Into the Andean Quagmire: Bush II Keeps Up March to Militarization

September 25, 2007

The Andean region—Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia—has, since the 1980s, been the main theatre of action in the drug war; before September 11 President Bush Junior had been expanding that war with an "Andean Initiative" reminiscent of his father’s strategy of more than a decade ago. In the years between the first and second Bush administrations, however, the situation across the region had deteriorated with increasing violence, growing economic woes and ongoing political instability. The U.S. response has not, for the most part, been a programmatic attempt to resolve these social, economic and political problems; rather it has been increased militarization. Now, at least for the moment and perhaps for the long haul, the "war on terrorism" has replaced the "war on drugs" as a focus of public and policymaker attention. With military action against Afghanistan now underway, large-scale U.S. military intervention in the Andes seems less likely; but the region will continue to be one of the most volatile in Latin America and ongoing U.S.-supported military escalation in Colombia and the surrounding region is unlikely to slow. And as human rights safeguards established over the past two decades are rolled back in the frenzy to root out terrorism, the real danger of increased support for abusive military intelligence units will increase.

In Colombia, coca cultivation and drug trafficking are on the rise, the 40-year civil war, long on a slow simmer primarily affecting rural areas, is heating up; and the economy, once one of the strongest in Latin America, has taken a nose dive. In Bolivia, privatization of public services, price increases for basic goods, stagnant employment levels and wages, and conflicts over aggressive coca eradication campaigns have sparked massive social protests. In Peru, the fall of President Alberto Fujimori and secret police chief Vladimiro Montesinos revealed the depths of corruption, erosion of democracy and other challenges facing newly elected President Alejandro Toledo. In Ecuador, the last four years have seen ruinous natural disasters, precipitous fluctuations in revenues from oil, collapse of the banking sector, a default on external loans, a coup and a 70% depreciation of the currency. An expanding U.S. military presence and "mission creep" into counterinsurgency operations in Colombia, combined with little transparency or effective oversight, has generated fears that Colombia’s violence will spread across regional borders, further increasing the region’s political instability.

Crisis was already brewing in the Andes at the end of the 1980s. In Peru, political violence skyrocketed when the brutality of the Shining Path insurgency was met by counterinsurgency campaigns targeting civilians. At the same time, President Alan García’s economic program was driving the country to bankruptcy and high inflation. The 1985 collapse of international markets for tin—formerly Bolivia’s largest income producer—had made that country’s already-battered national economy increasingly dependent on cocaine revenues. Colombia was being wracked by prolonged, multiple guerrilla insurgencies, Medellín cartel violence which claimed the lives of hundreds of police and judicial officials, and the growth of paramilitary groups in the countryside.

Despite the range of challenges facing the region, U.S. policy focused almost exclusively on counternarcotics efforts. The first Andean Initiative was announced on September 5, 1989. The program marked the beginning of significant U.S. funding to the region and the shift from Central American Communism to South American drug trafficking as the primary U.S. security interest in Latin America. The package included $2.2 billion in economic and military assistance for Colombia, Peru and Bolivia between FY1990 and FY1994. Besides the goal of reducing the amount of cocaine entering the United States by 60% by 1999, the Andean strategy outlined four "near-term" goals—all focused on dismantling drug trafficking organizations. Following lobbying by Andean governments during the 1990 drug summit in Cartagena, Washington added economic assistance and made strengthening and diversifying the legal economies of the region a goal.[1]

The Andean Initiative set the stage for a new phase in U.S.-Latin American military relations. The U.S. military increasingly focused on counternarcotics operations abroad and policymakers were eager to bring in their Latin American counterparts. President George Bush I declared in 1989 that the "gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs"; that same year the Department of Defense was named the "single lead agency" for the detection and monitoring of illicit drug shipments into the United States. The Andean Initiative was the first comprehensive program to include in its design a systematic increase in U.S. military involvement in operations in drug source countries, dramatically expanding the role of the Defense Department and the CIA. More importantly, for the first time, Andean armed forces were declared essential to source country efforts.[2] Both strategically and financially, military aid was clearly dominant. Even after development assistance was added to the original strategy, $165 million was slated for military and law enforcement assistance compared to $48 million in economic aid. The bulk of this went to Bolivia, where over 85% was spent to pay down the external debt rather than on development projects.

The escalation of the Andean drug war produced few lasting results and many problems. U.S. funds, equipment, logistical support, and personnel from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the CIA, and other agencies did play a leading role in dismantling the Colombian cocaine cartel structure, including the 1993 killing of Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar and the jailing of the heads of the Cali cartel in 1994. However, the breakup of the two largest cartels did not lead to a long-term decline in Colombian drug trafficking. These drug syndicates were replaced by smaller, more vertically integrated trafficking organizations whose nimble, independent traffickers have been much more difficult to detect and infiltrate. These traffickers developed new and constantly changing shipping routes through Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean for moving cocaine and increasingly, heroin.

By the mid-1990s, overall U.S. counterdrug spending for the Andes had in fact declined slightly but continued to flow. In Colombia, this money was channeled to the Colombian National Police, for elite squadrons and massive herbicide spraying campaigns in the south.[3] In Peru, the U.S. government provided counterdrug aid to the National Intelligence Service (SIN), the agency responsible for death squad activity and the erosion of democracy between Fujimori’s April 1992 autogolpe and his fall from power nine years later. In Bolivia, Washington funded Plan Dignidad, a radical eradication program that promised a speedy decline to "zero coca production."

In the same period, the Defense Department had begun to focus on attacking the "air bridge," small plane transport between coca growers and coca paste producers in Peru and Bolivia, and refiners and distributors in Colombia. The Pentagon provided radar, surveillance, and intelligence assistance in a series of operations, and encouraged the Peruvian and Colombian governments to adopt a "shoot-down" policy—firing on any planes suspected of drug trafficking. While coca production in Peru did decline in 1996, critics say this had less to do with the air bridge strategy and was more the result of a coca fungus devastating the harvest, as well as the dismantling of the major market for Peruvian coca, the Cali cartel.[4] Critics also objected that the shoot-down policy was a clear violation of international law as well as inherently dangerous—as dramatically demonstrated in the death earlier this year of a U.S. missionary and her six-month old daughter when the plane they were traveling in was shot down by Peruvian Air Force personnel working with CIA agents.

The "soft side" of the Andean Initiative also failed to achieve the anticipated results. Rather than improve the performance of corrupt and beleaguered judicial systems, the reform programs sponsored by the United States eroded civil liberties and increased human rights abuses. Similarly, alternative development programs in Peru and Bolivia failed to bear fruit. Their primary focus was the destruction of coca, rather than the provision of economically sustainable alternatives. These programs tended to focus on large-scale farming of single crops, and had little impact on rural economies reeling from the economic liberalization programs of the early 1990s that had devastated traditional economies by flooding local markets with imported goods.

By the end of the 1990s, the decline in coca production in Peru and Bolivia allowed State Department officials to gloat over their "success," but they could not ignore the growing crisis in Colombia. One change that did occur was to dramatically influence the shape of the escalating conflict: Colombia had become a major producer of coca, in 1997 surpassing Peru and Bolivia as the world’s largest supplier. This development dramatically shifted the balance of power in the region, fueling the Colombian conflict and the border tensions with its neighbors, particularly in southern Colombia.

Drawn to the expanding agricultural frontier by political violence and poverty, peasant farmers settled into areas that had never been controlled by the central state. Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), long active in this area, used taxation of the coca trade to finance their military expansion. Throughout the 1990s, the FARC more than doubled their troop strength to an all time current high of 20,000 and achieved a series of dramatic victories against the demoralized Colombian military.

Paramilitaries, much more closely tied to large drug traffickers than peasant farmers, have also benefited by taxing coca production.[5] The paramilitary groups have until recently been largely ignored in Washington debates about the Colombian crisis, despite evidence of their close association with the Colombian Armed Forces. Colombian paramilitary groups are responsible for the vast majority of political assassinations and massacres, but are currently conducting a politically sophisticated public relations campaign, including prime time interviews and a website, to garner public support. Despite this campaign, and a recent push by U.S. conservatives to have the paramilitaries recognized as a legal force, years of pressure from human rights groups paid off when the State Department added the right-wing paramilitary umbrella organization the Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC) to the official list of terrorist groups a few days before the attack on the World Trade Center. [See "Terror’s Latin American Profile", this issue]

The Rand Corporation recently predicted that the United States would soon face "an unpalatable choice. It could escalate its commitment, to include perhaps an operational role for U.S. forces in Colombia, or scale it down, which would involve some significant costs."[6] This view might be interpreted as part of the logical unfolding of a process that began in the Clinton administration: At the very end of the 1990s, fearing the "loss" of Colombia and democratic vulnerability to charges of soft-peddling the drug issue domestically, President Clinton launched an ambitious aid program. His "emergency" package of "U.S. Support for Plan Colombia" totaled $1.3 billion for 2000 and 2001, and focused on the "Push into Southern Colombia." While Colombian President Andrés Pastrana’s original 1998 Plan Colombia presented a four-pronged strategy to support efforts for peace, development, political reform and citizen security, U.S. assistance was massively skewed toward militarized counternarcotics operations. This assistance is equipping and training three Colombian Army battalions in southern Colombia to provide ground support for aerial herbicide campaigns. Funding for Plan Colombia also included $458.7 million (35% of the total) for neighboring countries, including the construction of U.S. military bases in Ecuador and the Caribbean.

Increased coca cultivation is not the only current sign of trouble in Colombia: The 40-year civil war, long on a slow simmer primarily affecting rural areas, is heating up, and the economy, once one of the strongest in Latin America, has taken a nose dive. Following a GNP decline of a record 5% in 1999, the economy has recovered slightly, but remains slow, and unemployment has reached an all-time high of more than 20%. Politically motivated homicide has almost doubled, from an average of ten deaths a day in the 1980s to almost 20 a day currently.[7] Political violence forced more than 315,000 people to flee their homes last year alone, adding to what is now the third largest internally displaced population in the world.[8] Despite hopes for peace, settlement of the war seems increasingly unlikely. Although the Colombian government was successful in persuading several of the smaller guerrilla factions to lay down their arms and in rewriting the Constitution in 1991, it has been unable to implement political reform or to generate significant progress in talks with the two largest remaining groups.

Meanwhile, the operations financed through Plan Colombia are only beginning to get underway. The expansion of the aerial fumigation campaigns into the southern border state of Putumayo began in December, supported by the first of the two counternarcotics battalions. The humanitarian and development programs have been slow to begin, hampered by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (AID) lack of experienced in-country staff. The one-person office was slated to close in 2000. Now it must contend instead with a budget increase from $3.3 million in 1998 to more than $350 million in 2000. But AID-funded efforts in Colombia have proven controversial; many human rights groups and others, including some Catholic agencies, refuse to participate in what they view as a damaging military program.

Rather than reassess the policy he inherited from the Clinton and Bush Sr. administrations, President Bush has proposed to expand the strategy of supporting local police and security forces in the war on drugs throughout the Andean region. His proposal, to be funded through the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) account, still sends a majority of the aid (55%) to Colombia, but increases the total going to Colombia’s neighbors. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama are slated to receive a total of $136.5 million in military and police aid in fiscal year 2002 through the INL account alone. Additional support will come from the Department of Defense and other agencies whose detailed funding requests have yet to be released. That this plan so resembles the first Andean Initiative should come as no surprise; Bush II is recycling many of the policies—and officials—from his father’s administration. Drug Czar nominee John Walters was one of the architects of the first Andean Initiative when he served as number two under Bush I Drug Czar Bill Bennett.

Clearly, however, the focus of the next several years will be President Bush’s newly announced war against terrorism. Initial proposals for anti-terrorism legislation which would, among other things, roll back some controls on U.S.-sponsored intelligence operations are profoundly troubling given the history of U.S. support for abusive militaries in the region. Official monitoring of U.S. assistance in the region, and enforcement of existing human rights safeguards has been spotty at best. Repeated General Accounting Office (GAO) reports have concluded that U.S. officials have not been carrying out sufficient oversight of U.S. aid for much of the past decade. Since 1991, the GAO has reported that the State and Defense Departments had no policy for monitoring assistance; that State Department officials obstructed monitoring; that the Defense Department did not accurately report to Congress the number, content and cost of Special Forces Training missions, and in 2000 expressed concern about the ability of the United States to oversee assistance.[9]

U.S. officials habitually circumvent the spirit, if not the letter of laws designed to ensure human rights and congressional oversight of how U.S. aid is used. Clinton waived the human rights requirements added to the aid package passed last year, citing national security concerns, while essentially acknowledging that the Colombian government had not taken the necessary steps to curb paramilitary groups. End-use monitoring reports, required by law, continue to lag two years behind programs and do not assess the human rights impact of assistance. U.S. officials have consistently failed to implement the Leahy Amendment, which requires Washington to cut off counternarcotics funding to units credibly alleged to have abused human rights. In Bolivia, the embassy has dragged its heels in acting on seven cases of alleged abuse. In Colombia, aircraft supplied by the United States for counternarcotics operations was used in the 1998 bombing of the village of Santo Domingo, killing 19 people. The Colombian military blocked efforts to investigate for almost three years; following extensive international pressure, military courts recently charged the crew with murder. One of the crew members involved in the incident claimed that the target information was supplied by the American contractor Airscan, which provides security for oil operations in the area. The Colombian Air Force unit responsible continues to receive U.S. funding, approximately $4.7 million to date.[10]

Many of Colombia’s neighbors fear that drugs and violence will spread "like a cancer to other regions," in the words of then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen last year.[11] Drugs, refugees and violence have all crossed borders, adding to the substantial domestic crises facing Andean nations. Colombia’s borders with Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador are porous and poorly guarded, unmarked jungle in many regions. Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary groups, as well as contraband, guns and drugs have flowed freely through border areas for years, relying on small towns in neighboring countries for supplies and combatants’ "R-and-R." Human rights observers from these regions report that this fragile balance has been upset in the past two years, as armed groups struggle to consolidate control over territory and clandestine shipping routes. One result has been increased combat, including reports of fighting in Panamanian and Ecuadorian territory.

But refugees are the most visible effect of increasing border tensions. While richer Colombians have arrived en masse in Madrid and Miami, poor peasants have fled by the thousands into neighboring countries following paramilitary and guerrilla attacks. To date most attention has focused on Ecuador, separated only by a river from the Colombian state of Putumayo, where U.S.-sponsored military operations have begun. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others are prepared to receive up to 5,000 refugees in the border zone. However, most Colombians fleeing violence have not settled on the border, fleeing further north in Colombia or deep into Ecuador to avoid reprisals. Neighboring states have refused to recognize those crossing the borders as refugees; Venezuela and Panama have forcibly repatriated Colombians.

Another response of neighboring governments has been militarization of their borders. With U.S. support, the Brazilians have developed Plan Cobra, to increase military presence on the border. Critics are also concerned that the $1.7 billion dollar System for Vigilance of the Amazon (SIVAM), initially designed to detect environmental damage, has been creeping towards counternarcotics operations.[12] Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela have also increased troop strength along the border. At the same time, U.S. military presence in the region is greater than ever, with expanded training missions and a growing number of bases, all with counternarcotics operations as their fundamental mission. [See "A New New World Order," this issue]

While there are significant differences among the countries in the region, all face severe problems with deteriorating economies, weak democratic institutions and increasing violence and civil unrest. Entrenched poverty and falling standards of living have lowered expectations for reform. The worsening economy in the United States, the Andean region’s largest trading partner, and the crises in the Brazilian and Mexican economies have sent shock waves throughout the Andes. Rural economies have been particularly hard hit. The dramatic decline in coffee prices, from three dollars to less than 50 cents a pound since 1997, are indicative of the challenges facing these export-based economies.[13] Drug trafficking profits have distorted legal economies in bust-and-boom cycles, and while State Department officials continue to herald the success of alternative development programs in Bolivia, local analysts point to the ongoing failure of these projects to establish sustainable market outlets for legal products.

Coca production, after declining for several years, has begun to increase again in Peru and Bolivia as desperate farmers return to the only crop with a market. Protests against the current Bolivian eradication policy turned violent in April; at least nine people died. New Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga—President Hugo Banzer resigned in August to undergo treatment for cancer–seems unlikely to shift Bolivia’s drug policy: Educated in the United States, Quiroga was the architect of the infamous "Plan Dignidad," the eradication program that militarized the coca-producing regions.

With the full scope and reach of the U.S. war on terrorism still unclear, foreign policy predictions remain difficult. The focus on the Middle East could provide the Andes with a welcome reprieve from the heavy hand of U.S. military intervention in the name of the war on drugs. Much more likely, however, is expanded support for intelligence operations and an increasing mix of counterdrug and counterterrorism operations. The economic and social challenges facing the Andes have long been alternately exacerbated or ignored by U.S. policymakers. The post-September 11 turn to the new war on terrorism is unkely to change that trend.

Winifred Tate is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at New
York University. Until recently, she was the senior fellow for Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America.

1. Washington Office on Latin America, Clear and Present Dangers: The U.S. Military and the War on Drugs in the Andes (Washington D.C., 1991).
2. Washington Office on Latin America, p. 12.
3. Concern with the Colombian military’s human rights record (and their refusal to sign an agreement to honor human rights legislation) and the Samper administration’s corruption interrupted the cash flow to the army. The Colombian National Police, benefited from Congressional Republicans enchantment with chief Jóse Rosso Serrano.
4. Acción Andina and Transnational Institute, The Drug War In The Skies, The U.S. Air Bridge Denial Strategy: The Success of a Failure (Cochabamba, May 1999).
5. Carlos Castaño interview. He says they finance 60% of their operations by taxing drug production and trafficking.
6. Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2001).
7. Gustavo Gallon, "Human Rights: A Path to Democracy and Peace in Colombia," presented at the Seminar on Colombia, Notre Dame University, March 26-27, 2001.
8. Hiram Ruiz, "The Crisis of Internal Displacement,"Crimes of War Magazine, August 2001.
9. U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), "Observations of Counternarcotics Aid to Colombia," GAO/NSIAD-91-29, September 18,1991: 24; GAO, "Long-Standing Problems Hinder U.S. International Efforts," GAO/NSIAD-97-75, February 1997; GAO, "Delays in Obtaining State Department Records Relating to Colombia," GAO/T-NSIAD-97-202, July 9,1997: 2-3; GAO, "Military Training: U.S. Management and Oversight of Joint Combined Exchange Training," GAO/NSIAD-99-173, July 1999; GAO, "Drug Control: U.S. Assistance to Colombia Will Take Years to Produce," GAO-01-26, October 2000, p. 14.
10. Geraldo Rivera, "Colombia’s Enduring Drug War," on Dateline NBC, August 31, 2001.
11. Axel Bugge, "America’s Defense Chiefs Have Eyes on Colombia," Reuters, October 16, 2000.
12. International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, "Brazil Special Report: Drug War Replaces Cold War," available on the web at
13. "Economic grind drives Peru coffee farmers to coca," Reuters, September 5, 2001.

Tags: US foreign policy, drug war, militarization, George W Bush, military aid

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