One year ago this month, President Bill Clinton publicly apologized
to Guatemalans for decades of U.S. policy in support of a murderous
military that "engaged in violent and widespread repression," costing the
lives of some 100,000 civilians. That policy "was wrong," the president
declared, "and the United States must not repeat that mistake." One year
later, Clinton is about to repeat it in Colombia.
In the name of fighting drugs, the United States is preparing to join
the Colombian armed forces in a civil war that has been raging for more
than 40 years, despite the fact they have they worst human-rights record
in the hemisphere. On Jan. 11, the president sent to Congress a request
for $1 billion in security aid for Colombia, up from $65 million in 1996
and $300 million last year. Most of the money will finance a new
counterinsurgency campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC), the largest of three armed leftist guerrilla movements.
The insurgents are a serious force. Numbering about 20,000, they
exercise significant influence in more than half of Colombia's
municipalities. Until now, the United States has had the wisdom to stay
out of the military's protracted war with the guerrillas. The rationale
for abandoning that restraint is what drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey has
called a "drug emergency": a dramatic increase in coca-leaf cultivation
in the southern provinces of Putumayo and Caqueta, strongholds of the
FARC. To "secure" these areas for drug eradication, Washington plans to
outfit the Colombian army to wage counterinsurgency war.
But even if coca eradication in southern Colombia succeeds, production
will simply move elsewhere. As long as demand for drugs in the United
States remains high, and enormous profits can be made from the illicit
trade, traffickers will adapt to eradication and interdiction programs
the way they always have: by shifting from region to region and country
to country. Decades of eradication campaigns the world over tell us the
war in southern Colombia will have no significant effect on the supply of
drugs entering the United States. The idea that we can win the war on
drugs by waging war on the Colombian guerrillas is a dangerous fantasy.
The elements of Washington's counterinsurgency strategy for Colombia
are taken straight from the Pentagon's experience in El Salvador:
U.S.-trained and -outfitted rapid-deployment battalions, advanced
gunships, intensive intelligence gathering and hundreds of U.S. military
advisors who won't go into combat (just as they weren't supposed to in El
Salvador, although they did, as the Pentagon acknowledged years later).
A billion dollars of aid turned the Salvadoran military into a large,
well-equipped, politically powerful force that murdered more than 70,000
civilians with impunity for more than a decade. It did not win the war.
The war ended when the United States finally recognized that it was
unwinnable and forced the army to accept a negotiated peace or face a
cutoff of U.S. aid.
The 40-year-old civil war in Colombia is unwinnable, too, as Colombian
President Andres Pastrana acknowledges. Elected in 1998 on a peace
platform, he has opened negotiations with the guerrillas, and rightly so.
Despite their serious human-rights abuses and involvement with coca
growers, they are a powerful force representing a constituency with real
social and political grievances. But the guerrillas are wary of
negotiations. The last time they signed a cease-fire and agreed to
participate in elections, death squads of the paramilitary right, often
paid by large landowners and assisted by the military, assassinated 3,000
activists of the left's Patriotic Union party, including elected
officials, two senators and two presidential candidates. Since then, the
right has grow even stronger, now numbering greater than 5,000 combatants
who terrorize whole regions of the country.
Pastrana cannot guarantee the personal security of the guerrillas if
they lay down their arms, just as the Christian Democrats in El Salvador
could not guarantee the security of the Farabundo Marti National
Liberation Front guerrillas in the early 1980s, at the height of the
death-squad violence there. As long as the Colombian government is
unwilling or unable to control the violent right, the guerrillas dare not
agree to peace.
No one doubts Pastrana's desire to halt paramilitary violence and to
sever the ties that have long existed between the paramilitary right and
the armed forces. But Pastrana, like Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon
Duarte in the 1980s, has limited control over the military. He has
managed to reduce the army's human-rights abuses, but despite his best
efforts, he has not been able to dissolve the silent partnership between
mid-level, even senior, officers and the paramilitaries. A Human Rights
Watch report last month links half of Colombia's 18 brigade-level army
units to paramilitary violence, which is now responsible for 78% of
reported abuses, including several thousand political killings and
disappearances annually. Investigations by Amnesty International, the
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Colombian
government confirm the army's collusion in paramilitary violence.
In El Salvador, the army had no interest in reining in the death
squads because they were an essential weapon in its war against the left.
The Colombian situation is similar; by leaving the dirtiest work in this
dirty war to the paramilitaries, the regular army can claim a clean
human-rights record as it seeks more military aid from Washington.
In lobbying Congress for the Colombian aid package, McCaffrey echoes
the arguments made by Reagan administration officials who lobbied for
military assistance to El Salvador and Guatemala, insisting that the
death squads were independent of the armed forces. The declassified
history of those wars has revealed that such arguments were disingenuous.
In Colombia, the record of complicity is equally clear.
As in Central America, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into
the Colombian armed forces will make them more powerful politically and
less answerable to civilian authority. Senior officers are already
hostile to Pastrana's peace overtures and his efforts to discipline
officers linked to the paramilitary right. A massive infusion of U.S. aid
will be seen by officers as Washington's endorsement of their preferred
strategy: escalating the war rather than ending it through negotiation.
That will make it harder to stop the paramilitaries and harder to
convince the guerrillas that the government's desire for peace is
This month marks the 20th anniversary (on March 24) of the
assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Two months
before he was killed by a rightist death squad, he wrote a personal
appeal to Jimmy Carter, asking the president to abstain from increasing
U.S. military aid that "will surely aggravate the repression and
injustice" inflicted on the populace by the armed forces. "If you truly
want to defend human rights," Romero wrote, "I ask that you . . .
prohibit all military assistance." Instead, we allowed our obsession with
communism to justify arming and financing a murderous military, and a war
that could have ended with a peace accord in 1980 dragged on for another
decade, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians. In Colombia, we
are about to let our fear of drugs lead us into an equally futile and
bloody war. We failed to heed Romero's plea 20 years ago; we ought not
make the same mistake again.
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William M. Leogrande Is a Professor of Government at American University and the Author of "Our Own Backyard: the United States in Central America, 1977-1992." Kenneth Sharpe Is a Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and Coauthor of "Drug War Politics: the Price of Denial."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times