Stop the War on Colombia

The Progressive magazine, September 1999 (p8)


Colombia is the next El Salvador. Torn by civil war, it is quickly becoming another chapter in the ignominious tome of U.S. meddling in Latin America. Today, U.S. policy toward Colombia is almost exactly at the same spot where U.S. policy toward El Salvador was in 1980: U.S. military aid to a brutal government is increasing dramatically; U.S. "advisers" are on the ground, "professionalizing" the armed forces; U.S. officials are sharing "intelligence" with a military that has one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.

"More than 1,000 civilians were killed [in 1998] by the security forces or paramilitary groups operating with their support or acquiescence," Amnesty International says in its 1999 annual report. "Many were tortured before being killed. At least 150 people 'disappeared.' Human rights activists were threatened and attacked; at least six were killed. 'Death squad'-style killings continued in urban areas. Several army officers were charged in connection with human rights violations; many others continued to evade accountability."

The State Department itself acknowledged in February that Colombian "government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses, including extra judicial killings." Yet the United States is boosting its military aid to just these forces.

"You are unwittingly complicitous in some of the worst mass murders in the hemisphere today," says Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International's advocacy director for Latin America and the Caribbean. "If you liked El Salvador, you're going to love Colombia. It's the same death squads, the same military aid, and the same whitewash from Washington."

The only difference between El Salvador in 1980 and Colombia in 1999 is the pretext. Since the Cold War is over and fighting communism is passé, Washington needed a new excuse for helping a brutal Latin American security apparatus. That excuse is the war on drugs.

Technically, all of the military aid that the United States is sending to Colombia goes for counter-narcotics efforts. And the amount of that aid is huge. Colombia is the leading recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America, and the third largest in the world behind only Israel and Egypt. Between 1990 and 1998, Colombia's police and military received $625 million in counter-narcotics aid. This year, Colombia is receiving $289 million from Washington.

And now, the Administration-egged on by Republicans and by drug czar Barry McCaffrey (who, by the way, used to head up the U.S. Southern Command, the Latin American outpost of the Pentagon)-is considering an additional $1 billion in emergency aid primarily for Colombia.

But the Colombian police and military are not fighting a drug war. They are fighting an old-fashioned civil war against left-wing rebels who are gaining strength. This is the emergency the Pentagon worries about- not drugs. Colombia is strategically located, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. And it has vast oil and mineral reserves that multinational corporations have been exploiting for years, often under the armed guard of the Colombian military. These are the interests at play here.

"Military aid is being given in the name of drugs, but in reality it is to keep control of the territory of Colombia," says Cecilia Zarate-Laun, the co-founder and program director of the Colombia Support Network based m Madison, Wisconsin.

That drugs are not the issue is easily provable. It's not just the rebels who are involved in the drug trade. The Colombian military and its allied paramilitaries are also deeply implicated.

Last November, for instance, to the embarrassment of the Clinton Administration, a Colombian air force plane landed in Fort Lauderdale with six Colombian military officers on board. But they weren't the only passengers. According to The Washington Post, the plane "was carrying 1,639 pounds of cocaine inside pallets in the aircraft's spacious cargo hold.... The cocaine had a wholesale value of $12.7 million." Heroin was also found.

Even a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report, dated June 1999, notes that "drug-related corruption existed in all branches of the government," including the military.

Interestingly, that report, entitled "Narcotics Threat from Colombia Continues to Grow," places the blame for most of the drug trafficking on two parties: the rebels and the paramilitaries. "Insurgent and paramilitary organizations are increasingly becoming involved in drug-trafficking-related activities and are controlling more territory," it said. Some paramilitary leaders "have become major drug traffickers."

Yet the United States is financing a so-called drug war only against the rebels, and not against the paramilitaries. "In theory, we would assume that there would be an armed confrontation with both," says Amnesty's Salinas. "Yet there has not been one clash, one armed confrontation between the army and these paramilitary forces."

Instead, the Colombian government shields the paramilitaries. "We often find that when the paramilitary groups are attacked by the opposition, the army just happens to show up," says Salinas. "They don't show up to combat the paramilitaries; they show up to combat the armed opposition groups. The paramilitaries are doing joint operations with the military. On repeated occasions, truckloads of paramilitaries have committed massacres in places where there is a large police and military presence. These massacres go on for three or more hours, with heavy gunfire, without any attempt by the police or the military to stop the carnage. How does something like that happen? It just doesn't happen unless there's collusion."

Some of that collusion comes courtesy of the U.S. government, as Frank Smyth reported for The Progressive in June 1998 in an article entitled "Still Seeing Red." In Colombia in 1991, "the CIA financed new military intelligence networks," which "incorporated illegal paramilitary groups into their ranks and fostered death squads," Smyth wrote. While part of the CIA was fighting drugs, other units were helping paramilitary drug dealers. "The CIA bears some responsibility for the proliferation of drug trafficking in the Magdalena Valley since it supported rightist counterinsurgency forces who run drugs," said Smyth.

Now, as the U.S. government is increasingly becoming involved in Colombia's civil war, it is beginning to tip its hand. It is having difficulty keeping up the pretense of helping Colombia fight drugs, as it blatantly helps the military wage war against the guerrillas.

"U.S. embassy officials have decided to routinely provide intelligence information related to the insurgents to Colombian units under control of the Joint Task Force [a unit of the Colombian police and military]," the GAO report noted, adding: "They do not have a system to ensure that it is not being used for other than counternarcotics purposes."

For the results of this intelligence sharing, check out The New York Times of July 17. General Charles Wilhelm, head of the Southern Command, "acknowledged that American and Colombian military officials had been in constant communication throughout the weekend, appearing to confirm Colombian news reports that devastating bombing attacks on the guerrillas were based on information provided by the United States."

Such aid could not be coming at a worse time. Colombia's president, Andres Pastrana, has gone out on a limb to open negotiations with the rebels and even to cede territory to them on a de facto basis. U.S. military aid undermines his position and strengthens the Colombian armed forces, which have no interest in peace.

"For the first time, there is the possibility of peace between the guerrillas and the government," Jose Antonio Lopez, the former mayor of Apartado, a city in

the northwest corner of Colombia, told The Progressive on a visit in May. Lopez is one of the few surviving members of the Patriotic Union, an opposition political party that was wiped out by the paramilitaries in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some 5,000 members were assassinated. ("I look back and I don't see anyone," he says. "Almost all of them are dead. When I see pictures of the rallies we had in the 1980s, they are a roster of people who were killed.")

Lopez warned that "the biggest enemy Pastrana has is the military, and if the peace process doesn't show results quickly, the space will evaporate."

So what is the U.S. view of the peace process? Pretty dim, according to the GAO report. "U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the peace process and its potential impact on counternarcotics operations," it states. Then comes an all-purpose criticism: "The government lacks a clearly defined negotiating strategy." And finally, the report says the Administration is worried that peace may actually break out: "U.S. officials are concerned that U.S. and Colombian counternarcotics efforts could be limited by an indefinite extension of the ninety-day cease-fire zone or by expanding the area of the demilitarized zone."

When the U.S. government goes on record opposing cease-fire zones and demilitarized zones, it becomes clear that Washington prefers war to peace.

This is not to say that the Colombian rebels are angels. They're not. And we should not romanticize them. They involve themselves in the drug trade. Worse, they commit atrocities of their own. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) killed three Americans in early March who were helping an indigenous group organize schools. And the FARC has killed many Colombian civilians, as well.

"They kill civilians randomly, and they kidnap people and ruin families," says Zarate-Laun of the Colombia Support Network.

"Certainly, the guerrillas have committed many abuses of international law," Father Javier Giraldo, author of Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy (Common Courage, 1996), told The Progressive on a visit in April. Father Giraldo, who was the founder and executive director of the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace in Colombia, is now in exile because of right-wing death threats. "Sometimes the guerrillas commit human rights violations almost as atrocious as the paramilitaries." Giraldo's book demonstrates that the lion's share of the tens of thousands of political killings in Colombia from 1988 to 1995 were committed by the paramilitaries.

Given the mess that is Colombia's thirty-year war, what is to be done?

"The international community must become involved in the peace process and pressure the U.S. government to immediately stop military aid to Colombia," Zarate-Laun says. "Giving military aid to Colombia is like pouring gasoline on a fire."

Zarate-Laun also says that Colombia's ruling sector must be willing to budge. "If the upper classes don't change their attitudes, the problems will never be solved," she says. "They want to destroy the guerrillas, but they have no understanding of why there are guerrillas in the first place."

For her outspokenness, Zarate-Laun received a snide letter this spring from Colonel J.C. Hiett, then head of U.S. military operations in Colombia. "I just wish you knew what you were talking about! . . . Last time I looked, there are five countries that are neighbors of Colombia-and they are already having problems with the spillover effects of the guerrilla problem in Colombia," Hiett wrote. "Oh, by the way, 40 percent of the money the U.S. makes in international trade is with Latin America, and we get more oil from Venezuela (Colombia border country) than we do from the Mideast now. Better think about the U.S. economic interests in the future before you propose we let the guerrillas take over."

Hiett, incidentally, stepped aside in early August after his wife, Laurie Anne Hiett, was named in a criminal complaint in Brooklyn with conspiracy to distribute cocaine in the United States. Her lawyer denies the charge. This spring, according to The New York Times of August 7, Laurie Anne Hiett allegedly sent six packages of cocaine by diplomatic mail from the U.S. embassy in Bogota to New York. Hiett says she didn't know what was in the packages and had mailed them "at the behest of her husband's chauffeur," the Times said.

On the urgent issue of U.S. military aid to Colombia, the Democrats have been largely silent. President Clinton is bowing to pressure from the Pentagon, McCaffrey, and Republicans. And liberals in Congress are almost nowhere to be seen.

"The Democrats have been very, very passive on this," says Zarate-Laun. She says that Representative Sam Farr, Democrat of California, and Representative Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, have been the only two Democrats who have spoken up against U.S. policy there. "The rest are blind."

Farr, who was in the Peace Corps in Colombia from 1964 to 1966, says, "We've never given a clear message to the Colombians as to what we want. The first thing we should tell them is, 'You've got to negotiate a peace, whatever that takes." Farr is ambivalent about aid to the Colombian military. "More money to the military will not be the answer," he says. But he is not opposed to some money for "modernizing" the military, so long as it is conditioned on respect for human rights.

Baldwin, who visited Colombia in 1993 as part of a sister-city exchange between Apartado and Madison, Wisconsin, was surprised to find "how lopsided the perception is" in Congress about Colombia. "There is a very limited focus on some trade issues and the war on drugs. There is not much inquiry into the side effects of our current policies or the chaos, politically and militarily, that our policies exacerbate."

She believes the United States should "abandon military aid" to Colombia. "It is so clear to me that U.S. military aid and equipment are being used for things far removed from the war on drugs," she says. "My concern is that increased military aid will take the peace process off track, and increased military training and equipment will be used by the paramilitaries to terrorize citizens who might promote peace, human rights, and real democracy."

When the Reagan Administration supported the Salvadoran military and the contras in Nicaragua, concerned citizens in this country rallied in opposition. Effective grassroots organizing sprang up in churches, on campuses, among the unions, and in municipalities around the nation. A similar mobilization is needed today if we are to prevent further carnage in Colombia.

Our government has no right to be supporting the brutal military there. U.S. aid should be cut off immediately. And instead of pooh-poohing the peace process that Pastrana has courageously undertaken, the U.S. government should unequivocally support it.

But that is not in the interests of those who make -` U.S. policy. They still believe in annihilating rebels, not negotiating with them. They still demand compliant governments in Latin America that will do the bidding of U.S. companies. And they still rely on Latin American militaries, no matter how gruesome their records, as the natural allies of Washington.

These have been the constants of U.S. policy in Latin America for this entire century. The only variable today is the rhetorical one about fighting the drug war. It, however, is but the flimsiest of rationales.

South America watch