Our New War in Colombia

The Clinton administration is proposing an escalation in United States foreign aid to Colombia so large that it will predictably alter the course of domestic politics and internal violence in that country. Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of US foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, having received $289 million in 1999. As the current aid bill now stands before Congress, the government of President Andrés Pastrana would receive $1.574 billion in direct economic assistance during the next three years. About one fifth of the funds ($274 million) would be spent on assistance in economic development and general improvements in the country’s legal and human rights situation. The rest of the money would arrive in Colombia in the form of military training funds and equipment.

This military help is being presented as indispensable to the fight against the cultivation of coca leaf in southern Colombia and the consequent export of cocaine to the United States. Most of the parties involved—the State Department officials who will shepherd the aid package through Congress, the gung-ho young men in the US embassy in Bogotá who will get to supervise all the hardware, the Colombian army brass who are waiting for the assistance with the fervor of a cargo cult—claim, officially at least, that the funds are not intended for use in the war the Colombian state has been fighting for forty years against the world’s most entrenched guerrillas. The question is how such use is to be avoided.

Colombia, which has a population of just under 40 million, is a country approximately the size of Central Europe. It is divided roughly into five regions: the lush Caribbean and Pacific coasts; the two-pronged Andean range, traversed by the Magdalena River Valley; the eastern grasslands; and the jungle lowlands that extend south to the Amazon River, where Colombia borders Brazil. Bogotá (population 6.4 million) and most of the prosperous cities, including Medellín, are perched in the mountains. Here the population is mostly white and mestizo. In the rich coastal plains and in the Magdalena River Valley, many people are black and mulatto.

Fewer than two million people live in the grasslands and the jungle, but between them these adjoining areas account for more than half the national territory—that is to say, an area roughly the size of France. There are almost no roads—dirt or otherwise—in this part of the country, and it is in fact such uncharted territory that maps from the national geographic institute still show the legend “insufficient relief data” printed over large areas. Most of these two regions’ inhabitants are recent arrivals: land-hungry peasants who carved out clearings for themselves over the last half-century or so. It is here, in the outermost regions of the departamentos of Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Guaviare, and Vichada, that the coca-growing boom has taken place in the last decade.

The US military funds, if approved, will be used for drug interdiction operations and for a special antinarcotics brigade, and also for Blackhawk helicopters, speedboats, and planes in…

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