The US military has just been drawn a little deeper into Colombia's civil war with leftist guerrillas.
A US Army plane was lost Friday in a guerrilla stronghold of southern Colombia. Seven people were on board, including five US Army soldiers and two Colombian Air Force officers. The wreckage has been sighted. It's not clear yet if bad weather or rebel gunfire downed the plane. But the incident may mark a turning point as US military antidrug assistance becomes intertwined with Colombia's civil war.
The risk, say opponents of more military assistance to Colombia, is that in the name of curbing drug flow, the US is being inexorably sucked into another war - as in El Salvador or Vietnam.
But supporters, now seeking to triple assistance for drug interdiction in South America, say the risk is more drugs on US streets. Colombia produces about 80 percent of the world's cocaine and more than two-thirds of heroin used in the US. Cocaine production has increased 50 percent over the past four years and at current levels, is expected to increase another 50 percent over the next two years.
Marxist guerrillas - engaged in a civil war with their government - control much of the country's cocaine- and heroin-producing regions. And critics argue that antidrug work and antiguerrilla activity slip dangerously close.
Colombian and US officials say the guerrillas are better paid and equipped than the Colombian Army. The rebels make more than $600 million annually in drug-related income - through "taxation" on production and protection provided to laboratories and airstrips. This protection involves routinely shooting at US planes involved in antinarcotics work.
Last Thursday, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, repeated its opposition to US government involvement in Colombia. Its leaders insist that Colombian officials claim they are involved in the drug trade to draw the US into supporting the government in a military solution to the four-decade-old rebel war.
On Saturday, President Clinton dispatched White House drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey to Colombia to review South America's drug interdiction efforts and an installation of new regional antidrug facilities in Ecuador. White House concerns over deterioration in Colombia's antidrugs battle were sure to be one-upped by the search for the missing plane, but General McCaffrey will undoubtedly continue to press for increased assistance - $1 billion - he first proposed last month.
Colombia's heavily US-financed drug eradication program - topping $280 million from the US this year - is a story of both good and bad news. The good news is that in regions where aerial fumigation has been concentrated, former horizon-busting expanses of coca plants have been reduced to small patches. "The pilots are finding fewer opportunities to spray," a US official says.
But the bad news is that the successful eradication drives the drug growers to different regions. And many of the new drug hot spots, including Putamayo along the Ecuadoran border, where the US plane was reported missing, are controlled by the guerrillas fighting the government. "No one disputes the explosion of growth" in nontraditonal growing regions of the country, the US official adds.
According to a recent General Accounting Office report, the 50 percent rise in cocaine production is largely attributable to the guerrillas. It's their growing involvement in drug-trafficking activities, the report says, "that is complicating Colombia's capacity to reduce the drug trade."
Even Colombian officials who play up the guerrillas' drug links to win US sympathy would like to hear more from the US on how unstanched drug use is the root cause of Colombia's drug woes. But these officials don't deny the increasing drug production - and the fact that much of it is in rebel-held territory is just one reason the Colombian Army is preparing to deploy in December a 950-soldier, US-trained "antinarcotics batallion."
The new battalion signals both the Army's foray into antidrug activities, traditionally handled by the National Police, and the Army's return to the good graces of the US. For the past decade US relations with the Army have been kept distant by concerns over human rights abuses. But US officials now say they are confident a period of "reform" in the Colombian Army has resulted in a much more human-rights-sensitive military.
US work with the military also will include what the State Department calls a "slight shift" to allow the sharing of US intelligence on the guerrillas with the military when the information is considered pertinent to the safe operation of antidrug operations.
But wider involvement by the Colombian military in the drug war is sure to raise concerns about the wisdom of encouraging - and for the US, financing - the tendency.
Despite past rivalries and the special relationship Colombia's National Police have developed with the US, the director of the antinarcotics police says the new battalion will be a plus. "We consider it a positive addition of support for the strong effort the Colombian government is already undertaking" against the drug trade, says Col. Jos Leonardo Gallego.
But critics insist that involving armies in the hemispheric drug war only exposes them to corruption and other threats they can do without. They cite the case of Mexico, where, under steady pressure and coaxing with financing from the US, the Army has gradually stepped up its role in the drug battle over the past decade.
The results? Spreading tentacles of the drug mafias within the Army's ranks, critics claim, backed up by high-profile cases of officers' ties to drug organizations. And even the US Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledges that Mexico's drug mafias have only gotten stronger since the military has been drawn into the drug war.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society