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Underwriting War in Colombia

President Bush’s budget proposal includes $98 million in military aid and training to help the Colombian government protect an oil pipeline from guerrilla attacks. The aid is being pitched by the Bush administration and its Colombian counterpart, the government of President Andres Pastrana, as a new and necessary theater for the broadening “War on Terrorism.”

Having recently returned from Colombia, where I and a group of 36 other concerned U.S. citizens investigated the effects of current U.S. aid and met with dozens of community and church leaders, it is clear to me that the proposed counter-insurgency support will create more, not less, terror in the lives of Colombian men and women.

Collusion between the Colombian military and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)–the right-wing paramilitary group that is responsible for over 70% of civilian deaths in Colombia’s civil war–is a long-standing and well-established fact. Attempts to bring paramilitaries to justice and to root out members of the military who collaborate with them have lacked the political will to achieve concrete results. A senior U.S. Embassy official in Bogot? told us, on condition of anonymity, that although military-paramilitary collusion no longer exists “at the command level,” lower-ranking officers and solders “have and will continut to have” ties to the paramilitaries. Riding by bus through Putumayo, the Department in southern Colombia where U.S.-funded aerial herbicide spraying campaigns have been focused, we were stopped by members of the paramilitary. They boarded our bus and introduced themselves, confident and even somewhat jovial despite the fact that a Counternarcotics Brigade, created by U.S. “Plan Colombia” funding, was stationed just a mile down the road. It was a shocking confrontation with the persistent complicity, or perhaps collaboration, between the two forces.

The paramilitaries were in fact provided with weapons and training, during their first years of existence (the late 1980s), by the Colombian military. Now the Bush administration seeks to expand support to that military, in defense of U.S. oil interests. There has been consistent and vocal opposition to counter-insurgency aid from many members of Congress since “Plan Colombia” was first proposed in 1999. The Colombian conflict is complex and enduring–now in its 38th year, in fact–and the U.S. should not let itself be drawn into a military and human rights “quagmire,” Congress-members have warned. Yet in the new climate of the “War on Terrorism,” the Bush administration seems to think it can evade those concerns by presenting counter-insurgency aid as a defense of “national security” and a stand against terror. Some of the public relations leg-work needed to justify this bold initiative was kicked off during the SuperBowl, through an ad campaign seeking to equate drug trafficking with terrorism. The “War on Drugs” has been the only politically viable justification for U.S. military aid to Colombia to date–what better way to ease the transition from “War on Drugs” to “War on Terrorism” than by making the two appear identical? “Where do terrorists get their money?,” one of the ads asked. “If you buy drugs, some of it may come from you.” Narcotrafficker equals guerrilla equals terrorist: so the logic goes. A war on any one of these must necessarily, already be a war on them all. So what difference does it make if we extend funds from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency? The difference, of course, is the scale and nature of U.S. support for a military that maintains ties with one of the most ruthless killing forces in the world, the AUC. While two Colombian military brigades defend Ecopetrol’s (the State oil company’s) facility near Barrancabermeja, the paramilitaries openly assassinate, “disappear” and torture labor leaders. A staggering 60% of the union organizers killed in the world last year were killed in Colombia. By a truly uncanny coincidence (if such profound synchronies can indeed be called coincidences), barely a week after the SuperBowl ads and the $98 million aid proposal, “Collateral Damage”–an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about a U.S. commando’s heroic crusade against Colombian narco-trafficker-guerrilla-terrorists–hit theaters, having been postponed in the immediate aftermath of September 11th.

What frightens me most is that the Bush administration’s proposal may be only a test balloon for far more aggressive U.S. involvement in the Colombian conflict. The exchange of human rights standards for oil access has characterized U.S. foreign policy for decades. It is an indefensible and tragic choice that should not be repeated in Colombia.

Phillip Cryan is a fellow at the Pesticide Action Network. He traveled to Colombia in January with Witness for Peace, a social justice and human rights organization based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: phillipcryan@mindspring.com

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