Into the Morass: Green Berets in Colombia as "War on Drugs" Morphs into "War on Terror" 1/31/03

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While the world's attention is focused on looming war against Iraq, while US troops engage in bloody firefights with erstwhile allies in Afghanistan and patrol the perimeter of inflammable North Korea, the long-running conflict in Colombia rages on -- and US troops are now on the ground in combat zones there, too. While Bush did not mention Colombia -- or anywhere else in Latin America, for that matter -- during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, US Green Berets were into their second week of training Colombian troops in the violence-ridden province of Aruaca.

The arrival of the Green Berets, whose mission has nothing to do with drugs but is instead to train the Colombians to protect a 450-mile oil pipeline belonging to the US-based Occidental Petroleum Company, is a concrete manifestation of the Bush administration's effort to wrap its increasing involvement in Colombia's complicated civil war in the clothing of the "war on terror." The shift from counter-narcotics to counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism became official last August, when the laws governing US lethal assistance to Colombia were changed to allow it to be used for not just for fighting the drug traffic, but also the leftist guerrilla armies, now defined as "terrorists."

The change in the laws and the insertion of the Green Berets marks a sea change in US policy. As recently as the end of the Clinton administration, leading supporters of an expanded US drug war in Colombia pooh-poohed widely held fears that the US anti-drug effort would be subject to "mission creep," that involvement in the drug war in Colombia would lead to deeper US military involvement in the country's four-decade-old civil war. "The primary focus of this supplemental effort is to provide support for Colombia's intensifying counter drug effort. As a matter of Administration policy, the United States will not support Colombian counterinsurgency efforts," then-drug czar Barry McCaffrey told Congress in November 2000.

"Now that we've begun to open that door from counter-narcotics to counterinsurgency, there is much more potential for greater US involvement," said Ingrid Vaicius, a Colombia expert at the Washington, DC-based Center for International Policy, and, along with Adam Isaacon, author of the brand new report on Colombia, "The 'War on Drugs' Meets the 'War on Terror,'" ( "Colombia is on the back burner in terms of public and policymaker attention, with everyone watching Iraq and North Korea, but there is still a lot going on," she told DRCNet. "We have the Green Berets on the ground, we have 267 US troops in-country, along with some 270 US employees of private contractors like Dyncorp, who fly the helicopters that protect the coca fumigation, and who knows how many foreign employees. The Colombians already got a $25 million supplemental appropriation for counter-terrorism, $6 million of which goes to pay for protecting the oil pipeline, and they will get hundreds of millions more in US assistance this year, three-quarters of it for military or law enforcement."

The rhetorical shift from "war on drugs" to "war on terror" may make the job of selling increased US intervention in Colombia more palatable. It is certainly difficult for supporters of the US drug war in Colombia to point to victories that might support further funding. In a report this month from the General Accounting Office, "Coca Cultivation Estimates in Colombia" (available online by searching for report GAO-03-319R at, the GAO found that while the number of hectares of coca eradicated climbed steadily from 1998 to 2001, so did the total number of hectares under cultivation, with the end result being that the number of harvestable un-eradicated hectares of coca increased by more than 50%.

"Eradication has not been very successful," said Vaicius. "We don't see much improvement at all. The US government claims it will reduce the amount of coca planted to one-third of current levels, but what we've seen so far is a 25% increase. And we are likely to see another increase with the new figures from the United Nations and the CIA due out soon. Coca production is spreading in Colombia, not retreating."

"Fumigation has not put a dent in the supply of coke," concurred Jason Hagen, Colombia associate for the Washington Office on Latin America ( "Instead, the crop is moving westward out of Putumayo, into Nariño and other provinces. "The Colombian National Police are waging a very intense fumigation campaign -- they've dropped the whole pretense of crop substitution and alternative development -- and their slogan is 'fumigate faster than they can replant.' They have to show results this year, and I suspect that when the numbers come out at the end of February, they will reflect not reality but bureaucratic imperatives. The numbers will show advances in eradication, but won't account for replanting of eradicated sites," Hagen told DRCNet. "This has not affected overall production in the Andean region, or even in Colombia. The crop just moves to different territory."

Still, US military assistance continues to flow into Colombia and most of it is coming under the rubric of the war on drugs. US military and counter-narcotics aid to Colombia has reached nearly $3 billion since 1997, with more than $600 million coming this year. According to WOLA's Hagen, that number could top $800 million next year. US and Colombian officials have promised for years that US military assistance would bring peace, stability, and democracy to the country while wiping out the drug trade. It has done neither.

Some 4,000 Colombians have died in political violence in the last two years, and some 300,000 became internal refugees, pushing the total number of displaced persons within Colombia to well over a million. Under the hard-line administration of President Alvaro Uribe, peace negotiations with the rebels of the FARC and the ELN have been abandoned, and the leftist guerrillas have responded to government attacks with daring counteroffensives and car-bomb campaigns in the capital and other large cities.

"If you follow where the US money goes, you see that intensified conflict follows," said Hagen. "The aerial fumigation in Putumayo, which punishes the weakest link in the trade, the farmers, has had the unintended consequence of driving people into the armed factions. It just gets hotter and hotter in Putumayo. And now, in Arauca, where the Green Berets are, it is becoming one of the most insecure regions of the country. We're seeing car bombings, mayors are resigning. The Uribe government has declared it a security zone, where military officers hold special powers at the expense of elected governments, but they can't provide any security."

And the Green Berets are walking targets, said Hagen. "The ELN will make a show of force against the Green Berets. I expect one day soon we will see US military casualties. Their presence is a big issue for the ELN."

Both Hagen and Vaicius counseled a shift in US and Colombian government policies.

"We need to recognize that security is more than a military goal," said Vaicius. "They say you can't have alternative development without security first, but we say you can't have one without the other. If local populations are to believe in the armed forces, it has to a professional institution, and it cannot abandon these populations. There must be a shift from fumigation to alternative development, and policymakers must listen to local populations. Washington and Bogota will not succeed if they try to impose reforms and decision-making on these people. We have to let the local populations lead."

"US policy is on autopilot," said Hagen, "and that's unfortunate because you can't win this militarily. US assistance to the military and police are only fueling the fire, heightening the conflict. There are about 35,000 guerrilla fighters, and standard counterinsurgency doctrine says you need about a ten-to-one advantage to defeat guerrillas. Colombia has 55,000 troops for deployment. You do the math."

"A huge military assistance package will not get to the root of Colombia's problems," said Vaicius. "We need to look at the underlying reasons for conflict and for the drug trade, we have to look at basic social problems, we have to look at impunity for human rights abuses and fixing the judicial system, we have to look at agrarian reform. But now, with the 'war on terror,' we have a whole new dynamic that might not be the most appropriate."

"Neither the Green Berets nor other US military assistance will make the guerrillas go away," said Hagen. "They've been there for 40 years. But the conflict will intensify, there will be more internal refugees, and I anticipate increasing attacks on human rights advocates by the Uribe government, which has labeled them allies of the guerrillas. But security as a result of US aid? If that's the goal, we'll be there for a hundred years."

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Issue #274, 1/31/03 The Road to Mérida: Interviews with Participants in the "Out from the Shadows" Campaign | Road to Mérida: Dr. Silvia Inchaurraga, Argentine Harm Reductionist | Road to Mérida: Sala Errata | Ed Rosenthal Convicted, Faces 10-Year Mandatory Minimum for Oakland Medical Marijuana Grow | Bush Treatment Initiative Draws Mixed Reviews from Reformers | Into the Morass: Green Berets in Colombia as "War on Drugs" Morphs into "War on Terror" | Drug Czar Says Nevada Election Laws Don't Apply to His Politicking | Latin American Anti-Prohibition Conference, Feb. 12-15, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Cumbre Internacional Sobre Legalización, 15-Dec Febrero, Mérida, México | Cúpula Internacional sobre Legalização, 15-Dec de Fevereiro, Mérida, México | Newsbrief: Violence Continues as Talks Begin in Bolivia -- Coca Growers, Workers, Indians Present Demands | Newsbrief: DEA Moving to Schedule Two More Hallucinogens | Newsbrief: Utah Drugged Driving Bill on the Move | Newsbrief: Colorado Bill Equating Meth Manufacture and Child Abuse Moves Forward | Newsbrief: Asian Drug Abolition Mania Spreading -- Malaysia Calls for "Total War," Drug Free Southeast Asia by 2015 | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Newsbrief: Judge Kane Speaks Out Again, Lambasts Federal Drug War | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar

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