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.
Yet pressure to respond to critics is growing. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s government has answered with recent reports of decreased violence and increased guerrilla desertions and the prediction that within twelve to eighteen months the guerrillas will be so battered they’ll come to the negotiating table begging for a truce. The Bush team has begun to articulate an exit strategy: sustained high-level US involvement until September 2005, followed by the Colombianization of operations.
Any success in slowing the violence and weakening the illegal armed groups, while respecting human rights and tackling impunity, would certainly be welcome. But Bush and Uribe’s increasingly hard-line approach is both inhumane and ineffective. Uribe’s proposal to lift limits on the powers of the military, the desperation fomented among farmers whose legal and illegal crops are destroyed by herbicides, accusations that NGOs are guerrilla fronts, and the neglect of the ballooning internal refugee population are likely to estrange many Colombians from the government and generate recruits for the guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug gangs. Greater US participation in the war there will not defeat the formidable guerrilla groups, which have controlled parts of the countryside for years (a major US role in search-and-rescue operations has not been enough to free three Pentagon contractors taken hostage by the FARC in February). Negotiations that disarm combatants and bring to justice those who commit atrocities should be encouraged. But Uribe has offered the paramilitaries a peace accord that would pardon virtually all AUC members and allow them to keep land stolen from the displaced, while leaving other paramilitary factions to continue the dirty work.
Responding to Congressional concerns, defenders of the policy are employing language with a familiar ring to it. At a Senate hearing on Colombia in June, Southern Command’s General James Hill described drugs as a “weapon of mass destruction” and warned that “corruption and instability create safe havens for not only narcoterrorists but also for other international terrorist organizations such as Hizballah, Hamas and Islamiyya al Gammat, which have support cells throughout Latin America.”
True, the State Department does report that some of these groups are raising money in the tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. But that’s far from Colombia and far from a good reason to continue aid to its abusive military. If the “war on terrorism” has moved to Latin America, the next step should be the suspension of aid to the Colombian armed forces because of their ongoing ties to paramilitaries listed as terrorists by the US government.
Only by steering this runaway policy toward greater support for Colombia’s judicial system and other civilian institutions, the rule of law, and social and economic development–along with expanded drug treatment programs at home–can US policy-makers begin to create the conditions for security and democracy in Colombia.