A Blank Check from Washington for Colombia's Dirty War

One of the problems with deleting our government's worst crimes from America's historical hard drive is that they tend to recur. How many people even know the hideous story of how we supported and financed the slaughter of tens of thousands -- innocent civilians, teachers, health care and church workers -- in Central America in the 1980s?Apparently not enough, or we wouldn't be doing the same thing, little more than a decade later in Colombia. The Clinton administration has been lobbying furiously to send another $1.6 billion to fuel an ugly, brutal war whose main victims are once again civilians.Sure, there's a new excuse -- now we're fighting "narco-terrorists" and "narco-guerrillas" -- but it's even more transparent than the old one. Not to mention that the drug war has been a total failure, on both the domestic and international fronts. We now spend nearly $40 billion annually on drug enforcement, and have 400,000 people languishing behind bars for drug crimes, and what are the results? Cocaine and heroin are available as cheaply and in purer form than they have been for decades, and the number of people who die from illegal drug use is at record levels.It has long been known that drugs are a demand-side problem, and so long as there is demand for cocaine, someone will grow the coca and find a way to get the product here. But our intervention in Colombia is not about drugs anyway, and U.S. officials are increasingly abandoning the pretense that it is.If this were really a war against drugs, we wouldn't be spending billions in a futile attempt to destroy the FARC and the ELN -- Colombia's main guerilla groups, who have been fighting for decades against a violently repressive government. While the guerrilla groups have provided protection for coca growers, many of whom are poor peasants struggling to survive, the really big involvement in trafficking is by people on our side -- the paramilitaries allied with the Colombian armed forces.As bad as our allies are on drug trafficking, they are even worse when it comes to murdering their opposition. Last year AFL-CIO President John Sweeney wrote to the Clinton administration, calling attention to the murder and "disappearance" in just the last few years of hundreds of Colombian labor activists. In the last five years, not a single murderer responsible for the death of a trade unionist has been arrested or tried.For all its talk of including "labor rights" in new trade and commercial agreements, the Clinton administration doesn't seem to mind financing a dirty war that has killed more trade unionists than in any country in the world.According to Human Rights Watch, half of the Colombian army's brigade-level units are linked to the paramilitary death squads. Together they are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the political murders and human rights abuses in Colombia.The Cold War may be dead, but the military-industrial complex is alive and well. You could almost hear the grunting and squealing as United Technologies shoved aside Textron at the trough for the biggest chunk of the Colombia aid package: 30 Sikorsky UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters for a whopping $390 million. So what if they cost six times as much as the next best alternative? More pork, more help getting the package through without those cumbersome human rights conditions. Consolation prize for Textron: $66 million for 33 of its much cheaper Huey II's.United Technologies gave more than $700,000 to Democrats and Republicans over the last two election cycles. More proof that it's not only the dot.coms that can turn small amounts of venture capital into big bucks in a fairly short time.The Administration's drug policy director Gen. Barry McCaffrey had opposed the exorbitantly expensive Blackhawks but recently came around. "These are the best helicopters in the world. The next time you see me, I'll probably be peddling them, I hope," he joked at a recent Congressional hearing.Sadly, there was a peace process in Colombia that looked much more hopeful until the Clinton administration opted for its "let them eat bullets" strategy. As in Vietnam, they are trying to tell us there is light at the end of the tunnel, if we just commit more money and weapons. But they are destroying Colombia in order to "save" it.Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.