US ups ante on Colombia's drugs

Congress could vote on a $1.6 billion package that is expected to be approved as early as this week.

By post-cold-war logic, Colombia's guerrilla war should have ended some time in the nineties, as other ideological conflicts in Latin America did.

Colombia's war has not merely dragged on; it has intensified.

The reason? In recent years, the country's insurgent parties have built up a sizable war chest via close association with cocaine and heroin traffickers. Through "taxation" of drug production and charging for crop protection and other services, Colombia's guerrillas - and increasingly the much-feared paramilitary groups - have built up an annual income estimated at $500 million.

With this backdrop of a drug-fueled war, the US is proposing a $1.6 billion aid package for Colombia - aimed primarily at eradicating drug crops, but many observers worry cash will be used against guerrillas.

In Colombia, most people take it as a given that warfare and narcotics production are closely intertwined, and that until the two are uncoupled a conflict with terrible civilian costs is likely to continue. Recognizing the close link between drugs and combat, critics say the increased US role in antinarcotics operations in Colombia risks putting the US on the road to another Vietnam. And to fanning the flames of war.

"If the guerrillas' expectation is that [the stepped-up aid] means more military action against them - and that is what they have said - then they will certainly intensify their own military potential and action," says Alvaro Caldern, an international-relations specialist at Bogot's Jorge Todeo Lozano University.

But Washington discounts those fears.

"We would still have no more military personnel than we had in 1999, or for that matter in '98, '97, or '96," says a senior US Embassy official in Bogot. The "ground rules" forbidding any US personnel from going on operations with the Colombian military also would not change. "That means military, DEA, anybody here is working in a liaison capacity. That's very different from the 'next Vietnam.' "

However, US officials acknowledge that the Colombia question is not black and white. American assistance, they say, could be funneled into antiguerrilla operations to the extent that the rebels maintain their ties to the drug trade.

For the Colombian government, the US money is a keystone of President Andrs Pastrana's $7 billion "Plan Colombia" (about half of which is funded by Bogot itself). The peace initiative highlights military muscle-building and rural development as the means to forcing rebel armies to negotiate a settlement in the country's 40-year civil conflict. The US aid package, largely designed to train and equip the Colombian military to strike the country's soaring cocaine crop, was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday. It could reach a full House vote as early as this week, and is expected to pass despite opposition from fiscal conservatives.

Critics in Colombia fear the immediate risk is an intensification of the war - especially with the plan's military aid coming from the US. Others say the social and rural-development aspects are so far only laudable ideas without concrete projects, and are thus a recipe for corruption.

On the other hand, officials present the US package as a challenge to Colombia's rebels, especially to the largest organization, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), to prove their stated desire to disengage from supporting the drug trade.

"If the FARC is serious about getting away from the narcotics business, then the alternative development in this plan should be of interest to them," says one US official. "If the guerrillas [so] choose, they don't have to continue to protect the narcos, [but] if they do ... this [aid] will be used against them."

About three-fourths of the US money is earmarked for the Colombian military - new high-tech helicopters, training of additional antinarcotics battalions - but it also includes $90 million for alternative development programs to wean farmers from coca.

The US warning echoes the position of President Pastrana, who walks a thin line, pushing both a more capable war-fighting military and peace negotiations set to resume again April 9. Yet while it doesn't satisfy the surprisingly numerous Colombians who openly wish for a direct US military intervention, it also alarms those who fear an intensification of fighting.

International human rights groups led by Human Rights Watch in Washington are also lobbying Congress, focusing on the Colombian Army's poor past human rights record and evidence that it has tolerated paramilitary groups.

Bogot's daily El Espectador in February published a four-page investigation of the 1997 massacre of 49 people in Mapiripn, Colombia, at the hands of paramilitary soldiers. It found that the massacre was planned by a Colombian Army colonel who was receiving training from American Green Berets.

US officials say they recognize the human rights issue's gravity, but insist the Army's commitment to cleaning up past performance changed after Pastrana took office 18 months ago. "We are able to work with the armed forces because they now have a ... commitment at the top to put an end to human rights abuses," says the embassy official.

What is encouraging, according to Colombian drug policy expert Sergio Uribe, is that the FARC appears to recognize that its pact with the drug trade is zapping its political legitimacy.

"They need a peace settlement that gets them away from the drug trade," says Mr. Uribe. And they know it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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