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 Departments 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 militarys 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 FARCs 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 militarys 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 Colombias 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 Departments anti-narcotics
Many of the Bush Administrations 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 administrations
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
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.
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.