BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The routine for a decade or so was that human rights advocates denounced the Colombian military in the US press, the military denounced the human rights advocates in the local press, and Washington took no notice.
So it must have come as a surprise to generals last month when the Clinton administration came out in defense of the Army's critics. "We disagree with the ... decision to single out those who express criticism over the extremely serious human rights situation in Colombia," said spokesman James Rubin in the first of two statements from the White House last month, attacking statements made by the head of the armed forces.
Human rights is one of the issues drawing Washington's attention to Colombia, which used to be seen only through the filter of drug policy, analysts say. Colombia's annual export of 800,000 kilos of cocaine is still the main issue, but the US has begun taking notice of the 34-year-old civil war and the government's disastrous rights record.
Human rights groups estimate Colombia has some 1,000 politically motivated murders a year. Last year, there were 87 homicides and 5 abductions each day.
"The issue here is Colombia's potential as a factor to destabilize the entire region," says Colombia analyst Andres Franco.
Colombia's situation has become more critical during Ernesto Samper's presidency. His credibility was hampered from the start by drug-related scandals. With the government lacking authority, leftist guerrillas have grown in power, and that has Washington worried about its economic interests from Venezuela to Peru, says Mr. Franco. But, he notes, the Colombian quandary is not quickly understood.
"The process now is a learning one," says Franco, noting that the Pentagon and the White House recently have been inviting Colombian academics to Washington.
While they're learning, the US is sending some contradictory messages to Bogot, he says. The first flap was over a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report that stated that Colombia's leftist rebels, who have grown to about 15,000, could take control of the country in just five years time, due to the inefficiency of the Army. Colombian generals and Mr. Samper all made angry statements about gringo intervention.
"Not even the guerrillas think that the guerrillas will win in five years," says Daniel Garcia Pea, Colombia's top peace negotiator.
Only days after the row, the head of the US Southern Command, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, made a joint statement with the commander of the Colombian armed forces affirming his admiration for the professionalism of the Colombian Army. In the same statement, General Wilhelm rejected accusations that the Army was intentionally not combating right-wing paramilitary groups.
But a letter signed by 34 US congressmen, issued on the same day as Wilhelm's statement, appealed to Samper to investigate possible links between the Army and the paramilitaries.
Last month Washington revoked the US travel visa of Colombian Gen. Ivan Ramirez. Pulling visas is a measure the US has previously only used to address drug corruption.
But General Ramirez had commanded the division of the Army in Uraba - where the US believes the Army and paramilitaries may have worked hand-in-hand. And the general was in charge of the Army's 20th intelligence brigade. For two years running, the State Department has singled out the 20th for its suspected links to death squads.
Last month the brigade was disbanded. Both the president and the head of the armed forces denied that the move was due to outside pressure, but Army chief Gen. Mario Hugo Galan admitted that it was. "This year, criticism of the 20th has intensified both inside and outside the country, and that provoked the suggestion that it be deactivated," he says.
While on some fronts the new attention has led to action from Washington, in others the debates are only stopping up the works.
A perfect example is helicopters. While the US agrees it should continue to help with Colombia's drug-crop eradication program, Congress has put the assistance on hold arguing about how. The White House was set to spend $36 million to upgrade UH-1H helicopters already on the ground. But a Republican effort, spearheaded by House International Relations Committee chair Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, wants to spend the money on three new UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopters instead.
"Blackhawks are not the best ways to spend the money," says the US Embassy in Bogot, noting they cost five times as much to keep in the air. Representative Gilman has said anything less shows a lack of desire to fight drugs, and he has put aid money where his mouth is. The aid is frozen, and until an agreement is reached, so is a great part of Colombia's eradication program.