U.S. arms Colombia in drug fight Critics fear risk of role in a 'dirty war' there


WASHINGTON -- Stepping up its drug war in Latin America, the United States is arming Colombia's military and police to fight a war against leftist insurgents who also are involved in narcotics.

The Clinton administration is donating helicopters, observation planes, patrol boats and other military gear to Colombia, one of the hemisphere's most violent countries and the source of 80 percent of the cocaine in the United States.

The U.S. equipment is part of a $112 million package of anti-drug aid for Latin America that was announced last month.

Under law, this equipment is to be used only for the drug war, but U.S. officials acknowledge that they can do little to prevent the supplies from being used also to fight insurgents.

And at the same time, the United States is selling Colombia 12 Blackhawk helicopters, equipped with machine guns, with the explicit understanding that they will be used both against leftist insurgents and drug traffickers.

The issue of increased military aid for Colombia has not surfaced in the presidential race.

Indeed, it is a point of rare agreement between the White House and many congressional Republicans at a time when Bob Dole has accused the White House of retreating from the drug war even as teen-age drug use has doubled.

But human rights groups say they fear that the United States risks becoming embroiled in a "dirty war" conducted by Colombian forces with a deplorable record of murder and torture.

And some in Congress, citing Colombia's human rights record, are demanding that the State Department closely watch how the U.S. military equipment is being used.

"We oppose providing additional aid to the Colombian military for the purposes of fighting Colombian guerrillas -- whatever their ties to drug trafficking -- absent improvement in the military's human rights record," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel of Human Rights Watch. "We risk getting pulled into an extremely abusive dirty war."

To hear President Clinton's drug policy czar, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and House Republicans, the U.S. support is a cost-effective way of helping front-line warriors in the struggle to keep cocaine out of the United States.

"Essentially, we use 3 percent of federal drug moneys -- or less -- to take away about one-third of the cocaine," McCaffrey said in an interview this week.

The Colombian armed forces and police, McCaffrey contended, have made "enormous improvements" in their human rights record in the past two years. The State Department human rights report for 1995, however, concluded that both the Colombian army and the police "were responsible for widespread human rights abuse."

'Fighting for us'

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, the New York Republican who is the driving force in Congress behind the increased aid, said in opening a hearing last month: "These people that are dying down there in those coca fields in Colombia, fighting the drug cartel and the communist guerrillas that are protecting the drug cartel, are fighting for us and our kids."

For nearly a decade, Colombia has been under U.S. pressure to eradicate its coca crop and combat the powerful drug lords who rake in billions of dollars in profits from the drug trade.

Bogota's anti-drug campaign has uprooted the leadership of the two largest cocaine cartels. But in a measure of the drug trade's remarkable resilience, the government's drive has failed to produce any lasting reduction in the the quantity or quality of drugs reaching the United States.

Since March 1, Colombia has been listed by Washington as a country which has failed to cooperate in the drug war. Other countries on the list include Syria, Iran and Nigeria.

In Colombia, the United States has been dealing with the police and military leadership, which, U.S. officials say, share America's goal of defeating the drug traffickers. At the same time, U.S. officials are trying to ostracize Colombia's president, Ernesto Samper, because of evidence that his election campaign was bankrolled by drug lords. Many Colombian legislators are also reputed to be in the traffickers' pocket.

Until recently, the United States kept its anti-drug campaign strictly independent of Colombia's war against insurgencies. That war has led human rights groups to rank Colombia's army as highly abusive.

"We thought it was important not to mix counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics," said John Walters, a top drug official in the Bush administration. U.S. officials, he said, feared losing control over how U.S. aid was used, given that Bogota "would be inclined to go after guerrillas more aggressively than drug traffickers in some areas."

Policy shift

But a guerrilla offensive launched in August has shifted Colombia's attention away from the drug cartels and toward "narco-guerrillas" -- the insurgents who protect or profit from drug trafficking. And U.S. policy has followed suit.

Having destroyed the cocaine cartel based in Medellin and captured the top leadership of the Cali cartel, Colombia's police have teamed up with the army against the guerrillas. Their main target is the largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces ofColombia (FARC). The guerrillas have expanded the areas under their control through bombings, land mines, massacres of peasants who oppose it and battles with police.

The guerrilla offensive, which began with attacks on military bases, is being described as the worst in three decades.


"Today, narcotics traffickers and guerrilla forces have joined forces" to impede the government's anti-drug efforts, Col. Leonardo Gallego, director of the anti-narcotics division of the Colombian National Police, told the International Relations Committee last month.

Lt. Col. Oscar Enrique Gonzalez, who commands an anti-narcotics military unit, told the committee: "While not our traditional role, the Colombian armed forces have been drawn into the war against narcotics trafficking given the special characteristics of the narco-guerrillas."

McCaffrey, who formerly commanded U.S. armed forces in Latin America, insists, "We're not fighting the FARC." But he acknowledged that it would be difficult to figure out whether U.S.-supplied weaponry is used to fight drug traffickers or insurgents.

"To be honest, I am somewhat uneasy about the notion of the U.S. having the effrontery of specifying that a fellow democracy struggling for survival against both drug criminals and an internal insurgency can't use the helicopters [it] purchased from us for any other reason than the struggle against drugs."

In the interview, McCaffrey said: "I think the FARC is heavily involved in every aspect of the drug business except possibly distribution. They're guarding drugs, moving drugs, they're growing drugs. They're a narco-guerrilla force -- period."

"We're talking battalion-sized attacks on police stations where 30 or more policemen are killed like dogs after they fight all night."

Lobbying unsuccessfully against the increased military aid to Colombia, the liberal-leaning Washington Office on Latin America charged that the U.S. anti-drug efforts there have been ineffective and a waste of foreign aid money.

In a letter last month, the group said the United States was forging ever-closer ties with "abusive police and military forces."

It is politically difficult for anyone in Congress to appear to be undercutting the drug war during an election year.

Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state, is one of the few in Congress who flatly oppose the military aid to Colombia.

The Clinton administration, he suggests, is trying to counter election-year accusations by the Republicans of being soft on drugs.

In addition, a letter signed by, among others, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, asks that the State Department reach "explicit understandings that the equipment is for counter-narcotics activities and, if necessary, to respond to humanitarian emergencies."

Pub Date: 10/10/96

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