PLAN COLOMBIA: The Hidden Front in the U.S Drug War

Article excerpt

You would never guess you are entering one of the most dangerous countries in the world when you step off a plane at El Dorado Airport in Bogota, Colombia. Walking down the softly lit hallway in the international arrival terminal, your first impression is one of culture, beauty, and peace. Artfully arranged hieroglyphics grace the passage walls, and lightboxes depict golden artifacts from Bogota's Museo de Oro. After a friendly greeting by an efficient immigration official, your luggage appears promptly on the baggage carousel. You spot no armed guards.

But then, traveling into the city, a curious sight appears over and over. You notice that every motorcycle rider wears a bright yellow vest and black helmet clearly inscribed, front and back, with the license plate number of the motorcycle. Even passengers seated behind drivers wear numbered vests and helmets.

"There are many accidents," a taxi driver explains. Taking his right hand off the steering wheel, he pantomimes shooting a revolver. "And other problems."

Colombia's problems include ten kidnappings for ransom every day--half the world's kidnappings last year. The problems include thousands of unsolved murders, massacres, and acts of terror committed annually. In the cities, an estimated 80 percent of the violence is street crime, the rest political. In the countryside, these statistics are reversed. The survivors are also a problem--about two million displaced people throughout Colombia, driven from their homes by violence and poverty.

It is March 2001 and I have traveled from the United States to Colombia with a human rights delegation sponsored by the faith-and-conscience based organization Witness for Peace. We are 100 grassroots people, aged twenty to eighty, including college students, retirees, and actively employed people in a wide variety of professions. Eighteen of us claim no religious affiliation; I am the only one who publicly identifies myself as a humanist and atheist, although others later tell me they have like convictions.

All of us delegates have one thing in common: a compelling belief in nonviolence and social justice. Many of us remember U.S. foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s, when our country supported brutal Guatemalan and Salvadoran governments and their surrogate death squads, waging dirty wars against their own people to "save" them from communism.

Our Witness for Peace delegation is in Colombia to see how the current U.S. foreign aid package called Plan Colombia is affecting the Colombian people.

In July 2000--a U.S. presidential election year--Congress authorized spending $1.3 billion for Plan Colombia as the latest front in the U.S. drug war. About 35 percent of that amount is for anti-drug operations in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Colombia's portion is mostly military aid: $642 million for sixty Blackhawk and Huey attack helicopters, and up to 500 U.S. military advisors and 300 civilian personnel to train three counter-narcotics battalions of Colombian soldiers. The remaining $218 million is for alternative development, assistance for displaced persons, and human rights and judicial reform.

The European Union, asked to match U.S. funds for Plan Colombia, vigorously opposed the military aspects of the plan, predicting increased violence as a result. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the National Council of Churches also strongly protested. Colombia's neighboring countries feared a spillover of narcotrafficking, violence, and refugees.

There was little debate in Congress before passing Plan Colombia. Congress heard testimony mainly from governmental and military sources. A vice-president of Occidental Petroleum, operating in Colombia for over thirty years, also lobbied for Plan Colombia. "Colombian oil," he said, "is of vital strategic importance to the United States because it reduces our dependence on oil imports from the volatile Middle East. …