February 26, 2003

To: Interested Colleagues

From: Ingrid Vaicius, Associate, Center for International Policy

Re: The U.S. military presence in Colombia


On February 13, a plane carrying four Defense Department-funded contractors

and a Colombian sergeant was forced to make an emergency landing while on an

intelligence mission over the department (province) of Caquetá in southern

Colombia. The four U.S. civilians aboard the Cessna 208 worked for

California Microwave Inc., a unit of Northrop Grumman, a leading defense



Rural Caquetá has long been a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces

of Colombia (FARC), a 17,000-member, nearly 40-year-old guerrilla group that

since 1997 has been on the U.S. State Department’s list of international

terrorist groups. It appears that FARC rebels arrived almost immediately at

the scene of the plane crash, where they killed the Colombian soldier on

board and one of the U.S. citizens. The FARC announced on February 24 that

the three remaining Americans are in their power, and that they plan to hold

them – along with over twenty prominent kidnapped politicians – to pressure

for the release of guerrillas in Colombian jails.


The Bush Administration has sent additional specialized troops to Colombia

to assist the Colombian military’s search-and-rescue operation, reportedly

bringing the number of U.S. military personnel in Colombia to a new high of



The Center for International Policy condemns the FARC’s refusal to free the

three captives and all of their so-called “politically retained”

individuals. We also call on the United States to take this opportunity to

consider ways to reduce the risks associated with our current policy toward

Colombia – not just the force-protection risks that the February 13 incident

makes clear, but the longer-term risks of proximity to a large and very

complicated conflict. One such mechanism, a limit on the presence of U.S.

personnel in Colombia, is already in place – but it deserves a closer look.


Is this legal?


Last year, the Bush Administration began widening the scope of its military

assistance mission in Colombia. In August, Congress approved an

administration request to allow all past and present anti-drug aid to be

used against guerrillas and paramilitaries. In November, President Bush

signed a secret order, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 18,

which broadened several of the American military’s guidelines in Colombia,

particularly with regard to intelligence-sharing.


In mid-January, a contingent of sixty U.S. Special Forces arrived in the

conflictive department of Arauca in northeastern Colombia, where they are to

train the Colombian Army in an effort to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil

pipeline. These trainers’ guidelines allow them to accompany their Colombian

military counterparts outside the perimeters of military bases, but prohibit

them to be present in an area if there is a significant likelihood of



While U.S. law gives the executive branch a good deal of freedom to deploy

troops in such “operations other than war,” the U.S. Congress has expressed

concern about “mission creep” – the possibility that U.S. personnel may find

themselves embroiled in Colombia’s conflict. As a result, a provision that

first appeared in the 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package, and which has been

renewed each year through 2003, sets a maximum of 400 U.S. military

personnel and 400 U.S. citizen contractors who can be in Colombia at any

given time. The law adds, “no United States Armed Forces personnel or United

States civilian contractor employed by the United States will participate in

any combat operation in connection with assistance made available by this

Act for Colombia”.


In strict legal terms, however, this “troop cap” provision does not cover

all U.S. personnel. The language of the law only applies the cap to U.S.

personnel in Colombia “in support of Plan Colombia” – the 2000 counter-drug

initiative supported with funding from the State Department’s anti-narcotics



Many of the Bush Administration’s military-aid initiatives – in particular,

the pipeline protection program – are not anti-drug programs, nor are they

paid for with State Department anti-drug funds. They are not considered part

of “Plan Colombia” – so the troop cap, in its current form, would not

strictly apply to the U.S. military personnel in Colombia to carry out these



U.S. officials have told members of Congress informally that they will

nonetheless continue to obey the caps of 400 each. The administration’s

required quarterly reports to Congress on the U.S. presence indicate that

the limit has not been exceeded. The last report claimed that there were 208

military personnel and 279 contract workers in Colombia on January 13, 2003;

on November 13, 2002, the previous report cited 267 military personnel and

270 contractors.


While the law allows the president to waive the troop cap for 90 days if

involvement in hostilities is likely, it states that even a formal waiver is

unnecessary in the case of search-and-rescue operations like the one

currently underway in Caquetá. While the current operation pushes the number

of military personnel above 400, the administration is not legally bound

even to notify Congress. “We informally told Congress about the

search-and-rescue personnel that would be going down,” explained State

Department Spokesman Philip Reeker on February 25, but “no formal

notification or waiver is required because the legislation makes quite clear

that emergency personnel like the search-and-rescue personnel don't fall

under that category.”


What now?


In two briefings this week, Mr. Reeker has explained that, contrary to press

reports, the search-and-rescue operation was not a single deployment of 150

U.S. military personnel. Instead, he says, the smaller number of

search-and-rescue troops are in addition to an already-increasing U.S.

presence in Colombia. Whatever the purpose, the reporting available

indicates that the U.S. military presence in Colombia grew from 208 on

January 13, 2003 to 411 on February 21. Some of these 203 new arrivals are

the trainers working on the pipeline-protection program; some are

search-and-rescue personnel. Others are what Mr. Reeker has vaguely defined

as “pre-planned deployments of U.S. military trainers.”


Beyond numbers, however, the effort to win the U.S. hostages’ freedom

signals a new role for U.S. military personnel in Colombia. Though the

Colombian military is on the front lines of the search-and-rescue operation,

U.S. personnel are in the field as well, serving as advisors and providing

intelligence. While the trainers for the Arauca pipeline-protection effort

have had to avoid zones where combat could occur – staying behind when their

Colombian counterparts carry out an operation – the search-and-rescue

personnel are actively accompanying the effort in guerrilla-dominated rural

Caquetá. The possibility of combat is greater than it has ever been.


A government official told the Washington Post, “We can certainly expect

pressure to respond in a very forceful way.” Added Rep. James Moran

(D-Virginia) during a visit to Colombia last week, “I don't think rescue by

itself is a sufficient response.” What that response should be, however, is

far from clear. The United States must decide to what extent it wants to

take on the counter-insurgency mission in Colombia. As the current crisis

indicates, to do so would be a very large and frustrating undertaking.


As Rep. James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) said last May – the last time

Congress debated Colombia policy – “when you add it all up, increased U.S.

troops plus increased involvement in the civil war equals bad policy.” While

support for opening this large new front in the “war on terror” remains in

doubt Washington continues to steadily increase its involvement. Instead of

letting the policy drift in the wrong direction, Congress must rigorously

apply strong safeguards – among them, a “troop cap” that actually applies to

all troops in Colombia.