Newsreal: Once more to the death squads

The chief beneficiaries of America's latest "war on drugs" in Colombia will be drug-trafficking right-wing death squads.

By Andrew Reding
November 25, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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The Cold War may be over, but the United States is once again arming a repressive Latin American army fighting leftist insurgents.

This time the fight is in Colombia, and the fig leaf is the "war on drugs." In fact, this is another war being fought primarily against civilians -- and unless the Clinton administration changes course, or Congress moves to restrict the use of funds, our government will be subsidizing death squads and, ironically, narcotics trafficking.


The idea that the aid is designed to stop the flow of narcotics through Colombia is almost comical in its ironies.

For example, U.S. "drug czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey recently met with Colombian President Ernesto Samper to seal the $50 million deal. This in spite of the fact that Samper's former campaign manager and treasurer are serving prison sentences for their roles in accepting $6 million in campaign contributions from the Rodriguez Orojuela brothers, who head the infamous Cali drug cartel.

According to the cartel's former chief accountant, Samper met with the brothers during the campaign to discuss the possibility of their agreeing to surrender in return for a promise of light sentences. In 1995, shortly after Samper took office, the Rodriguez Orojuelas did go to jail, sentenced to only five years.


McCaffrey justifies giving the Colombian army helicopters, surveillance planes, and ammunition for assault rifles by saying it will be used to fight "narcoguerrillas."

That term parrots the language used by the Colombian armed forces to refer to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the oldest and largest insurgency in Latin America. Yet the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, Myles Frechette, disputes that characterization, pointing out that while the guerrillas are "taxing" the coca leaf growers, they do just the same to other businesses in the zones they control.

The ambassador adds that right-wing paramilitary groups linked to the army are themselves engaged in drug trafficking. Earlier this month, paramilitaries killed 11 members of a judicial team sent to seize the estate of a convicted trafficker. The State Department describes Carlos Castano, who heads the paramilitary umbrella organization, as a "known drug trafficker."


Supporters of the counterinsurgency package also point to the guerrillas' campaign to disrupt local elections, and say it poses a threat to democracy. After all, they argue, why shouldn't the Colombian insurgents be forced to do what guerrillas elsewhere in Latin America have done: Exchange guns for the ballots box?

Twelve years ago, another group of Colombian guerrillas did just that, forming a democratic political party, the Patriotic Union. Since then, more than 4,000 party leaders and members have been shot to death, and many more have been forced into exile. According to Colombia's ombudsman, only 10 of these murder cases have gone to trial, and only four have resulted in convictions. It is not hard to see why the insurgents do not see elections as a viable option.


Proponents of the aid package argue that the guerrillas are largely responsible for the staggering levels of political violence plaguing Colombia. There is some truth to that assertion. The Center for Investigation and Popular Education, a domestic human rights group, says guerrillas carry out roughly one-third of all political murders -- but the other two-thirds are the work of police, the army and paramilitary organizations. The latter, called "self-defense" groups, carry out three of every five political murders.

Human Rights Watch has charged that U.S. military advisors persuaded the Colombian armed forces to forge stronger ties with paramilitary groups in the first place. According to Amnesty International, equipment bought with U.S. anti-narcotics grants has been used by military units accused of direct involvement in the disappearance and murder of civilians. Furthermore, the military officers accused of directing such killings continue to be promoted.

None of this can be justified in terms of making a dent in the war on drugs, nor of serving the cause of democracy, nor quelling the Colombian insurgency. All this new effort will do is leave a trail of blood in a country that already has more homicides than the United States, with less than one-seventh the population.


Associating the U.S. government with paramilitary death squads casts a moral shadow over President Clinton's efforts to project an image of a new deal between the U.S. and Latin America. If he doesn't soon reverse course, the damage will become irreparable.

Andrew Reding

Andrew Reding directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute in New York.

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