by Ana Carrigan
In These Times magazine, February 2000
The new century was just 11 days old when President Clinton
announced an emergency two-year aid package for the U.S. "war
on drugs" in Colombia. The price tag? $1.6 billion.
Colombia's army and police are already the world's third-largest
recipient of U.S. assistance after Israel and Egypt. No Latin
country has ever received anything comparable to this new package.
But this is an election year in Washington. What's a billion and
a half as a down payment for a war in a country that nobody cares
about if it silences the drug czar and robs the Republicans of
an election-year stick to beat on the president and his party?
According to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who traveled
to Colombia to sell Washington's plan to the skeptical Colombian
public, the new U.S. aid will "provide substantial support
for President Andres Pastrana's plan to achieve peace, promote
prosperity, protect human rights and fight crime." Basking
in the glow of her dinner the previous evening with Nobel laureate
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the secretary vowed "to seek 100
years of peace, democracy and rising prosperity for both our nations."
But even Clinton and Albright may experience difficulty dressing
up $1 billion for the Colombian army-which opposes the peace negotiations-and
calling it money for democracy and human rights. Most of the money
is for the Colombian army to train and equip two new "counter-narcotics"
battalions. The new troops, trained by American Special Forces
and supplied with 63 new helicopter gunships, will join a third
U.S.-trained and -equipped "counter-narcotics" battalion
already in action. Together, these battalions constitute the equivalent
of a new, American-created brigade. They are to be deployed to
"push" the FARC out of the southern jungles where the
bulk of Colombia's cocaine is grown by peasants displaced by the
war. The new battalions will be implementing the "McCaffrey
Doctrine"-alternately defined as "eradicating drugs
at the source" or, more recently, as "breaking the narco-guerrilla
The McCaffrey strategy of eradication by fumigation doesn't
work. The most recent studies by the CIA estimate that even when
plants receive a direct hit, only 25 percent of them die. Since
1994, the United States has spent billions to spray millions of
gallons of poisonous chemicals, destroying the fragile ecosystem
of jungle rainforests. But coca production has surged. Fumigation
pushes the growers somewhere else. It also does a fine job recruiting
for the guerrillas.
Meanwhile, the human rights implications of this plan are
truly sinister. By opting to create a second, parallel army, the
administration has found a cynical mechanism to circumvent the
law prohibiting American aid to foreign armies tainted by human
rights violations. It also has segued from "counter-narcotics"
into counterinsurgency without debate, all the while denying any
change in the official policy.
Yet an army, by definition, is a single, unified institution.
The creation of two armies-one "good" army, American
trained and supplied, and a second "bad" army, which
does not qualify for American goodies-offers a dangerous model
for increased lawlessness and lack of accountability. Furthermore,
the Clinton plan lacks any strategy for insulating the new battalions
from either corrupt superiors higher up the army chain of command
(like the general who is currently in charge of the entire southern
region of operations) or from the criminal activities of military
intelligence (whom government investigators have linked to a string
of high-profile assassinations).
The consequences for Colombia, if the proposed aid package
passes Congress, will be tragic. It will mean an end to the process;
the final relegation to complete irrelevance of a well-intentioned
but weak civilian government; and the increasing Salvadorization
of the Colombian civil war. Already two thirds of the victims
of the counterinsurgency are civilian, and 1.7 million peasants
have been violently uprooted from their homes and their land.
This new U.S. policy will result in a humanitarian tragedy of
South America watch