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.”

A Typical Day: 26 Massacred, 10 Missing

The tectonic class divide in Colombian society emerges in this mountainous Andean capital of 6 million as a near-perfect geographic split. The southern half of the city melts into the legendary Ciudad Bolivar, a sprawling and violent Casbah-like ghetto whose inhabitants boast that it’s too dangerous even for the army to enter. Northern Bogotá, meanwhile, flaunts designer boutiques from Hugo Boss to Mont Blanc, along with Colombia’s equivalent of Wall Street. At its edge, it neatly melds into foothill neighborhoods festooned with elegant high-rise condos whose rooftops are often shrouded in a gossamer mountain fog. On any Sunday, take a stroll down Avenida Chile toward the discos, casinos and outdoor cafes of the northern Zona Rosa and there is a cop, or even a soldier, on every corner–not to menace, but to protect the social elite bunkered into this rarefied enclave. For while the war that rips through the countryside is barely heard here in the capital, its byproducts, especially pandemic kidnappings, haunt the daily routines of the better-off. It might be a short-term abduction triggered by stepping into a “taxi” whose driver, at gunpoint, forces his fare to sign a sheaf of blank checks or surrender his ATM card and code. Or it could be the real deal–one that demands the family patrimony as ransom. So, to enter just about any public building, or even a private apartment house, in Bogotá is to go through the same security routines as at the jumpiest of international airports: sign in with armed private security guards, trade a photo ID for a visitor’s badge and, often, pass through a metal detector.

Which is precisely the ritual that precedes a visit with David Buitrago, legal director of Pais Libre, a nonprofit that fights kidnapping. “Hardly anyone feels safe here anymore,” he says as he pulls out a sheet with the latest tallies. “In ten years we have gone from 100 kidnappings a year to 3,706 during the year 2000.” That’s not only a 16 percent increase over the previous year but also about 50 percent of all the kidnappings in the world. All the “armed actors” do it. Usually for money. Last year 75 percent of abductions were carried out by guerrillas, mostly by the largest of the insurgent groups, the FARC and the ELN; 10 percent were committed by the right-wing paramilitaries. “While the paramilitaries kidnap fewer, their victims most frequently just disappear,” Buitrago says dryly. And he worries that Plan Colombia will make matters worse. “If the plan really cuts into the drug trade from which all the armed actors profit,” he says, “it might force them to increase kidnappings to make up the difference.” And it’s not just the rich who feel threatened. A recent poll showed that a mind-boggling 43 percent of Colombians fear they could be kidnapped. “Let’s face it,” says Buitrago, “Everyone wants to leave Colombia.”

Consider three news articles on the front page of the Bogotá papers on January 19, the day I meet with Buitrago. One piece reports that a right-wing paramilitary group entered the northern town of Chengue two days before, rounded up the villagers and beat twenty-six of them to death with stones and machetes. As sixty homes were set on fire, the attackers fled with ten other live victims. The article goes on to say that this is the latest in more than 150 “massacres” by the paras in the past eighteen months, which have cost more than 1,500 lives. The leader of these death squads, Carlos Castano, says the news report, is wanted on twenty-two different warrants but has not been arrested. Another article reports that Bill Clinton’s State Department, with only hours left before the Bush transition, employed a loophole in the US aid package and “voluntarily” decided to “skip” having to certify that the Colombian government has complied with US human rights demands attached to Plan Colombia legislation–specifically, suppression of the paramilitary death squads. The third news article reports that Gen. Peter Pace of the Pentagon’s Southern Command has arrived in Bogotá to say that eighteen Super Hueys have been put into the hands of the Colombian military. The deadlier Black Hawks, says General Pace, will arrive by July.

Clinton’s wink at the human rights certification on the same day as the Chengue massacre should provoke no special outrage. The bloodshed here is continuous. More than 35,000 Colombians have died in political violence over the past decade. “What we have in Colombia isn’t a civil war,” says Ombudsman Cifuentes. “What we have is a war of the armed actors against civil society.”

La Violencia

President Pastrana was elected in 1998 on a peace platform, vowing to end a half-century of violence and war. He spoke boldly of a sort of Colombian Marshall Plan that would seek foreign assistance to fight corruption, give some depth to Latin America’s oldest formal democracy, reform the justice system, negotiate a settlement with the leftist guerrillas and, yes, fight the drug trade. He asked for $3.5 billion in foreign support which he would match with $4 billion in Colombian government funding.

Pastrana’s election so stirred the hopes of a war-weary nation that soon after his election, millions of Colombians came into the streets rallying for peace. At first blush, the aristocratic, fine-featured President seems an unlikely choice to play such a historic role. His father, Misael Pastrana, was a lackluster president in the early 1970s. And Pastrana’s Conservative Party is hardly the voice of the common people. But, then again, Colombia defies nearly all Latin American stereotypes. It has produced no significant stretch of military rule nor any sustained populist or nationalist movement of the sort common elsewhere on the continent. The political left, meanwhile, has been historically weak.

For most of this century, the Colombian political stage has been so monopolized by two major parties, the equally ill-named Conservatives and Liberals, that from the mid-1950s into the 1970s they even governed together with no real opposition. “Strangely, we have a deep democratic institutionality that coexists with the most barbaric violence, and the state has a foot in both,” says analyst Carlos de Roux.

Bloodletting in Colombia became more or less a permanent fixture back in 1948 when a popular presidential candidate was murdered. Mass rioting turned into an era known as La Violencia, which stretched into the 1960s. At that time, some of the peasant groups that had armed themselves as self-defense militias became politicized and, under the leadership of the now-septuagenarian Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda, morphed into the leftist guerrilla group known as the FARC–today a well-armed force of 18,000 fighters. Other smaller Marxist insurgencies flowered. The FARC and to a lesser degree the 3,000 member ELN have through the decades extended their reach over sizable chunks of sparsely populated Colombian countryside but failed to gain much support elsewhere. “Be clear on the FARC,” says Mauricio Vargas, an editor and columnist at Gabriel García Márquez’s weekly, Cambio. “They are not your Che Guevara, Comandante Marcos sort of romantic guerrilla force.”

That’s an understatement. While originally rooted in Marxism, the FARC has moved into criminal activity. Its base of operations in southern Colombia overlaps some of the richest coca-growing regions in the world. For some time now, the FARC has harvested rich revenues by levying a “tax” on the coca-growers, in return for which the FARC protects the growers from attack. Recently, there is growing evidence that the guerrillas have gone deeper into the coca trade, expanding into processing and edging into trafficking and sales.

Colombia’s–and President Pastrana’s–dilemma is this: Poverty and social inequality produce not only coca plantations and violence but also dogged guerrilla armies. And eventually they all become intertwined. How to undo this Gordian knot?

Talking Peace–Planning War

President Pastrana met with US officials in 1999, showing them his comprehensive national reconstruction plan and asking them to fund a significant part of it. He came out of those meetings with a $1.5 billion opening commitment. But in those same meetings, the Plan Colombia playbook got radically redrafted. The Marshall Plan aspect of the blueprint was pushed aside. Shoved to the top were a militarized drug war and an El Salvador-like counterinsurgency plan. “Maybe the rewritten Plan Colombia is the price Pastrana had to pay the US to be able to proceed with the peace process,” speculates Carlos de Roux.

Pastrana pushed ahead with his peace initiative, meeting with the FARC’s Marulanda and even granting the guerrillas a temporary demilitarized zone to be used as a staging area for negotiations. But because the talks produced no cease-fire, the fighting has intensified as all sides escalate in order to win bargaining advantages. Government forces, badly hurt by the guerrillas from 1997 to 1999, have gone on the offensive. The FARC has also ratcheted up its forced recruitment, its drug involvement and its kidnapping for ransom.

Not only has the United States been lukewarm to the peace talks–many Colombians have also soured on their prospects. To the revulsion of millions, the FARC used the demilitarized zone to hold kidnapped hostages. Meanwhile, it allowed coca cultivation, while its attacks on civilian areas rose. The FARC formally froze the peace talks in November, demanding that President Pastrana take effective action against the right-wing paramilitaries if he wanted to renew the negotiations.

Which brings us to the latest set of “armed actors,” the paramilitaries, at least 11,000 well-armed troops financed by the wealthiest coca barons and committed to exterminating the leftist guerrillas and their supporters. From their stronghold in the north, the paras have started branching out nationwide and are locked into a particularly bloody struggle with the guerrillas to secure access to the Pacific Coast–a key to maintaining the coca trade. “In the past few years the Colombian military has gotten out of directly waging the dirty war, and at the same time there has been a commensurate rise of the size and ferocity of the paramilitaries,” says Andrew Miller of Amnesty International. “And it is amply documented that even if independently financed, the paramilitaries work hand in hand with the government forces.” Even the US government, at some level or another, will concede that last point.

In February Pastrana managed to get the stalled peace talks restarted by making a commitment to crack down on the paramilitaries. But the FARC also bears responsibility for the situation: Its behavior has been so outrageous that it has allowed the paramilitaries to pose as heroes to an ever more frightened and disillusioned urban population.

Fumigating the Poor

Sensitive to charges that Plan Colombia will only stoke the fires of this internal conflict, the Colombian government’s point man on the issue, National Security Adviser Gonzalo de Francisco, strains to emphasize the least bellicose aspects of the operation. During an extended interview in the elegant Narino Presidential Palace, the soft-spoken 40-year-old political scientist makes his best case. “Coca has feet, it moves around,” he says. So, yes, he says, there is a military component to eradication. But aerial fumigation is not to be “indiscriminate,” he says. “Forced eradication is like chemotherapy,” he says. “If we continue forced eradication for five more years we will kill the patient.” So while forcible fumigation will be escalated against the big-time growers, for the first time in a serious way, de Francisco says, the Colombian government will strive to negotiate contracts with impoverished coca farmers under which they will agree to manually destroy their crops. In return, the government will give each family up to $2,000 in subsidies and technical assistance to grow substitute crops like rice, corn and fruit. (De Francisco says that Washington is providing $16 million specifically for these purposes–about 1 percent of its Colombian aid package.) The average coca farmer makes about $1,000 a month, but de Francisco argues that while a campesino might make less growing corn or rice, he has a moral and legal obligation to stop growing coca. “Coca will be leaving Putumayo,” he affirms, while agreeing that as many as 10,000 rural residents might be “displaced.”

But de Francisco’s critics contend that as much as 75 percent of the illicit crops are on tiny plots owned by poor farmers who have little other chance of economic survival. Only a minority are large “industrial” sites. “Plan Colombia is absurd and dangerous because it believes it can fumigate poverty,” says political science professor José Cuesta. Cuesta, a former M-19 guerrilla, is now a leader of the Citizens’ Network for Peace in Colombia. “The coca crops are nothing but a concrete response to the ravages caused by unrestrained free-market economic policies.” Even the coca pickers, he says, are increasingly the urban poor looking to survive. “If the government were serious about drugs, it would forget about the campesinos and attack the industrial and financial centers that most profit from trafficking,” says Cuesta. “This wouldn’t be called Plan Colombia. It would be called Plan United States.”

De Roux fears the current actions could drive the farmers deeper into the arms of the FARC. “Until now the farmers have not supported the guerrillas but merely accommodated them,” he says. “This military push might cement the bond. Worse, it could push the FARC and the coca growers deeper into the jungle, and it could encourage the FARC to become a full-blown cartel.” Already Ecuadorean farmers living near the southern Colombian border are reporting that they have been offered money by Colombian drug traffickers to begin coca production.

Meanwhile, the indigenous population of the targeted southern region is already paying an elevated price. Right-wing paramilitaries have recently expanded in that area and are challenging the FARC not only for territorial control but also for collection of the coca “tax.” The Indian communities have been caught in the crossfire and have lost much of their traditional leadership in the bloodshed. The FARC has also escalated its forced recruitment of teenagers from indigenous families. Add to that the stepped-up government spraying, and “for the indigenous this is a catastrophe,” says a government anthropologist who requested anonymity. “Much of the land there is unfit for anything but coca. And the government is wiping out the traditional and even the nontraditional crops.” The national human rights ombudsman’s office has highlighted several cases involving Cofan Indians who had their food crops, medicinal plants, fish harvesting tanks and grazing fields sprayed with herbicides. An Associated Press correspondent who traveled to Putumayo reported that most of the fumigation he saw had hit the smallest of crops, many an acre or less. This directly contradicts the government claim to be targeting the “industrial” crops.

None of this has deterred the Colombian Army from claiming at least partial victory in mid-February. An official army press release said that eradication efforts were running ahead of schedule and had been “carried out without any incident to date with any farmers or settlers.” This bluster might be just that–face-saving public relations. A few weeks after the push began, six regional governors protested the forced eradication and military approach of Plan Colombia, doubtlessly contributing to the otherwise unexplained decision to halt the spraying temporarily.

Echoes of Vietnam

Perhaps after the meeting between Pastrana and Bush, we’ll have a better idea of what the new Administration’s Colombia policy will be. Someone in Washington is going to have to decide how much more it wants to invest in Colombia, how much of that aid should continue to be military and just how much, if at all, Pastrana’s parallel peace efforts will be supported. Or, on the contrary, what kind of appetite Washington has for being more explicitly entwined not so much in a drug war as in counterinsurgency. The line between the two is already considerably blurred by Plan Colombia. “It’s ambiguous,” says a US Embassy official. “Anyone involved in any phase of drug production no matter what hat he is wearing is now a legitimate target.”

There’s no question that a significant part of the American political class would just as soon see Pastrana shut down the peace talks. “If the FARC does not start showing some real good faith real soon, it is indeed time to pull the plug [on the peace process],” says Republican Congressman Benjamin Gilman. “Pastrana should then go ahead and shut down the guerrilla zone and send in the troops.” This sort of talk rattles some Colombian analysts. “It’s not very reassuring that we are the only regional headache for the US,” says Roberto Pombo, editor of García Márquez’s Cambio. “If we have a couple of hundred advisers here and one day the FARC kills three of them and that happens on a day when the US President is in trouble on some domestic issue, what happens to us? Ask the Libyans under Reagan, or the Sudanese under Clinton.” Adds Mauricio Vargas, “The US is already up to its ears in Colombia. Everything’s already here except the troops.” There are already American “contract” teams in Colombia, one of which was fired upon in late February when it went into a guerrilla zone to rescue a downed helicopter crew.

But is Plan Colombia really a prelude to a new Vietnam? It’s unlikely that the Bush Administration is about to send thousands of US troops into the crossfire between the FARC and the paramilitaries. But there are, nevertheless, historical parallels beyond the obvious imagery of blanketing foreign jungles with defoliants. Once again, US power is being projected abroad to achieve its own objectives at a punishing social cost to a country we’re “assisting.” And as in Vietnam, even the US objectives are muddled and elusive. All available evidence shows that drug use is never reduced by attacking the source but only by reducing the demand. Plan Colombia, at best, will only disperse drug production from Colombia to some neighboring location, and it will do nothing to reduce drug use in the United States–except perhaps to spike the price of cocaine and make the trade that much more profitable.

One US Embassy official essentially confirms the gap between what seemed to be Pastrana’s original vision of Plan Colombia and its reality today. “The US and Colombia have different priorities,” the official says. “Colombia has peace as a priority. We have narcotics.”

Eternal War?

The US strategy has little regional support. “Panama does not want to get involved in the internal problems of Colombia. We’ve been shying away from that in every way,” Panama’s Ambassador to the United States, Guillermo Ford, told the press. Nor are Europeans enamored of Plan Colombia. In early February the European Parliament, concerned about human rights and the rise of the paramilitaries, voted 474 to 1 to oppose it.

Unfortunately, there’s little echo of that peace constituency in the US Congress. Senator Paul Wellstone has waged an unsuccessful battle to redirect US policy toward domestic drug treatment programs. But, he says, “I have hope, because across the country I see people more engaged in this issue.”

Only a comprehensive and negotiated settlement can stop the cycle of violence in Colombia. Such a settlement would include a program of manual eradication bolstered by deep reform that would incorporate and demilitarize the armed actors. The peace process undertaken by Pastrana and the FARC–and recently joined by the ELN–is the first step in that process.

But for now, the staccato crackling of automatic weapons and the beating of chopper blades are still louder than the voices of dialogue and reconciliation. “If you pick your head up against the military, you can get it blown off by the paramilitaries,” says a discouraged Mauricio Vargas. “And if you are on the left, where can you go? You are squeezed between a government and a guerrilla army, neither of which you can support. All the conditions here are ripe for eternal war.”

And yet at times an astounding number of Colombians–as many as 10 million on one occasion in 1999–have rallied for peace. On the evening of January 25, as talks between the government and the FARC seemed hopelessly stalled and the pundits were preparing the peace movement’s obituary, some 10,000 to 15,000 Colombians once again came out to defy the odds. Brought together by the umbrella group Paz Colombia, they gathered in front of the Bogotá bullring to stage a lantern-lit march. The procession snaked its way through downtown, led by a contingent of jugglers, leaping acrobats and costumed stilt walkers passing out candies and candles to onlookers. From human rights activists to striking trade unionists, from students to well-dressed middle-class professionals, the crowd was a mix not only of class but of ideology. Internal refugees displaced by the death squads marched alongside those pushed from their homes by the guerrillas. The wives of slain and kidnapped policemen locked arms with the mothers of young men “disappeared” by the security forces. The crowd sang out its chants, “Plan Colombia–Plan for War” and “Not one more body, not one more peso for war!”

No one in that demonstration better embodied the complex forces that underlie war–and peace–in Colombia than 45-year-old Nubia Sanchez. Originally from San Vicente de Caguan, Sanchez said she fled the area after it was ceded to guerrillas in the peace talks and the FARC began forced recruitment of 13- and 14-year-olds. And yet she marched that night to demand not only that the peace talks continue but that the government renew the agreement to let the guerrillas continue to control the area from where she fled. “My personal situation is not important,” she said as she held the candle lantern to her chest. “Dialogue is the only way to get to peace.”

At Simon Bolivar Plaza, as mounted police and a helmeted riot squad gazed on from the shadows cast by colonial-era lamps, the marchers swarmed around a statue honoring the “Liberator of the Americas.” When the organizers set free a barrage of white helium-filled balloons, the marchers lifted their lanterns and cheered. One could imagine that someone standing on one of the mountain peaks behind the city and peering down into the dark Andean night would discern a distant flicker of light–and of hope.