Repeating Past Mistakes: Aiding Counterinsurgency in Colombia

September 25, 2007

On January 11 of this year, President Clinton pleaded for "emergency spending" for Colombia. But "emergency" seemed a misnomer, since drug production and trafficking—conveniently conflated with a chronic civil war—have been happening in Colombia for decades. Further, the "emergency" package was merely the first installment in what U.S. officials admit is no short-term nostrum, but a plan slated to last at least six years.

Eight months after that January request, President Clinton signed into law a bill that will provide $1.32 billion for counter-drug activities in the Andean region. Of this, $862 million will go to Colombia, about three-quarters of it for that country's military and police. By August, U.S. Special Forces had resumed training the second in a series of elite Colombian Army battalions. This assistance means the United States will be directly supporting counterinsurgency operations.

If this behavior were analyzed by mental health practitioners it would be deemed obsessive-compulsive. Instead of learning from past decades of misguided military follies, U.S. policy towards Colombia continues to focus on expanding military operations. The rationale is an ambiguous national security threat—in this case drug trafficking. Yet the real driving forces are, largely, economic and electoral interests within the United States. And the policies those interests are motivating constitute a classic case of treating illness with a medicine whose effects are worse than the disease. Counternarcotics operations supposedly are intended to reduce drug abuse in the United States. But not only have they failed to do so, they have also pumped up abusive militaries, weakened democratic reforms, and exacerbated existing social tensions in Latin America.

When Colombia's new president Andrés Pastrana visited Washington in October 1998, President Clinton promised a new era in U.S.-Colombia relations with an expanded, bilateral agenda including human rights, trade and peace. During that and subsequent visits, Pastrana requested support for the nascent peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's biggest guerrilla group—and for assistance for his "Marshall Plan" for southern Colombia. Pastrana proposed economic and development aid for the small farmers growing coca, in hopes that the international community would respond to the devastation caused by drug production and trafficking as they had to rebuilding Europe following World War II. But the United States was not interested in funding peace or development. Instead, Congress tripled military assistance for counternarcotics programs, so that in 1999, Colombia became the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials were putting together their own plans for Colombia. Several high level delegations, including visits by Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Under-Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, demonstrated Washington's new interest. Increasing U.S. concerns over the stagnating peace process, mounting instability and drug production in Colombia during a U.S. presidential-election year, led to calls for dramatic action. In July, Drug Czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey wrote Albright recommending a $1 billion counternarcotics package, with $560 million for Colombia. Republican Representatives Dennis Hastert, Ben Gilman and Dan Burton sent their own letter with similar recommendations.

A year after his initial visit, President Pastrana returned to Washington and presented "Plan Colombia: A Plan for Peace, Prosperity and the Strengthening of the State." This document contained a laundry list of ambitious reforms for every area of public life: the peace process, economic and fiscal reform, democratization, development, judicial reform, human rights and counternarcotics efforts. Widely rumored to have been written in English and only minimally circulated in Colombia, the Plan was never discussed in that nation's Congress or fully covered by its media.

Nevertheless, President Clinton presented his January 2000 proposal as "U.S. Support for Plan Colombia." Like Pastrana's first scheme, Clinton's also focused on southern Colombia, but with military assistance rather than development aid. At the heart of the proposal was $600 million to support Colombian Army operations for a "Push into Southern Colombia"—an area long a FARC stronghold. This funding will train and equip new Colombian Army counternarcotics battalions, providing them with helicopters, transport and intelligence assistance. U.S. military assistance will also fund technical support for Colombian military intelligence, navy riverine programs and radar installations. The aid package requires that the Colombian government "has agreed to and is implementing a strategy to eliminate Colombia's total coca and opium poppy production by 2005."

The United States is escalating funding for counternarcotics operations throughout Latin America. In Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico, Washington is increasing support for military and intelligence forces. New military bases —called "Forward Operating Locations" (FOLs)—in Ecuador, Aruba and Cura?ao, and El Salvador have expanded military presence following the closing of the giant Howard Air Base, which used to handle counternarcotics flights in Panama. Joint operations with militaries throughout the region, including in Nicaragua and Guatemala, are only a few of the militarized counternarcotics operations in the works. These new bases create a permanent U.S. military presence, which provides additional resources to local military forces. They also deepen regional involvement in Colombia's conflict, given that Colombia is a primary target for information gathering through aerial intelligence operations facilitated by the FOLs.

U.S. programs in Colombia have been two-pronged: They fund military hardware and training for Colombian security, and extensive herbicide spraying in illicit crop growing areas—primarily coca fields in southern Colombia. The United States is starting to escalate fumigation efforts as the centerpiece of its "Push into Southern Colombia," and most funding is for aerial eradication—fumigation of coca with herbicides. But such efforts have failed dramatically in the past. According to a 1999 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, "despite two years of extensive herbicide spraying, U.S. estimates show [that] coca cultivation actually increased 50 percent." Further, extensive fumigation risks human disaster. The possibility of alternative livelihoods for poor peasant farmers involved in coca and opium poppy cultivation remains bleak, given increasing land concentration, over 20% urban unemployment, and more than a million people already internally displaced by violence. The Clinton Administration anticipates displacing only 10,000 plantation workers, and leaving 4,000 small farmers in the area. No one with the Administration has explained these numbers, which woefully underestimate the rural population directly involved in coca production. Independent estimates put the number likely to be displaced as high as 30,000.

The environment may also be in danger. The aid package contains highly controversial funding for a biological mycoherbicide—a fungus that kills its host—called Fusarium oxysporum. As part of counternarcotics funding, the United States allocated $3 million to the United Nations for tests on this mycoherbicide, which some members of Congress call a "silver bullet" in the drug war. Opposition to the proposed tests is mounting, however. In 1999, the state of Florida determined that a fungus resembling Fusarium oxysporum posed a significant threat to the environment and to legal crops, particularly given its potential to mutate. Florida then dropped plans to use Fusarium on marijuana plants in that state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, has reported that in the 1990s in Peru, the mycoherbicide did not destroy merely coca plots; it also spoiled food crops, including crops in alternative development projects—in some cases for years. Ominously, no comprehensive studies exist of the potential health consequences for humans and local fauna. Species of Fusarium are known to contain several toxins associated with pulmonary illnesses, certain types of cancer, skin ailments, and other health problems. Colombia's Environment Minister Juan Mayr has said he will refuse to allow use of the fungus in Colombia because of the many risks involved, and the Colombian Congress is considering banning the tests. The government's ability to restrict Fusarium is doubtful, however, given pressure from Washington.

In August, the "gang of three"—President Clinton, House Speaker Republican Hastert and Democratic Senator Joe Biden (Delaware)—typified the alliance pushing the Colombian aid package when they went to Cartagena for a rare presidential visit to a war-torn country. The bipartisan effort for military aid to Colombia was bolstered by Democrat and Republican politicos' shared fear of seeming "soft on drugs" in an election year. Their mutual anxiety has been exacerbated by polls (such as one commissioned by weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin) showing that voters are willing to fund anti-drug aid, and that Democrats are vulnerable on the issue.[1] Many Congress members were won over by the "drugs and thugs" tour, featuring overflights of coca fields and high-level military meetings, but minimal contact with civilians.

The heavy hand of corporate money is also clearly visible in the Colombia debate, particularly in the case of helicopter and oil companies. At stake are nearly $400 million in contracts for helicopters such as the Blackhawk. Oil companies, meanwhile, claim to have lost hundreds of millions of dollars'worth of oil to guerrilla sabotage; in addition, the firms are interested in new drilling in conflictive areas. During the House hearings on Colombia, Occidental Petroleum Vice President Lawrence Meriage was one of very few non-governmental witnesses to testify before Congress. As a leader of the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership, founded in 1996 to represent U.S. companies with business interests in Colombia, Meriage led business-sector support for the package. During the Senate debate, minimal time was devoted to considering the wisdom of massive military assistance to Colombia (despite a valiant and lonely effort by Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to raise concerns). Most debate focused on evaluating helicopters—Connecticut-based Sikorsky, maker of the more expensive and heavily armed Blackhawk, versus Texan company Bell Technology, source of the more pedestrian Hueys. Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd presented an amendment to allow additional Blawkhawks, but it failed because of opposition by conservative Republicans arguing for fiscal responsibility. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the two helicopter companies have spent more than $2.4 million on campaign contributions in the past two elections.

Opponents were not silent, however. In the House, David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, led a strong critique of counternarcotics policy, arguing for increased support for domestic drug-abuse treatment and against military funding for Colombia. This launched a spirited, two-hour debate on the merits of U.S. counternarcotics policy. A range of citizens' groups, including unions, religious leaders, drug policy experts, and environmental, indigenous and human rights organizations echoed these concerns.

They had a hard row to hoe, however, because U.S. attention to Colombia has for long been narrowly focused on drugs. In 1989, President Bush declared that the "gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs," and announced the "Andean Strategy" to reduce the amount of illicit narcotics entering the United States. This plan dramatically increased U.S. funding to expand eradication of illegal crops, and military hardware and training for security forces involved in counternarcotics operations in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. The same year, the Department of Defense (DOD) was named the "single lead agency" for detection and monitoring of illicit drug shipments into the United States. This opened the door for an expanded role and resources for the U.S. military, which was looking for a new mission at the end of the Cold War, and was anxious to preserve ties with Latin American military forces. For officials with the Southern Command—SouthCom, the U.S. military command with jurisdiction over Latin America—the drug war is an opportunity to apply low-intensity conflict skills honed during 30 years of fighting guerrilla insurgencies; and the principal means of maintaining and enhancing relations with militaries throughout the region.

Though it is classified as counternarcotics aid, most Colombians do not mince words when they describe the package as really being about fighting guerrillas. "This is aid for counterinsurgency, pure and simple," one intelligence official told me in Bogotá. Even U.S. military personnel admit that the lines between drug eradication and counterinsurgency are blurred. According to one Pentagon official, the Defense Department's objective will be to "permit the Colombian government to take control of Putumayo and the neighboring state of Caquetá"—strongholds of guerrilla activity—"in two years."

In fact, the United States appears to have adopted a "Salvadoran" style strategic approach. Civilian and military policy-makers alike often invoke U.S. policy towards El Salvador in the 1980s as the model, in which direct military intervention is eschewed in favor of escalating assistance via equipment, training and intelligence cooperation. U.S. advisors from a range of agencies, including the Defense Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), are already on the ground in Colombia. The level of U.S. aid and number of advisors in Colombia on any given day are reaching levels as high as in Central America in the 1980s: For Fiscal Year 1999, the country had received 250 advisors and roughly $360 million in assistance.

The United States is also providing military intelligence assistance that could be used in counterinsurgency operations. A June 1999 GAO report revealed that the United States is sharing military intelligence about the insurgents, without monitoring how the information is used.[2] Washington has been instrumental in establishing the Joint Task Command, a Colombian military and police facility in Tres Esquinas, Caquetá, intended to coordinate all operations in southern Colombia. The extent of the U.S. role in Colombian intelligence gathering was brought home by the July 1999 plane crash in which five U.S. military personnel and two Colombian Air Force officials were killed. No Colombian police were on the plane, a sophisticated Havilland RC-7 that was intercepting FARC communications. The U.S. personnel were members of the 204th Military Intelligence Brigade.

The United States has also been supporting the new "Central Intelligence Command" with undisclosed amounts of technical assistance and equipment. The former central military intelligence unit, the 20th Brigade, was disbanded in 1998 following revelations of members' participation in death-squad style killings, including the 1995 assassination of Conservative politician Alvaro Gómez. The Colombian military has reorganized intelligence gathering responsibilities under the Central Intelligence Command, and removed all operational capabilities from the unit. However, 20th Brigade members have yet to be prosecuted, and sources within the Colombian intelligence forces have described the reform as merely "changing the name plate on the door."

While a screening process is required to receive aid and equipment, there is no monitoring of the performance of those trained afterwards; nor have effective, transparent end-use monitoring mechanisms for equipment been instituted. Soldiers trained for the counternarcotics battalion could be rotated into other, unscreened battalions after a year. Further, much of the counternarcotics funding and training provided through Defense Department, DEA and CIA channels is virtually impossible to trace, even by U.S. government officials. According to a 1999 GAO report, "DOD had not accurately reported to the Congress the numbers of JCETs"—Joint Combined Exchange Trainings, or training programs carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces' overseas deployments. The GAO also noted failure to report the costs of these JCETs, or "their relationship to counternarcotics and counterterrorism."[3]

Meanwhile, the growing practice of "outsourcing" U.S. operations to private companies staffed with ex-military personnel is not subject to Congressional oversight or reporting requirements, which also makes it very difficult to calculate U.S. presence in Colombia. Virginia-based DynCorp, led by an ex-CIA agent, has long been active in anti-drug operations in Latin America, and has been running the fumigation program in southern Colombia. Other groups are now getting a piece of the Colombian pie: Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI) was recently contracted by the Pentagon to do an extensive evaluation of the Colombian military. MPRI, founded and staffed by retired U.S. army personnel, has been involved in training African and Balkan military forces, including Croatian forces later involved in war crimes.[4]

As U.S.-sponsored military operations in Colombia escalate, the chorus of skeptics will undoubtedly increase, though perhaps too late to save the faltering peace process and halt the growing violence. In the post-Cold War era, the United States had a historic opportunity to redefine its policy towards Latin America in ways that would help deeply troubled neighbors negotiate solutions to myriad problems the Andean region faces—including increasing poverty, erosion of democratic institutions, and escalating violence. Instead, Washington clearly is gearing up to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Winifred Tate is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department of New York University, and Senior Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

1. Michael Isikoff and Gregory Vistica, "The Other Drug War: Is a $1.3 Billion Colombia Aid Package: Smart Policy, Good Business or a Costly Mistake?" Newsweek, April 3, 2000.
2. U.S. General Accounting Office, Drug Control: Narcotics Threat from Colombia Continues to Grow (Washington: GAO/NSIAD-99-136, June 1999).
3. U.S. General Accounting Office, Military Training: U.S. Management and Oversight of Joint Combined Exchange Training,(Washington: GAO/NSIAD-99-173, July 1999).
4. Ken Silverstein, Private Warriors (New York: Verso Books, 2000).

Tags: Colombia, US aid, counterinsurgency, drug war, military

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