This article was produced by the Latin American Working Group
Rising public concern over the Colombian human rights crisis slowed down passage of a major US military aid package to Colombia. Lack of foreign aid resources and disputes over the content of the package were other reasons why Congress went out of session without passing it. Colombia needs and deserves substantial economic, law enforcement and humanitarian assistance from the United States, but military aid is not the answer. Your calls and letters right now can help shape a more positive aid package for Colombia.
A Colombia aid package will be debated once more early next year. The Clinton administration-although it can provide substantial training and weapons without congressional approval-is expected to present to Congress a "supplemental" aid package for Colombia at the beginning of 2000. The exact content of this package, however, has yet to be decided.
In addition, a Colombia bill introduced recently by Senators Coverdell (R-GA) and DeWine (R-OH), the Alliance with Colombia and the Andean Region Act (S. 1758), will still be pending next year. This bill authorizes $1.5 billion over three years for Colombia and surrounding countries, including $945 million for counternarcotics training and equipment for the Colombian armed forces and police, $70 million for human rights, justice reform and police training, and $50 million for crop substitution programs. While it contains some positive funding, this bill takes a primarily military approach to Colombia's complex problems.
Our government has already funded the creation of a 950-troop counternarcotics battalion is already being trained to operate in the Putumayo, an Amazonian territory under dispute between Colombia's leftwing guerrillas and rightwing paramilitaries, and two more such battalions are in the works. The United States in addition provides intelligence support, training and equipment to other units of the Colombian army, navy and airforce. This marks a growing collaboration with the Colombian army after many years during which the United States focused on police aid due to concerns over the Colombian army's human rights record.
The United States can and should help Colombians in their hour of need, with long-term, peaceful solutions to civil conflict and drug violence. Early next year we will have the chance to ask Congress and the White House not to take a wrong turn in Colombia policy. Please join us to get a head start during the congressional recess (December and January).
Take advantage of your representative's and senators' time in their home district to encourage a responsible US policy towards Colombia.
Tell your members of Congress to:
Oppose aid to the Colombian army due to human rights concerns, especially army links at a regional and local level to brutal paramilitary forces.
Support a substantial positive aid package for Colombia, including: humanitarian relief for people displaced by violence; crop substitution programs for small farmers to switch from coca to legal crops; economic assistance; programs to strengthen Colombian government investigations into human rights violations and drug trafficking; and aid for civil society efforts for human rights and peace.
Increase funding for drug treatment and prevention programs at home.
Withdraw support the Coverdell-DeWine "Alliance with Colombia" bill, which is too focused on a military solution.
1. Organize a community leaders' meeting or letter. Meet with your member of Congress during the congressional recess from December-late January, or meet with district office staff. Ideally, organize a group of community leaders concerned with this issue to go to the meeting. If a meeting isn't possible, organize a letter from a group of concerned community leaders.
2. Attend a town meeting. Attend a town meeting or other event organized by your member of Congress and ask a question such as the following.
I'm concerned about the human rights crisis in Colombia as well as about drug abuse and drug violence in my community. I understand Congress will consider a big military aid package to Colombia. I'd like our country to help Colombia with aid for peace, relief for refugees, and aid to encourage farmers to switch to food crops, not coca, to help stop the flow of drugs into our country. I'd also like to see more funding for drug treatment and prevention programs in this country. But I don't want the United States to help an army involved in human rights abuses. What is your viewpoint on this issue?
3. Write to your members of Congress. (U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515; U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510; or call the congressional switchboard (202-224-3121), which can connect you to your member's office, and ask for the foreign policy aide.)
4. Send a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Right now the administration is shaping its budget request to present to Congress. Write to the Secretary of State at the State Department, 2201 C Street NW, Washington DC 20520 with a copy to Jacob Lew, Director, Office of Management and Budget, Old Executive Office Building, Washington, DC 20503. Or call the White House comment line at: (202) 456-1111. Ask the Secretary of State to establish a policy towards Colombia that emphasizes support for peace and respect for human rights, refrains from funding the Colombian military and instead funds the priorities listed above.
Colombia is enduring the worst human right crisis in the hemisphere today. Some 3000 civilians die of political violence every year; 1.5 million people have been displaced since 1985, with more than 300,000 last year alone, in a refugee/internal displacement crisis far greater than Kosovo's. Human rights activists, religious leaders, university leaders and aid workers for the displaced are among the many people living under death threats, with increasing numbers forced into exile. Three guerrilla groups (FARC, ELN, EPL) and rightwing paramilitaries both target primarily civilians seen as supporters of the other side, with guerrilla groups guilty of most kidnappings for profit and the paramilitaries responsible for most extrajudicial killings and causing most of the massive displacement. The army, while responsible directly for fewer human rights violations, has extensive links with paramilitary forces at a local and regional level; some army officers either directly facilitate the work of paramilitaries or look the other way as violence occurs.
Talks between the Colombian government with the FARC guerrillas have begun but have repeatedly stalled. Colombian President Andres Pastrana has made good-faith efforts for peace but his human rights policy has been ineffective. On October 24th, an astonishing turnout of some 10 million Colombians around the country marched for peace, demonstrating their support for an end to violence from all sides and a negotiated solution to the conflict.
Some US policymakers make a simple equation of guerrillas being linked with drug traffickers as the source of the problem, and aiding the army as the simple solution. The reality is more complex. While guerrillas profit by taxing the drug trade in areas they control, paramilitaries are directly tied to drug traffickers. Aiding the army risks aiding the paramilitaries and deepening Colombia's human rights crisis.
Despite a 17-fold increase in US drug war spending since 1980, illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent and more easily available than two decades ago. In the United States, emergency room admissions and overdose deaths have escalated. Mandatory sentencing statutes channel minor offenders into the overloaded prison system. Treatment programs don't meet the demand. The drug war at home and abroad not only has harmful side effects: it also doesn't work. There are no easy answers here, but a fresh approach is needed. In Colombia, the United States should support a peace process, strengthen the Colombian government's judicial and investigative capacity, and fund crop substitution programs. In the United States, we should focus on reducing demand through treatment and prevention programs.
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Latin America Working Group
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