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Once More Into The Jungle

by Mike Gray

Under the guise of fighting drugs, U.S. military forces are once again on the brink of being drawn into a civil war in the jungles of Latin America. With hawks and doves both raising the specter of Vietnam -- one side calling for a massive buildup before it's too late while the other invokes images of a bottomless tropical quagmire -- the recent $1.3 billion infusion of military and economic assistance to Bogota makes direct American involvement in the Amazon jungle now seem inevitable.

Leading the charge, U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey claims that Colombia's Marxist guerrilla armies are fueling the burgeoning cocaine trade and vice versa. The guerrillas, he says, tax everything that moves in their territory and they are raking in "somewhere between $215 million and $600 million a year." Either number would make them one of the best financed insurgencies anywhere and to prove the point, their troops are paid three times as much as the government soldiers.

"Illicit drugs are directly linked to the growing strength and aggressiveness of the narco-guerillas," says Congressional hawk Ben Gilman of New York. "Colombia is on the verge of becoming a 'narco-state.'"

But for old Colombia hands like Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International, Washington's attempt to blame the Marxists for U.S. drug war failures is simplistic and dangerous. "Washington keeps focusing on armed opposition groups," he says, "They are used to fighting peasant wars, and they can't get out of the mind set that they must take the side of the established military."

The problem with this approach is that the military in Colombia is also involved in the drug trade. Colombians often refer to their air force as the "blue cartel," and in November of 1998 the chief of the Colombian air transport command landed in Miami where the DEA found half a ton of cocaine on his plane. Every other armed group in the country is also involved in the drug trade, including the paramilitary death squads, a collection of private armies who work for the oil companies and wealthy landowners.

Historically, the army commanders have used the paramilitaries as surrogates for their dirty work. Says Amnesty International's Salinas, "It has been shown in excruciating detail that they are allied with the paramilitaries, who not only are responsible for the vast majority of atrocities committed in Colombia over the past few years, but have also been named by the DEA as major drug traffickers."

The army itself, on the other hand, is notoriously corrupt, it has an inept, top-heavy officer corps, the troops have low morale and little penchant for battle. Most of the draftees are semi-literate -- anyone with a high- school education is exempt from combat -- and while the conscripts may not be able to read, they know they're getting the shaft.

The economic fault lines in Colombia are among the worst in Latin America. Three percent of the population controls 70 percent of the usable real estate and two-thirds of the rural families are below the poverty line. One often hears references to "the 100 people who count," some of whom trace their origins to the Conquistadors, but whatever their number they own the place and they seem determined to hang onto it.

Master Sergeant Stan Goff, an instructor with the U.S. Army Special Forces, spent the last twenty years working behind the scenes in Latin America, an experience that left him with scepticism about America's good intentions. "The ultimate question is how to protect the economic interests of a very powerful group of people in the U.S. and their surrogates in Colombia,"says Goff. "That's exactly what was happening in El Salvador and they're running the same movie by us again in Colombia."

Even if the guerrillas were somehow defeated, says Goff, it would have little impact on the drug trade. "The people that we're in alliances with there far and away make more money from the drug trade than any of the people who are associated with the left."

Into this explosive cauldron, the US is now preparing to pour several hundred million dollars worth of Blackhawk helicopters and other sophisticated killing machinery along with hundreds of military advisors, all in the name fighting drugs. Says a former Colombian government official, "It will be like pouring gasoline onto a fire."

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copyright © 2001, Common Sense for Drug Policy,
Kevin B. Zeese, President -- Mike Gray, Chairman -- Robert E. Field, Co-Chairman
Diana McCague, Director -- Melvin R. Allen, Director -- Doug McVay, Editor & Research Director
Updated: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2001 12:59:03 PDT   ~   Accessed: 5537 times
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