Open Forum

Washington Seeks a Quick Fix


Earlier this month President Bush met with heads of state in the Andes to discuss joint efforts to combat drugs and terrorism in the region, the most troubling of which is a new proposal to deepen U.S. involvement in Colombia’s civil war.

Since September 11th, there have been rumblings in Washington about the possibility that Colombia could become another front in the “war on terrorism,” given that three armed groups in the country are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. Two of these are guerrilla insurgencies which have waged war on the Colombian government for decades, motivated by a Marxist political agenda, and financed through kidnapping and taxes on drug production. The more recent addition to the State Department list is the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing private militia whose primary objective is to eliminate the country’s rebel groups. (Eighty percent of politically motivated killings in the country are carried out by the paramilitaries.) Though paramilitary forces are now illegal in Colombia, they operate with the acquiescence, and often direct collaboration, of the Colombian military. The Colombian government has made some gestures toward curbing paramilitary violence, but it continues to promote military officials who have collaborated with these deaths squads, and fails to act on hundreds of arrest warrants issued for their leaders.

Despite the growing conflict, in 2000, the U.S. government dramatically escalated military aid to Colombia. The equipment and training was previously limited to efforts to reduce drug production and trafficking, largely due to policymakers’ desire to avoid involvement in the 38-year-old war that claims the lives of more than 20 Colombians every day. In the post 9-11 political climate, the Colombian government requested that restrictions be lifted so that it could fight guerrillas with military equipment provided by the U.S. for eradication of coca crops. It now appears the government might get its wish, just as Colombia’s situation worsens.

On January 20th, Colombian President Andres Pastrana called an end to peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolu-tionary Armed Force of Colombia), after the group hijacked a domestic airliner and kidnapped Senator Jorge Gechem Turbay, the fifth member of the Colombian Congress to be taken captive by the FARC in the past seven months. The President ordered the armed forces to take control of a Switzerland-sized “demilitarized zone,” ceded to the rebel group as part of the peace talks. The three-year peace process had yielded few concrete results, and as Pastrana’s term winds down, the continuing talks had become a political liability and an embarrassment. Despite the negotiations, the FARC continued to gain strength, and maddeningly greeted government concessions with ongoing attacks against civilians. Since the end of the peace process, there has been a surge of violence in Colombia. The government carried out bombing raids in the guerrilla stronghold, and the rebels responded by kidnapping presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and attacking bridges, water reserves, and other economic infrastructure.

Just a year after the launch of “Plan Colombia,” there is increasing skepticism in Washington that the costly U.S.-backed strategy will have any meaningful impact on the international drug trade. Many policymakers welcome the opportunity to do away with the tenuous distinction between the war on drugs and the war on terrorism. In February, as the peace talks were unraveling, Bush announced a plan to assist the Colombian government in its struggle against the insurgents. The aid includes an additional $98 million to train and equip a Colombian military brigade to protect the Caño Limón pipeline, a move long advocated by Occidental Petroleum, a Los Angeles-based company whose operations are constantly interrupted by guerrilla attacks. (Bush is also seeking an emergency addition of $35 million in military and police aid to Colombia as part of a broader anti-terrorism and homeland security package.)

While the Bush Administration awaits Congressional approval to eliminate restrictions on military aid to Colombia, the U.S. has already expanded intelligence sharing to include counterinsurgency operations. U.S. officials insist the current cap on the number of U.S. military personnel allowed in Colombia, aimed at limiting the loss of American lives, will remain intact. The administration also promises to respect Congressionally-mandated human rights restrictions on military aid. However, despite overwhelming evidence of the Colombian government’s failure to end military collaboration with right-wing paramilitaries responsible for civilian massacres, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have not hesitated to deliver millions of dollars in military aid. In order to send an unequivocal message against terrorism and drug trafficking, the U.S. must use its leverage and cut financing for the Colombian military, which has merely outsourced its most dastardly deeds to illegal death squads that, like the guerrillas, fund acts of terror with drug money.

A potential bright spot in the otherwise grim outlook for Colombia is the ongoing negotiations with a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Pastrana announced in late March that his government may make headway in a six-month cease-fire agreement with the rebels. The President clearly wants to demonstrate progress before his term ends in August, having staked his political career on peace talks. Recent polls indicate that the former governor of Antioquia, Alvaro Uribe Velez, is currently favored to succeed Pastrana. Velez advocates a hard line approach toward the guerrillas which has gained the attention of a war-weary public.

As the U.S. government appears poised to plunge into the quagmire with neither winnable objectives nor an exit strategy, it still officially pays lip service to the notion that a negotiated settlement to the conflict is the only means to bring lasting stability to Colombia. Congressional consideration of Bush’s proposal for further military funding in the coming months will likely spark a heated debate. There is little doubt that members of Congress will receive calls from a friendly oil industry lobbyist, or a fruit basket from one of the many U.S. defense contractors benefiting from the high-dollar plan. It might do the Congress good to hear reminders from a few thousand concerned taxpayers that in the struggle for peace in Colombia, and in our nation’s endeavor to grapple with our drug problem, victory will not be found on the battlefield.

Gina Amatangelo is a policy analyst specializing in U.S. anti-drug programs in the Andes region and a master’s candidate at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.