In a major public policy shift, the administration of President George W. Bush is calling for US military aid to be used against Colombian guerrillas. To sell that change and the increased funding for Colombia in the budget for fiscal 2003 to Congress and the US public, the administration has begun a public relations campaign to include the Colombian guerrillas as targets of the "global war on terrorism."
On Jan. 15, just hours after a breakthrough salvaged the peace process in Colombia (see NotiSur, 2002-01-18), The Washington Post reported that the Bush administration was considering a change in policy that would allow US military aid to be used against the guerrillas.
The same day, John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) arrived in Colombia for a three-day visit to "review" US anti-drug cooperation with Colombia.
"I can't discuss all of the planning. We're doing a review of policy," Walters told reporters in Bogota. "We remain focused on supporting democratic institutions in Colombia. We remain focused on reducing violence where we can make a contribution to doing that, and, most of all, reducing drug trafficking that contributes to the funding of violence, and anti-government activity."
For some time, Colombian President Andres Pastrana has been asking Washington to expand its help to include participation in the war against the guerrillas. In a Jan. 22 interview with The Associated Press, Pastrana said that "the world changed on Sept. 11. The common enemy is terrorism." He called for US troops to train Colombian soldiers to protect oil pipelines and other infrastructure from rebel attacks. He added that he hoped the recent breakthrough in peace talks would lead to a full cease-fire by April.
Bush administration budget ups funding to Colombia
On Feb. 4, the Bush administration sent to Congress the fiscal year 2003 budget, which included a 14% increase in spending in the Andean region. Of the US$731 million proposed for the regional effort, US$439 million was for Colombia. The budget also requests US$98 million in new Pentagon training and equipment for the Colombian military.
Administration officials said it was the first step in a wider initiative to move US involvement in Colombia beyond counternarcotics assistance.
The US$98 million would come from foreign military financing funds, most often used to provide US military aid to US allies in the Middle East. Since Sept. 11, additional money from the account has been authorized for anti-terrorism activities in Uzbekistan, Turkey, and the Philippines.
In Colombia, most of the money would be used to train troops and provide at least 12 new transport helicopters for a 2,000- to 4,000-member "Critical Infrastructure Brigade" in the Colombian army. The brigade's initial task would be to protect the 600-km Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline, belonging to Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, which transports oil from fields in northeastern Colombia to the Caribbean coast.
The St. Petersburg Times reported that military sources said the White House proposed the new pipeline protection, which initially met objections from Pentagon officials because of the difficulty in defending fixed installations. But when they were told that the plan was part of an attempt to expand the military's role in Colombia, they were won over.
The request for more funding came the same week that CIA Director George Tenet, in a Senate appearance Feb. 6, listed Colombia guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) as a terrorist threat to the US alongside Islamic extremist groups.
The US Congress originally approved US$1.3 billion in mainly military aid for Plan Colombia, the US-designed anti- drug trafficking plan. A year of intensive crop spraying and attempts to wean campesinos from growing crops used in the drug trade have produced few positive results. Preliminary indications are that the cultivation of coca has not decreased. Alternative-development programs have progressed more slowly than anticipated. Troops trained and equipped by the US have made little headway in efforts to reclaim guerrilla-occupied coca-growing zones in the south. And human rights abuses have not diminished.
High-level US delegation visits Colombia
On Feb. 3, a high-level US delegation, led by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, visited Colombia. The delegation also included Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich, the State Department's top anti-drug official Rand Beers, and acting head of US military operations in Latin America, Maj. Gen. Gary Speer.
At a press conference in Bogota Feb. 5, Grossman outlined the administration's plan to protect Occidental's pipeline. Pipeline protection is crucial, Grossman said, because oil is Colombia's largest money-making export and provides much-needed income for a war-torn country.
"We are committed to help Colombians create a Colombia that is a peaceful, prosperous, drug-free and terror-free democracy," said Grossman. He said helping protect Cano-Limon was part of Washington's commitment to help Colombians create a "terror-free democracy."
The pipeline has been the target of rebels who see Occidental as an exploiter of Colombian resources. Colombia's state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, said the pipeline was bombed 170 times last year, costing Colombia and the company more than US$500 million. Since 1986, when the first attack was recorded, more than 2.6 million barrels of oil have been spilled.
In Colombia's El Tiempo newspaper Feb. 10, US Ambassador Anne Patterson said decisions on future US military aid would hinge on the success of the initiative to train a brigade to protect the pipeline. She said more than 300 infrastructure sites in Colombia are of strategic importance to the US, and securing Latin American oil supplies was more important now with growing tension in the Middle East.
"It is true that this is not an anti-narcotics issue, but it is something we have to do," said Patterson. "It is important for the future of the country [Colombia], for our petroleum supplies, and for the confidence of our investors."
Increased funding will encounter opposition
The proposed aid package will have to overcome concerns about deepening US involvement and what some see as a worsening human rights situation in Colombia.
Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) said lawmakers should scrutinize any attempt to expand military assistance. "This was not what was debated in Congress when Plan Colombia was passed. We are getting deeper into this conflict," said Wellstone, who opposed the previous Colombian-aid proposals.
"For the first time, the administration is proposing to cross the line from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) who chairs the foreign operations subcommittee. "This is no longer about stopping drugs, it's about fighting the guerrillas."
The pipeline proposal also has some asking why US taxpayers should provide security for a large private company that has a questionable record in Colombia. Environmentalists and human rights groups have targeted Occidental since 1995 when the indigenous U'Wa people, whose land is threatened by the oil company's operations, vowed to commit mass suicide (see NotiSur, 2000-04-14).
"If they wanted to take on the guerrillas, they could have done it in many parts of Colombia. But they chose to do it where the pipeline is. Isn't that curious?" said Adam Isacson, Colombia coordinator for the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. Isacson points out that Occidental has spent millions of dollars lobbying politicians on Colombia policy in recent years, as well as making large campaign contributions.
Supporters of the aid say, however, that Occidental deserves special consideration since it is under attack by guerrilla groups the US lists as terrorist organizations.
Environmental and human rights groups have denounced the detrimental effects of Plan Colombia and opposed any new spending.
On Jan. 15, the US environmental law firm Earthjustice called on the UN Human Rights Commission to pressure the US and Colombia to stop aerial spraying of herbicides as part of Plan Colombia. The group said since the spraying began, there have been thousands of reports of serious health problems, destruction of food crops and livestock, contaminated surface water, damage to surrounding wilderness areas, and deforestation resulting from campesinos' need to clear forests and plant crops on uncontaminated lands.
In a joint report released Feb. 5, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) accused the Pastrana government of failing to meet Congress' human rights conditions for continued funding. The report said the Colombian military maintains close operational ties with paramilitary forces responsible for widespread civilian massacres.
Current congressional restrictions on counternarcotics funding require that US aid be suspended at the end of February unless the administration certifies that Colombia has made progress in severing those ties and in promoting the civilian investigation, suspension, and prosecution of military officers credibly accused of human rights abuses. The report concludes that "Colombia's government has not, to date, satisfied these conditions" and that the military's human rights record, if anything, has gotten worse.
In Colombia, the FARC said the policy shift in Washington proves that the US wants to intervene militarily. "From the beginning, we said that Plan Colombia was a counterinsurgency plan," said FARC commander Simon Trinidad. "No one believed the story that it was a plan against drug trafficking. Now the mask has been taken off."
Instead of increasing aid to the Colombian military, Trinidad said US military personnel should be withdrawn from Colombia. "They are here to pursue a war against our own people, and they have taught the military the doctrine of...state terrorism," he said.
Administration launches media campaign
Building on public support for anti-terrorism efforts since Sept. 11, the Bush administration began an anti-drug media campaign in February linking illegal drug use with acts of terror. Full-page ads in major US newspapers Feb. 11 followed television ads, costing US$3.2 million, during the Super Bowl. In one newspaper ad, a youth says, "Last weekend I washed my car, hung out with a few friends, and helped murder a family in Colombia," sending a message linking buying drugs to terrorism and linking both to Colombia.
"We are trying to capitalize on the desire people have to make a contribution in the war against terrorism and the desire to be more responsible themselves," said ONDCP director Walters. "If people want to know what they can do, there is a pretty clear message here, as the president said, when you stop using drugs you join America's battle on terrorism."
But Matthew Briggs, assistant director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which works for new drug laws, said it was disturbing that the government spent so much money blaming Americans for terrorism when more than half of Americans in need of drug treatment did not have access to it. "It's a politically motivated, cynical expenditure of money," he said.
President Bush continued the message on Feb. 12, saying that the September attacks were made possible through the sale of illegal substances like heroin and other drugs. "The drug trade supports terrorist networks," Bush said. "When people purchase drugs, they put money in the hands of those who want to hurt America, hurt our allies." [Sources: Spanish news service EFE, 01/15/02, 01/16/02; Notimex, 01/15/02, 02/03/02, 02/04/02; El Nuevo Herald (Miami), 02/04/02; The Washington Post, 01/15/02, 02/06/02; The New York Times, 02/06/02; WorkingForChange, La Opinion (Los Angeles), 02/08/02; Reuters, 01/16/02, 02/02-05/02, 02/10/02; The St. Petersburg Times, 02/11/02; Associated Press, 01/23/02, 02/05/02, 02/06/02, 02/13/02; Chicago Tribune, 02/13/02]…