The news out of Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine and, perhaps, of heroin as well, has come fast and furious over the past two weeks. The events, in more or less chronological order, went like this:
- The leadership of the ongoing revolutionary opposition to the Colombian government moved ahead with their announced "strike" in the weeks leading up to this past week's elections. Dozens of candidates of both the Liberal and Conservative parties (which are acknowledged to be in general agreement with each other on nearly all substantive issues) were assassinated, at least 300 were kidnapped, and over 2,000 candidates nationwide heeded threats and withdrew from their races.
- U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey ended a two-year freeze on high-level diplomatic interaction with Colombia with a short visit during which he met with leaders of the Colombian military and police, as well as with President Ernesto Samper himself. The Clinton administration had previously refused to meet with Samper, citing allegations that he had received over $6 million in drug-tainted contributions during his last campaign, going so far as to revoke his visa.
Despite McCaffrey's assertion that the meeting did not signal any change in U.S. policy toward Colombia, his visit nevertheless concluded with the announcement that the U.S. would provide approximately $150 million in aid, including over $50 million in equipment to the Colombian military, which, according to human rights groups, has one of the worst human rights records in the world. McCaffrey told reporters that he had been given "assurances" by the military that it would improve its behavior.
According to the New York Times, the aid which will be sent to Colombia includes UH-1H Huey helicopters, C-26 surveillance planes, ammunition for assault rifles, utility vehicles and small boats.
McCaffrey, speaking to reporters, called the rebel forces, who have de-facto control of an estimated 40% of the country, "narco-guerrillas," despite the fact that their opposition to the Colombian government has been ongoing for nearly 40 years, and even U.S. government reports have characterized their relationship to the traffickers as extortionists, charging "taxes" as a price of doing business, much as they do with legitimate ranchers and coffee growers.
McCaffrey's repeated use of the term "narco-guerrillas" is seen by observers to be highly significant. This is because its implication, that the rebels are, in effect, criminal drug traffickers rather than political insurgents, would allow the Clinton administration more political leeway in involving the U.S. in the conflict.
"Let there be no doubt," said McCaffrey, "we are not taking part in counter-guerrilla operations." But the Colombian military, which is widely believed to be losing its ability to deal with the growing insurgency, apparently feels that it will have a much freer hand in using the promised assistance than McCaffrey's proclamation would seem to indicate. After McCaffrey left a military spokesman told reporters that the equipment could be used against anyone operating in the rebel-controlled "zone" without regard to whether or not they were involved in drug trafficking.
Francisco Thoumi, author of two books on the Colombian drug trade, a recent fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies, and a world-renowned expert on the situation in Colombia, told The Week Online, "Certainly, the rebels are making money from the drug trade. But this does not mean that they ARE the drug trade. To categorize them as 'narco-guerrillas' is perhaps politically expedient, but it does not explain the situation. The rebels are political in nature, although their ideology has weakened over time, as Marxism has lost credibility. All sides have their piece of the drug trade, the paramilitary groups on the right, segments of the military, and of the police, and the government. What the U.S. fails to take into account is that in order to truly deal with the situation in Colombia, it is necessary to understand the history, how they have gotten to the horrific state they are in, and one must look at the behavior of the institutions over time. It is not, in any way, a black and white issue. Everything there is gray." "But," he added, "it has been said that in politics, 'everything simple is false, and everything complex is useless.'"
- The elections were held, as scheduled, soon after McCaffrey had left. Turnout was mixed, and much stronger in the government controlled cities, especially in the north. In the south, reports indicate that turnout was dismal, with many precincts reporting no voting at all, amidst bombings, armed clashes and threats of retaliation for taking part in the election.
- Just after the election (which did not include a race for the presidency, scheduled for 1998), unnamed senior U.S. officials were quoted in Newsweek magazine saying that Washington had "solid proof" that Horacio Serpa, a key aid to President Samper, and widely thought to be the front runner to succeed him next year as President, had ties to the drug trade. In response, Samper lashed out at "foreign interference" in Colombia's political life and "trafficking in the honor of Colombians abroad." Serpa replied to the allegations by offering to resign if the U.S. could produce proof of the allegations. Former Colombian justice minister Enrique Parejo told Reuters that such allegations could easily backfire on Washington, with popular opinion rallying against "a hostile act of American imperialism," adding "This is something he will seek to capitalize on politically."