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Executive Summary #1264es

March 25, 1999

March 25, 1999 | Executive Summary on

Executive Summary: Tread Cautiously in Colombia's Civil War

After six years of ignoring the growing connection between Colombia's drug traffickers and Marxist rebels bent on toppling the country's democratically elected government, President Bill Clinton has decided to increase U.S. military aid to Colombia to step up efforts in the war on drugs. He also is backing a questionable peace plan proposed by newly elected Colombian President Andres Pastrana to negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), two Marxist guerrilla organizations that have battled the Colombian state for over three decades.

Pastrana maintains that after a peace pact is signed, the rebels will help the government fight its war on drugs. If Pastrana's initiative fails, his only options will be to surrender nearly half of Colombia to the over 20,000 well-armed FARC and ELN insurgents or to order the Colombian army to try to defeat them in battle. But U.S. defense experts estimate that it will take at least two years to train, equip, and field a modern professional Colombian army capable of defeating rebel units of between 300 and 1,000 guerrillas.

In January 1999, moreover, the FARC announced that all U.S. military and law enforcement personnel in Colombia would be considered legitimate targets to be killed or captured. Before endorsing the Administration's decision to increase U.S. military involvement in Colombia, Congress must know how the Administration will react if the peace talks break down.

President Clinton's priorities in sending additional military aid to Colombia are unclear. Will the increased military aid be used to fight drug traffickers, or will some of it be spent training Colombian army forces to battle the rebels, who earn close to $1 billion from drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes each year? What measures will the Administration take if Pastrana's peace talks fail and the civil war becomes more violent? Would the President propose sending U.S. soldiers to Colombia to help keep the peace, as he has done in Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia?

The peace talks opened officially on January 7, 1999, but promptly stalled because the rebels believe they have the upper hand, both politically and militarily. Even if Pastrana succeeds in negotiating peace, the illegal drug trade will not be affected. Cocaine and heroin are Colombia's largest export products, ahead of coffee and petroleum, and account for between 5 percent and 7 percent of the country's annual gross domestic product. If, as part of the agreement, the rebel organizations do crack down on the illegal drug trade in the areas they control, the drug traffickers will simply move their operations elsewhere.

In December 1998, the Clinton Administration acknowledged that U.S. policy in Colombia is being set by default. This is an alarming admission, given President Clinton's decision to increase U.S. military aid--including sending additional military advisers into a country where over 200 American military personnel already are stationed. Before agreeing to the President's plan, Congress should ensure that the Administration's policy is based on a clear strategy that spells out objectives and limitations so that U.S. soldiers are not sucked by default into Colombia's civil war. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Initiate a thorough review of U.S. drug policy in Latin America. Before considering any further increases in U.S. anti-drug aid to Latin American law enforcement and military forces, Congress should ascertain whether this aid is being used properly and effectively.

  • Abolish the annual drug certification process. Certification has become a pointless annual exercise that compresses the national drug policy debate to three or four weeks a year and poisons relations with America's most important Latin American allies and trading partners.

  • Set clear limits on U.S. military aid to Colombia. Congress should ensure that no U.S. soldiers participate in battles between the Colombian army and drug-trafficking rebels.

  • Manage the drug-related insurgency as a law enforcement problem. The FARC and ELN rebels are involved in drug trafficking and should be treated as organized criminals who are an integral part of the drug threat facing the Western Hemisphere.

  • Implement a serious anti-drug assistance program with Colombia. In demanding better results from the Colombian government, the U.S. Administration failed to provide sufficient material support, seriously undermining the anti-drug efforts of Colombian law enforcement and indirectly helping the rebels gain the upper hand in combat.

  • Agree to help train and equip a professional Colombian army. A civil war in Colombia can threaten U.S. interests in Latin America, but it can be resolved only by the Colombians. The United States should help the democratically elected government field a modern, professional Colombian army that can defeat the rebels in combat.

  • Seek a multilateral approach to managing the Colombian crisis. Any unilateral increase in military aid to Colombia without a counterbalancing multilateral approach that involves key Latin American countries would be repudiated as U.S. imperialism. A multilateral approach should include the participation of the Organization of American States, especially in monitoring reported human rights abuses in Colombia.

Helping Colombia end its civil war and eradicate illegal drugs is clearly in the United States' national interest, but the Clinton Administration should tread cautiously in escalating U.S. military involvement in Colombia. The President and Congress would be wise to remember that America's involvement in Vietnam began with a few dozen U.S. military advisers and a small financial investment. If the limits of U.S. military involvement in Colombia are not spelled out clearly at the outset, the risk is great that significant numbers of U.S. soldiers could be sucked by default into the Colombian quagmire.

John P. Sweeney is a former Latin America Policy Analyst in The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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