by Molly Ivins
the United States slog deeper and deeper into the Big Muddy in Colombia is so painfully familiar, so eerily reminiscent of earlier foreign-policy disasters, that it should be enough to make us all wake up screaming in the middle of the night. But part of the nightmarish quality of repetition is that we're sleepwalking into this one, too -- just the way we did in Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua -- with practically nobody paying attention.
An angry expert at the U.S. War College claims, "The Vietnam analogy is not applicable." Right. This one is worse going in.
It's not McNamara's War. It's McCaffrey's War. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug czar, has made just one mistake in Colombia: He thinks he can tell the good guys from the bad guys. Try it yourself, and see what you think.
The civil war in Colombia began almost 40 years ago. It started with rebels fighting for the rights of poor peasants. Same old story: poverty, neglect, exclusion and abuse. So unless you have a knee-jerk reaction to the words "leftist rebels," they're the good guys.
But over the years, the rebels have taken to protecting poor farmers in the south who grow coca and opium to support their families. According to U.S. officials, 80 percent of the cocaine and 80 percent of the heroin in this country come from Colombia. The rebels style themselves the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, leaving them with the James Bond-ish Spanish acronym FARC. McCaffrey calls them "narco-guerrillas."
So if the lefties are the baddies, the righties must be the good guys? No. The drug trade is also protected by right-wing paramilitary groups, and the paramilitaries have in turn thoroughly infiltrated the regular Colombian army. The army, in turn, has a horrible record of human-rights abuses, one of the worst in the world, and corruption going back for decades. Very bad guys running a secret, dirty war, assassinating intellectuals and human-rights defenders who speak out against them.
At least 35,000 Colombians have been killed in this struggle during the past 10 years. Kidnappings and extortion are common, and 1.5 million Colombians have become refugees -- more than there were in Kosovo. The economy is wrecked. And we, oh happy day, are arming both sides.
U.S. aid to Colombia shot from $85.7 million in 1997 to $289 million last year. Now, McCaffrey wants a billion in "emergency assistance" for fighting drugs in Colombia and other countries. Republican hawks in Congress are pushing for $1.5 billion so they call the Clinton administration "soft on the drug war."
Most of the U.S. media have been wretchedly indifferent to this mess. But according to a superb series that has been running in two Florida papers -- it's a joint project of The Orlando Sentinel and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel -- there are about 300 U.S. military personnel in Colombia at any given time. Five of them died in a spy-plane crash in July. Our special forces are busy training the Colombian army, while we are supplying spy planes, helicopters and other equipment. And, of course, we supply the FARC by buying cocaine and heroin. The entire disaster is the consequence of American demand for drugs.
So how's the drug war going? According to Ana Carrigan in "In These Times," since 1985, nearly 500,000 acres have been sprayed with chemicals, and the environmental damage is incalculable. But the Colombian drug crop has expanded to almost 300,000 acres of coca and 7,000 acres of poppies.
On top of everything else, there's a real risk that the refugees and the violence will spill over onto neighboring countries such as Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador, destabilizing them in turn. Plus, many of our Latin allies think we're going to use the drug war as an excuse for direct military intervention, which they all hate with a passion for historical reasons.
In our usual happy effort to solve actual problems with better public relations, there is now a campaign out of Washington to convince us that the Colombian army is no longer rife with paramilitary types. According to those in-country, it's not only still full of right-wing paramilitary but has been heavily infiltrated by rebel spies, as well. What a jolly outfit.
There is a chance, maybe just this one chance, to stop this madness before it gets even worse. The rebels and the government are sort of having peace talks, which is to say they're talking -- but not getting very far. The people are so desperate for peace that last month, by most reports, as many as 10 million Colombians took part in peace demonstrations, hoping to give some impetus to the talks.
So far, our only contribution to the talks is McCaffrey's demand for $1 billion more to sink into the conflict (he must see light at the end of the tunnel) and the Republicans' see-you-and-raise-you $1.5 billion proposal. The negotiations are complicated by the fact that there are two rebel groups, and both the Colombian army and the notorious paramilitaries are far less anxious to settle than the government itself.
These folks need all the help they can get to achieve peace; we have clout at least with the army. And if we really wanted to help, we could do something about the demand instead of trying to kill the supply.
November 6, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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