Drug War in the Jungle

Drug War in the Jungle
Posted by FoM on December 17, 2000 at 08:12:52 PT
By Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Source: San Francisco Chronicle 
The soldiers stormed into the jungle lab, overturning drums filled with coca paste. They spread gasoline and lit a match. With a roar and loud crackling, flames engulfed the building. But something wasn't quite right with this apparently picture-perfect victory in the war on drugs. Why was the troop commander frowning? 
"This is nothing, really," said Maj. Cesar Avendano in a low voice. "It's just a laboratory. There are a lot more around here. And the guerrillas are only a few kilometers away. It doesn't change anything." Avendano's remark was a rare moment of frankness regarding Plan Colombia, a huge, U.S.-financed program designed to stop America's cocaine problem at the source. The core of the plan is $1.3 billion in U.S. aid, which was approved by Congress in June and began to be delivered in September. The aid includes hundreds of military advisers, dozens of attack helicopters and vast quantities of weapons -- the largest U.S. foreign military venture since Kosovo. The potential payoff is enormous: ending a 36-year-old civil war and helping the Colombian government score a triumphant, knockout blow against drug traffickers and guerrillas. But the operation also carries significant risks. Getting more involved in Colombia's intractable conflict has the potential of dragging the United States into a Vietnam-style military disaster, critics charge. Furthermore, the United States could be tainted with complicity in human- rights abuses and civilian deaths. Between January 1999 and last November, more than 3,000 civilians have died in crossfire and death-squad killings, massacres. "This is a proxy war with proxy victims," said a Catholic priest in the region who asked to remain anonymous. "The civilians are being slaughtered because neither the army nor the guerrillas are willing to wage real war against each other." About 300 Green Beret troops are training Colombian officers and troops -- more than twice as many Americans as two years ago. Also involved are hundreds of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, National Security Agency and CIA, plus hundreds of employees of private military contractors, which are providing many types of covert and semi-covert aid. But to see what Plan Colombia will do, experts say, it's necessary to look at the record of the $1 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade. Despite the assistance, cocaine production has boomed, while the country's leftist rebels have grown more powerful than ever, using revenues from taxing coca production and kidnapping wealthy Colombians to become a major military threat to the government. The lack of results from U.S. aid was on display recently among the 150 Army, Navy and Marines commandos that Avendano commands at a base by the Putumayo River, in southern Colombia. They have been receiving U.S. aid and training for years yet seem unable -- or unwilling -- to take on their enemies. Hours after the Puerto Ospina drug raid, a showered and gym-suited Avendano relaxed in the air-conditioned officers' quarters of the Riohacha, his 118- foot home ship on the Putumayo. The satellite TV showed the nightly news from faraway Bogota, the capital. The top story was the ongoing standoff just upriver on the Putumayo, where guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have paralyzed all road traffic and occupied the vast majority of coca-growing areas. TV footage showed rebels calmly shooting pool in downtown Puerto Vega, a river port 35 miles from the Riohacha. "Meanwhile, the army is seemingly incapable of stopping the guerrillas," the on-camera reporter intoned from the poolroom as balls clicked in the background. "Well, major, why don't we just steam up the river and fight the rebels?" another officer asked Avendano. The major laughed: "There's no point, because if we go up there, they'll just disappear, then wait until we're gone and retake the town." Why not capture the area and leave troops there to occupy it? "We're stretched too thin. We don't have the resources," was Avendano's reply. The next day, Avendano's mission turned into low comedy. His troops barged ashore in another area where army intelligence sources had indicated a guerrilla training camp. Instead, the troops found only miles and miles of jungle swamp. The column of soldiers became separated, and several groups -- some of which were not carrying radios -- became lost as they floundered through the knee-deep waters. It took hours for them to find their way out of the swamp and straggle back to riverside, covered with mud, swearing and embarrassed. Such is Colombia's war -- a lot of sound and fury, a lot of money spent, but relatively few deaths among rebels or soldiers. Meanwhile, plenty of civilians are killed. In the first 11 months of this year, 496 government troops and 952 guerrillas were killed nationwide, according to army figures. Meanwhile, about 3,300 civilians were killed, human-rights groups say. Many of the civilian victims are villagers who make the mistake of speaking out against abuses by one side or the other -- and then are viewed as collaborators. Such killings stoke the conflict, turning many innocent relatives and survivors into vengeful partisans. As Avendano's troops burned the laboratory, vengeance was close indeed. Watching from a nearby shed was Juan Carlos, a coca farm worker who had been captured during the sweep. Interviewed by a Chronicle reporter out of earshot of the soldiers, at first he talked diffidently. "Everything is normal," he said. But then, turning bitter, Juan Carlos (he declined to give his last name) spoke in a rapid-fire burst. Two of his brothers had been killed by the paramilitaries elsewhere in Putumayo province, he said. After the killings, two other brothers joined the FARC. "It's a show," he said, jerking his head toward the troops. "Everything happens elsewhere, out of sight. You don't see it. Nobody does." Asked later about killings by the paramilitaries, Avendano repeated the standard military line: "We have nothing to do with them, and we can't help it if they're also fighting our enemies." While there was no apparent evidence to link Avendano with the death squads, Colombian human rights groups -- and some military officers, speaking privately -- say that the army usually takes a "see no evil, hear no evil" stance toward the paramilitaries and that many officers help them with logistics and intelligence. Despite the growing bloodshed, Colombian officials insist that Plan Colombia is intended not to wage war but to wean farmers away from coca growing. (Coca is a shrub whose leaves are used in the making of coca paste, the base for powder cocaine.) Jaime Ruiz, a top adviser to President Andres Pastrana who is the plan's chief architect, says Plan Colombia includes funding for economic and social projects such as new rural highways and farm aid to coca farmers who switch to legal crops. "We have a comprehensive social strategy that will re-establish government presence in areas where it has never existed," he said. Ricardo Vargas, the Colombian director of Andean Action, a drug-policy think tank, dismisses such talk: "All that's left is a bare-knuckled military offensive. Plan Colombia is an anti-insurgency plan, a war plan, not a crop substitution plan, despite all the rhetoric you hear. "The only part of the financing that the government really has in hand is for the military component, so that is what will be carried out." U.S. officials say the military aid is needed for the social programs to succeed. "Crop substitution and rural development will only work if there is adequate security on the ground, and that means that the umbilical link between the guerrillas and the cocaine business must be broken," said Phillip Chicola, an assistant secretary of state who visited Bogota last month. Nevertheless, the increased American presence has brought fury from the FARC, the country's largest guerrilla group, which fields an estimated 2,000 fighters in Putumayo and 18,000 nationwide. "The gringos want to intervene in Colombia and turn this into a real war, and we're ready for them," said Commander Ivan Ruiz, a member of the FARC's high command. "We want peace, but we will have no alternative but to defeat them." Ruiz was speaking in a rebel-held zone in neighboring Caqueta province, where peace talks have been held with the government. The rebels suspended the talks last month, saying that the government is increasing its collaboration with the paramilitaries. Many analysts say parallels with Vietnam are overdrawn. U.S. politicians and diplomats, aware of slim domestic support for shedding American blood abroad, say vehemently that they will never send combat troops to Colombia -- even though recent polls have shown that most Colombians say they expect such a move, and would welcome it if the rebels keep growing stronger. The parallels to 1980s El Salvador are much clearer: a heavy CIA presence, hundreds of U.S. "advisers" training local troops, a powerful leftist guerrilla army drawing strength from severe social inequities, and rightist death squads that are covertly aided by the government military. However, the main difference with either comparison is substantial: Unlike the Viet Cong or El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, Colombia's guerrillas are not dependent on external support from the Soviet bloc. The FARC (and, to a lesser extent, the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN) guard drug crops and receive part of their financing from "taxes" on those crops. The rebels also run huge kidnapping and extortion rings. Combined income is estimated at several hundred million dollars per year. Emboldened by these revenues, FARC commanders are taking a tough line in peace talks with the government, which started in January 1999 but have achieved little. The government, bolstered by the U.S. aid, seems equally intransigent. Pastrana has not responded to the rebels' prime demand -- that he crack down on the paramilitaries -- and he has given no ground on their demands for wide-ranging social reforms. The talks have taken place in a Switzerland-size zone in southern Caqueta province that the government ceded to the rebels to allow the peace process to occur. A crisis was averted earlier this month, when Pastrana renewed the zone's demilitarized status despite widespread calls from army hard-liners and some U.S. officials to retake it. Although Washington's position has long been to support the peace talks, American officials' language has become tougher recently. While in Colombia last month, White House drug-policy director Gen. Barry McCaffrey called the creation of the demilitarized zone "a naive mistake on the part of the government." Many diplomats and analysts forecast increased war, not peace. "I'm afraid that the two sides need to bloody each other on the battlefield until one -- or both -- are willing to make major concessions," said Alfredo Rangel, a Bogota political analyst and a former presidential security adviser. "That will probably take quite a while." COLOMBIA DRUG FACTS:-- Cultivation: Coca farming has expanded dramatically since 1995, more than tripling to an estimated 350,000 acres. Meanwhile, coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia - formerly the main growing nations - has shrunk by a similar amount. U.S. officials cite the Peru-Bolivia decrease as proof of success for the anti-drug fight, while critics say it simply reflects Colombia's increasing dominance of the cocaine industry. -- "Taxes": The guerrillas and paramilitaries earn hundreds of millions of dollars annually by charging "taxes" - protection money - to coca growers, middlemen and laboratory owners. -- Refining: The first stage of refining is carried out by the coca farmers themselves, who use the leaves to make coca paste - a substance much like crack cocaine. They sell the paste to middlemen, who sell it to the cartels, which take it to laboratories deep in the Amazon jungle or in urban areas. After being refined into cocaine, the cartels transport the product by river, air and sea to the United States and Europe. -- Production: Colombia produces an estimated 600 metric tons of refined cocaine and 75 metric tons of heroin a year, about 90 percent of the cocaine and 65 percent of the heroin reaching the U.S. market. -- Cartels: The Medellin Cartel and Cali Cartel, which dominated cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, were broken up by U.S.-Colombian law enforcement in the early and mid-1990s. Since then, cocaine refining and export operations have divided into a huge number of operators. -- Rebel role: Some U.S. officials have recently accused the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), of becoming directly involved in refining and exporting cocaine. Most experts disagree, saying that although the FARC has expanded its control over coca growing and paste making, it is not involved in refining or trafficking. Note: U.S.-financed campaign aims to beat back traffickers, rebels. First In a Four-Part Series. E-mail Robert Collier at: rcollier Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)Author: Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff WriterSunday, December 17, 2000 Copyright: 2000 San Francisco ChronicleContact: chronletters Website: Articles - Plan Colombia 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: