Plainclothes men wearing sandals made from old tires and carrying automatic rifles stopped us at a roadblock on a twisting mountain road above Villavicencio, Colombia, one sunny day in 1982. We showed them our papers and they waved us through. I asked my Colombian companion, "What was that about?" She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, clearly frightened, and I drove on toward Bogota.
Three months working on a cattle ranch in Colombia gave me a glimpse of a complex political situation that could become a foreign policy nightmare if Congress approves an emergency proposal to send nearly $1 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia.
Several factors suggest we shouldn't rush the Colombian aid: The convoluted political scenario doesn't lend itself to a quick good-vs.-bad analysis; the Colombian military we are training is aligned with paramilitary death squads; and our war on drugs is failing spectacularly in Colombia. Increasing military aid to Colombia will resolve its conflicts about like gasoline puts out a fire.
The roadblock above Villavicencio was likely part of Colombia's "dirty war." For two decades the Colombian military and ruling class have used armed civilians, usually referred to as the "right-wing paramilitary," to fight several well-organized, left-leaning guerrilla groups. At least 35,000 Colombians have been victims of political killings in the last decade, mostly attributed to the paramilitaries.
While we tend to associate Colombian violence with drugs, it's an oversimplification. "This stereotype linking violence in the country to drugs . . . has served the Colombian government well," wrote Father Javier Giraldo in "Colombia, The Genocidal Democracy."
"On the one hand," he wrote, "it has enabled it to present itself in international forums as a 'victim' of violence outside its control by drug traffickers and the guerrillas, and on the other, permitted it to neatly conceal crimes of the state which exceed these others many times over but which are so rarely mentioned in the international media."
People affiliated with every faction in Colombia are involved in drug trafficking, including paramilitary groups and guerrillas. Former president Ernesto Samper was alleged to have accepted drug money in his campaign. And the wife of the former commander of the U.S. Army's anti-drug effort admitted sending heroin, by the kilo, from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota last year.
Drugs are not the only commodity that interests Colombia aid proponents. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Georgia, recently wrote, "A decade ago the United States went to war with a powerful enemy partly to stabilize a major oil-producing region . . . . Where is that same concern with Colombia today? The destabilization of Colombia directly affects bordering Venezuela, now generally regarded as our largest oil supplier. In fact, the oil picture in Latin America is strikingly similar to that of the Middle East, except that Colombia provides us more oil today than Kuwait did then."
After spending billions on drug eradication, we are seeing more and cheaper cocaine and heroin than ever before. As we've doubled our anti-drug aid to Colombia annually over the last few years up to almost $300 million last year Colombian coca production has skyrocketed. The lesson from this drug war is that where there is a demand, a supply will emerge.
We should stop blaming other countries for our drug problems, and admit that the enemy in the drug war is us. Instead, we are extending our military tentacles into yet another country with a very complex conflict. Over 200 American soldiers, DEA and CIA agents are already on the ground in Colombia.
Colombia is a beautiful country of snow-capped mountains, vast savannas, jungle rivers and tropical beaches. It is a country of unparalleled biological diversity and incredible cultural diversity. And it is a country full of people who hope against hope for a peaceful future.
Murray Carpenter is a free-lance writer who lives in Belfast, Maine.
Copyright © 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.