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' potential allies.

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 are meaningless.

Mission: Impossible

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 logic.

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 Andean countries.

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 the Times.

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.

Vietnam Redux

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 against insurgents.

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 to peace.

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 battlefields."

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 stake.

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 a year."

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 the dollar.

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 of Colombians.

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 in 1998.

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 through.

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