Carlos Salinas

President Clinton declared in his 2000 State of the Union address that his Colombia aid package was to help Colombia "win this fight." Yet what "this fight" is all about is not so clear. According to the State Department's Congressional Presentation Document for Foreign Operations FY2000, "the fight against drugs remains the principal U.S. national interest in Colombia." Yet for the Colombian Army, the principal fight is against leftist guerrillas. In recent years, the misleading but politically expedient term, "narcoguerrilla" has been coined to merge these two fights.

The current counterdrug program continues the history of U.S. support for Colombia's security forces. At least since the 1960s, the U.S. has supported Colombia's counterinsurgency operations in the name of fighting communism, offering training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas and the Special Warfare Center, in-country training through advisers and Special Operations Forces, and International Military Education and Training (see In Focus: Military Training for Latin America). In addition, the U.S. has supplied Colombia's security forces with arms, munitions, and equipment.

Since 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and then-President Bush declared drug trafficking a national security threat, Colombia has been the number one recipient of U.S. military aid in the Americas, ostensibly for counterdrug operations. Until recently, the Colombian Army did not deny that its priority was fighting guerrillas, not drug traffickers.

In 1994 and 1995, the U.S. Congress required a certification from the State Department that U.S. aid was "primarily" for counterdrug operations and not counterinsurgency. At this time, aid to the Colombian Army through the Foreign Operations Appropriations channel was effectively frozen. Congress then began directing the bulk of U.S. aid to the Colombian National Police's Directorate of Anti-Narcotics Operations (DANTI), leading to bitter feuds between Congress and the Administration. Although DANTI's human rights record is devoid of recent credible reports of violations, the human rights community has cautioned that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

In 1996 the U.S. Congress passed and the Administration embraced the Leahy Law prohibiting many forms of U.S. aid from going to security force units implicated in human rights violations. U.S. government documents obtained in 1996 proved that the U.S. had indeed given aid to Colombian Army units implicated in such violations, contradicting Administration officials who had assured Congress to the contrary in 1994. Although the Leahy Law blocked some aid, in 1998 it also provided justification for releasing aid to the Colombian Army that had been frozen since 1994, since the administration determined that there were no credible reports linking recipient Colombian Army units to violations.

To address U.S. concerns about Colombia's military's focus on counterinsurgency rather than counternarcotics operations, the Colombian military created a special counternarcotics battalion in 1999. Trained by the U.S. Special Operations Forces, this unit is ostensibly dedicated to supporting counternarcotics operations.

Since the 1980s, Administration officials have promoted the concept of the narcoguerrilla, in part to allay congressional concern about involvement in another counterinsurgency conflict. Colombian army officials have also advanced the concept that drug traffickers and guerrillas are the same. But this is essentially a false argument. Drug traffickers and guerrillas have separate identities and goals. (See In Focus: Colombia's Role in International Drug Trafficking.)

Drug traffickers and guerrillas often operate in the same regions and have some converging interests. Many guerrilla fronts tax and help protect drug cultivation, just as they do any business in areas they control. Yet the Army's allies, paramilitary leaders, are identified as narcotraffickers in their own right, and even Washington contends that former President Samper received financial support from narcotraffickers. Moreover, in January 2000, the wife of the U.S. military group commander in Bogotá pleaded guilty to heroin trafficking. The reality is that drug traffickers work with anyone willing to advance their interests.

U.S. officials describe their policy of escalation as supporting Plan Colombia, embracing the peace process and the development option, as well as the counternarcotics imperative. However U.S.-supported counternarcotics operations have resulted in the defoliation of large tracts of forest and farmland with chemical agents and the indiscriminate spraying of fields, livestock, and people.

President Clinton's January 2000 proposal consists of an additional package of $1.3 billion for the Andean region, in large part for the Colombian security forces. This package will be divided into two parts: an emergency supplemental appropriation request being considered by Congress in March 2000 and the foreign operations appropriation for FY2001.

The emergency supplemental appropriation consists of $954 million, including $512 million for training and equipping two additional counternarcotics battalions and for 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters, as well as for assistance for those "who will be displaced during this push into southern Colombia." It also contains $238 million for drug trafficking interdiction, airplane and airfield upgrades, and provisions of intelligence to regional police and military. Another $68 million is earmarked for the Colombian National Police. In addition to these emergency funds, $318 million will be proposes as part of the Administration's FY 2001 appropriation request, complementing an already-programmed amount of $300 million (in FY 2000 and FY 2001).

Sources for More Information:

Amnesty International USA Colombian Coordinator
Email: ppaz@igc.org Website: http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/colombia/

Colombia Human Rights Committee Email: colhrc@igc.org

Colombia Program International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau Department of State
Website: http://www.state.gov/www/global/narcotics_law/fs_colombia.html

Human Rights Watch
Email: hrwdc@hrw.org Website: http://www.hrw.org/

US/Colombia Coordinating Office
Email: agiffen@igc.org Website: http://www.igc.org/colhrnet/

Washington Office on Latin America
Email: wola@wola.org Website: http://www.wola.org/

(Carlos Salinas is Amnesty International's Advocacy Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.)

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