Three years ago this summer, President Clinton signed a $1.3 billion spending bill for “Plan Colombia,” aimed at curbing violence in Colombia and drug abuse in the United States. Don’t expect festive anniversary celebrations this summer, though, in either the barrios and rural villages of Colombia or the overburdened drug rehab centers here. The Bush Administration has invoked the ubiquitous terrorism justification to try to keep this floundering policy going, but concerns are mounting.
The bulk of the 2000 aid package paid for helicopters and training for a Colombian counterdrug brigade, as well as spray planes to fumigate fields of coca, the raw ingredient in the cocaine that provides some of the guerrillas’ funding. The policy objectives have not been met, but Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars more each year and extended the plan’s mission.
Colombia is home to three groups classified as terrorists: the left-wing FARC and ELN guerrillas and the pro-government AUC paramilitaries. It took only eight months after 9/11 for Congress to expand US engagement from fighting drugs to “a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking [and] against activities by organizations designated as terrorist organizations.” On the grounds of fighting terrorism, seventy Special Forces troops were sent to Arauca province in January to begin training Colombian soldiers to hunt down guerrillas and protect an oil pipeline partly owned by Occidental Petroleum.
This year, House Democrats have increasingly argued that there is no quick fix for the complex challenges facing Colombia but that military aid and aerial fumigation have made things worse. The facts are on their side. Today, the guerrillas and paramilitaries continue to participate in the drug trade and kill, kidnap and torture civilians, particularly in the Putumayo and Arauca regions targeted by US policy. Since last summer, an average of nineteen people have been killed every day for political reasons, compared with an average of fifteen each day during the year before Plan Colombia. The United Nations and State Department both report that Colombian security forces are still working with the paramilitaries and directly committing abuses of their own. Last year, the FARC killed nine local mayors and forced hundreds to resign, while the paramilitaries were responsible for most of the 184 assasinations of trade unionists–by far the highest rate in the world. The number of internal refugees increased sharply, with some estimates showing nearly a million people fleeing their homes during the three years of Plan Colombia.
The Justice Department reported in January that cocaine continued to be “widely available” in the United States. Efforts to combat drugs at the source have only managed to shift coca to new regions and back to old ones, as the law of supply and demand has kept total coca cultivation in the Andean region at around 200,000 hectares (540,000 acres) for fifteen years.
These and other concerns have made Colombia policy one of the most controversial aspects of the foreign aid bill in the House, where most of the Democrats, led by Congressman Jim McGovern, voted against military aid twice this year. Meanwhile, across the Capitol, no senators are publicly leading the charge against this policy the way the courageous Paul Wellstone did. It appears that this year, just as in 2002, there will be no Senate floor debate or vote on Colombia.