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The Colombia Quagmire, Part 2


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AMERICAN-TRAINED SOLDIERS often serve with and even become paramilitaries. In one celebrated case, heavily decorated Lt. Carlos Acosta joined the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and executed government investigators. Reported his brother, “He used to say that a soldier in Colombia has to fight not only the guerrillas but also the human-rights groups and prosecutors and the attorney general.”

One paramilitary, explaining why the military would not fight the paramilitaries, told a reporter: “The army has its hands tied by human rights. We don’t. We are free to fight the war.” Observes Andrew Miller of Amnesty International,

Colombian soldiers trained today by the U.S. Special Forces could become tomorrow’s human rights abusers or paramilitary leaders. Neither the U.S. nor the Colombian governments have offered credible guarantees that this won’t happen.

It would be bad enough if there were only two sides, however ugly. But as Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America observes, “There aren’t two sides: there’s a maze of intertwined, overlapping, and heavily armed competitors.” Intelligently sorting among them is hard enough for Colombians. It is impossible for Americans.

Generous financial support will further fund the regime’s worst vices, both corruption and repression. Aid will also encourage Bogotá to undertake a military campaign that it doesn’t have the ability to complete. A political solution seems far away, but it will fall even further away if Colombia chooses military escalation and fails. Warns the consulting firm Stratfor,

The military aid package will not wipe out the coca trade or end the civil conflict between the government and the FARC, ELN and AUC paramilitaries. Instead, the U.S. military aid package will fuel a technological upgrade in the weaponry of the FARC and AUC paramilitaries. The aid package will also significantly escalate the tempo of hostilities throughout Colombia as the FARC counters the anti-drug offensive in southern Colombia with attacks in the northern part of the country.

In turn, increased FARC and ELN violence will trigger an escalation in counteroffensives and massacres by the AUC and other paramilitary groups, with much of this violence occurring within Bogotá and in department capitals like Cali, Medellin, Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, Cucuta, and Villavicencio. Congress has set half a dozen human-rights conditions on the aid, but it gave the president authority to waive them.

Despite what appear to be the best intentions of President Pastrana — who has attacked the paramilitaries as a worse problem than the communist guerrillas — Colombia remains gravely deficient in this regard. Military field commanders, in particular, feel as much fealty to paramilitaries as the central government.

A trio of human-rights organizations — Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington Office on Latin America — concluded that Bogotá failed on every human-rights count. Last September even the State Department admitted that Colombia had satisfied just one of those conditions. A follow-up report, released in February, was equally merciless: “The armed forces and police committed serious violations of human rights throughout the year.”

Nevertheless, Plan Colombia continues. Last year President Clinton approved the pending aid installment. Explained Michael Parmly, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for democracy,

President Pastrana has a solid commitment to human rights and has made serious efforts to get on top of human rights abuses that take place in his country.

Drug czar Barry McCaffrey was more blunt: “You don’t hold up the major objective to achieve the minor.” Put simply, who cares if a few Colombians die, so long as their government is backing America’s failed war on drugs? In January the State Department declared that it didn’t even have to issue a certification or waiver to release the second installment of aid.

Some U.S. policymakers acknowledge that Colombia has a few problems beyond drug smuggling. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress,

We have to provide alternative sources of income, alternative crops, democracy, nation building, preparation of military and police forces to handle the kind of challenges they face in the Andean region.

A growing U.S. presence

There are an incredible 11 U.S. agencies now working in Colombia (Agency for International Development, BATF, Bureau of Prisons, Customs Service, DEA, FBI, IRS, Justice Department, Marshall Service, Secret Service, Treasury Department). Prime responsibility for rebuilding the country, however, lies with AID which, through its 40-year history, has brought prosperity, democracy, and general enlightenment to … well … no one.

If the aid package fails, then what? Colombia is already the third-largest foreign-aid recipient. Tossing in a few more bucks isn’t likely to help. Congress has supposedly erected a firewall to more involvement, barring the assignment of more than 500 U.S. military personnel in Colombia. President Clinton promised not to send in U.S. soldiers to fight the guerrillas.

However, these 500 American advisors are on the ground, training Colombia’s anti-drug forces. Washington is also providing 60 helicopters to help eradication efforts. Simply sustaining these efforts guarantees that the United States will remain stuck to its new tar baby. For instance, an October report by the General Accounting Office warned that the Colombians lacked the money or spare parts to keep flying “their” helicopters. Having launched the program, Washington is unlikely to abandon it, especially since it maintains virtually every other useless program that it ever created.

Moreover, what will the United States do if guerrillas or growers target U.S. personnel — army advisors, air force pilots, intelligence officers, DEA agents, and civilian contractors — as they did years ago in El Salvador? FARC has termed any U.S. personnel found in war zones “military targets.”

American military advisors are training Colombian troops. Equally important, American contractors are flying and servicing Colombian helicopters. “This is what we call outsourcing a war,” said one congressional aide. Congress has currently set a limit of 300, but America’s ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, has told visiting congressmen that they may need to bump that number upward.

There have also been charges, denied by Washington, that Colombia has hired retired U.S. SEALs as mercenaries to help with the fighting.

What if the insurgents down helicopters carrying Americans? One Colombian chopper has already crashed, with the surviving occupants (all Colombians) slaughtered by guerrillas. Through military advisors and contract civilians “U.S. involvement has moved down the chain from planning, design, and direction of the war to the operational-tactical level,” warns James Petras for the Colombian Labor Monitor.

And those regarded as the enemy by Washington consider Washington to be the enemy. “The gringos want to intervene in Colombia and turn this into a real war, and we’re ready for them,” FARC commander Ivan Ruiz told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. Even an official at America’s embassy in Bogotá admitted to the Chicago Tribune, “Sure the Americans get shot at. We had 125 bullet impacts on aircraft last year, and I’m sure there were Americans who were flying some of those aircraft.”

Will the United States ignore such instances? Or retaliate? To do the former would be to invite further assaults and call into question U.S. commitment and, that favorite Washington catch-all, “our credibility.” To do the latter would be to step directly into a political and military conflagration that is burning up another sovereign state. In particular, wonders Roberto Pombo, editor of the weekly Cambio, what “happens on a day when the U.S. president is in trouble on some domestic issue?”

Where is the exit strategy?

Last August, President Clinton proclaimed, “We have no military objective. We do not believe your conflict has a military solution.” But it sure doesn’t look that way, given how Washington has militarized America’s participation.

Last fall Rep. Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, called this shift, from aiding Colombia’s national police to aiding the army, “a major mistake” and called for “a major mid-course correction.” But he is doing so more for practical than principled reasons. “If we fail early on with Plan Colombia, as I fear, we could lose the support of the American people for our efforts to fight illicit narcotics abroad.”

Moreover, what does the new administration do when the current program has evidently failed? The Colombians, backed by their American supporters, are requesting a commitment of three to five years, for as much as $600 million annually. President Pastrana wants as much as $500 million a year in economic assistance as well: “We are a poor country,” he said. “We need more help. This is a long-term plan, maybe 15 to 20 years.”

With the Europeans and Japanese reluctant to contribute much to the existing six-year, $7.5 billion Plan Colombia, any extra cash will almost certainly have to come from the United States. Even if no American advisor gets killed, after $1 billion, $2 billion, or more is spent, nothing is likely to have changed — at least not for the better.

Already officials are extending their timetables. Ana Maria Salazar, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support, says success might take 10 years: “What is most frustrating is that we’re not going to be able to show results in the short term.”

What if, in another year, the Colombian government is weaker, half the country remains under rebel control, government forces continue to commit human-rights abuses, combat is more intense, and drugs still flow? After having claimed that critical national interests were at stake, will Washington sit idle? Warns Robert White, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and head of the Center for International Policy in Washington,

Once this juggernaut starts rolling, it’s extremely difficult to put a stopping point on it. Once there are a few Americans killed, it seems to me that things begin to unravel. And then you can find yourself, indeed, fully involved.

Especially if the latest campaign has actually spread the chaos to other Colombian provinces or, even worse, to neighboring states — Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. Earlier crackdowns in Ecuador and Peru, in particular, pushed production to Colombia. Notes Stephen E. Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations, “What we have is more of a mess in Colombia than what we started with.” A Colombian crackdown is likely to push it back.

Last year, William Brownfield, a deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said that Plan Colombia was “a work in progress.” Stage two would deal with effects of spillover to Colombia’s neighbors; in 2002 the Bush administration wants to drop $232 million on Bolivia, Brazil, Equador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela for their help in the drug war.

But those effects are already taking place, with Ecuador and Venezuela planning to fortify their borders to prevent the further spread of drug trafficking. Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld allows: “If I were Colombia’s neighbor, I would be very worried about the likely transit of its problems to my country.”

In fact, a flood of Colombian refugees — perhaps more than 100,000 — has already spilled into neighboring countries. Venezuelan Foreign Minister José Vicente Rangel violated diplomatic comity by publicly expressing fear that any Colombian “success” will only move drug operators and leftist insurgents into his country. Already some 3,000 Venezuelans have had to flee from border violence. Colombian guerrillas have kidnapped some 40 Venezuelan ranchers for ransom, prompting the latter to arm, in turn generating threats against them from their own government. Indeed, Colombian officials charge that guerrillas have received weapons from the left-leaning Venezuelan military.

Peru has slipped into political chaos in the aftermath of the strange collapse of the Fujimori government. The Maoist Shining Path once collaborated with drug producers; Peru took years to break that insurgency, and a similar coalition could conceivably arise again in the future.

Bolivian peasants are resisting government attempts to mandate crop substitution. So naturally President Hugo Banzer is asking for more U.S. money. Colombian paramilitaries destroyed a border village in Panama.

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)