U.S. stuck in Colombia

THE SENATE will soon consider President Clinton's proposed $1.6 billion package to bankroll the government of Colombia's war against leftist guerillas.

The aid windfall purports to help staunch the flow of drugs from Colombia. But there is no reason to expect further U.S. anti-drug aid to be anymore effective than past aid. Even worse, there is a growing danger that the United States will be bumbling into a civil war.


The Clinton administration is hitting the panic buttons on the aid package; one administration official whined to the Washington Post on Tuesday, "Every week we are losing ground" in the fight against drugs.

While past U.S. aid has had little or no positive effect, Americans are supposed to believe that any delay in new spending means catastrophic damage.


Colombia has received nearly $1 billion in anti-narcotics aid since 1990. U.S. tax dollars are magnificent fertilizer: coca production is skyrocketing -- doubling since 1996 and forecast to increase another 50 percent in the next two years. Colombia nowsupplies roughly three-quarters ofthe heroin and almost all thecocaine consumed in the United States.

Most U.S. anti-drug aid has paid for chemical warfare: blanketing coca-growing areas with herbicides from crop-duster planes and helicopter gunships, a policy the Colombian minister of health strongly opposed in 1992. Yet after continual escalation in the amount of spraying, the amount of land in coca production is four times greater than what it was in 1994 and now exceeds 300 square miles.

"Close enough for government work" seems to be the motto of some anti-drug pilots. The New York Times reported allegations on May 1 that U.S.-financed planes repeatedly sprayed pesticides onto schoolchildren in a Colombian village. Many children reportedly became ill; the spraying also killed crops, chickens and 25,000 fish in fish farms.

The Clinton administration intensely pressured the Colombian government to allow a much more toxic chemical (tebuthiuron, known as SPIKE 20) to be dumped across the land, which would permit the planes to fly at much higher altitudes, Kosovo-style.

Environmentalists warned that SPIKE 20 could poison ground water and permanently ruin the land for agriculture. Even as the Clinton administration decreed clean-air standards severely curtailing Americans' exposure to chemicals that pose little or no health threat, it sought to deluge a foreign land with a toxic chemical in a way that would be forbidden in the United States.

The United States is foisting itself deeper into a civil war that has raged in Colombia for decades. There are about 200 U.S. military advisers already on site, and U.S. personnel are now actively training the Colombian military.

The Dallas Morning News recently noted reports that "tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are going into covert operations across southern Colombia employing, among others, U.S. Special Forces, former Green Berets, Gulf war veterans and even a few figures from covert CIA-backed operations in Central America during the 1980s." The United States is providing key intelligence to the Colombian military from U.S. intercepts of guerrilla radio messages.

Increased U.S. aid will not enable the Colombian government to win a decisive victory over the guerrillas anytime soon. The Colombian military is renown for losing almost all of the major engagements it fights with the guerrillas.


Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, recently warned that if Clinton's $1.6 billion aid plan is approved, the United States will be locked into "a five- to 10-year commitment, which will cost U.S. taxpayers in excess of $5 billion."

And even if the guerrillas are defeated, it's ludicrous to pretend that Colombians will no longer have an incentive to grow coca, as long as U.S. laws make that crop 20 times more profitable than any other.

American-funded drug suppression efforts have resulted in a "push down, pop up" effect: the harder the United States works to repress coca production in one area, the more likely production is to start up in another. It is time to recognize the futility of trying to micromanage what foreign farmers grow.

James Bovard is the author of "Freedom in Chains," (St. Martin's Press, 1999). This article is adapted from an essay published by the Future of Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Fairfax, Va.