United States and Colombia

by Paul Wolf

Z magazine, March 1999


The drug crisis facing the United States is a top national security threat. The Department of Defense has been called on to support counter-drug efforts of Federal law enforcement agencies that are carried out in source countries." So begins the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, passed by the U.S. Congress October 19, 1998, as part of the FY 1999 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. The goal of the bill is to create a "drug-free hemisphere" by attacking drugs at their source. The bill is being touted by one of its co-authors, Dennis Hastert (R-IL), as the largest anti-drug bill ever written. The emphasis is on crop eradication in drug producing countries-namely Colombia.

On October 28, Presidents Clinton and Pastrana stood on the White House lawn and announced the formation of a military Alliance Against Drugs. A deal had been made which would more than double the amount just appropriated by Congress. In 1999, U.S. military aid to Colombia will be $289 million, up from $89 million in 1998. Colombia will become the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, following Egypt and Israel. The Colombian operation is code-named "Invincible." In addition to Black Hawk helicopters and high caliber Gatling guns for Colombia's older fleet of Hueys, the Colombian armed forces will receive training and access to satellite images of areas controlled by the largest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The U.S. will also rebuild the Miraflores anti-drug base, which was overrun last summer, and beef up "base and force security" for other military installations in southern Colombia, such as the Tres Esquinas base in the Caqueta province.

The story begins in 1946. Colombia's liberal party ran two presidential candidates that year, and as a result lost the election to the conservative minority party. Violence became the political tool for consolidation of power, and Colombia and Bogota were never the same again. U. S. General George Marshall, attending the Pan American Conference, had to ride back to the airport inside a Sherman tank. Fifty years 0 sworn revenge ensued, and the current guerrillas are still staking that claim, feeling betrayed by the liberal party.

The conflict has taken more then 35,000 lives just in the pas decade, causing more than a mil lion people to flee their homes The Colombian military has bee unable to attack the guerrillas directly, and has directed paramilitary death squads to kill guerrillas and their supporters, often in gruesome, public ways designed frighten the population.

Paramilitary massacres accounted for 70 percent of the political murders in 1997, according to the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report. Ther have been literally hundreds of civilian massacres (each defined a the killing of four or more people at once) in a policy called "draining the sea to kill the fish." Targets have included trade unionists, human rights observers, Catholic priests denouncing the murders, and anyone supporting the guerrillas.

Some of these paramilitary "self defense" forces are private armies created by oil, gold, fruit, and soft drink companies to protect their investments. The Colombian government organized others, called convivirs.

The United States has played a central role in the counterinsurgency strategy. Of 247 Colombian military personnel linked to human rights violations by the Latin America Working Group, 124 are graduates of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. According to U. S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Barrancabermeja navy intelligence network was set up with the assistance of the CIA in 1991. Colombian General Ivan Ramirez Quintero served as a CIA asset for years while directing the paramilitary groups. It is clear that the navy intelligence network is used to identify guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers, and the paramilitary death squads are used to kill them.

Senator Leahy successfully introduced an amendment requiring that military units must be "vetted," meaning investigated, to ensure that they have not committed "gross violations of human rights." Otherwise those units are not eligible to receive U.S. military aid. This was a great accomplishment on his part, but there are still no end use monitoring provisions, or provisions for the protection of human rights observers.

In 1991 alone, U.S. aid to Colombia included 10,000 M14 rifles, 700 M 16 rifles, 623 M79 grenade launchers, 325 M60 machine guns, 46,000 rifle grenades, 37,000 hand grenades, 3,000 Claymore mines, and about 15,000,000 rounds of ammunition. This level of aid has been exceeded each year until 1999, when it tripled.

The U. S. has also pressured Colombia to switch from spraying glyphosate (marketed as Round-Up by Monsanto) to using the more powerful defoliant tebuthiuron (marketed as Spike by Dow Agrosciences). Colombia has not agreed to this, for fear of vast ecological damage to the rainforest. Particularly disturbing is a recent change in the Department of Defense policy called the Global Military Force Policy, which establishes the priorities for the U.S. military in this order: (1) war; (2) military operations other than war; (3) exercises and training; and (4) operations not involving hostilities. Congress has upgraded the military priority of drug eradication and interdiction from that of non-hostile operations (priority 4), to that of "operations other than war."

This appears to authorize direct intervention by the U. S. armed forces.

Recently, the media has been reporting that Colombia produces 80 percent of the cocaine and 60 percent of the heroin sold in the United States. However, just two years ago, Bob Barr (R-GA), the other co-author of the WHDE Act, stated that 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U. S. came from coca leaf produced in Peru. Instead of military aid, Peru is receiving one million dollars a year in alternative development aid. Has the coca growing business really moved completely out of Peru and into Colombia? It's hard to tell.

Ronald Reagan first coined the term "narco-guerrilla" to justify U. S. support of the Contras in Nicaragua. Later, in what became the Iran-Contra Affair, we learned that the United States was supplying weapons to the Contras in exchange for cocaine.

The same label is now used in Colombia. Marine General Charles Wilhelm, commanding officer of the U.S. Southern Command, says the guerillas are a self-sustaining "narco-insurgency. " U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) and the Colombian National Police both refer to the guerillas as "narco-terrorists." There is little question that the guerillas are funding their campaign through taxing the drug trade, in addition to kidnapping people for ransom and extorting money from oil companies. However, there seems to be little concern that Carlos Castano, leader of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, an alliance of paramilitary groups, is labeled by the DEA as one of the kingpins of the infamous Cali cocaine cartel. The coca growing business has been described as a gold rush going on all over Colombia, yet we can be certain that the majority of the anti-drug missions will be carried out in the third of the country now controlled by the FARC.

President Andres Pastrana Arango was elected last summer by a narrow margin, on a platform of making peace with the rebels. But the road to peace will apparently be a long one. According to Luis Alberto Moreno, the Ambassador of Colombia to the U. S., "An integral part of President Pastrana's efforts to negotiate an end to our internal conflict is to modernize the Colombian armed forces. The peace process has only just begun."

For his part, Pastrana has denounced the paramilitary tactics. "Even if the enemies of the state and society torture, massacre, and use arms and methods prohibited by civilization, the people society and the state has charged with defending them cannot respond with the same methods," said Pastrana. Yet no one expects him to punish any of his military officers, or take action against the paramilitary groups.

An amendment to the WHDE Act withholds U.S. military aid if "the Government of Colombia permits the establishment of any demilitarized zone in which eradication by Colombian security forces is prohibited." Clearly, this is a signal that Washington is not happy with Pastrana's negotiations with the FARC and his withdrawal of troops from the Caqueta region.

Peace talks with the FARC began on January 7. Pastrana is in a difficult position, but he has the first chance in decades to end the war. It will be a great test for him, and could set Colombia's course for years to come. z


Paul Wolf is a member of the Colombia Support Network.

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