Increased U.S. Military Aid to Colombia Won't Curb Drug Trafficking

The long neglected conflict in Colombia is emerging as Latin America's major crisis and pulling the United States ever more deeply into an unwinnable war. Escalating political violence, an entrenched insurgency, increasing illicit drug production and growing concern from Colombia's neighbors about the conflict spilling over have policyrnakers in Washington searching for a solution to the problems besetting Colombia.

Many U. S. policyrnakers and military leaders are calling for increased U. S. aid for the Colombian military. But this will only serve to pull the United States closer to the most abusive military forces in the hemisphere without reducing illicit drug production or contributing to stability and democracy in that beleaguered country.

Though the Colombian army has declared itself "reformed," the nation's military is far from a new institution. Military collusion with paramilitary activity on a local and regional level continues, and paramilitary violence has escalated in the past six months. These groups target alleged guerrilla sympathizers, but their net of terror has been cast wide over a growing number of Colombian peace leaders and members of civil society. More than 400 people have been killed or "disappeared" in the first three months of this year alone, and tens of thousands more have been forced for flee their homes.

Two generals have been cashiered because of evidence of participating in human rights abuses, but the army continues to harbor many officers linked to fights violations, including highlevel commanders, General Rafael Hernandez Lopez, for example, was named chief of staff of the Colombian Armed Forces, despite a pending investigation for his alleged participation in the 1996 kidnapping and murder of a guerrilla leader's family member. Human fights organizations and Colombian judicial authorities have gathered extensive evidence of his implication in numerous human fights violations, including summary executions, forced disappearances, rape and torture committed by soldiers under his command. Increased military aid is not likely to improve the military's human fights performance.

In 1990, the United States send a team of military advisers to Colombia to review that country's military intelligence organizations and recommend changes. Colombia's military intelligence apparatus was reorganized, and clandestine intelligence networks were established that, in at least one case, ffinctioned as paramilitary death squads. One such group, Naval Intelligence Network No. 7, was responsible for the murder of more than 50 civilians. Five military officials, including Lt. Col. Rodrigo Quinonez, were found guilty last year of creating and financing this paramilitary group in order to murder local opposition leaders and union organizers. Quinonez remains on active duty, with only a letter of reprimand in his file.

Now, drug czar Barry McCaffrey has requested $40 million in aid for "regional intelligence programs," part of a nearly $600 million emergency aid package for Colombia. This despite concerns substantiated by a General Accounting Office report revealing that U. S. intelligence shared with the Colombian military lacks mechanisms "to ensure that it is not being used for other than counternarcotics purposes."

Support for the Colombian military is pulling the United States into the quagmire of a protracted and dirty counterinsurgency struggle, with no clear policy objective. There is no evidence that focusing counternarcotics efforts on battling the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, will reduce coca production. In fact, fight wing paramilitary groups, linked to the Colombian security forces, are more deeply involved in drug trafficking. Aerial fumigation has pushed a desperate peasant population further into the jungle or into the arms of the insurgency.

While only Colombians can resolve their crisis, the international community are particularly the United States can and should do much to support an eventual negotiated settlement. We should begin by correcting the overwhelming imbalance in U.S. aid: more than $230 million in predominantly military assistance for countemarcotics operations, less than $10 million for development, judicial and law enforcement and human rights.

On March 10, President Clinton apologized for the U.S. role in Guatemala's long internal conflict, saying that "support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mi stake." Now, a matter of months after the president's historic apology, we risk repeating that mistake by intervening in a counterinsurgency war that the United States cannot win.

Clear support for human rights and civilian democracy will prevent the need for future apologies to Colombians who have suffered enough in the name of misguided countemarcotics policies.

Article by Winifred Tate, a fellow with the Washington Office in Latin America

(Reprint, San Francisco Examiner, August 1999)

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