As the United States becomes ever more deeply enmeshed in Colombia, individual Americans here, conscious of the threat of kidnapping or guerrilla attack, are rarely seen in public. Equally difficult to find is any concrete effect of the $2.2 million-a-day US aid program. With the country now into the third year of a crushing recession, factories remain shuttered while the unemployed sell tangerines, shoelaces, cookies and bootleg CDs on the clogged streets. Farmland is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few rural barons, causing a million recently dispossessed campesinos to crowd into Bogotá's satellite slums. The country's infrastructure--its roads, schools and clinics--slowly waste without repair.
Indeed, to glimpse any effect of US aid you have to travel to the grimy southern side of this capital to a cluster of incongruously gleaming and heavily fortified buildings that are, in effect, Colombia's Pentagon. Walk into the marble-floored and track-lit headquarters of Colombia's national antinarcotics police and the generosity of that aid, as well as the incestuous relationship between Washington and Colombia's military machine, are suddenly evident. Outside the door of Commanding Gen. Gustavo Socha's office, mounted on a tripod, is an oversize photo of a grinning George W. Bush celebrating his election. Next to it is a full-color promotional illustration of a US-made Black Hawk attack helicopter. In the general's waiting room, visitors are attended to by a young, uniformed press officer, a polished graduate of the recently renamed School of the Americas, run by the US Army. Also present is an equally young security officer just returned from an intelligence training course at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
In case there's any doubt about the level of American involvement here, the office adjoining General Socha's is occupied by a craggy, Clint Eastwood clone in civilian clothes, a former US Army colonel. A veteran trainer at the School of the Americas, the ex-colonel now works with the State Department's Narcotics Affairs Section and is deployed as full-time adviser to General Socha.
Countless other federal drug and intelligence agents also work in Colombia. In addition there are a couple of hundred or more US military advisers training three new elite battalions of the Colombian Army. Dozens of US choppers are also arriving here: one fleet of "Super Hueys," mostly for the Colombian Army, and a squadron of top-of-the-line Black Hawks, allocated mostly to Socha's antidrug troops. Along with them come an unknown number of private contract US pilots and helicopter technical crews. Another batch of private contract Americans are here to fly the crop-dusters that spray toxic herbicides over the coca-rich countryside. Supporting this operation are four new so-called Forward Operating Locations--US military intelligence outposts--in Ecuador, Aruba, Curaçao and El Salvador.
General Socha, in an interview, calls the US aid "crucial" to his efforts. "The value of the American technical assistance, the exchange of know-how, the electronic intelligence, the exchange of intelligence, cannot be overestimated," he says. And of course, neither can the helicopters. "They give us irreplaceable mobility and security for our operations."
All this largesse is paid for by a two-year, $1.6 billion US aid package shaped by the Clinton Administration, approved with little Congressional or public debate and wide bipartisan support, now inherited by the Bush White House. Commonly called Plan Colombia, its stated goal is to aid the Colombian government in wiping out half of the 300,000 acres of coca fields in Colombia within five years. About 80 percent of the program is strictly military, most of it focused on a "push" kicked off in early December into southern Colombia's Putumayo region, where about half the country's coca crop grows.
Colombia is now the third-largest recipient of US aid in the world, after Israel and Egypt. And it seems likely that more US aid will soon be on the way. Colombian President Andres Pastrana met with President Bush in Washington in late February and asked for an ongoing US commitment.
American supporters of the plan point to Colombia as the source of 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States and about 60 percent of the heroin that flows to the East Coast. The billion-dollar interest in Colombia, say US officials, can be summed up in one word: drugs. But critics claim Plan Colombia is a blueprint for war. They argue that Colombia has a surplus of violence and warfare and that the last thing it needs is another military-based program, especially one that embroils the United States in armed conflict with Colombian guerrillas who have their strongholds in the coca-growing countryside.
Indeed, rifle-toting groups--from the army and police to various guerrilla groups, counterguerrilla death squads and criminal gangs--are so prevalent in Colombian political life that most analysts simply lump them together under the deceptively delicate term "the armed actors." And what a ghastly tragic-opera this ensemble has produced. The greatly escalated US involvement comes as a forty-year dirty war between the Colombian government and the continent's most entrenched guerrilla army spins into a blood frenzy; as an armed right-wing "paramilitary" force burgeons in size and asserts its presence by butchering unprecedented numbers of civilian victims; as hundreds of thousands of rural families are "displaced" by the rampaging violence; as Colombia becomes the kidnapping capital of the world; as a national peace process hangs by a thread; and as the worst economic recession in a half-century ravages the lower and middle classes and drives unemployment to a stratospheric 20 percent. "No less than a generalized humanitarian crisis" is how Colombia's semiautonomous national human rights ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes, describes the situation.
Against this backdrop, the US plan to put four-fifths of its mammoth aid program into a Colombian military buildup seems to many the precise opposite of what is needed. Says political analyst Carlos De Roux of the Jesuit-run Fundacion Social, "If you have a patient who is very ill and whose internal organs are inflamed, you don't just intervene with a scalpel and start tearing away at more flesh and tissue. Instead, you make a diagnosis of the root causes of the problem and you begin treatment by stabilizing the patient, not further aggravating him."