Pubdate: Thu, 12 Apr 2001
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Copyright: 2001 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
Author: Tina Rosenberg
Note: Tina Rosenberg is a foreign-affairs editorial writer at the New York 


Can Bush Resist Expanding Clinton's Colombian Drug War?

On December 19th, 2000, American-made Huey helicopters swooped into the 
Guamuez Valley in southern Colombia, and Washington's new War on Drugs 
began. In January, two 900-man battalions of United States-trained and 
- -equipped Colombian troops deployed these Vietnam-era helicopters in their 
mission to raid cocaine labs and protect crop-dusting planes across 1,500 
square miles of Putumayo province, home to roughly half of the country's 
coca fields.

It is all part of Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion aid package brought to you 
by Bill Clinton's drug warriors and bequeathed to the Bush administration. 
The idea, of course, is to cut Colombia's cocaine production by destroying 
the plants and processing labs. But most of Putumayo province is controlled 
by the country's most powerful Marxist guerrillas, who have waged a 
murderous civil war in Colombia for decades.

Even more violent are the nation's right-wing paramilitaries, the 
hemisphere's most notorious death squads. Since September, they have 
wrested parts of the province from the guerrillas. With Plan Colombia, 
America is plunging into a primary battlefield of one of the world's most 
brutal, complex and longest-running conflicts, a war that makes mid-1980s 
Nicaragua look like paintball.

In his previous incarnations as national security adviser and chairman of 
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Colin Powell formulated his 
now-famous doctrine that America should stay out of wars in which we have 
no clearly definable goal, no exit strategy and no advantage of 
overwhelming force.

The Bush administration seems to have made an exception for Colombia. Even 
though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted during his confirmation 
hearing that "if demand [for drugs] persists, it's going to find ways to 
get what it wants," President Bush and Gen. Powell have endorsed the plan. 
The administration is likely to do a full review in the next few months, 
but for the moment it will probably keep the helicopters rolling off the 
assembly lines and into Colombia.

It is unlikely that Colombia will become another Vietnam for the United 
States  - we hire others to fight our wars these days. But Americans may 
die in Colombia. On any given day, there are 250 to 300 uniformed Americans 
in Colombia's war, most of them special forces, doing intelligence training 
and running radar stations.

Another 300 or so civilian contractors fly crop-duster planes and carry out 
other jobs. The guerrillas have announced that they consider Americans 
legitimate military targets; in February, they shot at American civilian 
contract workers.

There is little reason to think that the plan will accomplish what 
Washington hopes: reducing the amount of cocaine on our streets.

A military strategy has never been successful in cutting the supply of drugs.

As for Colombia, the military aid is likely to make things worse - to widen 
the war, handicap the peace talks between the government and the rebel 
groups, embolden the hard-liners and cause more civilian deaths.

And since the military aid is going to an organization that maintains 
strong ties to the paramilitaries, Plan Colombia will indirectly associate 
the United States with these killers.

In the first seventeen days of 2001, twenty-three massacres took place in 
Colombia. The country has always been spectacularly violent - perhaps a 
quarter-million people died during a dispute between two political parties 
in the 1950s. Today, different factors are responsible for Colombia's 
pathology - most recently, cocaine.

Colombia, the size of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma combined, and mainly 
covered by dense jungle, supplies ninety percent of America's cocaine and 
seventy percent of its heroin.

Five years ago, Colombia grew a negligible amount of coca leaf. It imported 
coca from Peru and Bolivia, processed it and shipped it north.

But as coca cultivation dropped in those two nations, the business moved to 
Colombia, which now grows almost three-quarters of the world's coca leaf.

Colombia was never Sweden, but cocaine has eroded what little authority the 
government did have. The narcos control whomever they want. Judges face the 
constant dilemma of plata o plomo: silver or lead, a bribe or a bullet; the 
police are corrupt and the military more so.

Cocaine also has fueled Colombia's forty-year war. The several different 
Marxist insurgencies should have given up when the Soviet Union died. But 
the war goes on. One of the groups, the National Army of Liberation, makes 
most of its money from kidnapping and extortion.

The larger group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), 
kidnaps and extorts, as well. But it also taxes coca growers, and U.S. 
officials charge that it is gradually moving up the coca chain into 
outright trafficking. Drug money helps compensate for the guerrillas' lack 
of civilian support.

Cocaine has also given rise to the right-wing paramilitary death squads. 
While the guerrillas are moving into the cocaine business, the paras began 
as traffickers in the 1980s. Today, their leader, Carlos Castano, a drug 
trafficker himself  - according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration 
- - admits on television that coca finances seventy percent of his group's 
activities. The paramilitaries are fighting the FARC for control of the 
coca territory of Putumayo, where the military efforts of Plan Colombia are 

Colombia's war is not civil in any traditional sense.

The general population provides no support - only bodies.

Nearly 2 million people have fled the war zones for Colombia's cities as 
the paramilitaries have destroyed village after village.

There were more than twelve political killings a day last year, and the 
paras were responsible for seventy-five percent of them, according to 
human-rights groups.

The vast majority of the victims, among them children and the elderly, 
simply had the bad luck to be living in the wrong town. The paras have also 
killed thirty human-rights activists in the last three years and many 
journalists, labor organizers and peasant activists.

Colombia's military is complicit in these crimes.

In the last few years, the number of atrocities committed by the army has 
dropped - because soldiers have apparently farmed out the killings to their 
allies in the paramilitaries. The U.S. State Department is well aware of 
the military's involvement: The Department's own reports document the 
paras' strong ties with the army and police, confirming the investigations 
of the press and human-rights groups.

The murders of twenty-six men in the village of Chengue on January 17th are 
a chilling example.

Survivors told a Washington Post reporter that the paras had announced last 
year that Chengue was a target, after which residents repeatedly wrote to 
the government asking for protection. None came. Then, at dusk on the two 
nights that preceded the massacre, two green military helicopters flew 
above the village in slow circles.

On the day the massacre occurred, soldiers provided safe passage for 
paramilitaries and sealed off the area. The paramilitary unit, led by a 
woman, crushed the heads of the local men with heavy stones and set the 
village on fire. A few minutes later, the helicopters returned, circling again.

The official policy of Colombia's democratic government, led by the 
well-intentioned President Andres Pastrana, holds that the paramilitaries' 
activities are illegal.

Some arrests are being made, but human-rights groups charge that they are 
only for show. Carlos Castano has twenty-two outstanding warrants against 
him. Dozens of Colombian journalists have Castano's cell-phone number, and 
many have visited his compound.

But the army can't seem to find him.

When Andres Pastrana was elected president in 1998, he traveled to 
Washington with a wish list he called Plan Colombia. But it had no military 
component - it was essentially a Marshall Plan to reduce violence in 
Colombia, asking for money for social programs. "Washington's reaction was, 
'That's not the sort of thing we can fund,' " says Adam Isacson, who tracks 
Colombia at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "Plan 
Colombia died by mid-1999."

The resurrected Plan Colombia had a military focus.

Throughout the last years of the 1990s, a debate raged within the Clinton 
administration over what to do about Colombia. One reason for the 
administration's preoccupation was a sense that a large, important, 
relatively prosperous and nearby nation was in a downward spiral.

The peace process was failing, the FARC was on the offensive, the military 
was rumbling and, for the first time in decades, the economy was crashing.

The other problem was that Colombia's coca production was growing, 
threatening to wipe out the success of the anti-coca efforts in Peru and 
Bolivia. The Republicans in Congress were proposing huge military 
counternarcotics packages, daring the administration not to match them. 
"They wanted to accuse the administration of having dropped the ball, of 
being soft on drugs," says one senior Clinton administration official. 
"They had the majority and controlled the purse strings."

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Clinton's drug czar, took the bait. In July 1999, he 
proposed spending an extra $1 billion to fight drugs in the Colombia 
region, with most of the money going for helicopters, interdiction and, 
most controversially, an attempt to take back the coca-growing region of 
Putumayo from the guerrillas. McCaffrey often derided the drug war in 
interviews, arguing that drugs should be called a cancer, not a war. But he 
is at heart a military man, a former commander of Southcom, and has spent 
much of his career in the company of Latin military officials.

In Colombia, he seemed just as interested in fighting guerrillas as in 
stopping the flow of cocaine.

He showed little inclination to help Colombia stop the paras (who are far 
more involved in drug trafficking than the guerrillas). Nor was he 
interested in eradicating the coca fields under the paras' control.

McCaffrey's plan horrified others in the administration. "McCaffrey had to 
be reined in," says one former State Department official. "He wanted to 
take a much harder line to rescue the Colombia government from the 
insurgents." The administration ended up endorsing a plan that sanctioned 
attacks on guerrillas only when they were protecting drug sites.

But McCaffrey's proposal meant that the Clintonites had to propose a large 
package of aid with a military component focused on guerrilla-held 
territory, or else they would be accused of disregarding the dire warnings 
of their own drug czar.

The administration set up working groups on various aspects of Colombia, 
and Clinton officials stress that they traveled to Bogota to consult with 
Pastrana's government. But Colombians and many others see what emerged as a 
Washington plan. "Colombian officials were present in the meetings," says 
Winifred Tate, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin 
America, a liberal policy group.

But "the Colombian congress did not debate or pass the plan before it came 
out." In mid-September, Plan Colombia was unveiled in English. The Spanish 
version emerged several months later.

The plan came to $7.5 billion in total, with $4 billion due to come from 
Bogota and $2 billion from Europe, Japan, Canada and other nations.

So far, however, European countries, wary of being associated with a 
militarized plan, have contributed only a very small fraction of this. "And 
because of the economic crisis, Colombia doesn't have money," says one 
Republican congressional aide who supports the plan. "The only hard cash 
anyone sees is what the U.S, coughed up."

Congressional support for posed the bill House Speaker Dennis Hastert and 
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott were strong proponents. The bill was also 
part of a much larger package of unrelated laws, and so it got very little 
attention. "It's safe to say that fewer than ten members of the Senate 
really engaged in the debate," says Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who 
opposed the bill  and was personally sprayed by a fumigation plane during a 
November trip to Colombia.

No alternative was offered on the floor of Congress, which meant that 
legislators could either vote for the bill or be seen as opposing the War 
on Drugs. "You can't explain the overwhelming vote for it by anything other 
than people felt vulnerable to being accused of not wanting to protect 
children from drugs," says Wellstone. He worries that politicians will now 
treat the spending figures as a new baseline for funding the War on Drugs 
in South America. "Either success or failure can be used to justify greater 
U.S. involvement," he says.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says that the plan was misleadingly sold on 
Capitol Hill as part of a larger package. "Our members were given the 
impression that Plan Colombia was comprehensive," she says. "We were told 
that it contained a great deal of money for social and health and the rest, 
and our piece was only one part of it. Well, the money didn't exist, and we 
still haven't seen it."

Then there was the little matter of the helicopters. The original Clinton 
bill contained money for fifteen small Hueys and thirty Blackhawk 
helicopters, which are expensive and temperamental, but larger, more mobile 
and more capable.

After Congress finished with the plan, there were forty-two Texas-made 
Hueys in the package, and only eighteen Connecticut-made Blackhawks. "It's 
hard to find anyone in the leadership who isn't from Texas," says Rep. 
David Obey (D-Wisc.).  "A number of helicopters were bought on the basis of 
where they were made. It was a political compromise rather than a military 

Few members of Congress believed the plan would accomplish its goals, says 
Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy 
group that works on Latin American issues.

Shifter's organization held panels on Plan Colombia for members of 
Congress. "People walked away from the meetings saying, 'This is going to 
happen, but I'm not confident it's going to work,' " says Shifter. "There 
is the feeling that our drug policy has failed, but in an election year the 
temperature of drug policy always goes up.

"There was an itch," Shifter continues. "People felt that they needed to do 
something. Nobody else had a practical alternative. There was a vacuum, and 
it was filled by people who tried to drive home the drug issue.

It was policy by default."

Although the military component overshadows everything else, mllions of 
dollars in Plan Colombia are actually going to programs that will help the 
Colombian government fight crime and reduce violence.

Plan Colombia will help train judges, prosecutors and police.

Human-rights groups will get bodyguards. There is $68 million for 
alternative development and crop substitution, $37 million to help those 
fleeing the war and $51 million to improve human rights. "If you look at 
the overall budget numbers, the relative increases in the non-military side 
are substantially larger than on the military side," says one former 
Clinton administration official.

But most of the money funds a classic War on Drugs. Nearly $200 million 
goes for drug interdiction in the Andean region, including $62 million for 
intelligence. Within Colombia, $642 million will go to the military and the 
police. The cornerstone of the strategy is the push into the coca fields of 
guerrilla-controlled southern Colombia, which began in December. 
Eventually, there will be thirty-three old and at least sixty new 
helicopters transporting troops from three new battalions formed and 
trained by the United States.

Colombia's army claims that the herbicide spraying killed 70,000 acres of 
coca a third of the region's total in the first six weeks, but along the 
way, the planes have also fumigated yucca and plantain, as well as many of 
the farmers who grow them. But even success is failure when it comes to 
eradicating coca. The coca crop came to Colombia because the United States 
was "successful" in reducing it by sixty-six percent in Bolivia and by 
fifty-five percent in Peru. When the government of Colombia began spraying, 
coca then moved to the Putumayo province, which was under guerrilla 
control. If spraying is effective in Putumayo, an area the size of 
Maryland, there is plenty of acreage for first-class coca cultivation 
nearby. "This is a very expensive game of hopscotch," says a Republican 
congressional aide who favors Plan Colombia.

More harmful still, the planting could shift back into Peru and Bolivia - 
and into Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela - countries that are still cocaine 
virgins, unexposed to the violence and corruption that drug trafficking 
brings. Even before Plan Colombia began,' there was some spillover, with 
cocaine-processing labs showing up in border towns in Ecuador, and the 
occasional skirmish between guerrillas and paras.

But the neighbors are now terrified that Plan Colombia will push coca 
cultivation onto their territory and bring them thousands of new refugees 
from the fighting.

The plan's designers acknowledge that this likely to happen, and have 
included $180 million - which is not enough to help these countries cope.

Some Latin American leaders, such as Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, 
oppose Plan Colombia because they oppose whatever comes from Washington. 
But the fears of other neighbors are more genuine.

They have never favored a militarized approach to drugs.

Latin America has long had a consensus that American consumers are killing 
Colombia - not the other way around  - and that Americans should take care 
of the problem at home.

The most pernicious aspect of Plan Colombia is that by sending the message 
that Washington does not care about paramilitary ties, it has allowed the 
military to tighten its links to the paras and undercut the government's 
ability to break them. The military push will not go into the northern 
zones where the paras control the drug traffic  - only into areas 
historically under guerrilla control.

Before Plan Colombia, the United States did not share non-drug intelligence 
about guerrilla activities with the military, for fear it would be passed 
to the paras and used against innocent civilians.

But we are sharing such information now.

Congress wrote a clause specifying that before the aid could begin, 
Colombia had to dismiss military men credibly accused of collaboration with 
the paras, and try them in civilian courts instead of in military courts, 
where they are virtually always acquitted.

But Congress also added waivers, which allowed the aid to go through for 
"national security" reasons even if these conditions were not met. They 
have not been met, and President Clinton used the waivers to get the money 
flowing even though Colombia had made virtually none of the human-rights 
improvements in essence, winking at Colombia's military and blowing the 
opportunity to use the aid as leverage to control the paras. "From the 
beginning of the process, I can't think of a meeting with the Colombians 
where we didn't talk about human rights," says one former Clinton 
administration official.

But you can talk all you want. It's the money that counts.
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