Colombia: Rules of the Game

When the U.S. and Colombia meet on the soccer field in Miami this Saturday, the rules are clear, the time is fixed, the game is officiated, and one team will win. In contrast, the U.S. is playing a far different game in Colombia: there are no rules, no referee, a maze of different ‘teams,’ and no clear end. The playing field is a battlefield. No one wins; everyone loses.

I have just returned from a five-day, fact-finding trip to Colombia’s southern state of Putumayo where U.S.-trained army battalions have been deployed since December, and where thousands of acres are being sprayed with herbicides. The results are not good. Indigenous and peasant farmers have had their food supply destroyed by U.S.-funded aerial spraying. A grade school garden and a government-sponsored alternative agriculture project designed to teach peasants to grow cash crops other than coca were destroyed by fumigation. Paramilitary gunmen have gone on killing sprees whose total toll will never be known.

There are some very unhappy conclusions to be drawn:

First, the U.S. is teamed up with the most abusive military force in the hemisphere. And Colombia’s military, in turn, frequently works hand in glove with brutal paramilitary forces that are estimated to be responsible for three-quarters of the politically motivated civilian murders. Members of the Colombian military help the paramilitaries with intelligence, logistics and transportation, and by blocking official investigations into their activities. This directly violates the human rights conditions set by Congress as a prerequisite for U.S. military assistance. During the first 18 days of January alone, paramilitary groups committed 26 massacres; in one incident paramilitary thugs beat more than 20 people to death with sledgehammers and stones. Yet U.S. aid continues to flow.

Second, there’s no clear end. The $1.3 billion extraordinary aid package passed by Congress last July was sold as a one-time emergency appropriation, a part of “Plan Colombia” that would end the civil war and bring peace and economic growth. Now the U.S. military is asking Congress for an additional $1 billion a year, continuing into the foreseeable future.

Third, the strategy is unclear. While Plan Colombia was sold to the American public as a counter-drug plan, U.S. funds were earmarked primarily for military aid to train, equip, and transport three new Colombian army battalions, blurring the lines between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics missions. U.S. policymakers are desperate to appear hard on drugs; but for Colombians this is not a war on drugs, it is the fifth decade of a counterinsurgency struggle.

Fourth, there aren’t two sides: there’s a maze of intertwined, overlapping, and heavily armed competitors. The drug cartels, under the protection of paramilitary forces, have diversified their operations, finding new production and trafficking routes. Colombian guerrillas, primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), have financed their expansion through profits from the drug trade, but their objective is territorial control and pursuing a war against the state. After more than 40 years, this war will not be won on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table.

Fifth, there are no winners. Ordinary Colombians lose. Human rights lose. Peace loses. The region loses. There have already been clashes between guerrillas and paramilitaries in surrounding countries. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has begun preparing camps along the border for thousands of displaced persons. The U.S. war on drugs is pushing drug cultivation and trafficking into floundering Ecuador, Peru, and the fragile Amazon ecosystems.

The U.S. loses. Our most important interests and objectives in the region–including strengthening democracy, promoting human rights and the rule of law, and fostering trade and investment–are being severely undermined. Treatment programs for addicts go underfunded at home, and, despite spending some $19 billion a year on the war on drugs, illegal narcotics remain cheap and plentiful within America.

It’s time for a new U.S. game plan in Colombia. First, we must send an unequivocal message to the Colombian military that it must cut its ties with paramilitary forces. Second, we must put our money into proven programs of supporting human rights, rule of law, and economic development. Finally, we must solve our drug problem at home with effective medical, treatment, and educational solutions to this largely public health problem.

If the U.S. team played soccer the way we’re engaging Colombia, we’d score minus 50 goals, the team would be billions of dollars in the red, and 10 percent of the spectators would wind up dead. Maybe it’s time for a new game plan.