US PERSONNEL have become involved in fighting in Colombia’s 37-year civil war for the first time, rescuing the crew of a helicopter brought down by left-wing guerrillas, it emerged yesterday.
The US is funding the world’s largest aerial eradication programme in an attempt to destroy drug crops in Colombia. In an engagement at the weekend, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fired on a crop dusting aircraft and supporting helicopters.
The pilot of a US-supplied Huey helicopter was hit in the barrage of small arms fire, but managed to land his stricken craft.
Colombian protesters try to block a main highway in La Lizama village, February 19, 2001. The leaders of thousands of protesters blocking highways in northern Colombia said Monday that roadblocks would stay in place until President Pastrana agreed to meet with them and stop the fumigation of drug fields. REUTERS/Pedro Aulin
Two other helicopter gunships circled the grounded helicopter, firing on the guerrillas, while the crew of a third helicopter rescued the crew.
The pilots of some of the choppers in the rescue were Americans contracted by the US state department, a US Embassy source said.
"The FARC were 100 to 200 yards away," Capt Giancarlo Cotrino, the pilot of the downed helicopter, said from his hospital bed in Bogotá.
"We fought for seven or eight minutes - one of my crewmen had a grenade launcher and I had a pistol - until the SAR [search and rescue helicopter] came in behind us, landed and picked us up in the middle of a very hot firefight."
The rescue helicopter carried four US citizens and two Colombians, all armed with M-16s. Most of the SAR teams in Colombia are former members of the US special forces, the US source said.
Last year, when the $1.3 billion (£900 million) aid package to Colombia was approved by Congress, several rules were imposed.
One was that no more than 500 US military personnel could be stationed in Colombia at any time. Another was that they were not to become directly involved in fighting.
"The department of defence will not step over the line that divides counter-narcotics from counter-insurgency," Maria Salazar, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for drug enforcement policy, told a US congressional subcommittee.
However, private US companies, paid by the state department and staffed by former US special forces and pilots, face no such restrictions.
US military personnel in Colombia conduct a variety of training and monitoring roles. Three US-trained and equipped anti-narcotics battalions have been created, while US navy specialists train Colombian marines, who patrol the rivers that are the only means of transporting much of the nation.
Five radar and listening stations are manned by US personnel, and others are liaison officers at the Colombian Joint Intelligence Centre (JIC), which the US helped set up.
According to the letter of the law, the rules regarding US involvement in the civil conflict have not been broken, as serving military personnel have not been caught in active combat roles.
However, by providing intelligence on guerrilla movements and actions, the US is already taking an active role in the counter-insurgency war.
In March 1999 the US government issued new guidelines that allow sharing of intelligence about guerrilla activity in Colombia’s southern drug-producing region, even if the information is not directly related to the fight against narcotics.
The activities of private companies in the pay of the US are not covered under the rules imposed on military personnel.
"This is what we call outsourcing a war," said one congressional aide in Washington, who asked not to be named.
The company involved in last weekend’s engagement with guerrillas is called DynCorp. It has been contracted since 1997 by the US state department to provide pilots, trainers and maintenance workers for the aerial eradication programme.
What had not been known was that they piloted helicopter gunships that are used in an offensive capability when crop dusting aircraft came under fire. Three DynCorp pilots have been killed in operations, but one pilot said that at $90,000 a year tax free, the rewards were as high as the risks.
Another company, hired by the US defence department on a $6 million a year contract, is Military Professional Resources Inc (MPRI), a Virginia-based military-consultant company run by retired US generals. Its 14-man team, holed up in an upmarket hotel in Bogotá, refuses to speak to The Scotsman.
Brian Sheridan, the senior Pentagon official who oversees the work of MPRI, said in congressional testimony in March last year that the firm’s role in Colombia was not sinister, just "a manpower issue", insisting the US southern command did not have the men to spare to give strategic and logistic advice to the Colombian army.
"It’s very handy to have an outfit not part of the US armed forces, obviously," said the former US ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette. "If somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say it’s not a member of the armed forces."
Despite massive military aid to Colombia, the US has insisted it is not getting itself into another Vietnam. But an MPRI spokesman, Ed Soyster, a retired US army lieutenant general and former director of the defence department’s defence intelligence agency, compared the need for secrecy in Colombia with the need for secrecy in Vietnam.
"When I was in Vietnam, I wouldn’t want to tell you about my operation," he said. "If the enemy knows about it, he can counter it."
Human rights groups say the use of private contractors in Colombia is a ploy to ensure actions are carried out that US troops under congressional restrictions cannot perform. They say "deniability" is the name of the game.
"We’re outsourcing the war in a way that is not accountable," said Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.
Copyright 2001 The Scotsman