Is it time to return to a real war on drugs in Colombia?

International | Guerrilla groups four times as powerful as ten years ago

Issue: "The gay getaway," May 2, 1998

It has been Clinton administration policy to tame the "war on drugs" rhetoric, scaling back the tough talk that characterized earlier Republican administrations and cutting back the funding to fight drug trafficking in South America, where 80 percent of the world's cocaine comes from Colombia alone.

Now a report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence agency indicates that the de-emphasis is having negative consequences. The report said Colombia's two main guerrilla organizations, known by their acronyms as ELN and FARC, now maintain a presence in nearly 700 municipalities; 10 years ago, they had active members in only 173 municipalities.

U.S. intelligence sources say cocaine production in Colombia has increased 20 percent this year, despite aggressive U.S.-sponsored eradication efforts that wiped out 25 percent of existing coca crops in some areas. Guerrilla groups, with an increasing affiliation to Colombia's drug cartels, control half of the country, and government forces are proving unable to reverse the erosion of their power. Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said at a recent hearing: "The frightening possibilities of a narco-state just three hours by plane from Miami can no longer be dismissed."

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The March 31 hearing focused on the debate among the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress over how to deal with the threat. In March, FARC guerrillas shot down two Colombian National Police helicopters on a mission to destroy a cocaine laboratory. The helicopters were provided by the United States. FARC is threatening to step up its efforts to eliminate U.S. aircraft. It also declared war on Americans in Colombia, according to a FARC memorandum made available to International Relations Committee members. "It may necessitate some direct involvement if American lives are at risk," warned Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.).

Last month FARC guerrillas killed or captured more than 100 Colombian soldiers in cocaine areas of southwest Colombia. Mr. Gilman called the battle "the worst defeat of the Colombian Army in what some still mistakenly believe is a war driven by ideology rather than by narcotics."

Last year the U.S. government provided about $100 million to Colombia for anti-drug operations. The administration has insisted that those funds be used only in counter-narcotics efforts (directly fighting narcotics suppliers), not counter-insurgency efforts (directly fighting guerrillas). But with the increasing involvement of ELN and FARC in drug trafficking, that tenet has become a distinction without a difference.

Mr. Clinton faces growing pressure to take on Colombia in light of the growing threat to U.S. civilians there. By State Department count, nine Americans are currently held hostage: the three New Tribes missionaries, one private businessman, and three of the birdwatchers taken in March (one escaped from captors and has reportedly returned safely to the United States). Mr. Clinton also faces mounting insistence from House Republicans, who want to provide more sophisticated military equipment to the Colombian army to fight what they see as a strategic threat to U.S. interests. Mr. Clinton may be conceding the point.

"We condemn the guerrillas and illegal paramilitaries who are waging a savage war against the civilian population of Colombia," he said to Latin American newspaper reporters days before last week's Summit of the Americas in Chile. "If any connection exists between drug traffickers and insurgents in Colombia, it has been created by guerrillas and the traffickers, not by us."

Colombian officials took his comments to mean that the U.S. war on drugs could now also mean a war on the guerrilla groups who support the cartels.


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