The Western Hemisphere’s longest, bloodiest war has become an invisible one, pushed from the headlines by the ongoing crisis in Iraq. But Washington’s involvement in Colombia–which the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the Americas, and one of the worst in the world after Congo and Darfur–is rapidly escalating.
The United States has plowed $3.3 billion in mostly military aid into Colombia since “Plan Colombia” was passed in 2000–making it the third-greatest recipient of Washington’s largesse after Israel and Egypt. Since 9/11 the focus of Plan Colombia has quietly shifted from a counternarcotics campaign to a crusade against “terrorism.” And now the number of US forces on the ground is set to double.
On October 10 Congress voted to raise the cap on US military advisers in Colombia to 800, and raise that on the number of US civilian contract agents–pilots, intelligence analysts, security personnel–from 400 to 600. The measure, a little-noted part of the 2005 Defense Department authorization act, was a defeat for human rights groups, which had been pushing for a lower cap. The new 800/600 cap is exactly what the White House asked for. An earlier House version would have established a 500 cap for military personnel and kept the cap for civilians at 400, but this was rejected in joint committee. A Senate proposal establishing these lower caps–known as the Byrd amendment, for Senator Robert Byrd–was defeated in June by a vote of 58 to 40. Among the two senators who abstained was John Kerry.
The bill says the measure is aimed at helping the Colombian government fight “against narcotics trafficking and against activities by organizations designated as terrorists,” such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But rights groups point to a long record of collaboration between Colombia’s armed forces and the AUC, a rightist paramilitary group.
“This amounts to authorization of increased involvement by US troops in an internal armed conflict in Colombia,” says Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “And it was passed without significant public debate. We are sliding into a protracted civil war in Colombia.”
The vote comes just as Colombia’s hard-line President Álvaro Uribe is pursuing a new offensive against the FARC guerrillas in the south of the country. While US soldiers are ostensibly barred from combat missions, there have already been reports in the Colombian press that US troops are leading “scorched earth” campaigns in the southern Amazon region.
The New York Times story on the raising of the troop cap (at the bottom of page nine) claimed that “Under Mr. Uribe’s administration, violence has ebbed in Colombia.” But human rights groups in Colombia say that state-sponsored terror has only increased since Uribe took office in 2002. Yenly Angelica Mendez of the group Humanidad Vigente, which works closely with peasant groups in militarized rural areas, claims that assassinations and arbitrary imprisonment have doubled under Uribe, especially in the conflicted eastern department of Arauca, which she calls “a laboratory for the so-called Democratic Security policy of the current Colombian administration.”