War and Colombia

The United States' other war in Colombia -- not the other "war on terror" but the "war on drugs" -- is quickly becoming embarrassing for Washington. Of course, because Colombia's not exactly on the tip of everyone's tongue and the fact that there's a war underway in Iraq, most Americans remain largely ignorant of its details.

It's useful to first put Washington's relationship with Colombia in perspective before attempting to understand what's happening in the jungles there today. Colombia is one of the darlings of Washington; the South American country is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, which stands at $1.7 billion over the last three years with another three-quarters of a billion dollars scheduled for 2003. About 75 percent of this goes to Colombia's military and police forces.

Bogotá, in turn, uses much of this to fight the "drug war," of which Washington is an integral part -- specifically in the illicit crops aerial eradication program, which is guided by the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) of the U.S. embassy in the Columbian capital. The U.S. also supplies spray aircraft, chemicals, pilots, and even support helicopters for the spray runs.

Recently, a series of plane crashes has called into question the extent of U.S. presence in Colombia. The first took place February 13, when a small U.S. government-owned Cessna crashed in an area controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Of the five passengers on board, three Americans survived and the fourth American and a Colombian military officer were supposedly killed by the FARC following the crash. The three survivors are still missing and are now hostages/prisoners of war in the custody of the FARC.

Then, on March 26, another U.S. Cessna crashed killing all three Americans on board, while on a mission to find the three missing Americans from the previous crash.

The Washington Post reported on March 27: "The three member crew that crashed Tuesday were part of the six-week search effort that has involved thousands of Colombian troops, U.S.-donated UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-1H Huey II helicopters, and American signals intelligence. The Pentagon is offering $300,000 and a U.S. visa in return for information leading to the rescue of the three Americans."

The third incident occurred Monday, April 7 when a U.S. T-65 aircraft was lost in Narino province, killing one American.

These bizarre events prompt a deeper look into happenings not only in Colombia but in much of Latin America as well.

The possible extent of U.S. involvement in the region was hinted at by then Acting Commander in Chief of the Southern Command Major General Gary D. Speer in statements he made one year ago when he addressed the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Foreign Operations on April 10: "The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN) and the United Self Defense Group of Colombia (AUC) are all on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The FARC has been implicated in kidnappings and attacks against United States citizens and interests, including the murder of three U.S. citizens in 1998.

According to the Department of State's most recent human rights report, 44 percent of all terrorist acts against the U.S. interests throughout the world occurred in Colombia and most were committed by the FARC. The recent bombing outside the U.S Embassy in Peru preceding President Bush's visit is indicative that other domestic terrorist groups pose threats to the United States elsewhere in the hemisphere. These include but are not limited to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in Peru and the Jama'at al Muslimeen (JAM) in Trinidad and Tobago."

The seriousness with which Washington is likely to approach policy in the region is surely fueled by the fact that "44 percent of all terrorist acts against the U.S. interests throughout the world occurred in Colombia." Colombia is both part of the "war on terror" and the "war on drugs," is one of Latin America's leading oil producers with large amounts of foreign investment, and its location close by in the Western Hemisphere all make it worthy of large amounts of U.S. aid.

With the deployment of additional U.S. military personnel twice this year in response to various crises, Colombia is a fourth front in the broader post-9/11 doctrine of global preemptive policing loosely known as the "war on terror." Now the mere presence of a "terrorist organization" can cause an "emergency" deployment of troops or hardware to anywhere in the world.

However, Colombia differs from other conflicts because of the pervasive presence of the "war on drugs," which takes the form of a massive spraying campaign against coca and poppy crops led by the U.S. as part of "Plan Colombia." Over the years of spraying, as one might expect, this has led to considerable controversy as the region is repeatedly saturated by chemical showers that permeate the environment and drift on to unintended crops; farmers have taken BBC reporters into regions where crops have been destroyed and other areas deforested due to errant spraying. The U.S. State Department maintains that the chemicals used in the defoliant solution are of extremely low toxicities; but readily attainable, prominent studies question the veracity of such claims, including ones by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Though in another light, Colombia certainly resembles the Middle East and Afghanistan with its protracted civil war and multitude of guerrilla, government, and paramilitary forces.

The odd string of crashes over the last several weeks and the simultaneous increase in U.S. forces throughout Colombia serve as a reminder that this is a country of great concern to the United States and, perhaps, one where deeper military involvement may be inevitable, especially given the newfound policy of global preemptive policing.

Matthew Riemer has written for years about a myriad of topics, such as: philosophy, religion, psychology, culture, and politics. He studied Russian language and culture for five years and traveled in the former Soviet Union in 1990. Matthew is the Director of Operations at YellowTimes.org.


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