Colombia - Update
Last week, President Clinton traveled to Cartenega, Colombia to
deliver the first installment in a new $1.3 billion aid package for
Colombian President Pastrana and his government''s drug-fighting
efforts. But, the situation has clearly become one of more than
just fighting narco-traffickers. The Clinton administration sees
this aid package as the first step in preventing a far-reaching
As far fetched as this may sound, remember a few things that I
touched on in previous Hott Spott articles (4/13/00 and 7/6/00).
The battle in Colombia has many different elements. First, you
have the civil war, now 36-years-old, which involves the primary
guerrilla groups, FARC and ELN. FARC is by far the larger
threat to stability in Colombia. Based in old-line Marxist
doctrine, one of their leaders put it thusly:
"There is a theory that socialism is dead and history ends with
capitalism. But have the people''s problems ended? No. With
globalization, there''s more poverty than ever, and a crisis is
FARC is about 15,000 strong and in many ways they are a truly
modern force, with wiretapping and computer skills. They even
use PCs at roadblocks to check the bank accounts of drivers,
allowing them to pick out the richest for kidnapping.
FARC was granted control of an area the size of Switzerland
back in 1998 as part of President Pastrana''s mission to entice the
various guerrilla elements to the negotiating table. But FARC has
less than 5% of the support of the people.
ELN is a more minor player you can read up on in the 4/13 piece.
The right-wing paramilitaries are comprised to a great extent by
retired Colombian armed forces officers. They have been
involved in many of the human rights abuses you read about and,
further, have been allied with the Colombian military.
And then there are the drug kingpins. While Pastrana has been
weak in his dealings with the guerrillas, drawing the ire of his
Andean neighbors, particularly President Fujimori of Peru, he has
made some progress in fighting the drug trade. 3 major narcotics
traffickers have been extradited and several generals allegedly
involved in atrocities have been dismissed.
So you have FARC, the paramilitaries, and the drug cartels. As
to the latter, they have been weakened to the point where they are
no longer capable of protecting themselves, thus, they have
sought protection where they can find it...FARC or the right-
wing death squads.
As for the U.S., our excuse for coming to Colombia''s aid (and,
for the record, I have consistently favored such a policy) was to
give Pastrana the tools to fight the traffickers. Some 90% of the
cocaine entering America comes from Colombia, as well as a
large portion of the heroin, particularly on the East Coast.
Pastrana set about putting together "Plan Colombia," a $7.5
billion aid program, whereby he would use the funds not just to
fight the cartels and the guerrillas, but also to pump up his
staggering economy. The U.S. pledged $1.3 billion, Europe
another $2 billion, with the balance coming mostly from his
neighbors in Latin America.
The U.S. Congress didn''t go along with President Clinton''s
request without a fight. The staunchest opposition came from
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. Leahy was focused on
Colombia''s awful human rights record, particularly the evidence
that the military was aiding the paramilitaries in atrocities.
Congress thus said Colombia must meet certain preconditions
before we would send them aid. For example, Colombia would
be required to immediately return any U.S.- supplied helicopter
found transporting right-wing militias. In addition, Colombia
would have to bring military personnel accused of human rights
abuses to justice in the country''s civilian courts. And the
government was to prosecute leaders of paramilitary groups.
While the Colombian government was working on some of these
terms, it was clear that they weren''t compliant in every way.
Nonetheless, President Clinton issued a waiver for the aid in the
name of national security.
As for the Colombian military, you can quickly see why they need
our help. They currently have only 17 helicopters to cover jungle
terrain over 3 times the size of Vietnam, plus, only about 55,000
combat troops. As to this last figure, considering that they face
about 29,000 right- and left-wing opponents, that is an incredibly
low ratio for fighting an insurgency.
The U.S. will be supplying 60 helicopters as well as countless
U.S. Special Forces to train the Colombian army units that are
being readied for the front lines.
Any military aid given Colombia is to be used expressly to fight
the drug trade. But the various opposition groups have become
enmeshed in their own struggles for control of a territory rich not
just in coca and opium poppies but also gold. The drug trade is
worth an estimated $550 million a year for those granting the
But, as was the main concern in the congressional debate, how
does the U.S. avoid entanglement? How do we determine when
the drug / civil war line has been crossed? And how can we avoid
involvement in a war that has claimed 300,000 lives over the last
Colombia''s Foreign Minister recently said, "(Plan Colombia) is a
peace plan, not a war plan."
Skeptics say, the U.S. has never been successful in eradication
and interdiction efforts involving groups on the scale of FARC.
True. But, there is a method to the madness. Eliminating the
coca fields would deprive FARC of hundreds of millions a year.
It could just drive them to the peace table.
Or, as has increasingly become the case, it could drive them and
the seedlings outside Colombia''s borders.
Colombia is bordered by the following: Venezuela, Peru,
Ecuador, Brazil and Panama. All of them have had to deal with
incursions from Colombian rebel groups. And the leaders aren''t
happy...with one exception.
Brazil has a huge, porous border to defend. Suffice it to say, they
can''t possibly prevent rebel forces from using their territory as
bases. Brazil is, so far, the only nation in the region to turn down
their neighbor''s aid request.
Ecuador and Peru, both of which have their own internal
problems, have built up their border defenses. Ecuador''s foreign
minister commented, "Our worry is that the removal of this
cancerous tumor will cause it to mestastasize into Ecuador."
Peru is concerned FARC will retreat into their territory. Peru has
also uncovered a plan whereby 10,000 Russian assault rifles were
shipped from Jordan to Peru, with the eventual destination being
FARC. One can only surmise that FARC was building up their
arms to deal with a very real U.S.-aided threat.
Panama has no standing army since the Panama Canal reverted to
their control. Colombian guerrilla forces have already moved into
parts of Panama. It would be easy for them to take the
Panamanian government, if that was there desire.
Which leaves us with Venezuela and their president, Hugo
Chavez. Chavez has offered his support to FARC and said they
could use Venezuelan territory for strategic retreats. It is my
personal belief that Chavez has his own designs on Colombia and
its bountiful resources. He''s a troublemaker of the first order,
witness his actions in OPEC to date.
If you buy the above scenario, then, you understand why we are
aiding Colombia. It''s not really about the drugs. It''s about
where we want the bad guys, and the coca production, to go. A
Colombia united with Venezuela would be a major problem for all
in the hemisphere.
Clifford Krauss / New York Times
Ellen Nakashima and Matthew / Washington Post
Columnist Arianna Huffington
Ken Guggenheim / Associated Press
Linda Robinson / U.S. News