Image: Us Soldier Training Colombian Anti-narcotics Soldiers
A U.S. special forces soldier helps train a Colombian anti-narcotics battalion, in Larandia, a military base about 235 miles southwest of Bogota in May, 2001.
By Sean Federico-O’Murchu Reporter
msnbc.com

Two billion dollars and counting. In three years, the United States has funneled more aid to Colombia than any other country in the hemisphere to buttress an ally battling a violent insurgency fueled by lucrative drug trafficking. The Bush administration says the investment is finally paying off as it considers downscaling U.S. involvement. To critics, it’s been a hugely wrongheaded strategy that’s doomed to fail.

The debate touches on a host of sensitive issues for the United States, including the best way to halt illegal drug consumption at home and abroad, and whether what is predominantly military aid should be plowed into an army that has often failed to meet U.S. human rights standards.

The strategy, known as “Plan Colombia,” was developed and launched at the tail end of the last U.S. administration. On July 13, 2000, President Clinton declared that the tenfold increase in U.S. funding for Colombia would “fight drugs, build the economy and deepen democracy.”

It made Colombia the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid — following Israel and Egypt — with the most generous chunk set aside to provide Blackhawk and Huey helicopters as well as extensive training to the military to help with broad-scale eradication of coca and, to a lesser extent, opium crops.

The remaining funds were devoted to alternative development, human rights projects and for neighboring Andean nations.

PRODUCTION DROP

Approaching the third anniversary, and with the total pledge of funds now exceeding $2.5 billion, U.S. and Colombian officials assert the strategy has achieved its objectives, after a slow start.

The proof, they say, is in the statistics on drug cultivation in Colombia.

According to the latest U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report, cultivation of coca has plunged 38 percent in the past two years to an area of just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) while opium is down by around 40 percent.

(Opium is far less widespread in Colombia than cocaine — but it also can be cultivated on mountainsides that are difficult to fumigate.)

The Colombian government is even more bullish, predicting that 50 percent of the nation’s coca crop could be wiped out by the end of this year.

Furthermore, President Alvaro Uribe has pledged to make Colombia entirely drug free by the end of his term in 2006.

What we set out to do is starting to pay off,” said Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno. “We don’t get credit for doing the right things.”

A slew of U.S. officials struck a similarly upbeat note recently when describing progress under Uribe, elected a year ago after vowing to hunt down the guerrilla groups who have waged a four-decade war against the government.

At a Senate hearing last month, Marshall Billingslea, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, said he was “extremely optimistic about potential results in Colombia.”

A ‘RATHOLE’

To opponents, the prediction is ludicrous, overlooking harsh truths about Colombia and the drug war, including what’s viewed as the inevitability of drug cultivation as long as there is an insatiable market in the United States and Europe, and the intractability of the nation’s political situation.

In all, there are 50,000 drug-related deaths annually in the United States with 19,000 directly attributable to drugs, according to the administration.

”[U.S. money] is going down a rathole down there,” said Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and outspoken critic of Plan Colombia.

Colombians are mostly sticking by Uribe, according to recent public opinion polls, hopeful that his hard-line approach will succeed where past leaders have failed. The country is fed up of its reputation as one of the most dangerous spots on Earth, the kidnapping capital of the world and the jungle playground of drug traffickers and large, well-armed guerrilla groups.

Uribe, for his part, has burnished his reputation as a leader doggedly pursuing change and eschewing the insidious corruption that tainted previous administrations in Bogota. The government trumpets a 33 percent drop in the murder rate and a 54 percent plunge in kidnappings during the first five months of 2003.

“He does deserve some support,” said Adam Isacson, senior associate at the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Project. “He does seem committed to increasing the government’s presence and he’s not perceived as corrupt.”

MONUMENTAL CHALLENGE

But Uribe faces challenges as redoubtable as the Andean Mountains that carve a wide path through the South American nation of 42 million.

It’s an environment wrenched by violence, fueled by factionalism, regionalism, a huge wealth disparity and an anemic central government.

With a land mass three times the size of California, Colombia is blessed with lush forests and jaw-dropping mountain ranges, extensive coastlines on both the Pacific and Caribbean and a pivotal location at the northern tip of South America.

In recent decades, the conflict has been shaped by two left-wing groups, the FARC and ELN, battling the government, which has been often supported by right-wing paramilitaries, known as the AUC.

The State Department has branded all three forces “terrorist groups” and says that ideology has become subsumed by their main preoccupation: drug trafficking.

The rewards are phenomenal, for the traffickers and the farmers who cultivate the coca and opium crops. Nowadays, Colombia supplies 70 percent of the world’s cocaine (90 percent of the U.S. supply) as well as eight percent of the heroin (but it is the largest source for the United States).

Neighboring nations have shared in the illicit bounty, with cocaine cultivation also reported in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

TAKING ACTION

For U.S. policymakers during the Clinton administration, there was no choice but to ramp up assistance to Colombia, combined with help for other Andean nations. Drug cultivation escalated rapidly during the 1990s, threatening to overwhelm the already shaky central government in Bogota.

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, Clinton’s drug czar and one of the main architects of the plan, said he warned the president that Colombia was going “over the edge” and could collapse as a nation within five years.

“It was only a three-hour flight from Miami and hundreds of thousands were fleeing the country,” recalled McCaffrey. “We said these people are vitally important to [Colombia], they are a working democracy. I didn’t think there was much of an argument.”

But lawmakers sharply questioned a strategy that depended on training and arming a corrupt military force engaged in a long-running civil war. At the time, administration officials insisted the battle was against drugs, not the paramilitaries. Two years later, the Bush administration granted “expanded powers” to the U.S. military, which argued that the enemy was all one and the same and committed the United States to the war against irregular forces, left- and right-wing, in Colombia.

McCaffrey is convinced the path remains true. “If you don’t like terrorism, crime, thousand of refugees heading to South Florida, don’t like imperiling a major source of energy supply, it should be in the U.S. national interest [to help Colombia],” he said.

THE COCA BALLOON?

The very essence of the administration’s argument is disputed by critics, from the rosy outlook on eradication to the merits of supporting a dishonored military.

“President Clinton was wrong and President Bush is wrong,” said Rep. McGovern. ”[Production] is moving to north, east, west and to Peru,” he said. “We can play musical chairs but the reason why it’s hard to put an end to coca production in Colombia is because for a lot of farmers, there is no other alternative.”

Isacson of the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Project said the fumigation can reduce coca in a specific area for a period of time, but that it will pop up elsewhere in Colombia. He noted that the latest report from the United Nations showed an increase in production in the province of Guaviare, which was fumigated six years earlier — and that overall output is still well above levels from the mid-1990s.

U.S. and Colombian officials acknowledge there can be a balloon effect when it comes to coca cultivation.

Deborah McCarthy, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for counternarcotics, said that the United States has yet to see a surge in production elsewhere in the Andean region, but that there is a concern that other nations haven’t demonstrated the “same vigor” in eradicating coca.

The Colombia ambassador was frank about the incentive to produce coca, noting it was a demand-driven crop.

“There will always be a production of coca, but I think it will be a production that will be much easier to deal with [elsewhere],” Moreno said. “It will be much easier to eradicate that coca than to eradicate that same amount of coca in Colombia.”

And in pursuit of its anti-narcotics policy, the United States has put its faith in the Colombian military — training officers to fumigate coca from the air, demolish coca processing labs in the jungles and battle the guerrilla narco-traffickers.

And that rankles human rights groups. “The fundamental problem that we’ve been concerned about from the start is still a problem, that is links between the military and paramilitaries, who are responsible for a large share of the massacres in Colombia,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

The State Department also has criticized the links between the military and the AUC, but believes Uribe is taking steps to curb the worst excesses.

“Not saying it’s perfect — it’s not by any stretch — but we see it moving in the right direction,” said John Creamer, Deputy Director with the Office of Andean Affairs.

THE FUTURE

As the debate rages, the United States wants to give Colombia nearly $700 million for fiscal year 2004.

But it’s apparent that Washington’s appetite for such generous funding may be limited in the future.

As the General Accounting Office highlighted in June, Colombia’s distraught economy and the lack of training of its military means it’s in no position to take responsibility for funding the fumigation and eradication campaign that alone costs about $230 million annually.

Furthermore, the U.S. General Accounting Office complained that the State Department and Pentagon have failed to offer future program costs, define their own roles, identify “a proposed end state, or determine how they plan to achieve it.”

Establishing that end state may be the challenge for all sides. While President Uribe has pledged to eradicate coca by 2006, U.S. officials talk in terms of “manageable levels” of coca production.

And everybody agrees that while the war on narcotics may weaken the left-wing and right-wing groups, it won’t halt the terror waged by militias that number nearly 30,000.

“It’s been a losing war for more than 30 years,” said Jason Hagen, the outgoing Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s not impossible to stop but it’s as close to impossible as you are going to get.”

U.S. officials note approvingly that Uribe has increased the military budget and say that Colombia wants to take charge of some of the programs.

“We are in the process of determining what is a sustainable level [of counternarcotics activity] that will be required, even beyond President Uribe,” the State Department’s McCarthy said. “It will probably not be at the high pace of today, but it will depend a bit on the circumstances [in Colombia].”

U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson was blunter in a speech reported last month. “There is a feeling in Washington that we won’t be here forever and that we have to ‘Colombianize’ our projects as soon as possible,” she said.

Adam Isacson believed the United States is fearful of having to spend $700 million annually over an extended period of time to sustain Plan Colombia.

He predicted Washington is preparing its exit strategy, hoping that Uribe will be happy if the rebel groups suffer some large losses and defections and coca production is trimmed back to below 100,000 hectares — about what it was just before discussion on Plan Colombia got under way during the 1990s in Washington.

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