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Colombia: The U.S. Military is in Danger of Going to War on the Wrong Side



August 11, 1999

MADRID- After Kosovo why not next Colombia, land of the drug barons and 40 years of near continuous civil war? The rest of the world may drop its jaw at the idea of Nato troops being sent to pacify leftist guerrilla groups, army-backed, fascist-inclined paramilitaries and the world's most ruthless drug cartels. But in Bogota, Colombia's capital, it is being touted by some as a necessary solution. And if not Nato, at least the U.S. army.

Don't drop your jaw too far. For none less than the U.S. commander in chief, Bill Clinton, said last month that vital American interests were at stake in Colombia. It is "very much in our national security interests to do what we can". When a U.S. president uses these code words it essentially means that the backbone of the U.S. military, intelligence and national security bodies has decided that, if necessary, the U.S. is prepared to go to any lengths, even war, to deal with the problem.

If Clinton's statement was sparked by the relatively trivial loss of a U.S. military reconnaissance plane flying over Colombia, it comes after a long period of slow-burning, mounting frustration at the inability of successive Colombian governments to get to grips with the armed gangs that threaten to destabilise the government and with the country's narcotic dealers, who for decades have been the principal suppliers of hard drugs on the American market.

If U.S. intervention were likely to be even-handed perhaps there could be an argument for it. After all Colombia is often exhibit 1 for those who say, look what happens when the outside world doesn't intervene: the local fires just burn brighter and fiercer.

But "even-handed" does not appear in the current lexicon in the Pentagon's thinking on Colombia. Almost perversely, the Clinton Administration seems to be ignoring what the New York -based Human Rights Watch describes as "the root of these abuses.... the Colombian army's consistent and pervasive failure to ensure human rights standards and distinguish civilians from combatants."

Terrible violence is being inflicted both upon each other and on civilian innocents by all three sides in the armed struggle. But by no stretch of the independent reporting available, whether it be done by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the very few outside journalists who have dared to risk their lives studying the situation close up, can it be said that the left wing guerrillas are the most vicious or the most responsible. The clear concensus is that the army is in league with the right wing paramilitaries who, in turn, are in league with the drug mafia. It is they who consistently set the pace in assassinations, organising death squads, inflicting torture and practising widespread intimidation.

The army has not only failed to move against the rightist paramilitaries in any significant way, it has tolerated their activity, even providing some of them with intelligence and logistical support. On occasion it has even coordinated joint maneuvers with them.

In a report last year the Bogota office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights observed that "witnesses frequently state that massacres were perpetuated by members of the armed forces passing themselves off as paramilitaries."

It is true that both the preceding government of Ernesto Samper and the present, relatively new one, of Andres Pastrana have moved to suspend or close down particular units, such as the army's notorious Twentieth Brigade. Yet offficers are rarely, if ever, prosecuted, and some have even been promoted. Occasionally there is a dismissal.

"Defending human rights in Colombia is a dangerous profession", says Susan Osnos of Human Rights Watch. Yet it continues to attract unusually dedicated people. Last year when assassins gunned down the president of a human rights committee in his office in Medellin, the drug traffickers' home town, it was the fourth president to be killed since 1987. But still someone has taken his place.

The Clinton Administration's attempts to be even handed have been derisory. It allows the State Department to issue human rights reports that are highly critical of the Colombian establishment, even, in last year's report, acccusing the government of "tacit acquiescence" of abuses. In May last year the U.S. revoked the visa of one particularly corrupt and cruel general. Nevertheless, the main direction of the Clinton Administration is clear- increasing levels of aid for the Colombian military, less strings attached to how it is used and the deployment of CIA and Pentagon operatives to work with Colombian security force units that have not been give a clean bill of health on human rights abuses. Last year General Charles Wilhelm, head of U.S. Southern Command, told a committee of the U.S. Congress that criticism of military abuses was "unfair".

Now with the pace being set by U.S. General Barry Mc Caffrey, the Administration's top anti-narcotics official, Washington is giving more and more aid to the Colombian military, supposedly for combating the drug menace, but in practice aimed disproportionately at the left-wing guerrillas. Already Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt.

Washington's sense of frustration is understandable. The left wing guerrillas have not responded well to the significant steps taken towards them by President Pastrana. But then nobody in their right mind expected the betrayals, bad memories and fears of 40 years of war to be quickly set on one side by handshakes and face to face meetings. But if the U.S., angry at the slow pace of events in Colombia, allows itself to be drawn in it will be quite counterproductive.

It will simply give substance to all the marxist twaddle that has been talked for decades across Latin America by left wing intellectuals and guerrillas about who really pulls the strings. And it will embolden the Colombian army and its paramilitary allies to even worse excessses.

The path to peace in Colombia lies where it has long been- in honest and humane government within the country and serious moves by the world's largest drug consuming nation to pull the rug from under the drug barons by amending its outdated and outmoded laws on prohibition.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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