Quagmire in Colombia

The Progressive magazine, July 2001


As U.S. involvement in Colombia escalates, the situation looks more and more like Vietnam or El Salvador: American participation in a civil war begins unofficially, only to snowball as more and more money and military advisers pour into the region.

Jesuit priest and Colombian human rights advocate Father Gabriel Izquierdo visited the United States recently to plead with Americans to consider the effects of U.S. military aid in Colombia. "We are afraid that, with the increasing military deployments from the United States, it would be very easy to escalate the conflict," he warns.

Father Izquierdo is part of a Jesuit think tank that tracks political violence in Colombia. With the Bush Administration proposing to augment the current policy of $2 million per day in mostly military aid to Colombia with an additional $882 million over several years to Colombia and its neighbors, the impact of U.S. aid in Colombia should be a pressing concern for every U.S. taxpayer, he says.

The Dallas Morning News reported in 1998 that "tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are going into covert operations across Southern Colombia employing, among others, U.S. Special Forces, former Green Berets, Gulf War veterans, and even a few figures from covert CIA-backed operations in Central America during the 1980s."

It's only gotten worse since then.

Thanks in large part to the Clinton Administration's mindless pursuit of the failed war on drugs, Colombia is this hemisphere's largest recipient of U.S. military aid. The United States is pumping $1.3 billion of "anti-narcotics" money into the military there, which has its own agenda as it fights an endless, unwinnable war against left-wing insurgents. Because of rampant

human rights abuses by the Colombian military, Congress passed rules insisting that there be some scrutiny of the human rights records of aid recipients.

But, as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International point out, covert aid doesn't have to be reported. So it is impossible to find out how much money the CIA is spending in Colombia and for what. The use of undercover operatives, paid through such military contractors as DynCorp and East, Inc., avoids public scrutiny and "the scandal that would erupt if U.S. soldiers began returning from Colombia in body bags," as a recent Associated Press report put it.

The drug war rationale for U.S. aid to Colombia is hopelessly flawed. True, recent anti-narcotics efforts in Peru and Bolivia have reduced drug exports from Colombia's neighbors. But the drug traffickers have simply moved next door. Colombia has switched from a base of cocaine dealing to a major coca producer since the 1990s, keeping total drug exports from Latin America at the same level. Even as anti-drug units continue to chase traffickers around in circles, U.S. demand keeps the multibillion-dollar drug trade booming. Narcotics production is as lucrative a sector of the Colombian economy as oil, minerals, and industrial agriculture.

In another echo of Vietnam, U.S.-funded crop eradication flights began an aggressive air assault early this year, bombarding the Colombian countryside with defoliants that have wiped out plantain, yucca, and other crops, in addition to coca. This scorched earth campaign is destroying one of the richest environments on the planet: the Amazon river basin in southern Colombia. And it is leading to the displacement of thousands of peasant farmers, who bear the brunt of the "Plan Colombia"-the U.S.-funded fumigation and militarization of the southern region of the country.

In March, four Colombian governors came to Washington to denounce the fumigations. "As much as half of an estimated 70,000 acres of crops destroyed since late December were legal food crops," they said, according to The Washington Post.

"I speak for the campesinos, the small farmers," Ivan Gerardo Guerrero, governor of Putumayo, said. "They are hurting people."

When the Post asked for comment, William Brownfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, had this to say: "Neither the governor of Putumayo nor anyone else in his government or this government has a good fix on what the actual kill ration has been."

Plan Colombia doesn't begin to get at the core problems in the region, says Father Izquierdo. One kilo of coca sold in Colombia in paste form, before processing, is worth about $2,000, he points out. To the dealers who sell it to the U.S. and European markets, the same kilo is worth $150,000. "It's stupid to think the poorest people, who are just trying to survive, are the root of the problem," he says. "They will just continue to move around, to destroy more jungle, and grow more coca. Why? Because there's a market."

It has never been clear who are the "bad guys" and who are the "good guys" in the war on drugs. Guerrillas are involved in the drug trade in Colombia, but so are paramilitaries and even military personnel.

General Peter Pace, head of the U.S. Southern Command, recently testified to Congress that the paramilitaries pose the biggest threat to Colombian democracy. And the United States this year, for the first time, listed Colombia's main paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), as a terrorist organization.

There can be little doubt about that.

In February, Colombian General Jaime Uscatego was convicted of allowing a paramilitary group to massacre at least twenty-two civilians in the province of Meta, southeast of Bogota. Human rights groups have named a dozen other military officers they say have close ties to the paramilitaries in Colombia.

Last year, the AUC "killed more than 983 civilians," The Washington Post reported. The assaults seem to be getting even more gruesome.

One of the many atrocities that the AUC has committed occurred in mid-April near the village of Naya. "Paramilitaries used machetes, guns, and chain saws to kill at least forty civilians," Scott Wilson of The Washington Post reported. "At least one was decapitated, the head missing." Wilson interviewed one witness, Delio Chate, a forty-one-year-old farmer, who said "he saw neighbors die by the handful, and he said some were alive and some dead when paramilitary troops used a chain saw on their bodies."

Employing a campaign of systematic terror, murder, and destabilization, the AUC, directed by Carlos Castano, has been taking over the Magdalena Medio

region of Colombia, which generates 75 percent of the nation's oil production and a good part of its cocaine sales. The pattern of right-wing paramilitary action has been to target community groups, farm cooperatives, human rights workers, and municipal officials in order to take control of regional political and economic structures.

In a May 2001 article for In These Times, Ana Carrigan suggests that the current paramilitary campaign in Magdalena Medio aims to help Castano's right-wing forces take over the national government by delivering captive, terrorized voters to the national polls in next year's elections.

"Such an outcome would signify the ultimate triumph of terror," Carrigan writes. "It would install the first 'democratically elected' fascistic dictatorship in Latin America, backed with Mafia funding and support."

The United States has the power to forestall this outcome. The Bush Administration could reverse the Clinton-era escalation of covert war in Colombia and support President Andres Pastrano's peace talks with the guerrillas.

But time is of the essence.

"The hopeful glow of peace dims in the darkness of this forty-year war," writes Luis Gilberto Murillo, a former governor of the Colombian department of Choco, in an op-ed for the Progressive Media Project. "The Colombian military, newly trained and armed by the United States, is planning major offensives in the south. The guerrillas, battle-tested after four decades in the jungle, are digging in, preparing for the upcoming battles. And the Colombian people are caught in between. They desperately want-and deserve-to live in a country without war."

Father Izquierdo and his colleagues in the National Assembly of Civil Society for Peace believe it's possible to take a more constructive approach to the violence and devastation in Colombia. Many nongovernmental organizations in Colombia have formed to oppose Plan Colombia's destabilizing effects. Instead of the current plan, which allots 80 percent of funds for Colombia to the military and gives terrorized and displaced tenants a small welfare check for their pains, Father Izquierdo and others would like to see a serious economic development effort in coca-growing areas.

Alfredo Molano, a Colombian journalist who fled to Paris after repeated death threats,(visited The Progressive this March.)"What happens to the people whose farms are being fumigated and whose families are being terrorized?" he asked. "The young go join the guerrillas. Fumigation is designed to get rid of the base of support of the guerrillas, but it is actually strengthening the guerrillas."

The United States and Colombia must immediately adopt a more sane approach to the drug problem, rather than simply pumping more weapons into an already volatile region.

"U.S. citizens should lobby their government for human rights," says Father Izquierdo. "They need to understand that poor people in Colombia are being swept away" by U.S. policymakers "who think Colombian peasants are the main problem."

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