Plan Colombia: Is the U.S. addicted to military fixes?

U.S. President Clinton and Colombian President Pastrana at the White House in January. Clinton in August released $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia despite concerns about Colombia's human rights record.  

(CNN) -- Relations between the United States and Colombia have never looked rosier: The U.S. Congress recently voted overwhelmingly to give a record $1.3 billion in emergency aid to Colombia and the surrounding region. Then President Bill Clinton waived most of the human rights conditions imposed on the aid in advance of his landmark visit to Colombia on August 30.

But even as the ties between the two governments become increasingly close, a debate is heating up over the escalation of U.S. military involvement in Colombia's battle against narcotics trafficking and guerrilla insurgencies.

More than $900 million of the U.S. contribution to "Plan Colombia" will go toward military and police equipment, including attack helicopters and other lethal aid.

Clinton signed the waiver authorizing the release of the aid despite concerns about human rights abuses by the Colombian military. Clinton said Colombian President Andres Pastrana is committed to reforms and his anti-narcotics strategy needs "to have a chance to succeed."

U.S Support for Plan Colombia
(in millions of dollars)
"Push into southern Colombia"$441.9
Drug trafficking interdiction465.6
Colombian National Police support115.6
Alternative economic development174.0
Boost governing capacity122.0
Source: U.S. State Department
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Critics say, however, that intensifying the government's war with the guerrillas will inevitably lead to more human rights violations and have little or no impact on Colombia's drug trade.

Fears have also been raised that the United States may be getting dragged into a Vietnam-style quagmire.

"I want to help Colombia, which is facing threats from left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug traffickers allied with both," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) in a June 20 speech.

"But I cannot endorse a proposal that would vastly increase our military involvement in Colombia that is so poorly thought out and suffers from so many unanswered questions. Although the administration does not like to talk about it, this is only the first billion-dollar installment of a multi-year, open-ended commitment of many more billions of dollars."

Complicating the issue is the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

"Clinton is coming to Colombia for domestic political reasons and that's to allow [Democratic presidential candidate] Al Gore to say that the Clinton administration did not neglect or underfund the drug problem in Colombia," former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette told Reuters.

No easy solution

A young student is wheeled to an ambulance after being shot allegedly by a Colombian soldier in late August. The government is investigating charges that soldiers ambushed a group of schoolchildren on a jungle hike, killing six and wounding five.  

"Whenever you see a whole bunch of money thrown at the military that's always the quickest of fixes. But there is no short- or medium-term solution for Colombia," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

"We do need to support the Colombians in many ways," Isacson added.

"It's by far the worst humanitarian crisis in our hemisphere. You really can't sit idly by when 300,000 people a year are being forced from their homes. Children are being tortured. There is an average of 10 political killings a day. But if we're going to be strengthening institutions of the Colombian government, we should be strengthening the non-military ones at least as much, if not more, than the military."

'Push into Southern Colombia'

Colombian soldiers destroy bags of cocaine. The U.S. aid package includes $442 million to help Colombian troops take control of coca-growing territory in the country's southern regions.  

The most controversial part of the aid package is $442 million slated for the "push into southern Colombia." The campaign will send Colombian troops trained and armed by the United States into territory held by the country's most powerful guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The troops will descend on the area in Black Hawk and Huey helicopters to battle the guerrillas for control of the coca fields.

"There's 2,800 guys in three different battalions," Isacson said. "They're going to give them a few months training. None of them have a high school education. They're going to send them into this zone where FARC has been running the show since the early 1960s. It's very easy to predict it's not going to go well for these battalions and their expensive helicopters. If this fails, what comes next? That's what scares the hell out of us."

"I think it's going to be an unmitigated disaster," said Bruce Bagley, a professor at the School of International Studies at the University of Miami and an expert on Latin American drug trafficking and security issues.

"Along with a technological escalation of the war, we are going to see the Colombian military cutting wide swaths through the countryside with extensive human rights abuses," Bagley said. "U.S. officials are in effect turning a blind eye. They talk a good game but they have done very little to make sure that human rights will be monitored as the war escalates."

Bagley said the military invasion, combined with an aerial herbicide spraying program, will simply drive the production of coca leaves out into the country's vast agricultural frontier.

Tens of thousands more peasants will likely flee into the country's already overburdened cities or join the ranks of one of the many guerrilla groups in the countryside, he said.

"We are moving very hard on the military side and very weakly on the rural development side, leaving the peasantry with no real alternatives."

About $174 million of the U.S. aid is budgeted for alternative development programs and to help people displaced by the fighting and the crop eradication program.

"Most of this money will go to the U.S. bureaucracy or the Colombian bureaucracy. And parts of it will be lost to corruption," Bagley said. "Very small amounts of the already inadequate funds will be destined to arrive in the rural areas. It's far too little money, coming far too late, to be of any help to those people."

'Doing nothing is worse'

Colombia's cities are filled with refugees fleeing the civil war in the countryside  

Although two Republican Senators -- Mike DeWine of Ohio and the late Paul Coverdell of Georgia -- first proposed a major Colombia aid package, it found wide bipartisan support.

Many of the legislators who ultimately supported the aid package, however, acknowledge that it is flawed.

"Am I satisfied? No," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-California), who worked on amendments that shifted some of the funds in the original proposal away from the military and into humanitarian programs.

"There still isn't enough money put in there to deal with displaced persons, but I felt that we had made a substantial effort and that I could vote for the package," said Farr, who spent two years in Colombia in the 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"There is a problem in Colombia and walking away from that problem will not solve it," Farr said. "Doing nothing is worse."

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) is one of several U.S. legislators who have gone on fact-finding missions to Colombia.

"As I met with Army and Marine Corps personnel from the United States advising [Colombian] troops in Tres Esquinas, a remote location in the Putumayo province, it is clear that these men in the Colombian army were prepared to put their lives on the line to stop the narco-trafficking that ultimately will corrupt and kill so many Americans," Durbin said in a June 21 speech.

"I think we have to stand behind them. We have no other choice. To step back and say we will do nothing now is unacceptable."

Pastrana under the gun

A Colombian farmer picks coca leaves. The White House drug office says 90 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States originates in Colombia.  

U.S.-Colombia relations frosted over in 1995, after Colombian President Ernesto Samper was accused of using drug money to finance his election. The Clinton administration "decertified" Colombia, removing its status as a fully cooperating partner in the U.S.-led war on drugs. Aid to the country was mostly curtailed, except for funding for the anti-drug efforts of the National Police.

Relations warmed considerably when Pastrana won the presidency in 1998. The United States granted Colombia $289 million in counter-narcotics funds that year, catapulting it into the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel and Egypt.

Despite U.S. support, Pastrana faced an uphill battle. His attempts to negotiate peace with the two main guerrilla groups in the country fell flat and he was forced to concede large tracts of land to the rebels.

Pastrana's popularity rating plunged along with the economy, which has now reached a 70-year low.

Meanwhile, coca production doubled between 1997 and 1999, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which says that 90 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States originates in Colombia.

At the urging of Washington, Pastrana's government issued a comprehensive strategy in 1999 to reverse the spiral of violence and drug trafficking. Known as "Plan Colombia," it calls for $7.5 billion over three years to combat narcotics trafficking, insurgencies and institutional corruption.

Colombia has pledged $4 billion to the plan and asked the United States to contribute as much as $2 billion with the balance to come from multi-lateral institutions such as the World Bank and the European Union.

Human rights waiver

The Clinton administration lobbied hard to get funding for the plan. The Colombian aid package went through months of wrangling in the House and Senate before a compromised version passed in July.

Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) proposed an amendment that would have transferred $225 million of the aid budgeted for the military campaign in southern Colombia into domestic drug treatment programs. It failed to pass.

The final package includes $122 million for human rights and justice programs in the region, $29 million more than the administration requested.

It also required Colombia to meet certain human rights conditions, but allowed Clinton to waive the certification process in the interest of national security.

Sen. Leahy, who helped write the human rights conditions into the aid package, urged Clinton not to exercise the waiver.

"Waiving the conditions would contradict the intent of the law and make a mockery of the arguments and expectations of the many supporters of Plan Colombia in Congress who insisted that the conditions are necessary," Leahy said in an August 18 statement. "They said they were 'meaningful conditions' to 'ensure respect for human rights.' They said that the conditions were 'safeguards,' that this was 'an amendment with teeth.' These strong statements will be nothing more than empty words if the conditions are waived."

Clinton signed the waiver on August 22.

Pastrana "has submitted legislation to the Colombian parliament ... for civil trials for allegations of military abuses of human rights," Clinton told reporters. "And we also have a system in place for specific case-by-case investigation of serious allegations."

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