Are We “Salvadorizing” Colombia?

Elite U.S.-trained counter-insurgency units are routinely carried by U.S. helicopters to remote parts of this Latin American country to confront Marxist guerrillas. Supplied with U.S. intelligence and directed by U.S. military advisors, these counter-insurgency troops work hand in hand with right-wing paramilitary death squads as they terrorize the local peasant population. Back in Washington, a battle is being waged in Congress over the increasing U.S. involvement in the conflict and the issuance of U.S. aid to a Latin American military notorious for its human rights abuses. This is a description of El Salvador in the 1980s, right? Wrong! It is the year 2000 and the country is Colombia.

President Clinton did his best Ronald Reagan imitation last week when he announced a $1.3 billion aid package to fight the “drug war” in Colombia. Clinton’s proposal, if approved by Congress, will result in Colombia receiving military aid comparable to the Reagan administration’s funding of the Salvadoran military in the 1980s. The primary difference between the policies of the two administrations appears to be in the justification for such a rapid expansion of military support. The Reagan administration used the old Cold War “international communist conspiracy as a threat to U.S. interests” rationale to justify its support of the Salvadoran government. However, according to the Clinton administration, it’s not the Red menace the United States has to fear, it’s the White menace: Cocaine.

The Clinton Administration has maintained the long-standing U.S. position that the conflict in Colombia largely revolves around the drug trade. As a result, it has managed to obscure the fact that guerrillas began fighting the repressive Colombian Government decades before the cocaine boom began in the late 1970s. The huge profits that resulted from cocaine production added another twist to the conflict and brought the Colombian crisis to the streets of U.S. cities and suburbs. All the parties involved in the Colombian conflict–the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the Colombian Army–are involved in, and profiting from, the drug trade. Therefore, whoever the U.S. supports in the drug war will result in it becoming an ally of the very forces it is supposedly fighting against.

In order to obscure the fact that Washington is allying itself with the same drug traffickers it is supposedly at war with, the Clinton administration insists on labeling the guerrillas “narco-terrorists” and placing them at the center of the drug trade. This tactic provides the necessary simplification desired by the administration for easy U.S. public consumption. As a result, the guerrillas are rapidly becoming the enemy of the United States, thereby, blurring the line between the drug war and the armed conflict. Publicly, the administration continues to insist that it is only fighting the drug war and is not being drawn into Colombia’s civil conflict.

The quiescent mainstream media aids Washington in this distortion of reality by consistently parroting the administration’s line. Rarely do the news networks or the mainstream print media partake in investigative journalism, more often than not they rely on White House or State Department statements. Consequently, what the government says becomes the news instead of the news event itself.

It is no coincidence that the proposed aid package comes on the heels of a scarcely-reported proposal by the United States at the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly meeting a few months ago. The U.S. proposal called for the creation of a regional military intervention force that could be used whenever a nation’s democracy is threatened, even if that threat is internal. Needless to say, Latin American member states voted against the U.S. proposal for fear of increased U.S. intervention in the region, especially in Colombia.

Before the OAS meeting, both the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and drug czar Barry McCaffrey had claimed that “democracy” in Colombia was being seriously threatened by the conflict and that government forces could be defeated within five years. With the OAS proposal defeated the Clinton Administration had to find an alternate method of propping up the Colombian government; hence, the drastic increase in aid represented by the new package.

The Clinton administration downplays the fact it is supporting a military that is annually labeled by international human rights organizations as the worst violator of human rights in the western hemisphere. The Colombian military is closely allied with paramilitary organizations, many of which were established by drug traffickers to protect their huge wealth and economic interests. Washington has allied itself with the Colombian military and, therefore, the paramilitaries, in order to protect its own political and economic interests. A friendly government in Bogotá that passively accepts its place in the New World Order is far more desirable to Washington than a government formed by Marxist guerrillas that could potentially pose another Castro- or Sandinista-style threat to U.S. hegemony in the region.

The Reagan administration justified its support of the Salvadoran government by insisting that the Salvadoran guerrillas were merely puppets controlled by Managua, Havana and Moscow, thereby ignoring the domestic political, social and economic causes of the civil war. In much the same manner, the Clinton administration portrays the Colombian guerrillas as profit-seekers primarily responsible for the drug trade while ignoring the glaring social injustices and inequalities so prevalent in Colombian society that caused peasants to take up arms in the first place.

Drugs have replaced communism as a convenient evil upon which to focus the attention of the U.S. public. However, making the guerrillas the principle enemy in the drug war will inevitably draw the United States into the broader armed conflict. In a statement about the proposed aid package, Clinton claimed that “it will help boost Colombia’s interdiction and eradication capabilities, particularly in the south.” What Clinton failed to mention is the fact that southern Colombia is precisely the area of the country controlled by the guerrillas and, therefore, a primary location of conflict between the guerrillas and the Colombian military.

Ultimately, the Clinton administration is supporting Colombian Army units whose primary mission is to fight the armed conflict, not the drug war. The proposed aid package, as was the case with El Salvador, results in increased support for a repressive military that is closely allied with right-wing death squads. As a result, such support can only increase the levels of violence and, as was the case in El Salvador, the civilian population will be the principal victim.


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