month the Bush administration announced plans to deepen U.S.
involvement in Colombia by doubling the number of U.S. troops and
private military contractors stationed there. The move came in the
midst of an energetic public-relations campaign by the U.S. State
Department and the Colombian government.
Both administrations attempted to paint U.S. policy in Colombia as
an assured success. However, statistics show a stable presence of
cocaine on the U.S. market, and evidence points to continued ties
between the Colombian military and brutal right-wing paramilitary
Four years ago, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to pass a
$1.3 billion aid package known as Plan Colombia. The legislation
included safeguards that members hoped would keep the United
States out of the “quagmire” of Colombia’s internal conflict.
Congress restricted the number of U.S. troops and private military
contractors to 800 total and limited their mission to anti-drug
efforts, legislating that no intelligence, training, or equipment
be used to assist Colombia in its war against left-wing
insurgents. Congressional supporters also promised that the U.S.
commitment in Colombia would last no more than five years.
Human rights groups, drug reformers, and some members of Congress
warned repeatedly that military aid would pour fuel on the flames
of the long and brutal conflict involving the Colombian government
forces, right-wing paramilitary allies, and left-wing insurgents.
Many critics, including current House Minority Leader Nancy
Pelosi, also argued that attacking drug production at the lowest
level of the supply chain the poor farmers who grow drug crops in
Colombia’s rural areas--was an inhumane approach that would
ultimately prove futile.
Despite these grave concerns, Plan Colombia was signed into law.
The Republican congressional leadership touted it as a reasonable
policy that was limited in scope but would help end the U.S. drug
But after September 11th, the policy changed. The Bush
administration and congressional allies broke the promises made in
2000, and in the spring of 2002 expanded the U.S. mission in
Colombia beyond anti-drug efforts. The administration argued the
need to help Colombia fight a “unified campaign against narcotics
trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to its
national security,” And earmarked some $600 million for the cause.
This year Colombia is slated to receive over $500 million in U.S.
aid the majority of it military and police assistance.
The Bush administration now contends that more force is needed.
The proposal to lift the troop cap would increase the number of
U.S. personnel allowed in Colombia to 800 soldiers and 600
contractors nearly double the limit established by Congress.
Lifting the cap would mean devoting additional resources and
manpower to a failed, and often deadly, policy.
Approving additional U.S. military assistance would send all the
wrong messages to a war-torn Colombia. It implies that the
conflict can be solved by force, effectively squelching civil
society and sporadic government attempts to engage in a negotiated
peace process with armed groups. As the war accelerates, thousands
more Colombian civilians will lose their lives in the crossfire.
Committed to a military solution, the U.S. government could be
forced to request ever-increasing levels of troops and funding
when the conflict proves more enduring than anticipated.
Support and training for the Colombian armed forces also puts the
United States firmly on the side of a military with a brutal
history and a proven reluctance to reform. According to the United
Nations, direct human rights violations by the Colombian military
increased last year, and even the U.S. State Department admits
that the Colombian government has failed to break ties with the
Colombian civilians, particularly Afro-Colombian communities,
trade union leaders, and human rights defenders who have spoken
out against abuses by the military or paramilitaries have been
targeted as sympathetic to the guerillas and attacked. According
to international observers, since 2000 paramilitary activities
have increased in areas of high military presence, such as the
departments of Putumayo and Arauca where the U.S. is also heavily
Colombia’s conflict is a long and complicated one, and solutions
ultimately lie with Colombians themselves. While the United States
may never be able to provide a cure for what ails Colombia, a
first and crucial step will be to stop aggravating an already
grave situation. Rather than back a military approach to the
conflict, the United States should support peace negotiations and
aid Colombian institutions working to support human rights and
address the roots of the conflict.
In mid-May Congress will address the troop cap issue during debate
over the 2005 Defense Authorization bill. The last few years have
shown that military aid feeds a vicious cycle of human rights
abuses and killing, while the drug trade simply takes on new, more
virulent forms. With no exit strategy in sight in the Iraqi
conflict, the last thing the U.S. needs now is expanded
involvement in Colombia.
Elanor Starmer is Program
Associate for Colombia with the Latin America Working Group and
contributor to the IRC’s Americas Program online at: