BETWEEN THE LINES: Aid Will Draw U.S. Into Colombian War

The Clinton Administration won the first round in their push to deliver billions of dollars to Colombia's military. A $1.7 billion dollar aid package recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives would provide Colombia's army with 63 helicopters and intensive training by more than 200 U.S. advisors.The assistance, as framed by the White House, would help Colombia more effectively fight the drug war, interdicting supplies of cocaine and heroin destined for America. But critics warn that the U.S. position ignores the danger of becoming entangled in Colombia's decades-long civil war that pits two well-armed rebel groups against an army and paramilitary units accused of corruption and gross human rights abuses. The legislation will next be heard in the Senate where opponents are organizing to defeat the measure.Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Larry Burns, executive director with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who explains why he opposes the Colombian aid package and U.S. plans to engineer a military solution to that nation's complex social and economic problems.Larry Burns: Secretary of Defense William Cohen and White House Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey have been using the phrase, "narcoterrorists," which would embrace the two surviving leftist guerilla movements -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- who together probably have 25,000 people under arms. There is little doubt that the helicopters (in this package) would be used against rebels. This, of course is a dangerous thing, because that narrow line which now exists separating the anti-guerilla war from the anti-drug war will be increasingly rubbed out. That means that the U.S. could find itself fully involved in a major military conflict.You can imagine a rather dreadful scenario of some U.S. trainers being killed, exactly what happened in Vietnam when the U.S. went in to protect advisors and they kept on sending in more and more. That is why a number of very conservative Republicans are opposed to this legislation because they see not only a Vietnam parallel, but an El Salvador parallel. We have the same situation, a corrupt military, a brutal violator of human rights, a country which really needs economic relief rather than military relief -- a country where the armed forces have been repeatedly found to be major violators of human rights. Under existing legislation of the Leahy/Dodd amendment, most of the Colombian military does not even qualify to receive U.S. military aid, as most of (the military) has been designated major human rights violators by the State Department itself. So, that's why the U.S. is training new battalions, because it didn't want to become identified with those human rights violating existing battalions, and the situation is deteriorating.It's a very dangerous situation, and the Clinton administration is not even listening to domestic critics in Colombia who say, "Don't militarize the conflict, go after the economic problems of the country, the three million internal refugees, the tremendous unemployment level, the meager amount of funds that go to social welfare allocations -- education and so forth. This is the way to deal with Colombia's recession, the way to get the people, the citizenry to again identify with a government which is now headed by a president, President Andres Pastrana, who is a very decent man and is trying to negotiate a settlement with the guerillas, and has risked his own reputation in the effort to achieve that settlement.Between The Lines: What is your view of the effect of this new U.S. military aid on the negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerillas -- which have been stalled for quite some time?Larry Burns: The basic problems with the negotiations over the rebels demobilizing is -- and I must say that President Pastrana gave me this very answer a few months ago when I visited with him -- is that he cannot guarantee the security of the guerillas once they demobilize. In the 1980s, the Patriotic Front guerilla groups demobilized, and as a result of their demobilization, scores of them were murdered by right-wing death squads made up by military and right-wing auxiliary policemen. These people went around assassinating legislative and presidential candidates of the political parties established by these guerilla movements to participate in civilian parliamentary elections. So because of the fact that there was a systematic massacre of those who had become participants in these political parties and ran for for office, the guerillas now are extremely wary of what to negotiate if they do agree to lay down their arms and return to civilian life. The very people who will be guarding them will be the army and the police who are precisely the prime human rights violators of the country, and amongst the most active in the illegal drug trade. That is the obstacle.Contact the Council on Hemispheric Affairs by calling (202) 216-9261 or visit their Web site at

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