Source: New York Times (NY)
Pubdate: Mon, 22 Jun 1998
Author: Editorial Page Editors


Washington's growing involvement in a brutal Latin American guerrilla war
echoes the opening stages of American intervention in the conflict in El
Salvador in the 1980's.

Diana Jean Schemo and Tim Golden reported in The Times earlier this
month that much of the aid the Pentagon is giving Colombia's military
to fight cocaine is being used instead to fight guerrillas.

American special-forces trainers now work in Colombia, teaching the
military such skills as jungle maneuvering and psychological
operations. While the level of support is far below American aid to
the Salvadoran military in the 1980's, the Administration is unwisely
considering an increase. As in El Salvador, American aid is going to
an abusive and inept army fighting vicious Marxist guerrillas.

The guerrillas kill politicians and kidnap Americans. The military has
strong ties to paramilitary death squads, which massacre peasants and
murder human rights workers and left-wing politicians. Last year, 10
people a day died in political murders.

Seventy percent of the killings were attributed to soldiers or

Support for the army also undermines Colombia's precarious civilian

The military is defying a Constitutional Court ruling to reform its
justice system. Generals have openly refused to obey presidential
orders relating to peace. Advocates of increased military aid and
training, who mainly work in the Pentagon, contend that Colombia's
soldiers need light infantry training and equipment and other skills
that can be used against any foe. 

They and the White Hose drug office call the insurgents "narco-guerrillas"
and argue that the battles against drugs and against guerrillas cannot be

But training will take years to make a difference, and Colombia's military has
often rejected useful advice in the past. The narco-guerrilla
connection is disputed by many in the Colombian Government and the
American State Department, who call it a label invented by the
Colombian military to allow it to use the aid to fight guerrillas.

Myles Frechette, the American Ambassador to Colombia until the end of
1997, publicly criticized the term, and American intelligence services
in 1996 concluded that the term was far overblown.

Ironically, there may be strong ties between the paramilitaries and
the traffickers. Colombia's investigative police say Carlos CastaF1o,
a top paramilitary leader, heads a drug cartel.

As in El Salvador, peace talks are the only solution to a civil war
neither side can win. Colombians overwhelmingly endorsed talks in a
referendum last year. Now, President-elect AndrE9s Pastrana is
promising to meet soon with guerrillas, who are also showing new
interest in peace. Washington can best support the talks by
terminating its aid to a military that has undermined them.

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