Plan Colombia:
Rhetoric, Reality, and the Press

by Justin Delacour

Social Justice magazine, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2000)


In June 2000, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a one billion dollar aid package for the Colombian government that was purportedly designed to fight the production and trafficking of illegal narcotics. In view of the fact that the biggest beneficiary is the Colombian army, which has been implicated in extensive human rights violations, the package-Plan Colombia-was strongly opposed by human rights groups and many social and nongovernmental organizations in Colombia and the United States. Pointing to the Colombian army's documented complicity with rightist paramilitaries who have been guilty of roughly 75 % of human rights violations in Colombia's civil conflict, human rights groups were even further aghast when negotiations between the Senate and House resulted in an increase in this package to $1.3 billion. Perhaps the most disturbing result of the House-Senate negotiations was the addition of a waiver allowing the secretary of state to skip human rights certification if doing so was deemed to be in the "national security interest." The human rights conditions in the Colombia package, most of which were inserted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, call upon the secretary of state to demonstrate the Colombian government's progress in rooting out army complicity with paramilitaries. These conditions also call for the prosecution in civilian courts of human rights abusers within the Colombian army, which has a history of shielding human rights abusers from such prosecution. In August 2000, President Clinton waived five of the six human rights conditions, making a virtual mockery of the administration's pronounced concern for human rights. Although most of the mainstream press in the United States has unquestioningly accepted the Clinton administration's claims about its objectives, the underlying implication of the "national security" waiver is that the "counternarcotics" pretext for military assistance is largely a cover for a counterinsurgency strategy.

Opposition of the Clinton Administration to Human Rights Conditions

Since the Clinton administration first announced its proposed aid package to Colombia in January 2000, it has consistently opposed conditions on military aid for Colombia. Its opposition to human rights conditions and its contradictory pronouncements about its aims in Colombia have been very frightening to those who are genuinely concerned about human rights. One Clinton administration official who is renowned for making contradictory and questionable claims is Assistant Secretary of Defense Brian Sheridan. Back in September 1999, before the Colombia package had been announced, Sheridan and Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey were pushing for huge increases in military aid for Colombia. In a hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Sheridan praised the Colombian state, pointing to reports indicating that the Colombian military's involvement in human rights violations had "dropped dramatically, from half the total in 1993 to less than three percent" in 1998 (Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, 1999). Sheridan neglected to point out that atrocities by paramilitaries increased while the military's abuses dropped, suggesting a trend whereby army units effectively contracted others to carry out abuses on their behalf.

In an effort to cast the administration as supportive of human rights, Sheridan went on to imply support for a "military justice reform bill" that was passed by the Colombian Congress. He stated that this new law would "require military personnel accused of human rights violations to stand trial in civilian courts" (Ibid.). He also claimed that this legislation was "expected to be signed into law by President Pastrana shortly" (Ibid.). This law, designed to prosecute human rights violators more effectively, was actually vetoed by the Colombian President in December 1999. Pastrana objected to an article in the bill that called for a maximum 60-year jail term for anyone involved in killings aimed at the partial or total destruction of a political group. Under pressure from the Colombian army, Pastrana used the very dubious argument that the legislation could be wrongly used against soldiers who were simply fighting the guerrillas. After implying support for the legislation, neither Sheridan nor anyone else in the Clinton administration ever criticized or even mentioned Pastrana's veto of it. Indeed, after the Colombia package was announced, Sheridan began to argue against human rights conditions that would have mandated many of the stipulations that were part of this legislation.

In a February 24, 2000, hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sheridan stated, "I am concerned that if extensive conditional clauses are included in the supplemental appropriations language, that we could inhibit or mitigate the overall effectiveness of U.S. assistance to Colombia" (Center for International Policy, 1999). Any cursory scrutiny of this statement reveals a very ominous picture of what U.S. policymakers have in mind. One implication is that enforcement of strong penalties against abusive members of the military would reduce the "effectiveness" of the package, while another is that enforcing the severance of ties between the army and paramilitaries would have the same effect. Both implications suggest that the Clinton administration sees extensive human rights violations as acceptable, and perhaps even necessary, for the "effectiveness" of its policy.

Sheridan is not the only U.S. official who is prone to making highly questionable statements about Colombia. On March 9, 2000, Barry McCaffrey wrote a letter to Congressman Sonny Callahan in which he opposed the implementation of conditions that would have forced human rights abusers in the Colombian military to be tried in civilian courts. He claimed that enforcement of such conditions would be "unconstitutional" under Colombian law (Ibid.). He never mentioned that the real impediment to such prosecution of abusive military figures was Pastrana's veto of the heinous crimes act. McCaffrey claimed that the Colombian Superior Judicial Council routinely declined jurisdiction over military cases because of its determination that, under the Colombian Constitution, jurisdiction properly rested with military courts. Never did McCaffrey mention the well-known history of violence against Colombian judges, or the murders and threats against government investigators who have been courageous enough to expose military abuses and ties to paramilitaries. He conveniently left out these important details that surely played a significant part in the judges' "determination" that they needn't try military cases.

Drug-Connected Rightist Paramilitaries Support U.S. Policy

Leaders of officially illegal paramilitary groups have expressed fervent support for Plan Colombia and have even offered to assist U.S.-trained "counternarcotics" battalions in their offensive into southern regions that are controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). One paramilitary leader who supports Plan Colombia is the commander of the 800 right-wing shock troops of the paramilitaries' Putumayo Southern Bloc. He is a former Colombian special forces sergeant who frequently trained alongside U.S. Special Forces Rangers and Navy SEALs during his eight years in the military (Penhaul, 2000). Known as Commander Yair, he is named after the infamous Israeli mercenary who trained paramilitaries in the 1980s at the behest of the paramilitaries' prime sponsor at that time, a powerful narcotrafficker of the Medellin Cartel named Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (Duzan, 1994). Thus emerge the deep contradictions implicit in the counternarcotics pretext for massive U.S. military aid to Colombia. Although Sheridan claimed in a National Public Radio program on October 8, 1999, that the administration's only interest was counternarcotics and that it was "not in the counterinsurgency business," Sheridan's own efforts to effectively block conditions designed to break the Colombian military's ties with paramilitaries raise serious questions about the truth of his claims (National Public Radio, 1999). Having originated, in large part, as the private armies of Colombia's drug lords and large landowners, the paramilitaries continue to garner most of their funds from the drug trade. On July 4, 2000, a Reuters report (2000a) revealed the discovery of paramilitary uniforms alongside a stash of nearly 1.5 tons of cocaine at a farm in southwest Colombia. Since the wholesale price for cocaine in the United States runs at about $36,000 per kilo (2.2 pounds), the paramilitaries' drug stash could have been valued at more than $53 million. The Clinton administration's position has been that the "counternarcotics" battalions would also confront paramilitaries if they were involved in the drug trade, a contention that seems highly questionable in view of the paramilitaries' warm reception of the planned army offensive.

Paramilitary Massacres

Although evidence of the paramilitaries' involvement in the drug trade is readily available, what is of even greater concern to human rights activists is the degree of brutality with which the paramilitaries operate. As one example of their gruesome activities, in mid-February investigations revealed a four-day raid on E1 Salado village of Bolivar province during which paramilitaries danced and drank as they tortured and beheaded at least 28 villagers on a table set up on a basketball court (Reuters, 2000d). Military officials claimed that they were unable to enter the village during the raid because paramilitary fighters were locked in combat with rival guerrillas. However, the lead investigator with the Chief Prosecutor's Office, Pablo Elias Gonzalez, dismissed claims of a battle, saying that all the dead were civilians (Ibid.). Gonzalez accused the military of allowing the massacre to continue unimpeded.

Such stories of military acquiescence and complicity in the face of paramilitary massacres have been frequent. Another paramilitary massacre occurred in the city of Barrancabermeja on May 16, 1998. Paramilitaries drove through a number of poorer districts of the city, rounded up residents, killed several on the spot, and forced many others onto trucks. By the next day, the bodies of seven victims of the attack had been discovered, and the whereabouts of the remaining 25 people who were forcibly abducted is still unknown (Amnesty International, l999). Amnesty International's report on the massacre reveals that Colombian armed forces, which had a heavy presence throughout the poorer districts of Barrancabermeja, had advance knowledge of the paramilitaries' planned attack. Even after hearing the sound of gunfire and the victims' reported cries for help, no action was taken by the security forces either to confront the paramilitary force during the attack or to track them down as they made their exit from the city. Furthermore, Amnesty International reported evidence that soldiers at a security force checkpoint on route to the area inexplicably withdrew to their barracks shortly before the arrival of the paramilitary group.

A story in the Bogota daily El Espectador of February 27, 2000, describes a massacre in 1997 that appears to have involved joint military-paramilitary coordination (Gomez, 2000). Between July 15 and July 20, 1997, a paramilitary raid on the town of Mapiripan, a village in the coca-growing region of southeastern Colombia, resulted in the murders of 49 residents (Ibid.). The paramilitaries who carried out the attack were allegedly operating under the direction of Colombian Army Colonel Lino Sanchez and the notorious right-wing paramilitary leader Carlos Castano (Beelman and Smyth, 2000). The Colombian federal prosecutor's office reports that on July 12, 1997, 15 of Castano's paramilitaries were allowed to land in San Jose del Guaviare en route to Mapiripan (Gomez, 2000). A paramilitary deserter claims that Colonel Sanchez was in charge of flight coordination and unloading for the paramilitary group (Ibid. ). According to EI Espectador's report, Castano's men met up with paramilitaries from Casanare and Meta and then headed to Mapiripan.

The El Espectador report illustrates the particularly gruesome nature of the Mapiripan massacre. At dawn on July 15, approximately 100 paramilitaries surrounded Mapiripan, where they soon captured 27 people (Ibid. ). They then took the captured residents to "Mochacabezas" (the "Beheader"), Castano's hand-picked leader for the operation who had settled in the butcher yard of the municipal slaughterhouse. El Espectador reports that the first victim was tortured all day long and that "his screams froze the jungle air throughout that first night." Even though a message from a local judge about the paramilitary operation was relayed to the Commander of the Seventh Army Brigade in Villavicencio, the barbarism continued unimpeded until July 20 (Ibid.). Castano acknowledges that over the five-day raid, 49 people out of the town of 1,000 were killed. Today Sanchez and two other high-level army officials are in prison awaiting trial for their alleged involvement in the massacre, while Castano remains at large as the self-proclaimed national leader of the alliance of paramilitary groups that calls itself the "United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia" (Beelman and Smyth, 2000).

Journalists Maud Beelman and Frank Smyth (2000) of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have alleged that the U.S. Green Berets may have been involved in the Mapiripan massacre. They report that an unidentified Pentagon official confirmed that Colonel Sanchez received training from U.S. Special Forces at the Barranchn River base, which is located approximately 80 kilometers from Mapiripan. El Espectador reported that Sanchez's Second Mobile Brigade received U.S. Special Forces training in June 1997 while Sanchez was planning the Mapiripan massacre (Gomez, 2000). Barranchn, an island in the Guaviare River, is a U.S. Special Forces training site. It is a 10-minute drive from a Colombian army base and airfield at San Jose del Guaviare, from which U.S. government and contract personnel conduct counternarcotics operations.

Analyzing Press Coverage of Colombia

Colombian journalists who have criticized paramilitaries and the Colombian army's ties to them have faced considerable danger. One Colombian journalist who investigated the Mapiripan massacre and U.S. ties to it is Ignacio Gomez. Gomez is just one among many Colombian journalists who have suffered the consequences of exposing paramilitary atrocities and the Colombian military's complicity in them. In May 2000, two men suspected of working with the paramilitaries attempted to abduct Gomez (Gomez, 2000). Hours later, suspected paramilitaries abducted the journalist Jineth Bedoya, Gomez's colleague at El Espectador. Bedoya was beaten, tortured, and raped by four men who accused her of being a guerrilla sympathizer. Before she was kicked out of her captors' car at a garbage dump, Bedoya was told that the paramilitaries had plans to kill Gomez and two other journalists. Gomez was forced to leave Colombia after police officials warned that they could not protect him. Other figures within the Colombian media who have criticized the paramilitaries have suffered worse fates than Bedoya and Gomez. In summer 1999, Jaime Garzon, a comedian and well-loved television and radio commentator, was murdered by suspected paramilitaries. Garzon was one of seven Colombian journalists murdered in 1999. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the U. S. military aid package to Colombia, Gomez aptly asks, "who will be left to report on how the money is spent?" (Gomez, 2000).

Although foreign journalists in Colombia do not encounter nearly as many dangers as Colombian reporters do, at least one foreign correspondent has received anonymous threats. However, the subtler and more frequent pressures coming from the Colombian government and the U.S. Embassy in Bogota may have had a significant effect on foreign press coverage. Not exactly a hard-hitting correspondent, Tod Robberson of the Dallas Morning News reported on August 19, 1998, that some journalists had been threatened with banishment from the U.S. Embassy and embassy-sponsored briefings because U.S. officials looked unfavorably upon their reporting (Robberson, 1998). In the face of such pressures, few journalists working for major U.S. newspapers have consistently posed tough and important questions about U.S. policy toward Colombia. To the contrary, the coverage of the most powerful U.S. media outlets is generally favorable to U.S. policy.

As one example, Juanita Darling, the primary reporter on Colombia for the Los Angeles Times during 2000, relies heavily on sources that support U.S. policy. In November 1999, Darling (1999) wrote a story that stretched the bounds of biased reporting with regard to U. S. -supported economic policy in Colombia. Among the sources Darling quoted were a Colombian economist, a Colombian oil executive, an American oil executive, the director of Colombia's National Highway Institute, and a Colombian senator who represented a major oil-producing province. Darling's sources were most concerned that guerrilla sabotage, extortion, and kidnapping scared off foreign investment and made privatization of state-owned companies and infrastructure more difficult. Summing up privatization, Darling (Ibid.) writes that it "is considered crucial to the recovery of Colombia's ailing economy, which is in its first recession in 50 years." She follows with a quote from economist Armando Montenegro, who states, "If these sales fail, there will be budget problems and foreign exchange problems." Darling completely ignores critics of privatization, who are not difficult to find among Colombia's nongovernmental organizations. Many analysts throughout Latin America have criticized IMF-sponsored privatization because of the fire-sale prices at which valuable industries and infrastructure have been sold to multinational corporations. Trade unionists, progressive economists, and consumers have also deplored the increased prices of services that have often followed privatization. Contrary to conventional neoliberal doctrine, many privatizations have provided multinational corporations with virtual monopoly-control of key industries, allowing those corporations to set high prices in noncompetitive markets. These are only some of the many criticisms of IMF-sponsored privatization, yet Darling (2000) writes as if the only opposition to privatization comes from Colombian guerrillas who are unwilling to recognize the "economic realities," as she calls them.

It should be noted that Darling's reporting took a brief turn for the better in February and March 2000. In February she wrote a story about Human Rights Watch's report on ties between the Colombian military and paramilitaries, and in March she wrote a piece about ties between the paramilitaries and the powerful Medellin-based crime syndicate, La Terraza. Her reporting returned to form soon thereafter, culminating in perhaps her worst story on August 26,2000. Describing U.S. policy, Darling writes, "In a way, a new $1.3-billion U.S. anti-drug aid package is also a bid on both war and peace." Aside from contradicting Albert Einstein's insightful adage that "you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war," the information in Darling's story is very vague. She writes of "frequent massacres" in remote Colombian villages by "armed groups disputing territory." Although one should openly acknowledge that all sides in Colombia's civil conflict have committed atrocities, Darling does a disservice to her readers by neglecting to mention which side is most implicated in the increasing number of massacres. The latest human rights report by the United Nations indicates that most massacres have been carried out by paramilitaries (Reuters, 2000). True to form, Darling quotes four ostensibly independent observers who just happen to focus all their criticisms on the guerrillas. Even though 37 nongovernmental organizations in Colombia have jointly rejected Plan Colombia, Darling neglects to quote even one observer who is critical of the military aid package. Toward the end of her story, Darling abandons all pretense of objectivity, writing that "Colombians desperate for peace are clearly counting on that money and, perhaps more important, U.S. interest in their drawn-out conflict" (Darling, August 26, 2000). What of the human rights activists, trade unionists, and other unmentioned Colombians who are also "desperate for peace" and fear that the stepped-up "interest" of the United States in Colombia is leading the country into an all-out civil war? In the world of Juanita Darling, these people don't exist.

Editorials in the Los Angeles Times are even more shamelessly biased than Darling's reporting. On May 18,2000, the Times ran a hysterical-and possibly libelous-editorial entitled, "Colombia Is Bleeding." Describing the "maniacal tragedy" of Colombia, the editors at the Times write, "in the town of Chiquinquira, northeast of Bogota, leftist terrorists clamped a bomb with a timer around the neck of a woman dairy farmer and demanded $7,500." They continue, "for hours an army demolition expert worked to remove the bomb; at mid-afternoon it exploded, blowing off the woman's head and mortally wounding the soldier as well." This editorial came out only two days after the described incident, and long before any real investigation had terminated. The Times editors had abandoned all accepted journalistic principles, basing their accusation of guerrilla culpability on the hasty and hysterical claims of officials of the Colombian state who eagerly sought the approval of massive military aid from the United States. Working to capitalize on this damning accusation, the Times editors concluded, "if ever there was a time of desperate need for U.S. aid, this is it." Less than a month later, it was determined that "common delinquents," not guerrillas, were responsible for this atrocity, and a relative of the victim's neighbor was arrested.

On June 19, 2000, Tina Rosenberg (2000), a member of the New York Times editorial board, published a commentary criticizing those who had prematurely accused the FARC of being responsible for the notorious "neck bomb." She points out that the FARC's exoneration "was not reported by some American newspapers that had published news accounts about the incident or editorials blaming the group." Rosenberg ends her commentary by stating, "those who immediately concluded that the guerrillas were at fault may have lent their services to a distortion of fact that could reverberate in Colombia, and Washington, for years to come." With regard to Colombia, the stand of the New York Times editorial board is an exception among the most powerful media outlets. Its analysis of Colombia's conflict is nuanced, acknowledging atrocities and illicit activities committed by all parties. The New York Times has been generally critical of military aid, stating that "Washington should have learned long ago that partnership with an abusive and ineffective Latin American military rarely produces positive results and often undermines democracy in the region"(New York Times, February 14, 2000).

However, the New York Times' field reporting has left much to be desired. Larry Rohter, a Times correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro, reported on Colombia until July 2000. Rohter's reporting was heavily biased toward the U.S. State Department's characterization of Colombia's civil conflict. Like Darling, Rohter primarily focused on criticisms of the guerrillas. Referring to the Colombian government's cession of a demilitarized zone to the FARC, Rohter (1999d) writes, "by all accounts except their own, the rebels have abused the spirit of the Government's inducement by stockpiling weapons, recruiting and training new fighters, killing perceived enemies, and protecting lucrative drug operations." Although this may not be a total mischaracterization of FARC activities in the demilitarized zone, the problem is that a singular focus on the FARC ignores that the Colombian government has largely neglected to fulfill its own pledges. Most reporters are quick to point out that the FARC has committed excesses within the demilitarized zone, but many of them conveniently tend to forget Pastrana's initial negotiating pledge that he would aggressively break the ties between state security forces and brutal paramilitaries.

Ironically, Rohter's last report (2000a) from Colombia, which is perhaps his only in-depth report about a paramilitary massacre, demonstrates the deficiencies of much of his earlier work. This report on the massacre in E1 Salado village shows the army's acquiescence and complicity in the face of paramilitary brutality. Even officials within Pastrana's cabinet have tried to cover up state inaction in the face of paramilitary violence. A letter by Minister of Defense Luis Fernando Ramirez to the San Francisco Chronicle attempted to deny-despite overwhelming evidence-that military and police units just a few miles away from El Salado did nothing to stop the slaughter of at least 36 civilians (Ramirez, 2000). Rohter's E1 Salado report reveals that the armed forces "set up a roadblock on the way to the village shortly after the rampage began, and prevented human rights and relief groups from entering and rescuing residents." In sum, Rohter's El Salado report demonstrates the serious problems with his narrative that lauds the Colombian government as a "good-faith" negotiator, while portraying the FARC as abusing the "spirit of the Government's inducement." Although journalists seem to prefer to misrepresent negotiations, the truth is that no party to Colombia's civil conflict has consistently negotiated in good faith.

Rohter's El Salado story is an excellent piece of reporting, but its timing was very problematic. It was written a full five months after the massacre took place, even though extensive evidence about the massacre was available from Colombia's Chief Prosecutor's Office within a week of the carnage. Most significant, this report did not appear until a few days after the U.S. Congress finally approved military aid. Much of Rohter's reporting in the months preceding the authorization of military aid was heavily tilted toward the U.S. State Department's characterization of Colombia's conflict, which tends to focus exclusively on coca cultivation in guerrilla-held territory. In a piece written in February, Rohter (2000c) states that the goal of military assistance is "to give government units the ability to operate in coca-growing areas that the main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, now dominates." Though such a statement may not be factually inaccurate, Rohter's almost singular focus on coca cultivation in guerrilla-controlled areas ignores equally important facts about Colombia's drug trade.

For example, Rohter and most other correspondents covering Colombia generally disregard the considerable evidence indicating that paramilitaries are far more involved in the trafficking of drugs than is the FARC. This was acknowledged by The Economist (1999), a relatively conservative magazine, which has written of the seeming contradiction implicit in the fact that military hardware has not been aimed at the "guerrillas' bitter foes, the right-wing paramilitary groups." The Economist writes that the paramilitaries "and the traffickers they protect are far deeper into drugs-and the DEA [U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency] knows it. " As mentioned, the paramilitaries' intimate relationship with drug trafficking dates back to the 1980s, when the fabulously wealthy and brutal Medellin drug trafficker, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, hired Israeli mercenaries to train paramilitary assassins. The paramilitaries-in alliance with drug traffickers, wealthy ranchers, and large sectors of the Colombian armed forces-grew in strength and virtually annihilated a legal leftist political party, killing 3,000 of its leaders and militants by the mid- 1990s. That party, the Patriotic Union, had been set up as a result of peace negotiations between the FARC and the government in 1984. Yet virtually no contemporary press reports mention the guerrilla leaders' undoubtedly bitter feelings about the destruction of the Patriotic Union. As such, the FARC's seeming intransigence at the negotiating table does not exist in a vacuum. Similarly, the FARC's increased involvement in taxing drug traffickers must be understood in the context of a heightened role of drug money in Colombia's civil conflict. Just as armed conflicts involve ruthlessness on the battlefield, they also involve ruthless competition for funding. Considering that large sectors of the Colombian state have tacitly supported paramilitaries while ignoring their extensive drug connections, it is highly hypocritical of the Colombian government to criticize the guerrillas' taxation of drug traffickers. By choosing to devote minimal energy to prosecuting brutal drug-connected paramilitaries, the Colombian and U.S. governments are also responsible for the increasingly powerful role of drug money in Colombia's civil conflict.

Objectives of Plan Colombia: Rhetoric Versus Reality

Much of the Clinton administration's rhetoric about Colombia, which has been generously repeated by much of the press, contradicts many obvious facts. In a surprising interview in March 2000, Carlos Castaflo, the paramilitary leader, admitted that 70% of the paramilitaries' funding comes from drug trafficking (Reuters, 2000c). Although Rohter (2000b) writes that Castaflo did the interview because he was under pressure to try to "dispel the notion that he is a mere butcher and drug trafficker," the New York Times journalist remarkably leaves out Castaflo's most astonishing admission to date. Even more significant than Castaflo's admission and Rohter's omission was Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey's claim on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" that the guerrillas are responsible for the majority of human rights abuses in Colombia (National Public Radio, 2000). This assertion is contradicted by the reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which credit the paramilitaries with over 75 % of such abuses. McCaffrey' s gross distortion demonstrates that he and the State Department have no genuine interest in accurately and impartially assessing Colombia's civil conflict. McCaffrey clearly seeks to shift attention away from paramilitary brutality and to exaggerate the guerrillas' illicit activities and abuses. His approach is fundamentally counterinsurgency disguised as counternarcotics.

The U.S. counterinsurgency approach toward Colombia is the product of a confluence of interests. Not surprisingly, support for this approach issues from U.S. weapons producers that stand to make considerable profit: helicopter producers United Technologies and Bell Helicopter Textron. Oil companies BP-Amoco and Occidental Petroleum, both of which have extensive operations in Colombia and wish to put an end to guerrilla extortion and sabotage of oil pipelines, are also supportive. As evidence of government-corporate collaboration, Occidental Petroleum's Vice-President Lawrence Meriage was even called to testify before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Drug Policy, leading observers to wonder how oil executives suddenly qualified as drug policy experts. The U.S. energy group Enron, which wishes to buy Colombia's valuable state-run power generator ISAGEN, also supports U.S. policy. Such corporations and many political figures that subscribe to the politics of IMF-sponsored privatization see Colombia's guerrillas as damaging to their interests. Many U.S. policymakers consider Colombia's guerrillas to be an even greater threat due to the increasing political turbulence of South America. In neighboring Venezuela, for example, the populist leader, Hugo Chavez, has expressed opposition to U.S. policies. At a time when world oil prices remain high, Chavez's effective leadership among the oil-producing countries of OPEC has angered U. S. policymakers. In Ecuador, another of Colombia's neighbors, the mass mobilization of indigenous peoples against dollarization of the economy resulted in the ouster of Ecuador's unpopular President Jamil Mahuad in 1999. These are incipient signs of resistance to a neoliberal economic order that has strengthened the hegemony of U.S. capital in the region, while exacerbating poverty and income disparities. U.S. policymakers are not about to allow the unraveling of that economic order, which successive U.S. administrations have fought to strengthen and consolidate throughout the past quarter century.

Until there is sufficient consciousness of, and considerable active domestic opposition to, U.S. policy in Colombia, real and lasting peace will not be possible in Colombia. Contrary to former President Clinton's statement that the U.S. approach is "pro-peace and anti-drug," U.S. military assistance to Colombia has already exacerbated the civil conflict by further souring relations between the guerrillas and the Colombian government and pushing peace negotiations to the point of rupture. The administration's rhetoric reflects an extremely skewed assessment of the drug trade within Colombia, but its policy does not address the root causes of drug trafficking. As long as there is high demand for drugs in wealthy countries like the United States and a lack of viable economic options in poorer countries like Colombia, the trafficking of illegal narcotics will continue to thrive. Although U.S. policymakers will continue to describe their counterinsurgency approach as an effort to shore up "Latin America's oldest democracy," they will in fact strengthen the most undemocratic features of Colombian society. By supporting policies that feed social and economic exclusion and the repression of peaceful social protest, U.S. policymakers will perpetuate the injustice that gave rise to guerrilla movements in the first place.


Justin Delacour (e-mail: is a human rights activist and member of the Seattle Colombia Committee. He attended a human rights conference in Bogota, Colombia, in September 2000.

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