New York Times
June 2, 1998
U.S. to Increase Support for Colombian Army
By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO and TIM GOLDEN
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
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
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
"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
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
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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