As Washington's Plan Colombia looms -- the first sweeps by Colombia's US-trained and financed counternarcotics battalions in rebel-dominated Putumayo and Caqueta provinces are scheduled for December -- its earliest effects have been to heighten tensions and political violence in southern Colombia's coca-growing region. Paramilitary militias in a de facto alliance with the Colombian government are attempting to establish a presence in coca-producing areas long controlled by the leftist FARC guerrillas. The rebels in turn are distributing arms to the civilian population and have begun a forced recruitment campaign to replenish their ranks, according to reports from press and human rights organizations.
In recent weeks, FARC guerrillas have tripled their strength in Putumayo to 1500 men, while their paramilitary opponents brought an additional 300 fighters. Fighting broke out in September when paramilitaries organized raids on FARC-controlled towns. Scores of combatants and civilians have been killed in daily clashes in the province, and hundreds of civilians have fled into neighboring Ecuador.
The FARC has since established a series of roadblocks and restricted movement on the zones' highways and rivers, bringing commerce to a near halt. Last week, the Colombian military began airlifting emergency relief supplies to Putumayo as its capital, Puerto Asis, and other towns began running out of food, drinking water and gasoline. The Army has also sent reinforcements to the region.
Puerto Asis, long controlled by the FARC, is now under the effective control of the paramilitaries after they killed dozens of civilian guerrilla sympathizers in 1998 literally under the nose of the Colombian military. A Colombian military base sits in the town.
"The paramilitaries go around town without anybody bothering them," Puerto Asis Mayor Manuel Alzate told the Orlando Sentinel. "And the army and the police do nothing."
Colombian authorities have consistently maintained that they do not have links to the paramilitaries, who are widely viewed as responsible for a majority of human rights violations in the conflict, including numerous massacres of unarmed civilians. The latest massacre took place on October 13th in the small town of Barbosa, near Medellin, when paramilitaries kidnapped and murdered 11 residents they accused of being guerrilla supporters. The bodies of the seven men and four women were left strewn along a dirt road and surrounded by paramilitary propaganda.
In testimony before the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources last week, Amnesty International's Andrew Miller presented written testimony detailing the long-standing continuing strategic relationship between the Colombian military and the paramilitaries. He also laid out evidence -- from the US government--of paramilitary ties to drug trafficking.
Saying Plan Colombia would lead to "a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe," Miller demolished Colombian and Clinton administration claims that Colombia is attempting to fight the paramilitaries. In fact, Miller testified:
"Amnesty International is also concerned that paramilitary organizations may be employed as part of the military strategy contemplated in Plan Colombia. Although a formal role is not acknowledged in Plan Colombia, their recently established presence in key areas targeted for military operations (Putumayo department and the Catatumbo region of North Santander) would appear to be more than coincidental. The paramilitary strategy of attacking and eliminating civilian organizational and grassroots structures is designed to anticipate and prevent any organized opposition to the military eradication of illicit crops. This concern is heightened by recent public statements in favor of Plan Colombia by paramilitary leaders such as Carlos Castaño and Commander Yair."
Miller's extremely detailed written testimony is available online at http://www.house.gov/reform/cj/hearings/00.10.12/Miller.htm.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration appears increasingly isolated internationally, with even friendly Latin American governments making nervous noises about possible spreading conflict. In September, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela took pains to publicly support the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC, but pointedly declined to support Plan Colombia.
According to recent press reports, the Colombian violence is already seeping across international borders. Venezuela houses hundreds of refugees fleeing murderous paramilitary attacks. Panama's inaccessible border region with Colombia is also seeing refugees, FARC gun-running operations, and increasing fighting between FARC guerrillas and the paramilitaries. On the Ecuadorian border with Putumayo province, armed Colombian fighters have seized farmhouses, kidnapped and killed merchants, and increasingly use the country's border region as rear base.
And the European community, which under the terms of Plan Colombia is supposed to kick in $2 billion in non-military aid, is balking. At a July donor conference in Madrid, European countries instead pledged only $120 million, and while another donor conference is scheduled for October 24th in Bogota, the New York Times has quoted European diplomats as saying the US is on its own in Colombia.
"The European Union and member states are supporting the peace project in Colombia and not specifically Plan Colombia," an unnamed European diplomat told the Times.
European countries reconsidered their support for Plan Colombia after some 38 aid groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and World Vision, refused to accept Plan Colombia funds. The money would have gone to refugee relief and alternative economic development, but the organizations oppose Plan Colombia and fear for their workers' safety, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In a slap in the face to Washington and Bogota, on Wednesday, the European countries announced they would provide only $250 million, which will not go to the Colombian government, but will instead be channeled to nonprofit organizations working for human rights and economic development. The Europeans pointedly separated their contributions from what they called Plan Colombia's "war strategy."
"It's the only aid package I know of where the military component was put smack in the middle of a development package," one Scandinavian diplomat told the Washington Post. "It contaminated everything in the eyes of Colombian civil society and the European community."
If that weren't enough, Clinton's Plan Colombia took a beating on Capitol Hill last Friday. Republicans on the House Committee on Government Reform's subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources hammered the administration with a new report from the General Accounting Office (GAO). (That report, "Drug Control: US Assistance to Colombia Will Take Years to Produce Results," is available online at http://www.gao.gov -- go to the site and search for report GAO-01-26.) The report, whose gist is aptly summarized by its title, exposes a range of problems with the conception and execution of both previous counternarcotics assistance to Colombia and the current Plan Colombia.
But while the committee majority, fierce drug warriors such as Rep. John Mica (R-FL), used the report to engage in partisan sniping disguised as careful oversight, the report itself raises serious doubts about the plan's ability to meet its stated goals of reducing Colombian cocaine production in half within six years.
According to the GAO, "The total cost and activities required to meet the plan's goals remain unknown and it will take years before drug activities are significantly reduced."
It also noted that despite spending $765 million on counternarcotics efforts in Colombia between 1996 and 1999, "the US Embassy in Colombia has not reported any net reduction in the processing or export of refined cocaine to the United States."
If the early indications are correct, Plan Colombia seems destined to fail in its primary goal, but not without costing thousands of Colombian lives and billions of American dollars.