Drug Warriors

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 drug links."

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 devastating dimensions.

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