The United States is currently holding 400,000 prisoners of war in jails across the country. Most of them have never picked up a weapon or threatened anyone and many of them know they will die in jail, far from their families.
They are prisoners who have been taken by the US government in what is known as the "war on drugs". Now the US government has decided to devote a further $1.3bn of its citizens' money towards fighting this war on a foreign field - or in many foreign fields - by supplying military aid to the Colombian government and by seeking the backing and approval of Europe in this task.
Essentially, the US is to provide the stick in the form of helicopters and weaponry to tackle drug producers while Europe provides a carrot - or more likely a banana crop - in the form of aid for the development of crops that will replace the coca and the opium poppy on which so much of the Colombian economy relies.
Earlier this month, 27 nations and international agencies attended a conference in Madrid to discuss Plan Colombia, the scheme under which the US has committed itself to the destruction of drugs in Colombia. A total of more than $800m was pledged by a variety of countries and bodies but crucially the EU will wait until September and another meeting in Bogota before deciding exactly what its commitment will be.
Officially, the weapons and helicopters are to be used to attack the coca and opium poppy fields. Unofficially, the hardware is to be used to destroy the 17,000-strong, well-armed Marxist guerrilla group the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) that receives much of its revenue as a result of the drugs trade. Europe is being asked, as one European diplomat has been quoted as saying, "to clean up the mess that the Americans will make".
Over recent weeks, President Clinton has been talking thoughtfully and sensitively about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the part he hopes that he can play before he leaves office. Every effort is being made to try to bring the two sides together. As the peace process in Northern Ireland has been stumbling slowly towards resolution, the United States government has always been prepared to offer its help it mediating between the two sides, to send its most distinguished statesmen across the sea in an effort to broker a lasting peace.
Some weeks ago, ministers and officials from Europe, Japan, Canada and the United Nations made their way to Los Pozos in the heart of the territory of Colombia given temporarily to the FARC. There they listened to Colombians on both sides of the civil war and heard the arguments for and against Plan Colombia. The US were not repre sented at the meeting because they do not "recognise" the FARC.
Where is the energy that has categorised US initiatives in the Middle East and Ireland? Some have suggested that the American commitment of such a high quantity of military aid will unleash a Latin American Vietnam. Others have likened it to the proxy war fought by the US against the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. All are agreed that this escalation of the 36-year-long civil war will mean a marked increase in deaths. Whatever one's views of the FARC and what they stand for, they are highly trained, well armed and many are highly committed to the war. They are not going to roll over and they will be fighting in territory they know well.
Leading the charge, almost literally, for the Americans is the drugs tsar General Barry McCaffrey. He recently appeared on BBC television in a documentary about Colombia and claimed that the "greatest threat" to human rights in Colombia was the FARC and that it posed "a huge threat not only for its neighbours but also the the US".
This is nonsense. All the human rights reports, whether from the UN or the US's own state department, indicate that the "greatest threat" to human rights is posed by the far-right paramilitaries or "self-defence" groups which have worked so often with the Colombian military.
As the US Department of State human rights report, dated February of this year, put it: "Paramilitary forces were responsible for an increasing number of massacres and other politically motivated killings. . . the army tolerated and even collaborated with paramilitary groups."
McCaffrey has an old- fashioned military man's attitude to facts. In 1998, he attacked Holland's liberal drugs policy by claiming that this had led to a crime wave and that the murder rate in Holland was twice that in the US. "That's drugs," was the general's conclusion. That was also nonsense. The US murder rate is in fact four times higher than that in Holland. Now McCaffrey, having convinced the American government to hurl money from the skies on to Colombia in battle and in fumigation programmes, hopes that Europe will politely follow suit.
There are three schools of thought about European involvement in Plan Colombia: the US government view, that they should cough up the money and keep their mouths shut; the view that Europe should have not be associated at all with a plan that seems doomed towards escalating the war at a time when peace talks - however painfully slow and faltering - are taking place; and the third view, that Europe should attach itself to the plan if only so that there is another voice that can try to get itself heard above the noise of the choppers taking off.
Drugs in the US are a problem for the US, however convenient it may be to blame Latin Americans. Recently the tiny US Libertarian party launched its bid for the presidency by saying that its first act if - rather big if - elected would be the pardoning of every non-violent drug offender. If the US was really serious about its "war on drugs" those are the steps they would be looking at to remove the grip of organised international crime from the drugs trade. With all the money saved, they could help address Colombia's real problem: poverty. As the signs carried by some of the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict who descended on Bogota last month said: "With hunger, there is no peace."
Instead, there is the possibility of a grim war fought by Colombians, a civil war in which one side will be funded by the US tax-payer and the other side by the US drug-taker - a mad scenario indeed. Europe has a chance to use its influence here, either by withholding its support from the plan and then involving itself actively in searching for a peaceful solution or, if it backs the plan, by using its influence to try stop what could be the next of this millennium's really bloody civil conflicts.
Colombia should not be used as a military exhibition centre and Europe should do all in its power to prevent a bloodbath before we find we have sleepwalked our way into it.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000