Fighting drugs with choppers and poison

Even advocates of U.S. military aid think the anti-narcotics package will only unravel the peace with Colombian guerrillas.

By Ana Arana
July 5, 2000 3:00PM (UTC)
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As President Clinton prepares to sign the bill to send $1.3 billion in anti-narcotics military aid to Colombia, criticism from Colombians and Europeans has gotten more and more severe. Angry that the plan was not subject to a national debate, Colombians fear the military solution to fight decades of drug trafficking will unravel peace negotiations and worsen its civil war. Europeans are threatening to pull out their aid for social programs that would have gone along with the U.S. aid. And in the middle of it all, Colombian President Andres Pastrana is under fire for not letting Colombians have a bigger say in developing the plan.

On Friday, Congress passed the aid package to help Colombia fight drug traffickers and their guerrilla allies. The U.S. aid is a contribution to Colombia's $7.5 billion total development plan. The House approved a $1.7 billion version last March, and the Senate approved a package with less money last month, attaching tougher human rights conditions. The lion's share of the aid will be for Blackhawk and Huey helicopters and training of two Colombian anti-narcotics battalions that will operate in southern Colombia, a drug-producing area largely protected by guerrillas from the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). The aid also includes $200 million for nonmilitary social and human rights programs.


The Clinton administration first asked for emergency aid to Colombia last February, and Pastrana banked heavily on getting the aid sometime this year. But the aid is not expected to arrive in Colombia until the last year of Pastrana's term in office. The delay has cost Pastrana heavily. He had managed to keep unity in the country by waving the millions of dollars the U.S. package would bring, but as the months have passed, his leadership has weakened considerably. The fact that the aid package, which is known in Colombia as Plan Colombia, was not debated nationally, has added to the perception that the initiative was written by the U.S. and not by the Pastrana government.

Just as Washington congratulates itself for supporting Latin America's oldest democracy and making an investment in the fight against drugs, Colombians are questioning the strategy the anti-narcotics package will finance. Groups that are traditionally against military aid, such as human rights organizations and trade unions, view the package as a direct threat to the incipient peace process with leftist guerrillas. And even those who support U.S. military aid are criticizing the package. They fear that some of the plan's anti-drug techniques, such as fumigation of coca plantations, will only turn the affected coca growers into full supporters of the leftist guerrillas.

Colombians with sophisticated knowledge of the drug war and the insurgency accept that the U.S. is more comfortable fighting a drug war than helping a government besieged by well-armed leftist guerrillas. But they worry that the new U.S. initiative will end up as muddled as the U.S. anti-drug mission of the early 1990s, when Colombians fought against the Medellin and Cali drug cartels.


The plan to use fumigation as a main weapon is a major controversy in Colombia. Under the aid package, planes will spray hundreds of hectares of coca plantations in southern Colombia with glysophate, a herbicide known in the U.S. as Roundup. In order to avoid the FARC guerrillas who patrol the coca plantations, the planes will spray from higher than normal, increasing the danger that the herbicide could fall on local inhabitants. U.S. officials maintain that the herbicide is safe to humans.

"I support the concept of U.S. aid in global terms," said Enrique Santos Calderon, a respected analyst and editor in chief of the daily El Tiempo. "We need a more professional army, we need the helicopters; we need the aid with human rights conditions, so the army can fight off the guerrillas and the paramilitary groups. But I am worried to see we are too focused on fumigation. After so many years of fighting drugs, it becomes a charade that Washington wants to keep using methods that have failed," he said.

Despite five years of fumigation programs in Colombia, drug production has increased by 20 percent. "It is a balloon effect," Calderon said. "I press here and the coca growers are displaced there," he said.


Calderon is among many Colombians who feel that Washington's emphasis on seeing the war in Colombia through the narcotics prism -- and believing that only police work and fumigation will weaken leftist guerrillas and make the Colombian army more professional -- has the potential of creating more chaos in Colombia.

"I understand that Washington has to say they are not going to chase guerrillas. That they will only attack guerrillas if they attack the fumigating planes. But for Colombians fumigation is a problem, it affects our ecosystem and it could unravel other elements in the civil war. The fumigation part is the Achilles' heel of the Plan Colombia," he said.


Knowing all along that the United States would back a military, drug-war solution, Colombian leaders were banking on money from Europeans to fund peace-based social programs to resolve civil conflicts and help the besieged government. The Colombian government has asked Europe for up to $1 billion in aid for crop substitution, judicial reform and other projects. But Europeans are balking at the U.S. package and threatening to cut their aid.

At a meeting of European donors in London late last month, a constituency of Colombian nongovernmental organizations brought a message that worried the European community. After years of working in the countryside, they said the government had ignored their concerns that the U.S. military option would only threaten the peace process launched with the FARC last year.

In response, some European representatives said their countries will only provide aid if the Colombian government allows the dissenting organizations more say in the future of the social aid. In general, Europeans believe the Colombian government has mishandled Plan Colombia by combining the peace initiative they want the Europeans to finance with the U.S. military aid.


"It was to be expected that many European nations would not go for Plan Colombia," said a representative from an international organization who was present at the London meeting. "The plan has become controversial. The Colombians should have realized that although the U.S. and Colombia have a bilateral interest in the drug issue, in Europe the concerns are different. There should have been two different plans." Europeans envision a kind of Marshall Plan for Colombia, to help it rebuild after four decades of conflict.

Colombia's credibility with Europeans took an especially big hit when a key mediator dropped out. The Program for Development and Peace for the Magdalena Medio, a conflict resolution and development NGO, declined the government's request to pilot the social investment aspects of Plan Colombia. In addition, the Rev. Francisco Le Roux, a centrist who has been attacked both by paramilitary and guerrillas, publicly said he could not collaborate with the government's plan as it was drafted.

But some European community representatives have tried to save the issue. Jan Egeland, the United Nations special advisor to the secretary general for Colombia, a Norwegian national, has urged the international representatives to continue to support the peace process in Colombia. Obviously there is a lack of agreement on some issues, he told participants at the meeting, but this should not be an obstacle to providing aid to those social groups in Colombia who will clearly be desperately in need of European support. A final answer from the Europeans will come after a meeting in Madrid on July 7.


The U.S. package is not strictly military. It does contain $200 million for social programs and stipulations on human rights conduct. Some here think Colombians might see the package in a more positive light if only U.S. politicians pushing for the aid weren't so focused on the drug war.

"Washington needs to understand the concerns of our citizens," Pardo said. Colombians know all about the drug war, "because we have fought it for a long time. Colombians fear that Washington will not help us with the peace process, and that their help will be limited only to the fumigation issue," he said.

According to Raphael Pardo, a peace negotiator in the 1990s and Colombia's first civilian defense minister, things aren't as bad as many Colombians believe. The social impact of fumigation has been exaggerated and few Colombians understand that the U.S. military package already has $200 million for social changes. "That's a lot of money, which will have an impact in the country," he said. Pardo has studied other fumigation programs that were successful in Bolivia and Peru. "None of those projects had the social investment we have now," he explained.

But for Pastrana, things do look bad. The showdown over the aid has come down while Pastrana's political arsenal has been devastated. His conservative party, including top members of his cabinet, has been rocked with accusations of corruption and misuse of public funds. He has also fallen out of favor with the Liberal Party-dominated Congress, which has put the brakes on a number of legislative pieces needed to get the peace program going.


Meanwhile, the FARC has not made any pronouncements since the congressional approval of U.S. aid. But its representatives have been traveling throughout Europe discussing their willingness to sign peace agreements. The guerrillas and the government will exchange cease-fire proposals in the next few weeks. While nobody expects a cease-fire to be reached soon, analysts worry about the military reaction the guerrillas could make when President Clinton signs the final bill. "They won't get up from the negotiating table, but they will do something to express their discomfort," said Pardo.

Critics of the Pastrana government, both at home and in the United States, say the Colombian government has created many of its problems itself by not debating the aid package robustly in Colombia. "President Pastrana has always played his cards close to the chest," says Miles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. "I don't agree with the Colombians' analysis of what glysophate does, but there should have been a more open discussion of the entire aid package, including fumigation and its impact."

Thus a lack of debate has cost Pastrana the political boost he was counting on, and it might also have cost Colombians knowledge about the plan that could calm their concerns.

Ana Arana

Ana Arana is an investigative journalist who focuses on criminal organizations in Latin America.


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Latin America U.s. Military