DRCNet Special Report: Colombian Situation Worsens - US Military Involvement Stepped Up - Backsliding Toward a Quagmire? 3/27/98

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With the rout last week of an elite squad of the Colombian army by rebel forces who control much of the southern half of the country, both President Ernesto Samper and the Colombian military have conceded that they cannot win the three decades-old civil war by themselves. In response to recent developments, the Dallas Morning News (3/17) reports that the U.S. has recently doubled the number of military advisors stationed there. According to The DMN, the U.S. now has 223 military personnel in Colombia. This doesn't include the unknown numbers of DEA, CIA and other federal agents in the region.

US military aid to Colombia, in the form of both hardware and manpower, is supposed to be used for anti-narcotics operations, rather than in the military's ongoing conflict with southern rebels. "I suppose everyone knows that U.S. assistance to Colombia is strictly for the fight against drug trafficking," James Rubin, a State Department spokesman told the Associated Press. But those distinctions are difficult, if not impossible to make and enforce.

General Manuel Jos Bonett, Colombian armed forces commander stated last December: "For me, all of those in the FARC (the largest and most powerful rebel faction) are narco- guerrillas because they live off the drug trade."

For his part, FARC commander Fabian Ramirez told Reuters' Television, "All the aid to the Colombian army, both economic and military, is being directed against the guerrillas. In most of the battalions, there are US army advisors helping to fight the guerrillas."

And the U.S. military has been aware of the problem for some time. In a memo dated April 8, 1994, Staff Judge Advocate Warren D. Hall of U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) told the Defense Department, "USSOUTHCOM is vulnerable to criticism because of the similarities inherent in the counterdrug and counter-insurgency efforts in Colombia... It is unrealistic to expect the military to limit use of the equipment to operations against narcotraffickers."

Several issues complicate the picture. First, the Colombian military's record on human rights has drawn widespread criticism, forcing the US to withhold several shipments of military hardware until the army can find a unit with a clean record. But aid flows from numerous sources, including direct aid, regional aid and defense draw-downs, not all of which are subject to such restrictions. Carlos Salinas, Latin American program officer for Amnesty International, told the Christian Science Monitor (1/16/98) "I doubt anybody really knows how many different programs result in the transfer of military equipment and assistance to Colombia." According to a letter sent by Salinas to the Washington Post (12/29/97), "since 1989, Colombia has been the number one recipient of US security assistance in the Western hemisphere."

The second complicating factor are the right wing paramilitaries, who often work with, and sometimes do the bidding of, the Colombian army. These are generally private groups, but they too are profiting off of the drug trade. Francisco Thoumi, one of the world's renowned experts and author of several books on the situation in Colombia, told The Week Online, "The guerrillas and the paramilitaries are essentially fighting each other for control of the trade." The paramilitary groups have also been blamed for numerous massacres of civilians, and in a number of cases it has been reported that the military was aware of or complicit in these actions, some of which went on over several days.

Finally, it is in no way clear that the Colombian government or its military are themselves independent from the drug trade, which seems to overshadow Colombia's legitimate economy. According to the U.S. government, President Samper himself received over $6 million in campaign funds from traffickers. While he was acquitted of those charges by a loyal legislature, his hand-picked successor, a strong contender in this August's election, Horacio Serpa, is also believed by many U.S. officials to be corrupt. Francisco Thoumi likens Serpa to "a typical American local politician. To Serpa, all politics is local. He has a constituency and he knows how to get elected."

The recent buildup of American forces in Colombia, and the worsening situation for the government and the military, has drawn concern about the possible implications of U.S. policy. According to the Dallas Morning News, at least two separate congressional hearings have been scheduled to address the issue.

An unidentified Republican staffer told the DMN, "Right now we're backing into (the conflict) by default. One way or another, you're increasing your presence there. You're increasing the level of equipment, you're increasing the level of personnel. We're putting our people in harm's way, and you can't do that without having a clear idea of your policy." Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America told DMN, "You can look at case after case over history where the U.S. gets involved and then slides down this slippery slope, from Vietnam to Central America."

But some legislators seem eager to increase American involvement in Colombia. In a report issued last Thursday (3/19), Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY) said that the army's most recent defeat "signals the military situation for the fate of Latin America's oldest democracy may be lost. The narco- guerrillas now have only one institution standing between them and a full-blown 'narco-state' - the Colombian National Police."

But getting involved militarily in Colombia might not be such a good idea. Joseph Miranda, author and former instructor at the American School for Special Warfare, told The Week Online, "People don't realize how difficult and how dangerous it would be to send American troops into the rain forests of Latin America. Colombia is far larger than Vietnam, and the guerrillas seem to be well-financed, with the ability to buy off a lot of people whom we would otherwise assume are our allies. Plus, since the Colombian military has shown over several decades that it can't control the region, there would seem to be no end-game. If we left and handed the region back to the Colombians there is little to assure us that the situation would not revert. Would we end up chasing people, following them into Peru, Ecuador, Brazil? I would also note that our military is not set up to operate in the high Andes. Ironically, it's likely that the only way that our troops could sustain themselves at the altitude would be to chew coca, like the locals do. We also would have to seriously consider the likely reaction throughout Latin America of an invasion by Americans."

That reaction, the potential anti-American backlash, seems to be something that the rebels are counting on. FARC commander Ramirez told Reuters that the rebels will begin to target U.S. embassy personnel as "military objectives". He claimed that "it is clear that Colombian rage will explode at any moment, and the objective will be to defeat the Americans."

Francisco Thoumi told The Week Online, "It's not clear that a simple increase in military aid will cause a great backlash. But if America decides to send fighting troops in, look out. The reaction will be strongly anti-American, and not only in Colombia, but across Latin America." Thoumi added, "The problem, it seems to me, is that America has an empire without an imperialistic mentality. By our sheer size and strength we must lead in the world, but instead, we only react. Our leaders seem to respond only to the demands of local constituents, which makes us very reactive on the global stage. It is a very dangerous situation for America, and for the world."

Additional information for this article was taken from The Weekly News Update on the Americas, published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York, 339 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012, 212-674-9499, [email protected]. The Washington Office on Latin America is online at http://www.wola.org/. Joseph Miranda is the author of War on Drugs: Military Perspectives and Problems, written for DRCNet, http://www.drcnet.org/military/.

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Issue #35, 3/27/98 Leaked McCaffrey Letter Indicates Opposition to Lifting Syringe Exchange Funding Ban | 17 Year-Old Police Informant Killed, Girlfriend Raped and Shot in California | Plano, Texas Undercover Police Bought Heroin Six Times for 16 Year-Old Recovering Addict | A Strong Day in Court for Medical Marijuana in California: Further Arguments to be Heard April 6 | House Delays Vote on Anti-Medical Marijuana Resolution: Still Time to Contact Your Congressional Representative | Campus Group Advocating Marijuana Law Reform Denied Recognition by University President | Penn State Professor Appears at Hearing: Continues Protest | Basketball Legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Busted for Pot at Canadian Border: Claims Medicinal Use | DRCNet Special Report: Colombian Situation Worsens - US Military Involvement Stepped Up - Backsliding Toward a Quagmire? | Classified DEA Report Says Drug Corruption in Mexican Military More Serious than Previously Believed | Swiss Government Angered by World Health Organization's Delay in Evaluating Heroin Maintenance Trial | Editorial: War Crimes and Quagmires... How Low Can We Go, and Where are We Headed?
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