Saturday, 1 August 1998
New aid seen creating wider US role in Colombia war
BOGOTA -- Washington has started giving military aid to two Colombian
army units under new rules aimed at protecting human rights, but critics
warned Friday it may trigger a wider U.S. role in Colombia's anti-guerrilla
The aid, which U.S. State Department officials say includes night vision
goggles, communications equipment, river boats and aircraft, is ostensibly
for counternarcotics operations.
But Colombian authorities say they have been given approval to use the
materiel in a huge area of southern and eastern Colombia --strongholds of
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's
largest rebel force.
"The machine is just beginning to creak and move forward. With (President
Ernesto) Samper leaving this will be an opportunity for the hawks (in U.S.
Congress) to run down a lot of aid to Colombia, " Carlos Salinas, Colombia
specialist at Amnesty International's office in Washington, said Friday.
"Once they deliver that aid you realize it can be used for all kinds of
things and not just anti-drug operations," he added.
Colombia's armed forces have one of the worst human rights records in the
hemisphere and have been frequently accused of close ties with ultra-right
death squads. As a result of its decision to blacklist, or "decertify",
Colombia as an ally in the drug war in 1996 and 1997, Washington cut off
general military aid to Colombia. U.S. aid could still officially be
granted to the army for anti- drug operations but most of the funding went
to the police as many U.S. lawmakers resisted widespread assistance to the
Colombian military because of its dire rights record.
In a bid to allay those concerns and free up more military aid, Congress
set up a new procedure last August under which the U.S. State Department
would vet the human rights record of specific Colombian army units
receiving aid. All navy and air force units have been given a clean bill
of health but so far just two army units have been approved.
"Six Colombian army units have been proposed to receive U.S. assistance.
All have been reviewed and two units have been cleared. One unit was
ineligible and more information was requested for three units. More units
may be proposed," said a State Department official, who declined to name
the units or specify when the aid was dispatched. Colombian Defense
Minister Gilberto Echeverri said aid to the army would be $7 million to
$10 million this year and total aid some $30 million including the air
force and navy. He added that night vision equipment had "recently" been
Despite U.S. guidelines that aid must be handed to specific units whose
rights records have been stringently vetted, it appears the equipment
will be used across a much wider area than that normally covered by a
"It's not so much a question of specific units but more of an area,"
Echeverri told Reuters, adding the aid would be used in eastern Colombia,
jungle-covered regions of the south and parts of central and southwest
Colombia. Eastern and southern Colombia are centers for illicit
plantations of coca leaf --the raw material for cocaine-- and opium
poppies but are also the main fortresses of the FARC.
Colombian and U.S. officials accuse the FARC of being "narco-guerrillas"
and of having wholesale ties to the drug trade --charges the rebels deny.
Earlier this year, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Charles
Wilhelm, warned Colombia's estimated 20,000 rebels were beginning to pose
a regional security threat and that the armed forces were losing ground in
the war against them.
Some political analysts say the claims are a pretext to blur the lines
between anti-narcotics and counterinsurgency operations in what they
describe as the "Vietnamization" of U.S. policy toward Colombia. Jose
Miguel Vivanco, head of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, this
accused the State Department of "blindsiding" watchdog groups monitoring
how aid was used.
A U.S. defense official played down those concerns and said the fact that
just two army units had been granted aid after a year of vetting was
"...an indication that this mechanism is working and creating the controls
demanded by Congress."
Copyright 1998 Reuters Ltd.
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