Lifting the Cap: Bush Administration Seeks to
Expand U.S. Military Personnel in Colombia

by Elanor Starmer
May 13, 2004

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Last 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 groups. 

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 problem.

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 paramilitaries.

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 involved.

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: www.americaspolicy.org.