Colombia Military's Link With Drug Dealers

By , Coletta Youngers is an associate at The Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit organization that monitors US foreign policy and human rights in Latin America. She has traveled to Colombia twice this year.

THE United States ``war on drugs'' is increasingly taking on the dimensions of a real war, and Colombia is the main battlefront. The drug kingpins themselves have declared a ``total war,'' and true to their word, a series of bombings illustrates the extent to which they can threaten the rule of law. In response, the US government obtained $65 million in aid for the Colombian military - an unprecedented move, representing the highest amount ever drawn from the emergency fund and the first time ever that such funds have been used for antinarcotics purposes.

But whether this aid (and the additional $261 million for the Andean nations promised by President Bush last week) will make even a dent in the drug trade is highly dubious. Moreover, the US government is sliding down a slippery slope of intervention in a war it is destined to lose.

Combating the Colombian drug traffickers is not a question of military might but of political will. Arresting suspected traffickers and expropriating property, as the Colombian government has been doing, are important moves. However, the Colombian security forces have yet to confront the military arm of the traffickers: the paramilitary structure which underlies political and drug-related violence in Colombia. Until the military shows the political will to do so, US aid is rendered meaningless - and may even end up in the hands of the very people we are trying to combat.

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More than 140 paramilitary organizations exist, most of which are organized and financed by traffickers. Operating like death squads but with the weaponry of mini-armies, they are responsible for the political killings and massacres ordered by the drug kingpins.

Anxious to invest their profits in legitimate business enterprises, over the last five years the drug lords have purchased 2.5 million acres of Colombia's most productive agricultural land. Rabid anticommunists, they have united with traditional landowners to arm and train paramilitary organizations, ostensibly to rid the area of guerrillas. Joining the alliance are members of the Colombian security forces, military, and police, who resort to paramilitary activity for profit or out of frustration with the inability to win the battle against the guerrilla insurgencies.

In fact, the paramilitary death squads have displaced guerrillas from areas where they have enjoyed substantial popular support. But more often than not, the targets of violence are Colombia's growing nonviolent progressive forces, such as civic movements, peasant and labor unions, and a newly formed political party, the Patriotic Union. Last year there were 2,738 political assassinations, including 82 massacres of four or more civilians.

Colombian government investigators and human rights activists have compiled significant evidence implicating members of the military and police in paramilitary activity. For example, last November a dozen heavily armed men drove into the mining town of Segovia and opened fire for about 45 minutes, leaving at least 43 dead and over 50 wounded. The special prosecutor for the Armed Forces charged army and police commanders with negligence in not responding to the attack, pointing to a series of factors that indicate they had prior knowledge of the threat. Unfortunately, military complicity in such atrocities is not an exceptional occurrence.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that Colombian security forces have yet to show the political will to engage in battle with the paramilitary arm. Within this context, US military aid only serves to exacerbate internal political conflict. At best, it will not impact on narcotics trafficking, and at worst, some may end up in the hands of the drug lords themselves. Sending US troops, even in a technical role, unnecessarily risks American lives and entangles them in domestic political turmoil. Perhaps of greater concern, the history of US intervention in the third world leads one to question where our involvement will end. Out of frustration with a battle that cannot be won, will the US withdraw or escalate its presence? Unfortunately, our legacy - particularly in Vietnam - portends the latter.

Sending military aid and advisers provides a visible and immediate response, but ultimately the ``war'' on drugs must be waged at home. Supply of narcotics will continue from third-world nations as long as US demand provides the profits. Curtailing demand is a long-term goal; however, more immediate measures can be taken. Despite several publicized sting operations, little has been done to confront virtually institutionalized drug money laundering in the US, which provides a profit haven for the traffickers. Moreover, 95 percent of all precursor chemicals used in cocaine production comes from US companies. In both cases, appropriate legislation exists, but enforcement remains lax.

Like the Colombian military, we must show the will to combat drugs. The battle must be won at home, not on foreign soil.

-30-{et

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