Those of you old enough to remember the Vietnam War will recall the early years, when the majority of Americans couldn’t find the place on a map and practically nobody could tell the difference between the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. Well, it’s time to look up Colombia on the map of South America and learn what FARC is.
When the history of this one is written, what will amaze everyone once again is how hopelessly clueless we all are – the Clinton administration, Congress, the media. The media keep reporting “a $9 billion spending bill to help Colombia combat drug traffickers” as though it were just that simple. (Actually, only $1.6 billion of the spending bill is for the “counter drug aid package for Colombia.” There is $2.6 billion to pay for our military costs in Kosovo, $2 billion for disaster relief and then, somehow, amazingly, the thing came out of the House Appropriations Committee with the total price tag doubled by pure pork barrel.) We are all under the happy illusion that the money we’re sending to Colombia will be used to combat drug traffickers. Actually, there’s every likelihood that some of it will go to drug traffickers.
The civil war in Colombia has been going on for forty years. About 40 percent of the country is now under the control of FARC – the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. FARC started out protecting poor campesinos. The drug boom of the Nineties caused landless peasants from all over the country to flock to the southern portion of the country to grow cocaine – and FARC protects them. FARC claims that it is not directly involved in the drug traffic, but it taxes growers and transporters, and is obviously dependent on them.
Meanwhile, we have the government of Colombia, which does not control the army; the army is pretty much out of control. And to the right of the army are the paramilitary defense forces, a nasty bunch of thugs given to murder, massacre, kidnapping, and drug dealing. According to the latest Human Rights Watch report on Colombia, there is evidence linking half of the eighteen brigades of the Colombian army to the paramilitary thugs. “For years, detailed evidence has accumulated implicating senior army commanders, mid-level officers and troops of connivance with, or even the planning and execution of, paramilitary massacres,” writes Alma Guillermoprieto, a longtime correspondent in the region.
Intelligence sharing is the most common form of army-paramilitary cooperation, but Human Rights Watch reports a particularly interesting form of collusion. The Colombian army traditionally demands a high number of enemy casualties from officers who want promotion. So the paramilitaries bring dead civilians to army barracks in exchange for weapons. The officers dress the corpses in camouflage and claim they were guerrillas killed in battle. Is this a concept or what? And you thought we had problems with those ridiculous body counts in ‘Nam.
Fortunately, our government can be counted upon to screw up even a terrible idea, and the Colombian aid package is now stuck in Congress. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is naturally upset that the package comes to his side with double the original sticker price on it. He wants to strip out the pork, and he proposes to do so by letting the aid package go through the normal appropriations process, which will slow it down by a good six months.
This prospect makes the U.S. Army unhappy because it needs the package to pay for Kosovo costs. Meanwhile, the liberals are dubious about the whole enterprise, while the conservatives, who are gung-ho for getting us involved, are mad about the pork. Which leads us to the famous liberal-cheapskates coalition. Ain’t politics grand?
Just to prove that someone in Congress has some sense, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California tried to add $1.3 billion for drug treatment and prevention in the United States but lost on a party-line vote. Most of them think it would be more fun to send Blackhawk helicopters, speedboats, and planes, and the U.S. trainers and advisers and all that good stuff we all remember so well. I always like these policies where we’re funding both sides in a war. h
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her new book from Random House, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her at email@example.com.