U.S. Drug War and Military Aid to Colombia: An Overview

By Adam Isacson, Associate, Center for International Policy, Washington DC

Adam Isacson of CIP is co-author of the newly-released "Just the Facts: A Civilian's Guide to U.S. Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean," with Joy Olson. (See Resources) He can be contacted at isacson@ciponline.org.

The agenda with the U.S. cannot just be drugs,said Colombian president-elect Andrés Pastrana a day after his election. "We have to open it to include peace, human rights and trade issues."

U.S. policy towards Colombia, unfortunately, appears to be drifting in the other direction. The United States government, led by its long-standing overemphasis on drugs, appears poised to deepen its involvement in Colombia's worsening armed conflict.

This does not necessarily mean that an El Salvador-style counterinsurgency campaign is in the works. In fact, U.S. policymakers are deeply divided over what exactly to do about Colombia. The prevailing view for now is that the United States must assist only counter-drug activities, refraining as much as possible from participating in the Colombian military's counterinsurgency effort. Yet, the line dividing counternarcotics and counterinsurgency is not clear: many skills and weapons are applicable to both activities, and no Colombian military units are dedicated exclusively to counter-drug missions. Nonetheless, nearly all of the roughly $130 million in aid going to the Colombian military and police this year is paying for activities officially defined as counter-drug programs.

The no-counterinsurgency approach, however, is under assault from a growing number of hawks, led by congressional Republicans, Pentagon officials, and conservative defense analysts. This increasingly vocal camp views Colombia's main guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, as a direct threat to U.S. security.

Echoing the old cold-war "domino theory," these analysts see Colombian rebels on the verge of victory, directly menacing nearby U.S. geopolitical interests such as the Panama Canal or the Venezuelan oil fields. Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), a vocal proponent of military assistance to Colombia, warned during a March 1998 congressional hearing that Colombian guerrilla groups "threaten the entire northern tier of South America." A classified study performed in early 1998 by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) predicted that, under current circumstances, Colombia's rebel groups will take over the country within five years. F. Andy Messing of the conservative National Defense Council Foundation predicts a guerrilla takeover within just one year. According to Rep. Ben Gilman, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, the United States today risks "the frightening possibilities of a narco-state just three hours by plane from Miami."

Those who warn of imminent guerrilla victory also sound the alarm about the Colombian military's readiness level, pointing to a string of guerrilla victories in recent battles. Their recommendation, not surprisingly, is to ratchet up assistance for the Colombian military while de-emphasizing human rights restrictions.

Since 1997, due to a law known as the "Leahy Amendment" after its sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity are banned from receiving U.S. security assistance through the annual foreign aid appropriation. In August 1997, the U.S. government endeavored to enforce the Leahy Amendment by signing an "end-use monitoring" agreement with Colombia's Defense Ministry. Among other provisions, this agreement required military and police units to demonstrate that none of their members face credible, uninvestigated charges of human rights abuse before receiving assistance.

The Colombian Police, Navy and Air Force have all been certified to receive aid under this agreement. As of late June 1998, however, the Colombian Army, one of the hemisphere's worst abusers of human rights, has barely complied. Only two army units have been found eligible to receive assistance.

Despite serious questions about compliance with the Leahy provisions, the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom, the military body charged with protecting U.S. interests in Latin America and the Caribbean) continues to cultivate a very close relationship with the Colombian military. Interviewed recently by the New York Times, Southcom Commander-in-Chief Gen. Charles Wilhelm said that he himself has become a crucial adviser to the Colombian high command, revising strategic plans and working on a revamping of the armed forces.

Clearly, the goal of such an overhaul is not to help the Colombian military support police counter-drug efforts. The Southcom's interest in working with the Colombian army may be an opening move in an escalation of U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war. "This is not a one-night stand," said Gen. Wilhelm of the U.S.-Colombian military relationship. "This is a marriage for life."

Indeed, the honeymoon continues between the United States and Colombias security forces, the Western Hemisphere's number-one recipient of U.S. security assistance. This assistance goes through several channels, as detailed in the attached boxes.

Counterinsurgency and Paramilitarism

Clearly, the Colombian security forces are already receiving a large amount of assistance through a wide variety of "spigots" If official U.S. policy continues to drift towards counterinsurgency, these spigots will flow faster and new ones will open.

The most serious flaw in the argument for supporting the Colombian military's war effort is its near-total neglect of Colombias recent explosion of right-wing paramilitaries. Dire warnings about the imminent takeover of "narco-guerrillas" are misleading if they leave out Colombia's paramilitaries, another force that is rapidly building a base of power and wealth through terror tactics. Paramilitaries, like the guerrillas they claim to target, also benefit from narco money. Like the guerrillas, they too are responsible for cross-border spillovers of violence, particularly in Panama. When the paramilitary dimension of the conflict is considered, Colombia's civil war appears to be less of a guerrilla march to victory and more of a bloody, brutal stalemate.

Paramilitaries are now responsible for about two-thirds of all political killings in Colombia. Since considerable evidence exists of paramilitary groups' continued links to military officers, an increase in military aid is tantamount to throwing gasoline on a fire already out of control.

Instead of counterinsurgency, U.S. policy should move towards peace. Colombian civil society and the international community have shown much interest in ending the war during the past year; even the FARC and ELN have expressed willingness to talk. With a new administration taking office in August, prospects for a negotiated solution are brighter than they have been for years.

Rather than fuel the war through a Central America-style counterinsurgency campaign, the United States should be supporting any Colombian peace initiative that shows even a glimmer of viability.

International Narcotics Control

The State Department's International Narcotics Control (INC) program is spending at least $80 million in 1998, and perhaps more than $100 million, on the Colombian National Police's counterdrug activities. (Little, if any, of this year's INC funds will go to the Colombian military.) INC pays for coca eradication through aerial fumigation, usually in areas under rebel control. This program has proven ineffective against coca cultivation in Colombia, as the number of acres planted is growing at least as fast as the number of acres sprayed. Fumigation tends not to encourage coca-growers to opt for legal crops (which are not marketable in Colombias remote southeastern plains), but to push them deeper into rebel-controlled territory where they frequently cut down unspoiled rainforest.

Fumigation, carried out by U.S. contract pilots accompanied by police and military escorts, frequently occurs indiscriminately, spraying people and legitimate crops with potentially harmful health effects. The U.S. government is pushing hard for a switch from glyphosate, a water-based herbicide, to a much stronger granular herbicide called tebuthiuron (or "spike"). Tebuthiuron's potential effect on groundwater and vegetation is so devastating that its manufacturer, Dow Chemical, opposes its use in Colombian coca-growing areas.

Congressional Republicans fought bitterly to earmark $36 million of this year's INC account for the transfer of three UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopters to the Colombian National Police. The State Department had resisted sending the Blackhawks, viewing the helicopters — which area more useful for counter-guerrilla activities than for counternarcotics missions — as a poor use of resources. In late June 1998, a compromise was reached in which the CNP will get six Bell 212 helicopters, an older model than the Blackhawks. ("We are getting a Ford instead of a Cadillac, but it is a start," Rep. Ben Gilman, a key proponent of the Blackhawks, told the Washington Post.) The $36 million will instead pay for the INC program's regular activities, such as fumigation, in Colombia and Bolivia.


Each of the last two years has seen a so-called a drawdown of weapons, i.e. an emergency allocation taking the form of a transfer from the U.S. arsenal, to the Colombian military and police -- $40.5 million in September 1996 and $14.2 million in September 1997. Foreign aid law allows the President to provide up to $75 million per year in security assistance to countries experiencing a "narcotics emergency." Given the steady drumbeat of support for U.S. military aid to Colombia, another drawdown is likely during 1998, probably in September, at the end of the fiscal year.

International Military Education and Training

A "national interest waiver" kept Colombia from being "de-certified" this year for perceived non-cooperation in counternarcotics. As a result, Colombia will qualify for support through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, a sort of "scholarship program" for security personnel attending U.S. military training courses. IMET courses need not focus on counternarcotics. The State Department estimates that the United States will spend $900,000 this year to train 100 Colombian officers through IMET in 1998.

School of the Americas

IMET, INC, and government-to-government sales pay for Colombian military attendance at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA. The school is highly controversial due to the questionable content of past courses and the records of many of its graduates, including dozens of Colombian officers accused of serious human rights abuses and support for paramilitaries. 99 Colombian military personnel attended the school in 1997, making Colombia the third-largest country in attendance with about 11 percent of the total student body.

Defense Department Direct Assistance

The programs listed so far are subject to restrictions, such as the Leahy Amendment and the August 1997 end-use monitoring agreement, and carry reporting requirements that invite scrutiny from Congress and the public. Legally, these restrictions and notification procedures can be avoided by funding similar activities through another source. As a result, an increasing amount of U.S. support is going through the defense budget.

The Defense Department is the "lead agency" for detecting and monitoring narcotics trafficking outside the United States. On any given day, for at least the past two years, there have been 150 to 250 military personnel stationed in Colombia. About 80 are operating three radar sites, scanning the skies for suspicious aircraft. Most of the rest are training Colombian military and police units.

As part of its counter-drug mandate, the U.S. military is allowed to use its own funds to train foreign personnel including police in counternarcotics skills. Legally, it may do so without regard to the human rights restrictions that apply to traditional training programs like IMET.

The Clinton Administration has stated that it will go beyond the law's reach by applying the Leahy Amendment human rights restrictions to Defense Department counter-drug activities. It is so far unclear, however, how well the Defense Department's procedures for excluding corrupt or abusive trainees are functioning.

The Defense Department will spend about $40 million on its own counter-drug activities in Colombia in 1998. Roughly $30 million will pay for the maintenance of radar sites for tracking suspicious aircraft. Most of the rest will pay for military and police training.

Defense Department funds are paying for 24 separate training deployments this year under the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program. JCET, which is operating in about 95 countries this year, involves sending small Special Forces teams overseas to work or train with, foreign militaries. The average JCET group is comprised of 10 to 40 troops, though groups can include as many as 100. The law governing the program requires that these activities' primary purpose be to train the U.S. personnel involved, not the foreign military units taking part. As a result, even though foreign military units receive some training, JCET is not officially considered a training assistance program.

Eighteen of this year's twenty-four JCET deployments to Colombia, involving 252 U.S. Special Forces personnel, will teach counternarcotics skills. The remaining six, involving 32 U.S. troops, will train in counter-terrorism and hostage-rescue techniques.

Additional Defense Department assistance is going to Colombia through the so-called "riverine program," a special five-year authorization in the 1998 National Defense Authorization Act which provides the Colombian and Peruvian security forces with equipment and training to improve their ability to fight drugs on rivers. Colombia and Peru will share $9 million in aid this year, and $20 million for each year from 1999 to 2002.

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