Pubdate: 9 Aug 1999
Source: Newsweek (US)
Author: Joshua Hammer and Michael Isikoff


When a U.S. Army plane went down in the jungles of southern Colombia,
American officials sought to downplay it as a routine anti-narcotics patrol.
But this was guerrilla country, a stronghold of the Marxist Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). And the U.S. Army DeHavilland RC-7 was
packed with sophisticated intelligence equipment for the interception of
radio and cell-phone communications—just the sort of equipment that would be
useful in tracking guerrilla movements. "This had to do with surveillance,"
said one source familiar with the flight's mission. "We're not supposed to
be monitoring guerrillas, but that's what they were doing." American
officials in Colombia are only supposed to be fighting drugs. But as
Colombia's guerrillas turn to drug trafficking to finance their 40-year-old
struggle, the war against drugs becomes a war against them too.

The crash of the U.S. spy plane was only the most recent example of the
Pentagon's expanding role in Colombia's civil war. NEWSWEEK has learned that
more than 300 U.S. personnel are in the country: 200 soldiers and more than
100 Drug Enforcement Administration and CIA operatives. Washington gives
$250 million to Colombia, the third biggest recipient of U.S. aid, after
Egypt and Israel. White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey visited the country
last week and proposed doubling that amount. McCaffrey arrived just as
Colombian and American search teams reached the wreckage of the RC-7 plane
containing the bodies of five U.S. soldiers—including a woman pilot—and two
Colombians. These were not the first Americans to die. Since 1997 three
American pilots flying drug-interdiction missions for DynCorp, a private
U.S. military contractor, have been killed. Some U.S. officials are wary. "
[This] is a 1964 model of Vietnam," said one congressional staffer.

So far the largely covert effort, easily the biggest U.S. military mission
in Latin America, has had little effect. Buoyed by an estimated $600 million
in annual profits from the drug trade, the FARC has built up its armory and
extended its control. "There are armed organizations with more automatic
weapons than the Colombian Army," McCaffrey told NEWSWEEK.

Until recently Colombia's drug war has been fought by its national police,
not the Army. The police force sprays fields with chemical defoliants in
conjunction with DynCorp, and conducts helicopter raids on drug
laboratories—mostly carried out in aging Vietnam-era A1-H1 "Hueys." But the
police lack the arms and the training to battle an increasingly aggressive
guerrilla force. "The police are getting their a—-s kicked," says a
top-ranking U.S. military source. "They go in with two helicopters, run into
100 FARC, and get chewed up."

That may soon change. In September the national police will receive six
Black Hawk attack helicopters, high-altitude fliers that can provide
protection to planes defoliating mountainside poppy fields. By December the
U.S. Special Forces will have finished training a special anti-narcotics
battalion of the Colombian Army, a 980-man, rapid reaction force capable of
fighting the FARC on its own turf. Some congressmen worry, though, about the
deplorable human-rights record of the Colombian military, which often
cooperates with right-wing paramilitaries. In the first four months of this
year, the paramilitaries killed or "disappeared" 400 suspected guerrilla
sympathizers. There are also doubts that targeting the coca fields makes
sense. The areas of cultivation are bigger than Switzerland. "There are not
enough chemicals in the entire United States to kill the s—t down there,"
says a U.S. military source in Bogota. Areas of cocaine cultivation have
actually increased by 50 percent in the last two years, according to a
congressional report.

American officials say that taking no action against the FARC will invite a
widening of the civil war, and a flood of cocaine and heroin onto America's
streets. "There is no desire in the United States to send troops to Colombia
to fight a guerrilla war that the Colombians themselves have—until
recently—not committed themselves to fighting," says one U.S. government
source. He insisted, though, that only military hardware—not men—will be
dispatched to Colombia's guerrilla-ruled jungles. That promise sounded
somewhat hollow as Capt. Jennifer Odom, 29, the pilot, and the four other
U.S. crew members were flown back in body bags to Dover Air Force Base in
Delaware at 2 a.m. Saturday, for a ceremony closed to the public. At the
rate things are going, they may not be the last ones to make that journey.

With Mark Duffy in Bogota and John Barry in Washington

Newsweek International, August 9, 1999

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