military's involvement in human rights abuses despite
evidence showing that right-wing paramilitary groups with close
ties to the Colombian military have committed the vast majority
of these abuses.
According the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 75 percent
of political killings are committed by right-wing paramilitaries.
Though the government has made improvements in the past few years,
military involvement with paramilitary groups remains widespread.
According to Human Rights Watch, one-half of Colombian battalions
have paramilitary connections. Even the US State Department concedes
that the Colombian military has aided paramilitary attacks against
Colombian citizens. The State Department's human rights report
on Colombia for 1999 declares: "At times, individual commanders
and troops at local levels armed, coordinated actions with, or
shared intelligence with paramilitary groups."
As in many civil conflicts, the brunt of the violence in Colombia
has been borne by civilians. Eight of every 12 people murdered
each day in political killings are noncombatants. The crossfire's
terror has not spared any sector of Colombian civil society. Teachers,
journalists, human rights activists, labor leaders, community
activists, national and local politicians, peasants, indigenous
groups, and individuals involved with the peace talks have all
suffered from threats, harassment, disappearance, and death. Like
any civil war, the conflict in Colombia has poisoned all political
relationships in the country. Any expression of political belief,
however divorced from the ongoing conflict, can be considered
a provocation by some faction.
The harassment suffered by Colombia's independent trade union
movement proves the point.
The country's largest union umbrella organization, the Central
Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), has declared itself neutral and
has even worked to broker a peace agreement. But the CUT's declaration
of neutrality has not proven a shield from repression. According
to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more trade unionists
have been killed in Colombia in the last ten years than any other
country in the world. From 1995 to 1998 alone, an estimated 300
union members were murdered.
Colombia's indigenous population of 2 million has also suffered
in the crossfire.
This spring Global Exchange sponsored two members of the Embera
Kano tribe of northern Colombia to meet with officials in Washington.
The story the Embera told while here is a tragically familiar
one. Several years ago, the Embera suddenly discovered that the
government was building a dam on their ancestral lands. Despite
the tribe's protest, the government proceeded with the dam construction,
flooding the tribe's most fertile lands and cutting off the fish
the tribe depends on.
The Embera filed a legal complaint, and eventually a judge
ruled that the tribe's constitutional rights had been violated.
The judge ordered the dam construction company to begin talks
with the Embera. It was this effective opposition that lead to
a violent crackdown: Colombian right-wing paramilitaries have
killed two tribal leaders and disappeared a third.
The Embera insist that they are uninterested in the civil
war and that they should be considered neutral. The Embera say
the killings reveal that in some areas the paramilitaries are
nothing more than mercenaries used to suppress political dissent.
There are no drugs grown in the Embera region, and there is little
political conflict. But there are local economic interests at
The Embera's experience is mirrored by the history of the
northern Colombian village of San Jose de Apartado. In 1997, the
town declared itself "peace community," a neutral haven
from the conflict. Incredibly, the declaration angered right-wing
paramilitary groups, who consider a failure to actively confront
the guerrillas as treason. During the last three years, 73 people
in the community of 1,000 people have been killed or disappeared.
The most recent killings occurred on February 19, when five local
merchants were murdered.
John Lindsay-Poland, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation,
was in San Jose de Apartado for the burial of a member of a nearby
displaced community who was killed by paramilitaries. "The
funeral, with the man laid out in an open-faced casket, was a
demonstration of collective grief like nothing I have ever seen
before," he recently told GX. "And that is just one
death in an a country with more than 3,000 political killings
If it is clear that the military aid package will not decrease
drug consumption in the US and instead will worsen Colombia's
humanitarian crisis, the obvious question becomes: What is the
logic driving this madness?
The short answer is election year politics. No candidate wants
to look "soft" on drugs. But a closer look at the political
maneuvering behind the aid package reveals the crass commercial
interests of the military-industrial-complex. The US's new involvement
in Colombia arises from a combination of US arms manufacturer
avarice and the desire of US-based multinational corporations
to see their interests protected. In Colombia, the flag is following
In April, Newsweek published a stunning report detailing how
the Clinton Administration came to push for the military aid to
Colombia. According to the magazine, as recently as one year ago,
high level administration officials were hesitant about sending
military training and equipment to Colombia despite urgings from
drug czar Gen. McCaffrey. In September, the Administration changed
its position after a Democratic pollster conducted a survey showing
the public perceives an increase in drug use and tends to blame
the Democrats for it. White House officials, fearing Republicans
could use the issue to their advantage in 2000, introduced the
military package to Congress in January.
The Democrats' pollster did not decide on his own to run the
voter survey. Rather, the poll was commissioned by Lockheed Martin,
the huge manufacturer of military aircraft. Lockheed makes the
P-3 radar plane, which is used to track drug-smuggling aircraft.
The military package to Colombia calls for the purchase of four
new P-3 aircraft worth $68 million.
Other defense contractors also lobbied for the aid package.
Last year, Textron, manufacturer of the Huey helicopter, and United
Technologies, the Connecticut company that makes the Black Hawk
helicopter, suddenly started donating large amounts of money to
the Democratic party. In 1999, United Technologies shifted most
of its soft-money donations to the Democrats, giving $125,000
to the party, $75,000 of that in a single check 11 days before
the Clinton Administration proposed the package.
The original Clinton Administration proposal calls for the
purchase of 30 Black Hawk helicopters and 33 Hueys. US and Colombian
officials concede that the Colombian military doesn't even have
enough hangars to house all of the new aircraft. According to
the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank,
the first draft of the "Plan Colombia," written in Spanish,
contained few military provisions. The final draft, which contains
all the military hardware, was written in English with significant
US counsel. This chain of events highlights how the aid plan better
serves the interests of North American corporations than the needs
US-based multinational oil corporations will also benefit
from the heightened US involvement in Colombia. Oil is big business
in Colombia. The country is one of the most oil-rich nations in
the world, with proven reserves of 2.8 billion barrels of crude
worth at least $70 billion on today's markets. Oil accounts for
30 percent of the country's total exports, up from 25 percent
The fighting in Colombia jeopardizes this wealth. ELN guerrillas
have waged a sustained sabotage campaign against oil installations.
The Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum has been especially
targeted by the ELN. Last year, the guerrillas attacked the company's
main oil pipeline 79 times.
Occidental produces almost one-third of Colombia's oil exports
from its Caho Limon facility in north-central Colombia. Now, the
company is hoping to expand production into the Samore oil fields,
which hold an estimated $35 billion worth of oil. The planned
drilling sits inside the traditional lands of the U'wa, an indigenous
group that has already suffered from nearby oil operations and
who has threatened to commit mass suicide if the drilling goes
The ELN attacks present a huge cost to Occidental's current
operations and a threat to its plans of future drilling. In the
last ten years, the company has lost $1.5 billion to the pipeline
attacks. Occidental also pays about 10 percent, or $20 million,
of its Colombian revenues to "security," helping to
maintain an army base near a company oil refinery and to support
two army units to guard the company's pipeline.
The benefit for Occidental of increased US involvement in
Colombia is clear, and the company has been a big supporter of
the military package. On February 15, an Occidental executive
testified before a House subcommittee in favor of the package,
arguing that the Colombian military is inferior to the guerrillas
and needs support. Since 1992, Occidental has donated nearly half
a million dollars to the Democrats, and Vice President Al Gore,
who owns stock in Occidental, has received $10,000 from company
executives and their wives for his presidential run.
Ready for the Worst
A generation after this country's tragic escalation of the
conflicts in Southeast Asia, US politicians have once again entangled
us in another bloody civil war. Now, as then, it is clear that
intervention by the US will only worsen an already terrible situation.
Clearly the post-mortem hand-wringing of the last 25 years did
not produce many lessons for US policy makers.
Perhaps worst of all, most US citizens do not even know such
a senseless and deadly mistake is occurring. Debate on the military
aid package was relatively short, and it did not receive widespread
attention. And even those citizens following the issue may be
misled by the continuing "drug war" myth. Addressing
his colleagues, Representative Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat
on the Armed Services Committee said: "I doubt the American
people would support a counterinsurgency campaign, and yet that
is where we are headed."
With education and action US progressives can build a majority
for supporting a humane and sane policy toward Colombia. The work
needs only to be done.
South America watch