Colombia's powder keg

Washington's ill-conceived policy could hurt human rights and fuel the drug trade.

Published October 7, 1999 1:30PM (EDT)

Colombian President Andres Pastrana came away from his trip to the United States last month with pledges of support from President Clinton and international lending agencies for his new Plan Colombia, a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the faltering economy and address the growing threat from drug traffickers and armed groups in the civil-war torn Andean country.

On Wednesday, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Clinton administration is still reviewing the plan and insisted it will submit an aid proposal to Congress before the current session ends. But Congress isn't waiting. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, told the same committee they are drafting a bill to increase military and other aid. Their proposal, which Coverdell said "compares favorably" with Pastrana's plan, would provide $1.5 billion over the next three years. The first year, he said, would be funded "on an emergency basis" -- and wouldn't count toward the spending caps that Washington's Republican leadership has struggled with lately.

High-level talks between U.S. and Colombian officials over increased aid have been taking place for several months. Pickering, drug czar Barry McCaffrey and several members of Congress took separate trips to Colombia over the summer to assess the situation. In July, McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern Command and a drug-war hawk, proposed nearly doubling U.S. aid to Colombia -- already the third-largest recipient of such assistance, behind Egypt and Israel -- from $321 million this year to $570 million in fiscal year 2000.

In August, Pickering urged the Colombian president to formulate his own proposal, and Pastrana, in consultation with American advisors, responded with the three-year Plan Colombia. The remarkably broad plan seeks not only to combat drug trafficking -- the stated goal of U.S. policy toward Colombia -- but also to strengthen judicial and other democratic institutions, create jobs, improve access to markets and end the Western Hemisphere's longest-running civil war.

Most Colombians recognize that these problems are intertwined and require a comprehensive solution. The Clinton administration and Congress give lip service to support for such a solution, but the reality is that most law- and policymakers see the growing alliance between drug traffickers and leftist guerrillas as the biggest threat to U.S. national security, not the growing privation of Colombia's population. They don't want to fight a war on poverty, they want to fight the war on drugs. It's a perilous disposition. Every time someone decides to get tough on guerrillas, law-abiding civilians get caught in the cross-fire.

Strong differences of opinion exist between the White House and Congress, between congressional Republicans and Democrats and even within the administration itself over how best to fight the drug war. The Coverdell-DeWine bill is heavy on helicopters and law-enforcement programs but comparatively light on support for democracy and human rights. The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., wants to funnel U.S. aid to the Colombian National Police, particularly its counternarcotics unit, and has threatened to kill any proposal for increased aid to the Colombian military unless Pastrana gets tough on the guerrillas, who control 40 percent of the country's territory and have a cozy relationship with drug traffickers. McCaffrey's proposal, by contrast, would fund additional counternarcotics battalions within the military -- the first will be mobilized in December -- and buy radar and other equipment.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, meanwhile, has publicly pledged her support for Pastrana's efforts to negotiate peace with the guerrillas. But given the guerrillas' intransigence this year, one can easily imagine Albright switching to a get-tough stance. And the co-chairmen of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus are circulating an Amnesty International report in both houses of Congress, asking their colleagues to consider the civilian cost of the armed conflicts: "On the one hand, they are murdered in ever more frequent massacres by paramilitary forces allied to the military, and on the other, subject to mass kidnapping, extortion and ... killings by insurgent forces."

These policy conflicts aren't new. When President Clinton focused his drug policy on treatment programs and demand reduction in the United States, congressional Republicans blasted him for being soft on drugs and ignoring the supply side of the narcotics trade. Now that he's paying more attention to Colombia, some have suggested he's just playing election-year politics. Given the patchwork quilt of policy statements made in recent years, it's no wonder Colombians question just what the United States is up to. "'Schizophrenic' is a word you hear people use a lot down there" to describe U.S. policy, says Adam Isacson, head of the demilitarization program at the Center for International Policy.

That's unfortunate, since Colombia is suffering from its worst economic recession since 1931 and needs reliable support from the international community. Its gross domestic product is shrinking, a fifth of its urban population is unemployed and the peso has lost nearly a third of its value against the dollar so far this year.

And as Colombia's economy falters, drug lords offer far more money to poor farmers to grow coca and poppy -- from which cocaine and heroin are derived -- than the farmers could ever earn cultivating traditional crops like bananas or coffee. Other peasants join guerrilla groups, rather than take legitimate jobs, and receive up to twice the pay of Colombian army recruits.

At the same time, Colombia's internal refugee population is the third largest in the world, estimated at 1 million people. And hundreds of thousands of Colombians have emigrated in recent years, leaving behind a nation with a corrupt and ineffective judicial system, a police force that undertakes "social cleansing" operations and a military with persistent ties to death squads -- all set against the backdrop of a brutal four-decade civil war that continues to claim the lives of many civilians.

But now that the United States has a chance to redefine its Colombia policy, "it may get coherent in a way that's dangerous," says CIP's Isacson. Human rights organizations suggest that the all-but-inevitable increase in aid to the Colombian military will only exacerbate a growing human rights crisis there. Few in the Clinton administration seem willing to acknowledge that U.S. aid, in the form of training and equipment, can be used by the military and police to strengthen the right-wing death squads that, according to the State Department, now commit as much as 70 percent of the political killings in Colombia.

Drug cultivation and production flourishes in Colombia, due in no small part to the presence of leftist guerrillas, who control, virtually unimpeded, about 40 percent of the entire country and are concentrated in southern Colombia, where much of the country's drug-bearing flora is grown. The largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), boasts at least 15,000 troops who regularly defeat the Colombian security forces in battle -- providing indirect protection for drug traffickers' growing and production facilities.

FARC and a smaller rebel group called the National Liberation Army (ELN) fund their insurgency in part by taxing and protecting the drug trade. Kidnapping and extortion are their other main sources of income, and human rights violations against civilians are common. Official peace talks between the FARC and the government began in January, but little progress has been made because the guerrillas haven't taken the process seriously. Few people in Colombia are sympathetic to the guerrillas these days.

But the civil war has not brought out the best in the Colombian security forces, either. Human rights organizations have long criticized the military and police for carrying out a "dirty war" -- killing, torturing and abducting people with real or perceived links to left-wing guerrillas. Civilians unlucky enough to live in a village suspected of harboring insurgents have been the most frequent targets, although street children, drug addicts, prostitutes and transvestites have borne the brunt of "social cleansing." And Colombia's security forces are committing these human rights violations with training and equipment supplied courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.

The State Department reports that the involvement of the security forces in such abuses has actually declined in recent years, particularly since a notorious Army intelligence unit was disbanded in May 1998. But the decline has been accompanied by a significant increase in human rights violations perpetrated by paramilitary death squads.

That's no coincidence. For decades, Colombian security forces have worked hand-in-hand with paramilitaries, who also oppose insurgent guerrillas -- supplying personnel, intelligence, "black lists" and even backup on the battlefield. But public criticism and a law passed by Congress withholding U.S. aid from human rights violators have made the Colombian government sensitive to allegations of abuse. The result: "Now the paramilitaries do their dirty work," says Robin Kirk, Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch. The dirty war has been outsourced.

Over the next few weeks, as Congress debates proposals for increasing military aid, human rights workers say lawmakers should keep these links in mind.

"There are mountains of evidence" of collaboration, says Carlos Salinas, Latin America advocate for Amnesty International. "And it happens to this day," he adds, citing a June incident when FARC guerrillas attacked a region controlled by Carlos Castaqo, the notorious leader of a right-wing paramilitary alliance, and the Colombian army airlifted soldiers to the region to combat the guerrillas. Congress' own research service published a report last month noting that such collaboration continues.

"The only people who don't seem to know about it are Colombian and U.S. officials," Amnesty's Salinas says.

Another chilling specter haunting military-centric aid proposals is that paramilitary groups have proven ties to the drug trade. The Drug Enforcement Administration last winter identified Castaqo himself as a trafficker. Castaqo has even admitted he has accepted money from coca growers, although he insists he is not a drug trafficker. "It's the money that finances the FARC," he told a reporter for the Colombian daily El Espectador. "I have to take that money from the FARC and finance myself."

That's why winning the war against the guerrillas -- whether on the battlefield or at the negotiating table -- will do little to stem the flow of drugs into the United States. The drug trade is notoriously resilient. The guerrillas are just the traffickers' "defenders of the moment," as the Center for International Policy's Isacson puts it. Get rid of the guerrillas tomorrow, and the drug lords will simply create their own private armies, as they did in the 1980s. Or maybe they'll offer Castaqo the job.

Increasing U.S. aid to Colombia's military without a plan to deal with the paramilitaries amounts to giving the death squads a free lunch. Even providing assistance only to battalions whose members have been vetted for past human rights abuses and paramilitary links -- as has been proposed -- will not prevent future abuses unless Pastrana also gets serious about prosecuting those who violate humanitarian law. And the proposals currently on the table in Washington would do little to help him do so.

"The United States," says Isacson, "is about to make an enormous mistake."

By Robert D. Lamb

Robert D. Lamb is an editor at

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