Published on Wednesday, August 30, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian (UK)
US Wades Into Colombia's Dirty War
by Martin Hodgson in Bogota
President Clinton arrives in Colombia today amid tight security for a visit that will underline a deepening US commitment to a messy civil war involving government forces, paramilitary death squads, leftist rebels and 90% of the world's cocaine.
In the first trip to the country by a US president in a decade, Mr Clinton will throw his weight behind Plan Colombia, an ambitious strategy which the Colombian government hopes will put an end to the drugs trade and bring peace after nearly 40 years of fighting.
Visiting the capital, Bogota, was deemed too risky, so Mr Clinton will meet the Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, in the resort of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, guarded by 5,000 Colombian troops and 350 US agents.
"Colombia's success is profoundly in the interest of the United States a peaceful, democratic and economically prosperous Colombia will help promote democracy and stability throughout the hemisphere," Mr Clinton said earlier this month.
Acknowledging both Colombia's strategic importance and its growing instability, Mr Clinton has supported Plan Colombia from its inception, and pledged $1.3bn (£867m) towards the scheme. But critics of the aid package fear the money will only cause the fighting to escalate, and may even spread political and drug-related violence throughout the region.
While some US aid will go to development programmes and an overhaul of Colombia's legal system, most will be spent on equipment and training for security forces, despite persistent concerns over the military's human rights record.
Monitoring groups regularly accuse the Colombian army of standing by while rightwing paramilitaries massacre unarmed civilians they accuse of helping leftist rebels.
Last week Mr Clinton waived strict human rights conditions imposed by Congress and authorised the aid package, arguing that Colombia's situation was a matter of US national security. But a White House memorandum justifying the decision acknowledged that "there remain disturbing, credible allegations that individual Colombian military officers continue to collaborate with paramilitaries".
The waiver provoked criticism from human rights groups. "It gives a clear message that from the US point of view, human rights are not important. What matters for them is the war on drugs," said Jorge Rojas of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, a Bogota-based monitoring group.
There are signs that US aid has already led to an escalation of Colombia's civil war. In March, the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) said it would step up kidnappings for ransom in order to raise funds equal to the US military aid.
The guerrillas have also increased their attacks against isolated police stations, part of a long-term strategy to strengthen their control of rural Colombia. Although they have been involved in peace talks since last year, no ceasefire has been signed and, since January, the rebels have attacked 50 such stations. Sixty officers and dozens of civilians have been killed.
"Farc is accelerating its plans for territorial control, but the guerrillas are not the only ones getting stronger. State forces are improving, as are the paramilitaries. Inevitably there will be an escalation," said defence analyst Alfredo Rangel.
In early August, 83 US Green Berets arrived in the country to train the second of three counter-narcotics battalions con templated in Plan Colombia. These units will lead a campaign into the rebel-dominated southern jungles of Colombia, where most of the world's cocaine is made.
"Our aid is strictly limited to anti-narcotics activities. It is not directed towards supporting counter-insurgent operations," Mr Clinton told the Colombian magazine Cambio this week. But Colombian military commanders recognise that a push in the region will inevitably bring troops into combat with several thousand Farc guerrillas who protect drug installations in return for "war taxes".
"We will attack anyone in the drugs trade - Farc, paramilitaries or whoever," said General Mario Montoya, commander of the army's southern task force.
It is still unclear how a military strike against drug plantations will tally with the second component of Plan Colombia: a package of social development to help wean locals from growing drug crops.
According to Mr Pastrana, investment in education, infrastructure and services will play a key part in establishing the rule of law in the southern regions of Putumayo and Caqueta. Traditionally, Colombian governments have paid little attention to these remote Amazon regions, allowing both rebel columns and drug plantations to grow unchecked.
In the past, Colombia has focused on spending "to prevent drugs reaching the streets of the US, instead of investing in education, sewage systems, housing", said Mr Pastrana. "We want to work hand in hand with the communities, instead of concentrating on the policing aspect".
But funding for social development programmes remains in doubt. At a conference in Madrid last month, European countries failed to pledge the $1bn (£667m) Mr Pastrana had hoped for.
Meanwhile, Farc is reported to be giving weapons training to peasants in Putumayo, and refugee groups fear that up to 200,000 people will flee their homes if widespread fighting breaks out.
Neighbouring countries have expressed concern that the plan may cause Colombia's civil war to spill across its borders. Ecuador and Brazil have reinforced security along their jungle frontiers. Peru's president, Alberto Fujimori, said last week that an anti-narcotics drive could threaten the stability of the entire region.
"How can you strengthen democracy in the midst of a war?" said Mr Rojas. His organisation and 36 more Colombian human rights, Indian and development groups have said they will not participate in projects funded under the plan.
Farc chiefs say Mr Clinton's approval of Plan Colombia was timed to coincide with the US election campaign. Speaking from a stronghold in southern Colombia, Commander Andres Paris said: "They want to spill Colombian blood to help their presidential candidates."
50 years of Conflict
948 Assassination of popular liberal politician leads to rural unrest which claims 300,000 lives over next decade
1953-57 Military seize power, before returning it to coalition rule by liberal and conservative parties
1964 Colombian military launch US-backed Operation Laso, to destroy leftist guerrillas. It fails and marks foundation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), a communist guerrilla movement
1966 Creation of rival, smaller guerrilla group, Army of National Liberation (ELN)
1980s Emergence of right-wing narco-paramilitaries who target guerrilla groups and their supporters. Farc's political wing loses 4,000 people killed by drug-traffickers
1990 US president George Bush announces war on drugs
1992 US says it will stop aid to Colombian army amid claims that the army used the cash to fight Marxist rebels
1993 Medellin drug baron Pablo Escobar is shot dead by Colombian police after a US-backed search
1994 Allegations that Colombian president-elect Ernesto Samper's election campaign was funded by $6m from a Cali drug cartel lead to him losing his US travel visa.
1997 First US civilian pilot, working under a state department contract, is killed on a drug crop fumigation flight in south-east Colombia
1998 Farc is granted a 15,000 square mile demilitarised zone to encourage peace talks
June 2000 US Senate gives final approval to record $1.3bn package of military aid to help fight drugs and Marxist guerrillas
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000