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U.S. Military Role in Colombia Increasing as Anti-Drug Efforts Include Anti-Guerrilla Mission


July-August 1998

New Colombia President Promises Talks with "Narco-Guerrillas"

The U.S. military has become increasingly involved in Colombian internal affairs as officials from both countries have stepped up measures to fight drugs and oppose leftist guerrilla groups. Aid that was approved to help fight drugs is being used to train Colombia's military to suppress guerrilla groups, according to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (Diana Jean Schemo and Tim Golden, "Bogota Aid: To Fight Drugs or Rebels?" New York Times, June 2, 1998, p. A1; Juanita Darling, "War on Drugs, Insurgents in Colombia Blur U.S. Mission," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), June 3, 1998, p. A2).

Colombia's military forces recently suffered their worst defeat by guerrillas since rebels took up arms in the late 1960s. The 34-year civil war in Colombia has already claimed an estimated 35,000 lives. Guerilla groups reportedly received more than $1 billion last year from the drug trade. The country's largest guerrilla group, with about 15,000 members, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), maintains a close guard over clandestine airstrips, coca and poppy fields, and drug laboratories. Another large rebel group is the 5,000-member National Liberation Army (ELN) (Thomas T. Vogel, Jr., and Thomas E. Ricks, "Colombia Army Loses Ground in Drug War," Wall Street Journal, June 4, 1998, p. A15).

Colombian guerrillas are seen as synonymous with drug traffickers in the region by some. Rosso Jose Serrano, the Director of National Police in Colombia, said, "It is difficult to distinguish between the two. When one arrives at a field or [narcotics] laboratory, it is hard to tell the difference between drug traffickers and guerrillas, because the guerrillas are firing at us." General Charles E. Wilhelm, the commander in chief of the U.S. Southern command said that Colombian guerrillas are closely tied to drug traffickers, with drug profits reportedly helping FARC fund their acquiring of weapons and other technology. FARC said that while it does fire at government anti-drug planes, it does so, in part, because they "are they an obvious military target. ..."

Much of the anti-drug aid to Colombia comes under the auspices of the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, which allows special military exercises in foreign countries if the primary purpose is to train U.S. troops. A large component of the JCET program is providing "foreign internal defense (FID) training," designed to help nations defend against internal threats, including drug trafficking. According to the Defense Department, the U.S. military "has both trained with and has provided military training to the Colombian armed forces, most of it focused on stemming the influence of organized drug trafficking." In 1995, the U.S. military role in Colombia was limited to counter-narcotics. However, the Department of Defense acknowledges, "The skills for counterdrug and counterinsurgency operations sometimes overlap." The amount of money given to Colombia increased dramatically between 1995 and 1997, from $28.8 million to $95.9 million [even though Colombia had been decertified as an anti-drug ally disqualifying it for foreign aid] (Paul de la Garza, "Shaken By Rebel Gains, Colombia Turns More to the U.S.," Chicago Tribune, July 16, 1998, sec. 1, p. 9; Douglas Farah, "A Tutor to Every Army in Latin America, U.S. Expands Latin America Training Role," Washington Post, July 13, 1998, p. A1).

In 1997, the U.S. and Colombia signed an agreement to ensure that aid to the Colombia military would be contingent on the military's human rights record and would be used only for anti-narcotics efforts. Military training "is undermining the Latin American trend toward demilitarization, democratization and respect for human rights," said Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which monitors human rights in that area.


Newly-elected Colombian president Andres Pastrana, who took office on August 7, promised to open negotiations with the guerilla groups in that country. In an election with a record turnout, Pastrana defeated Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party. Pastrana, the Conservative Party candidate, lost the 1994 presidential election to Ernesto Samper, the Liberal Party candidate, after which he gave the U.S. Embassy tape recordings of conversations between Samper and the wife of a drug dealer. Samper was accused of having accepted $6 million from drug dealers for his 1994 campaign. During Samper's presidency Colombia was "decertified" in 1996 and 1997 by the U.S. for not being an effective partner in the global anti-drug effort, and the U.S. revoked Samper's visa in 1996 Pastrana campaigned as a proponent of peace who could stop drug corruption and improve U.S.-Colombia ties (Diana Jean Schemo, "Colombian President's Accuser Handily Wins Presidency," New York Times, June 22, 1998, p. A3; Juanita Darling and David Aquila Lawrence, "Colombia Alters Course in Election for President," Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1998, p. A3; Diana Jean Schemo, "`Stoolpigeon' to President," New York Times, June 23, 1998, p. A8; Juanita Darling, "Patience, Truth and a Bit of Magic Made Him President," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), August 7, 1998, p. A1).

In keeping with his campaign promise to facilitate peace talks with guerrillas, Pastrana met with leaders of FARC on July 9 and with leaders of the ELN on July 15. Pastrana agreed to guerilla demands that the Government withdraw its military forces from five cities during the peace negotiations. The new president also agreed that the Government would hand over responsibility for drug crop eradication to the rebels. He proposes an international aid plan to support alternative crop development in coca-growing regions (F. Andy Messing, Jr. and Dillon Twombly, "Will Narco-Guerrillas Become the Rulers?" Op-Ed, Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), August 3, 1998, p. A11).

Pastrana met with President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on August 3. He promised to mend relations between the two countries and cooperate fulling with U.S. efforts to combat drugs. He also spoke with U.S. officials about a $100 million loan for his "alternative development" or crop substitution program (Thomas W. Lippman, "Colombian Leader Seeks to Mend Ties," Washington Post, August 4, 1998, p. A12).

On August 5, rebel troops mounted attacks against the Colombia army killing an estimated 150 soldiers. U.S. and Colombian officials condemned the offensive, saying the rebels were violating pledges to seek peace with Pastrana (Associated Press, "Colombia rebels battle army troops on multiple fronts," Denver Post, August 6, 1998, p. 12A; "Colombia on the brink," The Economist, August 8, 1998, p. 31).

Colombian Embassy to the U.S. - 2118 Leroy Place, NW, Washington, DC 20008, Tel: (202) 387-8338, Fax: (202) 232-8643.

Coletta Youngers, WOLA - 1630 Connecticut Ave., NW, 2nd Floor, Washington, DC 20009, Tel: (202) 797-2171, Fax: (202) 797-2172.