by Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group
In September, the House passed the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act, which called for dramatically increased funding for drug interdiction efforts in the Latin American and Caribbean region, especially to the Andes. At first this appeared to be more symbolic than real, since the bill did not appropriate the money to carry this out. However, at the end of the congressional session, members of Congress included $690 million to fund these efforts in the omnibus spending bill.
This package includes $201 million for Colombia, $17 million for Bolivia, and $5 million for Peru, beyond what was already budgeted, for eradication and interdiction, as well as $36 million over a three-year period for Central American coast guards. The legislation lays out unusually specific kinds of weaponry and aircraft to be provided; for example, it includes 6 Black Hawk helicopters and upgrades for 50 Huey helicopters for Colombia. One positive part of the package is $180 million earmarked for alternative development efforts in the Andean countries--assistance for crop substitution for small farmers to switch to licit crops.
The section on Colombia specifies that counternarcotics aid will be cut off if the demobilization zones, created by the Colombian government in guerrilla-occupied areas as a first step in a possible peace process, do not permit the free operation of counternarcotics efforts. This provision will likely have no practical effect--the President can waive its application for national security reasons, and the zones are already a done deal. But its inclusion is an effort by congressional leaders, such as Rep. Ben Gilman (R-NY), to state that no goal, including peace, is more important than counternarcotics.
The passage of this counternarcotics package shows how difficult it is to raise questions and concerns about this "war on drugs" approach. Because of the very real concerns about the impact of drug abuse and drug-related violence in our society, a dramatic jump in funding for the most militarized approach towards solving the drug problem can pass the Congress without debate over its effectiveness or impact on human rights or the environment.
In other areas, efforts to affect legislation concerning Colombia were more successful. The Leahy amendment, which prohibits aid to units of security forces that have committed gross human rights violations which have not been investigated and prosecuted, was retained and expanded. Once covering only programs funded out of the foreign operations bill, it now also covers programs in the defense bill. Nonbinding "report language," which expresses the intent of the foreign operations subcommittee, emphasized the human rights crisis and encouraged the peace process. It also called on the Clinton administration to sponsor an independent study prior to the use of an herbicide, tebuthiuron or "Spike," for coca eradication, which the administration is pushing despite serious concerns about its environmental impact.