A US Army spy plane disappeared over Colombian rebel territory last Friday, days before an official five day tour of the region by US drug czar Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey told a news conference in Bogota on Monday that "[T]he evidence so far would indicate that the five brave American aviators and two Colombian air force officers have probably lost their lives in a fatal accident." Searchers on Wednesday confirmed that the plane had slammed into the side of a Colombia mountain, and that they had pulled four bodies out of the wreckage.
The crash has draw attention to the issue of growing US military involvement in Colombia. According to the Los Angeles Times, (7/28), 160 service personnel and 30 civilian Department of Defense employees are stationed in Colombia, on missions including drug crop eradication, the installation and use of spying equipment, the operation of reconnaissance planes like the one that crashed, and the training of Colombian anti-narcotics battalions. US military activity in Colombia first became significant in 1993, taking the form of humanitarian work such as road building and other infrastructure and health work. Last year, American personnel traveled to Colombia to participate in seven special joint training projects of 30 to 40 people each.
The plane's disappearance, the growing US support to the Colombian military, and frequent visits to Bogota by high-ranking US officials, have fueled speculation among Colombians about possible US intervention, according to the Associated Press on 7/26. The Colombian paper El Espectador ran an editorial the same day discussing intervention (http://www.elespectador.com/9907/26/opnotici.htm). While US officials continue to insist that they are interested in counternarcotics (fighting drugs), not in counterinsurgency (fighting the rebels), they also admit that the distinction between the two types of operations has become blurred. According to a Reuters story on 7/26, McCaffrey told reporters before leaving Miami on Sunday that the line between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency no longer existed. McCaffrey has asked Congress to approve a $1 billion increase in counternarcotics spending in Latin America, with $570 billion specified for Colombia. Stan Goff, a former member of the US Special Forces, wrote in The (Raleigh, NC) News and Observer, that "When I was training Colombian Special Forces in Tolemaida [Colombia] in 1992, my team was there allegedly to aid the counternarcotics effort. Narcotics were the cover story for a similar trip to Peru in 1991. In both cases we were giving military forces training in infantry counterinsurgency doctrine."
The rhetorical focus by US officials on Colombia's civil war and rebel forces represents a marked shift from the focus on individual "drug lords" and cartels that dominated the discussion during the 80's and most of this decade. Headlines screamed out the evil-doings and fates of a steady stream of "archenemies of the day," as each drug kingpin and trafficking organization gave way to the next, for example:
The Wisconsin-based Columbia Support Network (http://www.igc.org/csn/) issued a statement yesterday urging President Clinton and Congress to reject McCaffrey's proposal, calling instead for the US to support the peace process and nonviolent grassroots community organizations, such as the Peace Community in Urabá and civilian organizations in the Middle Magdalena region. Cecilia Zarate of CSN told the Week Online, "Colombia has been in the middle of a civil war for most of this century, and the civil war is caused by deep structural characteristics of Colombian society, mainly that the country is not very wealthy, and most of the wealth is concentrated in a few hands. And the country, although formally a political democracy, is really not one in practice. It's a society that excludes people politically, economically and socially. This situation generated a movement that has been active since the beginning of the century, basically at the beginning for issues of land."
Zarate continued, "I am not apologizing for the rebels. They make money from charging taxes on peasants that produce coca. But the conflict is more profound, because why do the peasants have to produce coca? Because they have been expelled from the countryside. The drug lords are buying and buying land and expelling the peasants, and using private armies like the paramilitaries. So, if the United States uses drugs as an excuse to give money to Colombia, because the rebels are involved in getting money from drugs, they also should look at the Colombian army itself, and they should look at the paramilitary leaders, because most of them who are very linked to the Colombian army are drug dealers." Paramilitary organizations are thought to be responsible for most of the 30,000 political murders committed over the past ten years.
Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, Jr. (US Navy, retired), Deputy Director of the Center for Defense Information (http://www.cdi.org), believes that military approaches to the drug problem are doomed to failure. Carroll told the Week Online, "The problem is, you can't do a war on drugs. Drugs are an existing problem and have dimensions that extend all the way from the streets of the major cities of the United States, right down into the jungle, and it's almost impossible to win a war against drugs. So if you think that you're going to increase the level of your effort by simply adding more money and more planes and struggling more directly with the problem, I think you're deluding yourself. The drug problem is an enduring and sustained problem that we're going to have to manage over time, and attack the root causes of the problem, not simply pour more money into military operations."
Carroll continued, "I believe that the data show that money spent in direct involvement in the military side, trying to act against the source of supply and the routes of transportation, is doomed to failure, and you get very little return on your money. The only potential for making progress in your management is to address the causes of the narcotics problem, and that essentially lies in the demand for the product in the United States. You've got to deal with the demand, because you can't solve the supply problem militarily."
(See our report on the Colombia situation and the McCaffrey funding proposal in last week's issue of the Week Online, http://www.drcnet.org/wol/100.html#fuelfire.)