Quagmire in Colombia
The Progressive magazine, July 2001
As U.S. involvement in Colombia escalates, the situation looks
more and more like Vietnam or El Salvador: American participation
in a civil war begins unofficially, only to snowball as more and
more money and military advisers pour into the region.
Jesuit priest and Colombian human rights advocate Father Gabriel
Izquierdo visited the United States recently to plead with Americans
to consider the effects of U.S. military aid in Colombia. "We
are afraid that, with the increasing military deployments from
the United States, it would be very easy to escalate the conflict,"
Father Izquierdo is part of a Jesuit think tank that tracks
political violence in Colombia. With the Bush Administration proposing
to augment the current policy of $2 million per day in mostly
military aid to Colombia with an additional $882 million over
several years to Colombia and its neighbors, the impact of U.S.
aid in Colombia should be a pressing concern for every U.S. taxpayer,
The Dallas Morning News reported in 1998 that "tens of
millions of taxpayer dollars are going into covert operations
across Southern Colombia employing, among others, U.S. Special
Forces, former Green Berets, Gulf War veterans, and even a few
figures from covert CIA-backed operations in Central America during
It's only gotten worse since then.
Thanks in large part to the Clinton Administration's mindless
pursuit of the failed war on drugs, Colombia is this hemisphere's
largest recipient of U.S. military aid. The United States is pumping
$1.3 billion of "anti-narcotics" money into the military
there, which has its own agenda as it fights an endless, unwinnable
war against left-wing insurgents. Because of rampant
human rights abuses by the Colombian military, Congress passed
rules insisting that there be some scrutiny of the human rights
records of aid recipients.
But, as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International point
out, covert aid doesn't have to be reported. So it is impossible
to find out how much money the CIA is spending in Colombia and
for what. The use of undercover operatives, paid through such
military contractors as DynCorp and East, Inc., avoids public
scrutiny and "the scandal that would erupt if U.S. soldiers
began returning from Colombia in body bags," as a recent
Associated Press report put it.
The drug war rationale for U.S. aid to Colombia is hopelessly
flawed. True, recent anti-narcotics efforts in Peru and Bolivia
have reduced drug exports from Colombia's neighbors. But the drug
traffickers have simply moved next door. Colombia has switched
from a base of cocaine dealing to a major coca producer since
the 1990s, keeping total drug exports from Latin America at the
same level. Even as anti-drug units continue to chase traffickers
around in circles, U.S. demand keeps the multibillion-dollar drug
trade booming. Narcotics production is as lucrative a sector of
the Colombian economy as oil, minerals, and industrial agriculture.
In another echo of Vietnam, U.S.-funded crop eradication flights
began an aggressive air assault early this year, bombarding the
Colombian countryside with defoliants that have wiped out plantain,
yucca, and other crops, in addition to coca. This scorched earth
campaign is destroying one of the richest environments on the
planet: the Amazon river basin in southern Colombia. And it is
leading to the displacement of thousands of peasant farmers, who
bear the brunt of the "Plan Colombia"-the U.S.-funded
fumigation and militarization of the southern region of the country.
In March, four Colombian governors came to Washington to denounce
the fumigations. "As much as half of an estimated 70,000
acres of crops destroyed since late December were legal food crops,"
they said, according to The Washington Post.
"I speak for the campesinos, the small farmers,"
Ivan Gerardo Guerrero, governor of Putumayo, said. "They
are hurting people."
When the Post asked for comment, William Brownfield, deputy
assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, had
this to say: "Neither the governor of Putumayo nor anyone
else in his government or this government has a good fix on what
the actual kill ration has been."
Plan Colombia doesn't begin to get at the core problems in
the region, says Father Izquierdo. One kilo of coca sold in Colombia
in paste form, before processing, is worth about $2,000, he points
out. To the dealers who sell it to the U.S. and European markets,
the same kilo is worth $150,000. "It's stupid to think the
poorest people, who are just trying to survive, are the root of
the problem," he says. "They will just continue to move
around, to destroy more jungle, and grow more coca. Why? Because
there's a market."
It has never been clear who are the "bad guys" and
who are the "good guys" in the war on drugs. Guerrillas
are involved in the drug trade in Colombia, but so are paramilitaries
and even military personnel.
General Peter Pace, head of the U.S. Southern Command, recently
testified to Congress that the paramilitaries pose the biggest
threat to Colombian democracy. And the United States this year,
for the first time, listed Colombia's main paramilitary group,
the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), as a terrorist
There can be little doubt about that.
In February, Colombian General Jaime Uscatego was convicted
of allowing a paramilitary group to massacre at least twenty-two
civilians in the province of Meta, southeast of Bogota. Human
rights groups have named a dozen other military officers they
say have close ties to the paramilitaries in Colombia.
Last year, the AUC "killed more than 983 civilians,"
The Washington Post reported. The assaults seem to be getting
even more gruesome.
One of the many atrocities that the AUC has committed occurred
in mid-April near the village of Naya. "Paramilitaries used
machetes, guns, and chain saws to kill at least forty civilians,"
Scott Wilson of The Washington Post reported. "At least one
was decapitated, the head missing." Wilson interviewed one
witness, Delio Chate, a forty-one-year-old farmer, who said "he
saw neighbors die by the handful, and he said some were alive
and some dead when paramilitary troops used a chain saw on their
Employing a campaign of systematic terror, murder, and destabilization,
the AUC, directed by Carlos Castano, has been taking over the
region of Colombia, which generates 75 percent of the nation's
oil production and a good part of its cocaine sales. The pattern
of right-wing paramilitary action has been to target community
groups, farm cooperatives, human rights workers, and municipal
officials in order to take control of regional political and economic
In a May 2001 article for In These Times, Ana Carrigan suggests
that the current paramilitary campaign in Magdalena Medio aims
to help Castano's right-wing forces take over the national government
by delivering captive, terrorized voters to the national polls
in next year's elections.
"Such an outcome would signify the ultimate triumph of
terror," Carrigan writes. "It would install the first
'democratically elected' fascistic dictatorship in Latin America,
backed with Mafia funding and support."
The United States has the power to forestall this outcome.
The Bush Administration could reverse the Clinton-era escalation
of covert war in Colombia and support President Andres Pastrano's
peace talks with the guerrillas.
But time is of the essence.
"The hopeful glow of peace dims in the darkness of this
forty-year war," writes Luis Gilberto Murillo, a former governor
of the Colombian department of Choco, in an op-ed for the Progressive
Media Project. "The Colombian military, newly trained and
armed by the United States, is planning major offensives in the
south. The guerrillas, battle-tested after four decades in the
jungle, are digging in, preparing for the upcoming battles. And
the Colombian people are caught in between. They desperately want-and
deserve-to live in a country without war."
Father Izquierdo and his colleagues in the National Assembly
of Civil Society for Peace believe it's possible to take a more
constructive approach to the violence and devastation in Colombia.
Many nongovernmental organizations in Colombia have formed to
oppose Plan Colombia's destabilizing effects. Instead of the current
plan, which allots 80 percent of funds for Colombia to the military
and gives terrorized and displaced tenants a small welfare check
for their pains, Father Izquierdo and others would like to see
a serious economic development effort in coca-growing areas.
Alfredo Molano, a Colombian journalist who fled to Paris after
repeated death threats,(visited The Progressive this March.)"What
happens to the people whose farms are being fumigated and whose
families are being terrorized?" he asked. "The young
go join the guerrillas. Fumigation is designed to get rid of the
base of support of the guerrillas, but it is actually strengthening
The United States and Colombia must immediately adopt a more
sane approach to the drug problem, rather than simply pumping
more weapons into an already volatile region.
"U.S. citizens should lobby their government for human
rights," says Father Izquierdo. "They need to understand
that poor people in Colombia are being swept away" by U.S.
policymakers "who think Colombian peasants are the main problem."