New York Times 

June 2, 1998

U.S. to Increase Support for Colombian Army


WASHINGTON -- Concerned about the growing power of leftist rebels in 
Colombia, the Clinton administration is expanding its support for 
government forces fighting in the hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla 

U.S. officials say the aid is aimed at stanching the flow of illegal drugs from 
Colombia, and will target the insurgents only where they protect the 
production of heroin and cocaine. The officials say they have no intention of 
getting mired in Colombia's internal conflict. 

But government documents and interviews with dozens of officials here 
indicate that the separation Washington has tried to make between those two 
campaigns -- one against drug trafficking, the other against the guerrillas -- is 
increasingly breaking down. 

Officials say more U.S. training and equipment are going to shore up basic 
deficiencies in the tactics, mobility and firepower of the Colombian military, 
rather than for operations directed at the drug trade. Faced with a string of 
rebel victories, including a devastating ambush of Colombian troops in 
March, U.S. generals have embarked on an ambitious effort to help 
reorganize the Colombian army. 

According to senior U.S. officials, the Clinton administration has also been 
considering options that officials said include additional military training, 
provision of more sophisticated helicopters and materiel, and creation of a 
high-tech intelligence center that would be run by U.S. officials on Colombian 

The limits of U.S. involvement in Colombia are still largely set by the 
constraints on military, intelligence and foreign-aid spending in the 
aftermath of the Cold War. Compared with the billions of dollars poured into 
Central America during the 1980s, the hundred million or so that the United 
States now spends annually on Colombia remains relatively modest. 

Yet administration officials have begun to describe Colombia as another grave 
strategic risk. If the rebels and the drug traffickers bond more closely, the 
officials warn, both could become greater threats to the region. Colombia's 
troubles could spill across its borders toward the Venezuelan oil fields, the 
United States' chief source of imported petroleum, or into Panama, home to 
the vital Panama Canal. 

Colombia's stability, they contend, is a responsibility from which the United 
States cannot run. 

"This is not a one-night stand," said the commander of U.S. military forces in 
Latin America and the Caribbean, Gen. Charles Wilhelm. "This is a marriage 
for life." 

Such admonitions come at an especially delicate political moment in 
Colombia, where a new president will be chosen in a run-off election on June 

While Washington's concerns about the country have risen over the last 
year, Colombian leaders were cutting their military spending and suggesting a 
new willingness to negotiate with the insurgents. Business groups are 
pressing for peace talks with the rebels, and last month thousands of 
Colombians rallied against the violence. Both the candidates who emerged 
from the first round of presidential elections on Sunday have said they 
wouldmake new efforts to reach a settlement. 

The evolving U.S. policy is also the subject of a growing debate, one almost as 
sharp in the administration as outside it. 

At one end are officials who cannot consider the Colombia plans without 
seeing Central American ghosts. They point to cases in which more than a 
dozen Colombian army units given anti-drug training by the United States 
were later linked to serious human-rights violations in the fight against the 

At the other end are officials who believe that even the most ambitious policy 
proposals are inadequate, and that whatever the final administration plan, 
political sensitivities will ensure that it falls well short of Colombia's needs. 

"We're afraid to use the 'I' word," said an official who is influential in the 
Colombia policy's design. "We should be able to say with a straight face, and 
without feeling like we have to go to confession, that there is an insurgency 
problem in Colombia that threatens the stability of the country." 

More quietly, other voices in the government are challenging important 
arguments at the source of Washington's alarm. 

For instance, administration officials have argued that a boom in the 
cultivation of coca in southern Colombia has brought the guerrillas a 
dangerous windfall. They say the rebels, by in effect renting their forces to 
protect those who grow coca and refine cocaine, have been able to pay for new 
recruits, better weapons and more aggressive strikes against the government. 

But intelligence officials have said that there is scant evidence of a major 
change in the insurgents' relationship with the traffickers, and that the 
impact of Colombia's coca boom on the availability of drugs in the United 
States is probably not great. 

Background: From 1990, Aid Rose to Highest in

Since the end of the Cold War and the waning of civil conflicts elsewhere, 
Colombia has emerged as the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in 
the Western hemisphere. 

The aid began to rise in 1990, with the Bush administration's "Andean 
strategy," a five-year, $2.2 billion plan to try to stop the cocaine plague at its 

U.S. officials believed that with global security threats shifting after the Soviet 
Union's demise, soldiers and intelligence agents could find a worthy new 
adversary in the bosses of Colombia's cocaine trade. And as such efforts 
gathered momentum in the early 1990s, they focused largely on the bosses 

The expanding U.S. role also coincided with a turn in the region's oldest 
guerrilla war. 

Starting in 1990, several guerrilla groups agreed finally to lay down their 
arms. Some 7,000 more, mostly of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of 
Colombia (known by its initials in Spanish as the FARC) and the National 
Liberation Army, rejected the peace. 

Cesar Gaviria, then Colombia's president, attacked the holdouts as "deranged 
fanatics who have not read in the newspapers the sorry story of the end of 
totalitarianism." Confident that history was on his side, he doubled military 
spending and increased the size and authority of the armed forces. 

The guerrillas and their supporters also came under new assault by right-
wing paramilitary forces that often worked with government troops. In many 
cases, drug traffickers have also armed the paramilitaries against the 
insurgents; victims of the squads have included thousands of peasants and 
unionists, and hundreds of the rebels who gave up their guns. 

By the mid-1990s, the remaining insurgents had dug in militarily and begun 
shoring up their finances. They stepped up ransom kidnappings, extortion 
and the protection of coca fields, jungle laboratories and clandestine airstrips. 

The collaboration of some guerrilla fronts with the drug trade became the 
central plank of government propaganda campaigns against them. It also 
began to emerge as a justification for the difficulty that officials had in 
keeping U.S. aid from going to Colombian units that fought mainly against 
the insurgents. 

"They're guarding drugs, they're moving drugs, they're growing drugs," the 
White House drug-policy director, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, said in 1996, adding 
that he was "uneasy" with U.S. efforts to restrict Colombia's use of advanced 
UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters that it was then buying from the United States. 
"They're a narco-guerrilla force, period." 

Beginning in 1994, Congress required the Clinton administration to verify 
that U.S. military aid would go only to troops that "primarily" carried out 
anti-drug operations. In March 1996, the administration reacted to evidence 
that President Ernesto Samper had taken money from Cali traffickers, by 
cutting off almost all U.S. aid to Colombia except what was designated to fight 
drugs, a step known as decertification. 

Yet according to many officials, the Pentagon quietly distinguished itself by 
finding creative ways around the  restrictions. "We refused to disengage," said 
a Defense official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. 

Over all, U.S. anti-drug aid granted to the Colombian military and police rose 
from $28.8 million in 1995 to at least $95.9 million in 1997, according to State 
Department figures. Military sales to Colombia jumped from $21.9 million to 
$75 million over the same period, largely on the Colombian army's purchase 
of the six Blackhawks. 

Unlike the early stages of the civil war in El Salvador, when whole battalions 
were flown to U.S. bases for training, the Pentagon's efforts to overhaul 
Colombian forces have been conducted mainly in Colombia by small teams of 
special-forces trainers. 

Administration officials describe the curriculum as heavy doses of anti-drug 
tactics with some counterterrorism, hostage rescue and medical training 
thrown in. But military officials familiar with the programs said they 
concentrate less on weak links in the cocaine trade than on shortcomings of 
the Colombian army. 

One instance of the vague definition of "counter drug" preparation are the 
courses that U.S. Army trainers, drawn largely from the 7th Special Forces 
Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., often lead in the Pentagon's Joint Combined 
Exchange Training, or J-Cet program. 

Working with Colombian units, Defense Department officials said, the teams 
teach skills as basic as marksmanship and jungle maneuvers. At the end of a 
course, the trainers will typically plan a "graduation" attack on the guerrillas 
and then wait at their base while the students carry it out. 

Another program, Joint Planning Assistance and Training, often involves the 
preparation of psychological operations against guerrillas and drug traffickers. 
Still other teams analyze military intelligence information to help the 
Colombian army to plan its operations. 

U.S. officials do not deny that many of the Colombian units they train go back 
into battle against the rebels. The Colombian army has no forces dedicated 
entirely to fighting drugs, and the use of U.S.-trained troops is left up to 
Colombian commanders. 

By 1994, both the General Accounting Office and the Defense Department had 
found that the light-infantry skills taught in anti-drug training were easily 
adapted to fighting the rebels. When the U.S. Embassy in Bogota reviewed the 
matter in 1994, officials said they discovered that anti-drug aid had gone to 
seven Colombian brigades and seven battalions that had been implicated in 
abuses or linked to right-wing paramilitary groups that had killed civilians. 

Conditions subsequently imposed by Congress sought to cut off aid to any 
Colombian units involved in human-rights violations. But some U.S.-
trained forces have continued to be accused ofabuses, and Colombian 
prosecutors are investigating reports that a massacre of suspected rebel 
sympathizers last year around the southern village of Mapiripan was carried 
out by a paramilitary squad flown into the nearby military air field at San Jose 
de Guaviare, the staging base for U.S.-supported anti-drug operations in the 

Guerrillas: Rebels and Traffickers in a 'Coca

Administration officials say there is no sure way to keep the anti-drug battle 
from running into the guerrillas, given what has taken place over the last 
couple of years. 

In response to an aggressive government campaign against coca cultivation 
and transportation in neighboring Peru, the officials say, the traffickers have 
joined some major rebel fronts to create a virtual coca republic. Peasants who 
support the insurgents are planting more coca, FARC units are protecting 
more drug crops and labs, and government authority has eroded across the 

Military officials including Wilhelm, the commander in chief of the U.S. 
Southern Command, said drug profits and other income are financing the 
guerrillas' purchase of more and perhaps more sophisticated 
communications equipment and weaponry. 

Intelligence officials said there was now some guerrilla activity in perhaps 700 
of the country's 1,071 municipalities. And they estimate the insurgents' 
strength at as many as 18,000 combatants -- 10,000 or 11,000 in the FARC, 7,000 
in the National Liberation Army -- up from as few as 8,000 fighters six years 

"The threat is intensifying," Wilhelm said in an interview. "We are seeing, 
basically, an undermining of governance at the grass-roots level. In a sense, I 
see a nation divided." 

More vivid than the CIA's estimates of rising coca cultivation, however, 
have been U.S. intelligence reports on the decrepitude of the Colombian 

In March, a force of 400 to 600 FARC guerrillas crushed an army unit near the 
southern village of Billar, killing 67 soldiers and capturing about 30 more, 
according to Pentagon figures. Officials said it was probably the most serious 
defeat of government forces since the guerrillas took up arms in the mid-
1960s, but only one of a series of battles they have lost in the last 18 months. 

And military analysts said the Colombian army was probably weaker than it 
looked. As many as half of its 121,000 soldiers are deployed to protect cities, oil 
pipelines and other fixed targets. A classified Defense Intelligence Agency 
assessment first reported by The Washington Post speculated that if current 
trends continued unchanged, the armed forces could be defeated within five 

Congressional Republicans cast the situation in even direr terms. 

"The frightening possibilities of a narco-state just three hours by plane from 
Miami can no longer be dismissed," Rep. Benjamin Gilman of New York, 
chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said at a recent 

Prodded insistently by Gilman and a small group of other powerful 
Republican lawmakers, the administration recently announced what the 
acting State Department anti-narcotics chief, Rand Beers, called "an ambitious 
new strategy to attack narcotics trafficking in Colombia on all fronts." 

Beers, who helped draft the Andean strategy 10 years ago, said the State 
Department would start by adding at least $21 million to its anti-drug aid 
program to Colombia this year. In part, the money is to finance an expanded 
campaign to eradicate drug crops and destroy laboratories in the southern 
Colombian departments of Putumayo and Caqueta. 

Because the rebels have such a strong presence in the region, officials say, 
those efforts will require greater army help. But while U.S. officials have 
often announced such collaboration in the past, it has consistently foundered 
on the rivalry that has long existed between the two services. 

U.S. officials have already begun to work with the Colombian air force to 
intercept drug flights, and will provide night-vision equipment for its planes. 
Colombian military officials have also said they would like to buy armored 
attack MH-1 Cobra helicopters, and a Defense Department official predicted 
that the Pentagon would support such a request. 

Wilhelm, the Southern Command chief, insisted that the United States was 
not sending the sort of advisers that it once stationed with military units in 
countries like El Salvador and Vietnam. But he also made it plain that he 
himself has become a crucial adviser to the Colombian high command. 

After the Colombian military commander, Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett, 
presented his own strategy plan in January, Wilhelm and his aides began 
picking it apart, highlighting a number of problems. Wilhelm has since 
worked with Colombia commanders on a sweeping overhaul of the armed 
forces, and ordered a "comprehensive" review of U.S. training. 

Additionally, a small group of Southern Command analysts have embarked 
on a side-by-side comparison of Colombia's experience with that of Peru, 
where leftist guerrillas protect coca growers for years. 

With the waiver of Colombia's decertification penalties this spring, 
administration officials said their basic question was not whether they would 
increase aid to Colombian forces, but how and by how much. 

Policy: Will U.S. Be Drawn Into War on Rebels? 

Administration officials have played down fears that the United States is 
being drawn deeper into Colombia's guerrilla war. The Pentagon recently said 
it would tighten safeguards meant to keep aid from going to forces involved 
in human-rights abuses, and promised new scrutiny of the "joint combined 
exchange training" in particular. 

Under an agreement signed in August, Colombian military units can receive 
U.S. support only after their rosters have been screened to determine that 
they do not harbor troops known to have violated human rights with 
impunity. Officials said only two battalions of the Colombian army have 
qualified so far, and both of those have had to be assembled from other forces. 

Another key condition cited by U.S. Embassy officials is that U.S. aid can only 
be used in a designated region of Colombia where the ties between drug 
producers and the guerrillas are held to be so close that any rebel unit could be 
fairly considered the traffickers' ally. 

There was no question that the definition of the zone was broad: "the box," as 
it was described by U.S. diplomats, encompassed almost the southern half of 
the country. Yet officials said the area was not big enough for the Pentagon, 
which has quietly refused to acknowledge its limits. 

"In terms of geography, the use of the resources, I'm personally not aware of 
any restrictions," Wilhelm said. 

So far, administration policies on Colombia have received nothing like the 
scrutiny given U.S. policies for Central America in the 1980s, and aid 
conditions have often been only loosely applied. 

For instance, the Colombian military was required to pledge in writing that it 
would use the six Blackhawk helicopters it bought in 1996 largely for anti-
drug operations with the national police. But U.S. officials said they knew of 
no such operations since the helicopters arrived in early 1997. The 
administration has since been fighting congressional demands that it give 
three more Blackhawks directly to the police. 

Some policy analysts question the new alarm about Colombia because they 
say the drug threat itself is overblown. The quality of Colombian-grown coca 
is so low, they argue, that it cannot offset the declines in cultivation in Peru. 

Intelligence analysts also raise questions about the rebel-trafficker alliance that 
has been at the core of policy-makers' concern. 

According to a 1996 report by intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, the 
rebels' ties to the drug trade are extensive. But a declassified summary of the 
report says that while guerrilla fronts sell protection "in virtually all 
departments where traffickers operate," only a few rebel fronts "probably are 
involved more directly in localized, small-scale drug cultivation and 

Officials said there was a consensus among the U.S. intelligence agencies that 
the insurgents' role in the drug trade had not grown or changed substantially 
since the report was issued. 

A FARC spokesman who uses the alias Leonardo Garcia contended that the 
rebels did not protect coca fields to make money so much as to defend 
peasants with whom they are allied.

"The idea is simply to label us as delinquents, to reject us as people with a 
political struggle," the spokesman said in an interview in New York. "It's a 
way to legitimize a military intervention." 

There is little question that the evolving U.S. policy has focused less on the 
close relationship that Colombian traffickers have with many right-wing 
paramilitary groups. The problem of such apparent partisanship, critics of the 
policy argue, is that it may get in the way of the settlement that U.S. officials 
say they would like to help bring about. 

After the kidnappings of several U.S. citizens by the guerrillas, Washington 
refused to deal with the insurgents at all. And while the rebels recently 
announced their willingness to negotiate with a new president, they have 
also threatened to attack U.S. military personnel. 

Although Colombian history has demonstrated that it is easier to talk peace 
than to produce it, political pressure for an end to the war clearly has grown. 
"We're talking about land reform, about dealing with oil policy, about 
constitutional reforms," said the head of the government's peace 
commission, Daniel Garcia Pena. "Today, people understand that these social 
and political questions the guerrillas raised have to be put on the table." 

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