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Why U.S. top brass fears getting dragged into the Colombian drug war

March 31, 2000
Web posted at: 5:56 PM EST (2256 GMT)

Washington supposedly gave up supporting shaky Latin American governments against leftist insurgencies at the end of the Cold War, and yet it's poised to make a $1.1 billion investment in arming and training Colombia's armed forces. Of course, the emergency aid, contained in a Pentagon funding package that passed the House of Representatives Thursday, is motivated less by ideological affinity with Colombia's rulers than by the war on drugs, but nobody doubts that its net effect will be to beef up counterinsurgency efforts. In instances -- and there are many -- where the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) stand between the authorities and the drug traffickers, fighting the FARC inevitably becomes part and parcel of the war on drugs. But the Pentagon and a number of U.S. legislators believe the aid puts Washington on a slippery slope to direct involvement in a four-decades-old civil war.

In the House, 186 legislators voted against the legislation. Some cited concern over the human rights record of the Colombian military, which has collaborated extensively and intimately with paramilitary death squads; others expressed doubts over becoming involved in an open-ended counterinsurgency campaign. Some representatives even questioned whether the war on drugs can be won militarily, urging instead that the funding go to treatment programs and other schemes designed to reduce the demand for drugs in the U.S. Supporters of the package, including the Clinton administration and the House GOP leadership, insist that the legislation remains essential to save the beleaguered government of President Andres Pastrana against "narcoterrorists."

The term "narcoterrorist" may be somewhat misleading in a country where leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, the armed forces and the government have all been linked at various points with drug barons. Today, to be sure, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia may have become the richest Marxist guerrilla faction in history by extracting some $100 million a year in "taxes" from drug producers and traffickers operating in the southern half of Colombia, which they control. (That must be a relief for Colombia's peasantry, of course, since it was the impoverished campesinos themselves who, along with assorted kidnap victims, had been the guerrillas' prime revenue source before the cocaine boom of the '90s.)

Although the FARC doesn't cultivate or trade narcotics itself, it provides an almost impenetrable wall of protection for the farmers and traffickers in the dense jungles and swamps of the south. And its improbably large treasury has fueled the movement's growth into a well-armed nationwide fighting force of some 17,000. The guerrillas, who are holding some 500 members of the government's security forces prisoner in their zone of control, are believed to have their own helicopters, and Colombians who are stopped at their roadblocks on national highways have reported having their driver's licenses entered into a computer containing a database of the country's bank accounts, to determine whether they'd be worth kidnapping -- still a lucrative sideline for the millionaire Maoists.

Attempts by the Pastrana government to negotiate a peace deal with the rebels have broken down, after the guerrillas violated a cease-fire agreement by expanding their operations well beyond the south, where the government recognized their control. "Pastrana is hoping that when the FARC see this massive influx of U.S. aid to his government, they'll get weak-kneed and be willing to get serious about negotiating a truce," says TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim McGirk. "After all, this war has been going on for more than 40 years and that gives the FARC a strong vested interest in continuing it."

While the guerrillas have killed thousands of security force personnel and civilians over the past decade, they've been matched -- and often exceeded -- in their brutality by right-wing paramilitary groups that originated in the north of the country. The paramilitaries, ironically, were originally organized by narco-traffickers incensed by kidnappings and land invasions orchestrated by the guerrillas. But they've grown, both because of active support from within the Colombian military and because they've managed to attract a large number of peasants fed up with bearing the "tax" burden placed on them by guerrillas claiming to fight on their behalf.

While the military has been under pressure from the civilian leadership to avoid human rights abuses in its counterinsurgency efforts, the paramilitaries have been a useful tool for those elements pursuing a "dirty war" against civilians suspected of supporting the guerrillas. Widely documented instances of the military's arming, training, organizing, equipping and sharing intelligence with the paramilitaries -- and of those same paramilitaries gleefully massacring civilians -- fueled resistance on Capitol Hill to an aid package supporting the armed forces.

But it's not only human rights activists who are concerned. "The U.S. military is reluctant to be drawn into a counterinsurgency war," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "They don't think it's possible to say you're going to go down there and help the Colombian military shoot drug traffickers without shooting at the FARC, and that makes them very nervous. It's a rebellion that's been going on for some 40 years, and it's plainly not going to come to an end soon -- the Pentagon fears it's a whirlpool that's going to suck them in."

Part of the problem raised with a policy of fighting drugs by funding the Colombian military is that it avoids the fact that the drug trade has permeated all sides of that war, not only leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries but the armed forces themselves and even the civilian leadership: Pastrana's predecessor, President Ernesto Samper, for example, has been accused of taking some $6 million in campaign contributions from drug barons. "There's general agreement that President Pastrana is pretty clean," says McGirk. "But it's hard to know how deep the corruption in the military goes. It's definitely there, because it's plain to see that the FARC sometimes has access to intelligence about raids by the military before they occur."

Copyright © 2000 Time Inc.


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