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Clinton's Failed Colombia Journey

Clinton's Failed Colombia Journey

August 30, 2000

Clinton's Failed Colombia Journey
By Larry Birns and Tim Ryan

President Clinton's day-long trip to Colombia was preceded by his fateful decision to waive congressional human rights constraints placed on U.S. weapon's aid to that country's already darkly controversial armed forces. In doing this, he shed the moral component of the $1.3 billion aid measure and confirmed that Colombia's military was a world class human rights violator, which together with associated rightest death squads, accounts for 80 percent of all human rights violations in that country. This alone would have disqualified the armed forces from receiving any U.S. aid. Meanwhile, Clinton drug czar Gen. McCaffrey is dangerously intensifying the militarization of the anti-drug war based on those same tainted armed forces. Ominously, the military, with implicit U.S. assent, is close to merging the anti-guerrilla and anti-drug wars, as Washington implicitly pressures Bogotá to de-emphasize economic reforms, including the abatement of poverty and the creation of new jobs, as matters of a lesser priority.

While the administration talks about a demand-side drug strategy (such as domestic treatment), it is in fact stressing supply-side interdiction. With the Colombian military acknowledging that it cannot defeat the guerrillas, and President Andrés Pastrana confessing that he cannot guarantee the security of the guerrillas from the rightest death squads even if they agree to demobilize, U.S. military aid essentially becomes an irrelevant response to Colombia's major societal dilemmas. These facts must concern Americans anxious to be reassured that Washington is not almost guaranteeing the initiation of Colombia's Vietnamization.

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At Cartagena to discuss with Pastrana the implementation of the new U.S. anti-drug aid, Clinton stressed that U.S. assistance was targeted at curbing the unlimited trafficking of narcotics to here. Complicating matters, the flow of illicit narcotics also provides the leftist FARC rebels with much of their $1 billion annual income, some of which has purchased missiles capable of downing U.S.-supplied Black Hawk helicopters. This link between the guerrillas and cocaine cartels springs from a lucrative "war tax" paid to the rebels by the drug traffickers for protection from army raids. This mutually self-serving relationship has complicated past Washington efforts to carry out its anti-drug initiatives, which had been chafing under restrictions aimed at preventing the widening of the Colombian conflict to include attacking leftist guerrillas. Clinton's waiving of human rights standards flashes a depressing green light to Colombia's military whose latest field achievement was slaughtering six children only days before the U.S. presidential jet landed.

Colombia's main leftist group, the FARC, recently has stepped-up attacks against police outposts in rural areas as part of its new strategy aimed at countering U.S. aid and training. The FARC currently controls upwards of 40 percent of the countryside and has over 17,000 armed combatants.

On July 15, FARC forces seized the southwestern town of Roncevalles, later assassinating 10 captured polic officers in a chilling display of brutality. Two weeks later, they struck again in Arboleda, killing thirteen policemen. So far this year, FARC attacks have led to the slaughter of 120 policemen. This number should be added to the tens of thousands of civilians, the bulk of whom were murdered over the past decade by the military and its allies, as well as by leftist cadres.

A new campaign of violence launched by the rebels at the country's security forces has sparked considerable controversy over the appropriate combat use of the U.S. Black Hawk helicopters now heading for Colombia. Even though Congress was explicit in its insistence that the U.S. would not be pulled into foreign civil wars (the helicopters were initially provided to help shield Colombia's fumigation aircraft from ground attack), some U.S. officials are now suggesting extending their use to shield military units involved in anti-narcotic activities from guerrilla attack. The confusion surrounding the goals of Plan Colombia, Pastrana's ambitious reconstruction plan to gain the allegiance of a now disaffected public, has prompted apprehension among some analysts over the emergence of an ill-defined strategy eerily reminiscent of the early stages of its involvement in South-East Asia.

President Clinton's discussion with his Colombian counterpart undoubtedly stressed his prime interest in neutralizing Colombia's powerful drug cartels. But some observers fear, with sound instincts, that the U.S. leader failed to comprehend Pastrana's emphasis on the overwhelming economic nature of his country's debilitating conditions, or warnings from Latin American critics that an escalating U.S. military role in Colombia also could seriously threaten the region's fragile quasi-democratic governments.

--- Mr. Birns is the director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, where Mr. Ryan is a research associate.

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