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Spray or Else: U.S. Cuts No Slack in Colombia

Despite rising opposition to Plan Colombia, U.S. holds a hard line, pressuring President Pastrana to continue aerial spraying of coca fields -- or else.
 
 
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Even as Plan Colombia, the US-authored effort to destroy the Colombian drug trade, falters in the face of rising domestic and international opposition, U.S. academic war hawks are calling for a deeper, more direct intervention in Colombia's long-festering and now flaring civil war.

Responding to intense domestic and international pressure, Colombian President Andres Pastrana has imposed a de facto moratorium on the US-backed campaign of herbicide spraying of coca fields, a key element in Plan Colombia. The Colombian government officially denies that it has halted spraying, but informed observers disagree and U.S. officials are quietly grumbling.

"In no case is there any intention by the government to stop fumigation," Pastrana spokesman Gonzalo de Francisco told the St. Petersburg Times late last month. "There is not a single airplane grounded because of the president," he claimed.

But Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami Colombia expert who advises the U.S. government on Colombia policy, told the Times that administration officials told him the spraying had been effectively halted. Pastrana's change of policy "came as a big surprise and it alarmed a number of people in Washington," including the DEA, CIA, Pentagon and the National Security Council," Bagley said. The U.S. response is, "Spray or else, buddy; they're very upset with him," Bagley added.

Colombian anti-narcotics police confirmed Bagley's account. They told the Times that spraying had been halted in southern Caqueta province on orders from Bogota because of protests from indigenous groups and environmental concerns. "It's suspended for those reasons," said Anti-narcotics Police spokesman Julio Rincon. "Those are the government's orders."

The U.S. State Department has also reported a halt to spraying in some regions. In a report titled Summary of Counternarcotics Operations in Colombia, the State Department noted that spraying in Putumayo province had been "temporarily suspended by the government of Colombia" on April 10th. Putumayo had been the scene of extensive spraying from December through February, and U.S. officials had hoped to re-spray the affected areas within 90 days to drive home the point that they were serious about aerial eradication.

The State Department report also noted that spraying in neighboring Caqueta province had been halted on May 3. In a nice bit of spin control, the State Department argued that Pastrana's decision to halt spraying was "in keeping with the government's integrated strategy to combine social programs, alternative crop development, and aerial eradication."

Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy returned from Colombia on Wednesday. He told DRCNet that the spraying indeed appeared to have been halted. "My understanding is that the spraying is on hold at the insistence of the Pastrana government while they wait for alternative development to actually be in place and underway," Isaacson said. "If that is the case, the Colombian government has responded to the broad international criticism of Plan Colombia."

Not only international criticism. Pastrana's own environmental minister, Juan Mayr, has filed a resolution opening coca-spraying to legal challenge within Colombia. The resolution took the Colombian drug policy office to task for failing to address questions about spraying's environmental impact. "It can be concluded," read the resolution, "that the documents delivered until now by the drug policy office to define an adequate environmental management plan for the spraying of illicit crops…have not responded to the scope and objectives requested in repeated occasions by this Ministry."

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Mayr said that any Colombian citizen could theoretically use the resolution to sue the drug policy office to stop spraying. It would be up to a judge, he said, to decide if the resolution formed a proper basis for such a lawsuit. No such lawsuits have been filed as of this week, although the Colombian public interest group Fundepublico and environmental activists are studying such a possibility.

"This is not the end of the fumigation process," former U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette told the Times, "but it's a real monkey wrench." But it is because of the deaf ear that Frechette and U.S. officials have turned to complaints from peasants about poisoned crops, livestock, and children, that the Colombian government has acted. Frechette characterized peasants' accounts of damage from spraying as "folk tales."

As if this weren't enough for Pastrana and the embattled aerial eradication program, the largest outbreak of anti-spraying civil unrest in recent years broke out last week in Tibu, a town near the Venezuelan border with a strong paramilitary presence. Over the weekend of June 8-11, thousands of coca farmers rioted against aerial fumigation. According to press reports, the protesters, numbering as many as 4,000, burned down a refueling base for US spraying aircraft, along with pesticides stored at the local airstrip and the fire station adjacent, as well as looting businesses in the town itself.

They were protesting a limited spraying campaign that had gotten underway two weeks earlier. "We want fumigation, but not for coca," said protest leader Rafeal Arciniega. "We want it for malaria and for dengue," which plague the region, he added.

One spraying aircraft was hit by ground fire on June 11, local police officials said.

President Pastrana is increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place. Forced aerial eradication infuriates coca growers and other peasants, along with environmentalists, domestic and worldwide, and potential European aid donor countries. But any moves to halt spraying bring U.S. denunciations.

"This is crazy," said an unnamed U.S. military official quoted by the Miami Herald. "So, if every farmer in Colombia makes a warm and fuzzy promise to destroy his own crops, Pastrana won't spray at all?"

While President Pastrana walks the tightrope, a new study of Plan Colombia by the RAND Corporation has raised the stakes in the U.S. debate over Colombia. The 113-page study, Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability, accuses U.S. policymakers of making a faulty distinction between counter-drug efforts and siding with the Colombian government in its decades-long guerrilla war with the FARC.

The two wars cannot be disentangled, write the report's authors, RAND analysts Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk. "This synergy of drugs and insurgency has generated a new kind of security threat -- neither an old-fashioned insurgency nor a simple criminal cartel, but a threat that incorporates elements of both ... The United States should reexamine the utility of distinguishing between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency assistance and consider providing assistance to improve Colombia's conventional military capabilities."

"You would have to help Colombia double or triple its military budget for the next few years," scoffed CIP's Isaacson. "You're talking about $2 or 3 billion a year."

The RAND study did grant that further spending would be necessary for the Colombian armed forces to militarily defeat some 8,000 right-wing paramilitaries, 18,000 FARC guerrillas and 5,000 of their ELN cousins, not to mention a Colombian drug business that the report called "flatter, less hierarchical, and more diversified and hence harder to prosecute" than its repressed predecessors, the grand Medellin and Cali "cartels." But it didn't venture any hard numbers.

The report calls Plan Colombia a "doubtful strategy" because it relies on attacking coca production and distribution to weaken the FARC, and it criticizes the aerial spraying program. "[M]oving against the drug-producing areas could have the effect of increasing support for the guerrillas among those who stand to lose their livelihood," write Chalk and Rabasa.

"They have some of the same criticisms we do," said CIP's Isaacson, "but, boy, we certainly differ on policy prescriptions."

When it comes to specific policy, the RAND analysts pick some historical examples that are sure to bring back some very ugly memories. Perhaps instead of independent paramilitaries, Colombia could have "a network of government supervised self-defense organizations," they suggest, conjuring up visions of the Guatemalan military dictatorship's mandatory "civil patrols" and the Peruvian government's anti-guerrilla peasant "rondas" of the 1980s.

In another evocation of what the authors see as a foreign policy success, they write, "The U.S. program of military assistance to El Salvador during the Reagan administration could be a relevant model." During the 1980s, the US government spent roughly $4 billion to help the Salvadoran oligarchy and its armed forces fight a broad-based popular insurgency to a bloody draw. Nearly 75,000 persons were killed, the vast majority at the hands of the Salvadoran military and associated death squads.

"This is truly frightening," said Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, "but I think the drug reform movement, with all the noise it has made about Colombia, can take some credit for pulling the legs out from under this phony drug war. The hardliners are now dropping the pretense that this is about counternarcotics," Tree told DRCNet. "Historically, RAND, and specifically its Air Force division [which commissioned this report] are the guys who got us into Vietnam -- and kept us there."

Isaacson similarly saw trouble if the report's prescriptions are followed. "The U.S. military keeps referring to the 'successful example of El Salvador,' but you know what happened there. There was only a negotiated peace after the military lost US aid. What kind of victory is that? It was very ugly, and there is no shortage of ugliness right now in Colombia. Do we want to make it worse?"

Well, maybe. According to the Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer, the RAND report "reflects the growing frustration in some Washington foreign policy circles" over the threat of peace negotiations between Pastrana and the FARC and the stalled state of Plan Colombia. Oppenheimer, well-connected in circles that consider the Caribbean "our pond," writes that, "Conservatives are running out of patience to continue paying lip service to Pastrana's peace process, and liberals are running out of arguments to keep praising it as a successful effort to end Colombia's war."

Still, Oppenheimer predicts "a growing shift in support of both greater US anti-guerrilla aid, and greater human rights conditions on it."