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The U.S. Takes Sides in Colombia’s War - 2003-02-18


Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was elected last May with 53 percent of the vote. His pledge to crackdown on the left-wing guerrillas and other paramilitaries appealed to Colombian voters exhausted from 39 years of civil war, which has turned increasingly brutal in recent years. As part of Mr. Uribe’s offensive against the illegal left- and right wing groups, the United States has expanded its focus from the war on drugs in Colombia to include the war on terror.

In the waning days of the Clinton administration, the United States and Colombia unveiled a one-point-three billion-dollar strategy called Plan Colombia. The idea was to give Bogota some serious help in its efforts to fight the drug trade.

Plan Colombia included hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance. But many in the United States – where memories of the Vietnam conflict are still fresh – initially didn’t want American forces involved in Colombia’s war. The conflict pits the democratically elected government against two major leftist guerilla groups, known by their Spanish acronyms as the FARC and the ELN. Illegal right wing paramilitary groups who oppose the leftist insurgents often fight along side or in coordination with Colombian troops.

Russell Crandall, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of the book “Driven by Drugs: U-S Policy Toward Colombia” says U-S military aid under Plan Colombia was to be used exclusively for the war on drugs.

“There was a very thick firewall,” the professor says. “Now I think two things in particular have shifted the United States’ objectives and certainly the military concerns of the Colombians to counter insurgency issues. And that is one, the changing nature of the conflict where the FARC have dramatically increased their military activities, the brutality of their operations, and there are more terrorist-like activities. Such as we saw in the Bogota bombing of a country club and the killing of several dozen Colombians. Two, has been September 11th and the advent of the war on terror.”

The Bush Administration’s new focus on fighting terror and the increased U.S. military presence in Colombia has many human rights activists worried.

Human rights groups have criticized the U-S military for its role in the 1970s and 80s in providing training to Latin American military officers, some of whom later went on to commit human rights abuses against labor union members, students and leftist politicians.

But retired U-S Army Colonel Jay Cope, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University in Washington says the abuses had more to do with the institutional culture the officers brought with them.

“The training that the soldiers got in the United States through the School of the Americas was no different than many other American soldiers got,” Colonel Cope says. “And we certainly don’t see those kinds of things happening with other people exposed to the same training. We don’t want to train the bad apples, and so we go to quite extensive efforts to make sure that that does not happen.”

Robin Kirk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the new book “More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia,” says that concerns about human rights abuses are valid. That’s why, she says, it’s critical that the United States stay engaged in Colombia, but that American involvement be conditional on Colombia’s respect for human rights.

“I think the challenge for the United States, as well as for Colombia, is to not only see both groups as using terror, but also to admit that our main ally in Colombia, the Colombian military, has also supported these paramilitary groups -- supported groups that not only profit from drug trafficking, but use terror,” Ms. Kirk says. “And so that one of the conditions that has to be made effective on U.S. engagement with Colombia is the condition that the U.S. ensure that the Colombian military is breaking these links with paramilitary groups.”

Colonel Cope, who served in the U-S Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, says American forces are aware of ties between their Colombian counterparts and the paramilitaries.

“There is a concern about a linkage between the armed forces and the paramilitary forces in Colombia. That is not an institutional linkage, but unfortunately it does happen at lower levels in the sense of perhaps passing information on from one to the other or not taking action against paramilitary units that are doing things,” the retired colonel says. “We’re very concerned about trying to make sure that our friends are really respecting the values of democracy and, by and large, the Colombian armed forces are really quite good in that regard.”

“I’m convinced that the United States can influence positively in this matter and in its relationship with the Colombian military,” Davidson College’s Russell Crandall says. “While the Colombian military has a long, long way to go, I think since the United States has been directly engaging them over the past several years, in terms of their human rights records, in terms of their understanding of the importance of human rights, and their relationship with Washington, and their own, the Colombian military that is, international legitimacy, that they have made some very important strides.”

Professor Crandall adds that public opinion polls show that nearly 90 percent of Colombians favor U.S. military assistance in fighting the insurgents.

“These are the same people that four years ago strongly supported [former president] Andres Pastrana’s peace platform,” the professor says. “It’s just that the nature of the conflict has changed so dramatically over these past four years and there is so much disillusionment and frustration about the unwillingness of the FARC in particular, and just the overall lack of public security, that Uribe’s more forceful response is almost being received as a cathartic experience. And certainly Colombians, a majority, are appreciative and supportive of the United States’ efforts to help them along this path.”

But a negotiated peace will be difficult. Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch says Colombians who may have once supported the FARC’s political goals, such as land reform, have grown disillusioned.

“The FARC at every point during the negotiations showed that it was contemptuous of human rights, contemptuous of civilians, contemptuous of the government and contemptuous of the peace process,” Ms. Kirk says. “So I think certainly some of the blame for the failed peace negotiations with the FARC lays on the government, but a great deal of it also lays on the FARC. Which I think for many people showed itself absolutely uninterested in really negotiating peace, but very interested in gaining a tactical advantage over the government to expand its power.”

Many observers say that with the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitaries more interested in drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and the power and money these bring in, it will be difficult for the Colombian government to offer them incentives to lay down their arms. President Uribe, who enjoys widespread public support, hasn’t ruled out future peace talks. But observers say that he has shown that he is more than willing to use military means – including U.S. help – to restore order to his war-torn country.

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