As the United States becomes ever more deeply enmeshed in Colombia, individual Americans here, conscious of the threat of kidnapping or guerrilla attack, are rarely seen in public. Equally difficult to find is any concrete effect of the $2.2 million-a-day US aid program. With the country now into the third year of a crushing recession, factories remain shuttered while the unemployed sell tangerines, shoelaces, cookies and bootleg CDs on the clogged streets. Farmland is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few rural barons, causing a million recently dispossessed campesinos to crowd into Bogota's satellite slums. The country's infrastructure--its roads, schools and clinics--slowly waste without repair.
Indeed, to glimpse any effect of US aid you have to travel to the grimy southern side of this capital to a cluster of incongruously gleaming and heavily fortified buildings that are, in effect, Colombia's Pentagon. Walk into the marble-floored and track-lit headquarters of Colombia's national antinarcotics police and the generosity of that aid, as well as the incestuous relationship between Washington and Colombia's military machine, are suddenly evident. Outside the door of Commanding Gen. Gustavo Socha's office, mounted on a tripod, is an oversize photo of a grinning George W. Bush celebrating his election. Next to it is a full-color promotional illustration of a US-made Black Hawk attack helicopter. In the general's waiting room, visitors are attended to by a young, uniformed press officer, a polished graduate of the recently renamed School of the Americas, run by the US Army. Also present is an equally young security officer just returned from an intelligence training course at Lakeland Air Force Base in Texas.
In case there's any doubt about the level of American involvement here, the office adjoining General Socha's is occupied by a craggy, Clint Eastwood clone in civilian clothes, a former US Army colonel. A veteran trainer at the School of the Americas, the ex-colonel now works with the State Department's Narcotics Affairs Section and is deployed as full-time adviser to General Socha.
Countless other federal drug and intelligence agents also work in Colombia. In addition there are a couple of hundred or more US military advisers training three new elite battalions of the Colombian Army. Dozens of US choppers are also arriving here: one fleet of "Super Hueys," mostly for the Colombian Army, and a squadron of top-of-the-line Black Hawks, allocated mostly to Socha's antidrug troops. Along with them come an unknown number of private contract US pilots and helicopter technical crews. Another batch of private contract Americans are here to fly the crop-dusters that spray toxic herbicides over the coca-rich countryside. Supporting this operation are four new so-called Forward Operating Locations--US military intelligence outposts--in Ecuador, Aruba, Curacao and El Salvador.
General Socha, in an interview, calls the US aid "crucial" to his efforts. "The value of the American technical assistance, the exchange of know-how, the electronic intelligence, the exchange of intelligence, cannot be overestimated," he says. And of course, neither can the helicopters. "They give us irreplaceable mobility and security for our operations."
All this largesse is paid for by a two-year, $1.6 billion US aid package shaped by the Clinton Administration, approved with little Congressional or public debate and wide bipartisan support, now inherited by the Bush White House. Commonly called Plan Colombia, its stated goal is to aid the Colombian government in wiping out half of the 300,000 acres of coca fields in Colombia within five years. About 80 percent of the program is strictly military, most of it focused on a "push" kicked off in early December into southern Colombia's Putumayo region, where about half the country's coca crop grows.
Colombia is now the …