The Narco-Guerrilla War

The Narco-Guerrilla War
Posted by FoM on August 06, 1999 at 15:41:22 PT
By Joshua Hammer and Michael Isikoff 
Source: Newsweek
COLOMBIA A mysterious U.S. Army plane crash highlights the Pentagon's biggest covert operation in Latin America.
When a U.S. Army plane went down in the jungles of southern Colombia, American officials sought to downplay it as a routine anti-narcotics patrol. But this was guerrilla country, a stronghold of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). And the U.S. Army DeHavilland RC-7 was packed with sophisticated intelligence equipment for the interception of radio and mobile-phone communications—just the sort of equipment that would be useful in tracking guerrilla movements. "This had to do with surveillance," said one source familiar with the flight's mission. "We're not supposed to be monitoring guerrillas, but that's what they were doing." American officials in Colombia are only supposed to be fighting drugs. But as Colombia's guerrillas turn to drug trafficking to finance their 40-year-old struggle, the war against drugs becomes a war against them too. The crash of the U.S. spy plane was only the most recent example of the Pentagon's rapidly expanding role in Colombia's civil war. NEWSWEEK has learned that more than 300 American personnel are in the country, 200 of them soldiers and more than 100 Drug Enforcement Administration and CIA operatives. Already the United States is pouring $250 million into Colombia, making it the third-biggest recipient of U.S. aid, after Egypt and Israel. The White House drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, visited the country last week and proposed doubling that amount. McCaffrey arrived just as Colombian and American search and rescue teams reached the wreckage of the RC-7 plane containing the bodies of five American soldiers—including a woman pilot—plus two Colombians. Nor were these the first Americans to die. Since 1997 three American pilots flying drug-interdiction missions for DynCorp, a private U.S. military contractor, have been killed. Some U.S. officials are wary. "What you have here is a 1964 model of Vietnam," said one congressional staffer. So far the largely covert effort, easily the biggest U.S. military mission in Latin America, has had little effect. Buoyed by an estimated $600 million in annual profits from the drug trade, the FARC has built up its armory and extended its control. "There are armed organizations with more automatic weapons than the Colombian Army," McCaffrey told NEWSWEEK. In early July the FARC launched its biggest offensive in 40 years, seizing 15 villages, including one just 30 miles from Bogota. The assault sent a terrifying message that the insurgents could assemble in large numbers and attack nearly anywhere in Colombia. Last Friday the Army accused FARC of setting off a car bomb in front of its offices in Medellin, killing 10 persons. Until recently Colombia's drug war has been fought by its national police, not the Army. The police force sprays fields with chemical defoliants in conjunction with DynCorp, and conducts helicopter raids on drug laboratories—mostly carried out in aging Vietnam-era A1-H1 "Hueys." But the police lack the arms and the training to battle an increasingly aggressive guerrilla force. "The police are getting their a---s kicked," says a top-ranking U.S. military source in Colombia. "They go in with two helicopters, they run into a hundred FARC on the ground and they get chewed up." That may soon change, thanks to prodding from the Pentagon and conservative congressmen. This September the national police will receive six Black Hawk attack helicopters, high-altitude fliers that can provide protection to planes defoliating mountainside poppy fields. By December the U.S. Special Forces will have finished training a special anti-narcotics battalion of the Colombian Army, a 980-man, rapid-reaction force capable of taking on the FARC on its own turf. Some congressmen worry, though, about the deplorable human-rights record of the Colombian military, which often actively cooperates with right-wing paramilitaries. In the first four months of this year, the paramilitaries killed or "disappeared" 400 suspected guerrilla sympathizers. "Every soldier in that counterterrorism battalion has been cleared by the U.S. State Department," insists one high-ranking U.S. official. There are also doubts that targeting the coca fields makes sense. The areas of cultivation are vast, bigger than Switzerland. "There are not enough chemicals in the entire United States to kill the s--- down there," says a U.S. military source in Bogotá. Areas of cocaine cultivation have actually increased by 50 percent in the past two years, according to a congressional report. American officials say that taking no action against the FARC will invite a widening of the civil war, and a flood of cocaine and heroin onto America's streets. "There is no desire in the United States to send troops to Colombia to fight a guerrilla war that the Colombians themselves have—until recently—not committed themselves to fighting," says one U.S. government source. He insisted, though, that only military hardware—not men—will be dispatched to Colombia's guerrilla-ruled jungles. That promise sounded somewhat hollow as Capt. Jennifer Odom, 29, the pilot, and the four other U.S. crew members were flown back in body bags to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware at 2 a.m. Saturday, for a ceremony closed to the public. At the rate things are going, they may not be the last ones to make that sad journey. With Mark Duffy in Bogotá and John Barry in Washington Newsweek, August 9, 1999 Worries Colombia Could Become Another Vietnam - 8/06/99
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