US Military Interference in the Colombian Civil War - Media Bias and America’s Emerging Military Nightmare by Rick Bayer, M.D.
Mercenaries & Oil Last summer, Congress and President Clinton approved $1.3 billion for “Plan Colombia” under the banner of fighting the “War on Drugs”. This makes Colombia the third largest recipient of US aid. About 80% (over a billion dollars) of Plan Colombia is military aid, primarily helicopters.
US media coverage routinely overlooks facts such as the near total rejection of Plan Colombia by our European allies or that the Colombian governors have asked the US to stop high-altitude fumigation. Washington recently repeatedly portrayed a US crew flying a mission in a State Department helicopter that was fired at by Colombian rebels as “civilians”. These “civilians” were dispatched to rescue the Colombian police crew of a US-built Huey II helicopter shot down by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The misleading statements by Washington gave the impression that these US “civilians” were the victims of an unwarranted attack by Marxist guerrillas. What our government and mainstream media failed to mention was that these “civilians” were in actuality American mercenaries—contracted by Washington to perform military duties in combat zones where people fight and die.
Washington military intervention enthusiasts (hawks) learned from the Vietnam experience that when US troops die in combat, US public opinion sours quickly. In the Central American conflicts of the 1980s, Washington modified its intervention strategy from the Vietnam model of placing US troops directly in the line of fire to a policy of funding, arming, and training military (El Salvador and Guatemala) and paramilitary (Nicaraguan Contras) allies.
Our government routinely maintains the Vietnam and Central America strategy of deploying military advisors in non-combat zones. But Colombia is a different story and our country has increasingly contracted out frontline duties to “civilians”.
Who are these “civilians”? They’re military veterans, many with Vietnam combat experience, who work for private US corporations—Military Professional Resources, DynCorp and Virginia Electronics, to name a few. These companies are legally required to be licensed by the US State Department, assuring adherence to Washington’s foreign policy agenda.
This new strategy’s success is illustrated by the fact that at least three DynCorp “civilians” have been killed in the line of duty in Colombia, with no press coverage to speak of in the US. Earlier this year, General Barry McCaffrey, former US drug czar and former commander of US troops in the Central and South America, retired from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to join DynCorp. General McCaffrey is now technically one of those “American civilians”.
Some U.S. military officials harbor no illusions about their role in Colombia. Stan Goff, a former U.S. Special Forces intelligence sergeant, retired in 1996 from the unit that trains Colombian anti-narcotics battalions. Quoted by the Bogotá daily, El Espectador, Goff said that the main interest of the United States is oil and Plan Colombia’s purpose is defending the operations of Occidental, British Petroleum and Texas Petroleum, and securing control of future Colombian fields.
Good Investment or Misappropriation Because the Colombian conflict is complex and the American media biased or hopelessly complacent, many Americans are confused about whether spending billions in Colombia represents a “good investment in democracy” or another “misappropriation” of tax dollars. This is especially relevant since the new President, George W. Bush and his Secretary of Defense, General Powell are seeking another half-billion plus this year to feed the appetite of Plan Colombia.
Peace in Colombia Action Group held a public teach-in about Colombia in Portland where about 300 of us gathered on January 27, 2001. The teach-in was co-sponsored by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR)–Oregon and other local progressive groups including American Friends Service Committee, Coalition Against Environmental Racism, Campaign for Peace with Cuba, Columbia Gorge Audubon Society, Cross Border Labor Organizing Coalition, Fellowship Of Reconciliation, Laughing Horse Books, KBOO Community Radio, Military and Draft Counseling Project of WRL, Northwest Alliance for Alternative Media, Oregon Peace Works, Peace and Justice Works, Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, Right of the People, Salem Committee on Latin America, School of America’s Watch, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Andrew Miller, acting advocacy director for Latin America for Amnesty International USA, spent much of 1999 in Colombia and testified before Congress about human rights conditions there. Colombia, a country of 40 million, is the site of a devastating 50-year-old civil war between the government and leftist guerillas. In the last decade, 35,000 have died and almost 2 million persons have been displaced. Paramilitary forces, allied with the Colombian army, commit over 80% of the killings and human rights abuses. The vast majority of victims are noncombatants, including human rights workers, trade unionists, journalists, and other civilians caught in the crossfire. Geopolitical interests in Colombia include oil, access to the Amazon basin, and a free-trade agreement for South America (FTAA) similar to NAFTA.
Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Reform Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, just returned from Colombia and discussed reasons for failed US policies. While Congress “gets tough” on drugs, it ignores the poverty that forces peasants to grow coca; ignores the fact that treatment in rich countries is mostly unavailable; and ignores the vast profits that unregulated prohibition provides. Alternative crops for peasants are difficult because the infrastructure is inadequate to truck crops to market and globalization makes foreign goods cheaper than local goods.
While modern Colombia (a country historically known for its fine coffee exports) now imports coffee, the major export is oil—mostly to the US. Some military strategists compare US involvement in Colombia to Viet Nam in the 1950’s or early 1960’s. For instance, we have Green Berets in Colombia training Colombian troops in counterinsurgency tactics, yet the US has no “exit strategy”. There are no goals or victory conditions such as capturing a capital or determining how much drug consumption must decrease in the US to declare victory.
War and Peace on Drugs Proponents of the “War on Drugs” would like us to believe that the more South American countryside we spray and defoliate with herbicides, the fewer North American children will fall prey to drug pushers. However, studies show that herbicide spray campaigns are simply wasted tax dollars because they are ineffective at stemming the flow of drugs. In fact, a RAND study looked to see the most cost-effective way to decrease cocaine consumption in the US (http://www.rand.org/publications/RB/RB6002/rb6002.html). They found treatment to be 23 times more cost-effective than eradication of drugs at the source and 10 times more effective than intercepting drugs at US borders. Rather than a war paradigm, Congress and American citizens need to look at substance abuse as a public health problem with social consequences. This new attitude might lead to a more rational and humane public policy rather than continuing to spend less than 10% of the drug war budget on treatment. Of course, all of these sane domestic measures beg the question of the immoral and tragic practice of indiscriminantly dumping airborne poison spray onto indiginous people’s land and crops.
Flora Uribe, a Colombian feminist and writer temporarily living in Portland, spoke of the personal impact of living in constant fear of bombs, kidnapping, and roadblocks.
Martin Gonzalez, a local activist who is director of Community Economic Development for the Portland office of the American Friends Service Committee traveled to Colombia on a fact-finding mission led by the Latin American Working Group. He described hostile economic conditions that forced many peasants to either choose to grow cash crops like coca or starve. He also described environmental and social consequences of the US crop eradication efforts and how massive quantities of pesticides dumped from high altitude on coca destroys adjacent food crops. Roze Dotson, a student at Lewis and Clark College, described the U’Wa tribe and their risk of displacement under threat from oil drilling by Occidental Petroleum.
Without the rhetoric of “fighting drugs,” US officials would have to admit we are intervening in another country’s civil war—bringing back memories of Vietnam and other disastrous failures of US foreign policy. In 2001, under the banner of the “War on Drugs,” (instead of “fighting communism”), we are waging a toxic war against another country’s unique ecosystems and endangering the health of innocent civilians.
Peace in Colombia Action Group and PSR-Oregon do not take sides in the Colombian civil war but we oppose American military involvement because it escalates the conflict while doing nothing to solve poverty in Colombia or substance abuse in the US.
The human rights violations, environmental devastation, and the disingenuous folly of pursuing a “War on Drugs” strategy are bringing diverse US activists together to oppose America’s emerging military nightmare.
For more info, please contact Kim Alphandary with Peace in Colombia Action Group ([email protected] or 503-537-9014).
Rick Bayer, MD is a board certified internal medicine physician and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He lives in Portland, Oregon.