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Getting in Deeper: The United States’ growing involvement in Colombia’s conflict

February 7, 2000 | Report


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It had been in the works for some time, and the government in Bogotá and observers in Washington had expected Congress to put it in the 2000 budget the previous fall. When it finally appeared – at a hastily arranged press conference on January 11, 2000 – the Clinton administration's $1.6 billion proposal to assist Colombia was both bigger and more loaded with military aid than most had expected. At the height of the 1980s U.S. escapade in El Salvador, that country’s military received $1 million per day from Washington. This package would provide roughly $2.5 million daily for Colombia's armed forces and police, but is expected to sail through Congress with little controversy. Quietly, with a minimum of debate or concern, the United States' military commitment to Colombia is taking another giant leap.

The new assistance moves Colombia from a distant third to a close third, behind only Israel and Egypt, among the world's recipients of U.S. military aid. It will arrive in a country fighting one of the world's longest, most complicated and most brutal conflicts, with violence generalized across many zones, many combatants and an overwhelmingly civilian death toll. Led by Washington's dogged pursuit of a deeply flawed anti-drug strategy, the United States may be headed right into the thick of this war.

Since the mid-1990s U.S. aid to Colombia's security forces has grown as fast as a dot-com stock price. Totaling about $65 million in 1996, assistance more than quadrupled by 1999 to just under $300 million and will reach about $1 billion in 2000. The aid is undergoing a qualitative change as well, from a focus on Colombia's national police to an approach centered on the armed forces.

Before 1999, when drug money-tainted Ernesto Samper was Colombia's president, about 90 percent of U.S. assistance went to the Colombian National Police. The mid-1998 election of President Andrés Pastrana led immediately to a tightening of Washington's relations with Bogotá. It also brought greater collaboration with Colombia's troubled military, an institution plagued by battlefield defeats and far more allegations of corruption, impunity and human rights abuse than the police.

A December 1998 meeting between U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and his counterpart at the time, Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda, laid the groundwork for the expansion in U.S.-Colombian military cooperation. The best-known (and most expensive) part of this effort is the creation of three 950-man "coun-ternarcotics battalions" within the Colombian Army, though cooperation also includes a riverine program for the Colombian Navy and a series of aircraft and base improvements for the Air Force. The United States has also liberalized guidelines for sharing intelligence with the Colombian military, and is assisting a military reform effort. The proposed new aid would intensify all these efforts, with the largest set of initiatives – categorized as "the push into Southern Colombia coca-growing areas" – designed to prepare the U.S.-created army battalions to operate in a known guerrilla stronghold.

U.S. operational presence in Colombia

About 250 to 300 U.S. military personnel - largely Special Forces units like Army Green Berets or Navy SEALs - are present in Colombia on a typical day. The Defense Department maintains that they do not participate or accompany Colombian forces in military operations against armed groups or drug traffickers, and prefers the term "instructors" to "advisors." Instead, U.S. forces in Colombia carry out training or fulfill counter-drug detection, monitoring, and intelligence-gathering missions, most of them secret. Five U.S. radar facilities are installed on Colombian soil to detect drug-smuggling activity. Though the sites are located on Colombian military installations, they are manned by U.S. personnel who are responsible for their own security.

The aerial eradication program and police aid

Some of the U.S. presence and U.S. assistance is dedicated to a four-year-old aerial eradication program. Managed by the State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau, the program sprays herbicides on coca plants – the source of cocaine – planted in Colombia's vast, sparsely populated "southern plains," a California-sized area of Amazon basin jungle to the south and east of Colombia's Andean ridge.

The overwhelming majority of this zone's residents are not large landowners making millions from massive, industrial coca plantations. In fact, Colombia's southern plains were virtually empty (except for mostly uncontacted indigenous groups) until the 1960s and 1970s, when violence and unequal landholding pushed the first wave of settlers to this "agricultural frontier."

Though Colombia’s government encouraged this settlement, it failed to provide the basic infrastructure and services that legal economic activity requires, such as credit, clear land titles, farm-to-market roads, and a functioning judicial system. The zone's new residents, most of whom own less than twenty acres, found that the costs of inputs and transporting produce to market made legal crops a losing economic proposition. By the 1980s many had turned to marijuana and coca, which yielded frequent harvests and attracted buyers offering good prices and transporting the produce themselves.

Coca gave many smallholding peasants of the neglected southern plains their only opportunity to prosper – not to become rich, but to live a lifestyle approaching middle-class. The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Colombia's largest guerrilla group – which held sway in the area – developed an understanding with the coca-growers, protecting them from the police while "taxing" their profits, just as they demanded funds from legal producers.

Until the mid-1990s, coca produced in Colombia was only a small fraction of the world's total. Peru and Bolivia accounted for the most coca production, though those countries' produce was mostly flown to Colombia for processing and smuggling by Colombian cartels and other criminal organizations. Peruvian and Bolivian coca production declined during the last half of the 1990s, due to a series of successful crop-substitution programs funded by foreign countries (including the United States) and a Peruvian government policy of shooting or forcing down planes suspected of shipping coca to Colombia for processing. In response to the loss of their "air bridge," Colombian drug organizations encouraged a rapid growth of coca production in the southern plains. Today, most of the world's cocaine comes from coca planted in Colombia.

In 1996, the United States responded to increased coca cultivation in Colombia – not with crop-substitution programs, but with an ambitious aerial fumigation program based in the southern-plains town of San José del Guaviare. The program sprays glyphosate, a water-soluble herbicide known commercially as "Roundup," on coca fields in the ecologically fragile fringe of the Amazon jungle. In 1998, U.S. contractor pilots flying State Department-owned spray planes fumigated over 160,000 acres of coca. The spray-plane pilots, plus trainers and maintenance workers, are civilians employed by Dyncorp, a Virginia-based defense contractor. According to State Department estimates, the aerial eradication effort cost about $68 million in 1999.

As the FARC has a strong presence in the countryside around San José del Guaviare, aircraft on spray operations face hostile small-arms fire. As a result, much U.S. assistance in the late 1990s funded the police planes and helicopters that escort the contract pilots’ spray sorties.

By late 1998, the daily spray missions had reduced the amount of coca grown in Guaviare department, the province south of San José del Guaviare. But while the spray program took the livelihood of the region's small-scale coca growers, it was never accompanied by assistance for real economic alternatives. By the end of 1999, the United States had spent a grand total of $750,000 on alternative development programs in Colombia – all of it in heroin poppy-growing areas far from the southern plains.

The all-stick-and-no-carrot approach has succeeded only in making desperate people more desperate. Some of the region's coca-growers undoubtedly chose the only other economically viable choice available to them – joining the guerrillas or paramilitary groups. Many others simply relocated, moving further south, beyond the range of the spray planes, into virgin jungle, deeper into territory where the FARC's control is more complete. In the aggregate, the amount of coca grown in Colombia continued to expand rapidly.

The greatest increases in coca cultivation during the late 1990s took place in the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo, to the south and west of San José del Guaviare in the direction of the Ecuadorian border. This zone has been considered FARC territory for decades, an area where Colombian police and military units rarely dare to wander far beyond their garrisons. Caquetá and Putumayo include the sites of some of the Colombian military's most serious recent defeats at the guerrillas' hands (see map on page 9). Testifying before a Senate committee in October 1999, U.S. "Drug Czar" Gen. Barry McCaffrey argued that the FARC were an obstacle to any expansion of drug eradication into Caquetá and Putumayo.

Colombian security forces are presently incapable of conducting counterdrug operations in the Putumayo and experience great difficulty in conducting operations in the Caquetá growing regions, the source of two-thirds of Colombia’s coca, because of the dangers posed by the guerrillas.

Assistance to the Colombian armed forces

The guerrillas' strength in Caquetá and Putumayo increased U.S. officials' enthusiasm for aiding the Colombian military. Gen. Charles Wilhelm, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, argued before a Senate caucus in September 1999 that police assistance alone is now insufficient, given the likelihood of confrontation with guerrillas during counternarcotics efforts.

Though professional and well led, the CNP [Colombian National Police] are precisely what their name implies - they are a police force. They lack the strength in numbers and combined arms capabilities that are required to engage FARC fronts and mobile columns that possess army-like capabilities. This is a mission that the armed forces and only the armed forces can and should undertake.

This vision of U.S.-funded military units on offensive operations to clear guerrillas from drug-producing regions clearly guides the current drive to increase military assistance. This "push into southern Colombia" envisioned in the upcoming aid package is the primary purpose of the counternarcotics battalions now being created within the Colombian Army.

The counternarcotics battalions

Gen. Wilhelm described the Colombian Army's First Counternarcotics Battalion at a June 1999 Senate committee hearing.

The battalion is a highly mobile unit, designed from the ground up to work with the Colombian National Police, other Colombian Army units, or independently, taking the fight to traffickers in the safe havens of southeastern Colombia where the majority of cocaine production takes place. Southcom is working closely with the Colombian Armed Forces providing them guidance, advice and training.

In fact, nearly all of the battalion's costs – uniforms, training, equipment, transportation, spare parts – are paid by the United States. The idea of the 950-man unit was developed at the December 1998 defense ministers' meeting, and by April 1999 its members had been vetted for past corruption or human rights abuse and training had begun. The battalion completed training in December 1999 and moved to its new headquarters in Tres Esquinas, at the junction of the Caquetá and Orteguasa rivers on the border between Caquetá and Putumayo departments.

According to a June 1999 report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the U.S. Congress, "Southcom estimates that the battalion would require in excess of $70 million worth of equipment and training to become fully operational. Of this amount, approximately $60 million would be to provide helicopters." The unit's training, much of it carried out by the U.S. Army's 7th Special Forces Group at the Tolemaida garrison in the central department of Tolima, was estimated to cost about 3 to 4 million dollars in 1999. Training topics include intelligence, reconnaissance, indirect fire, light infantry tactics, medical skills and human rights.

Much counternarcotics training for this battalion and other Colombian military units is paid for with funds authorized by Section 1004 of the 1991 National Defense Authorization Act, an obscure provision that empowers the Pentagon to use the defense budget to offer foreign counternarcotics assistance. This funding allowed over thirty military teams, most made up of Special Forces, to deploy to Colombia in 1999 to train more than 1,500 members of Colombia's security forces.

The Clinton administration's new aid proposal would fund a massive expansion of this untested counternarco-tics-battalion model. Two new battalions, which will operate in as yet undisclosed locations in southern Colombia, are to be created in 2000. The new units are to receive a combined total of thirty UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters (at about $13 million apiece) and thirty-three UH-1 Huey utility helicopters, as well as reconnaissance aircraft, weapons, equipment, training, construction, intelligence and logistics support.

An especially disturbing section of the administration aid proposal includes "assistance to civilians to be displaced by the push into southern Colombia."

The riverine program

The Pentagon is authorized between 1998 and 2002 to use its budget to improve the Colombian Navy's ability to operate on rivers. The "riverine program," also active in Peru, works mainly in Colombia's far south, particularly Caquetá and Putumayo departments. U.S. assistance helped the Colombian Navy to found a five-battalion Riverine Brigade, which since mid-1999 has been based in Puerto Leguizamo, a remote port on the Putumayo River near the Ecuadorian border. The program's budget, which totaled between $9 million and $12 million in 1999, would be increased by about $12 million per year by the proposed aid package.

Air Force assistance

The United States is encouraging Colombia's Air Force to adopt a policy, similar to Peru's, of forcing down suspected drug-smuggling aircraft. The centerpiece of U.S. aid to the Colombian Air Force in 1999 was a program to upgrade its fleet of Vietnam-era A-37 Dragonfly intercept aircraft. The Dragonfly, a U.S. Air Force web site states, is "intended for use in counterinsurgency operations." The State and Defense Departments spent about $21 million on A-37 upgrades and pilot training in 1999. While additional money funds runway and other improvements at air force bases, particularly at Tres Esquinas, the new aid proposal would also upgrade Air Force OV-10 Bronco aircraft for air intercept missions.


The United States provides the Colombian military with some intelligence about drug and guerrilla activity, while improving the armed forces' own intelligence-gathering and analysis abilities. U.S. agencies are seeking to improve information sharing between Colombia's military and police, which rarely work together and in fact have a history of mutual hostility. In 1999 the United States helped found a new Colombian Joint Intelligence Center (JIC), based at Tres Esquinas alongside the Army counternarcotics battalion.

Under certain circumstances, U.S. personnel share intelligence with the Colombian military and police. Until recently, U.S. officials avoided transferring intelligence about guerrilla activity if unrelated to counter-drug operations. This policy owed not only to discomfort with such direct involvement in the conflict, but also to concern about recipients' use of the information (it could, for instance, be passed on to paramilitary groups for actions against civilian populations). Citing guerrilla involvement in the drug trade, however, the United States has loosened restrictions on intelligence sharing. In March 1999 the U.S. government issued new guidelines that allow sharing of intelligence about guerrilla activity in Colombia's southern drug-producing region, even if the information is not directly related to counternarcotics.

Military reform

In addition to informal advice and consultation with Southcom and officers stationed at the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, the U.S. military regularly deploys teams that offer management advice, planning and intelligence assistance designed to make the army more effective. A high-level Bilateral Working Group, created in December 1998, now meets twice a year to coordinate U.S.-Colombian military cooperation and assistance.

Arms sales

Colombia is consistently among the Western Hemisphere’s top three customers for U.S. weapons. Recent Colombian acquisitions include eleven Blackhawk helicopters and twelve TH-13 Sioux training helicopters, small arms, spare parts, vehicles and ammunition. In November 1999 the administration notified Congress of an especially large potential sale: $221 million for fourteen Blackhawks and several different kinds of weapons and spare parts. In an unusual move, the U.S. Export-Import Bank may finance at least $20 million of this sale.

Problems with the new aid package

The sudden and rapid embrace of Colombia’s armed forces raises several concerns, made more serious and immediate in light of the proposed new assistance. The aid risks intensifying Colombia’s conflict, damaging its peace process, and worsening its human rights crisis. It risks plunging the United States more deeply into this forty-year-old war, using the rhetoric of the drug war to avoid honest debate. It includes no useful benchmarks to determine whether the strategy is achieving its stated objectives. And it continues to advance a counter-drug approach that has so far done more to undermine its goals than to achieve them.

Counternarcotics and counterinsurgency

A wide range of observers – from peace activists to retired generals – speculate that military assistance and other anti-drug efforts in Colombia may lead the United States into a counterinsurgency mission it has not decided to pursue. Concerns about the U.S. operational presence and intelligence-sharing activities were heightened by the July 1999 crash of an El Paso, Texas-based U.S. intelligence-gathering plane. The accident, in a guerrilla-held area just west of Putumayo department, took the lives of five U.S. soldiers and two Colombian airmen.

Policymakers insist that all new military aid will be dedicated to anti-drug efforts. But the drug war and Colombia’s real war overlap significantly, increasing the likelihood of U.S. involvement in a Latin American quagmire. The counternarcotics mission in Colombia overlaps with counterinsurgency – the term used for military operations against violent (and, all too often, non-violent) opposition groups – in three important ways.

Location. A central mission of the counternarcotics battalions and other U.S.-aided units in southern Colombia is to clear the area of guerrillas in order to ease expanded aerial eradication and other anti-drug activities. For the first time, U.S.-aided units will be engaging in offensive operations against guerrillas.

Now that the fumigation strategy has pushed drug cultivation into remote, guerrilla-held Putumayo and Caquetá, the United States is turning to Colombia's army to force the guerrillas out of one of their oldest, most fiercely defended strongholds. The first counternarcotics battalion's base at Tres Esquinas is within a 100-mile radius of some of the Colombian Army's most notorious defeats at the hands of the FARC (see map on page 9). This highly strategic location makes the unit's performance – and Washington's contribution – a central part of the Colombian military's war effort, the drug war notwithstanding.

Training. U.S. military trainers offer their Colombian counterparts skills that can be applied easily to counter-guerrilla operations. Both drug traffickers and guerrillas are well-armed enemies who are confronted using irregular combat techniques in difficult terrain. The small-unit tactics, light infantry skills, intelligence-gathering, ambush techniques and similar subjects that U.S. trainers teach are equally useful against narcotraffickers and guerrillas.

Intelligence. The loosened guidelines for intelligence-sharing, which allow provision of non-drug intelligence that Colombia's military can use to fight guerrillas, make U.S. intelligence personnel and their sophisticated equipment a crucial part of Colombia's broader war.

Washington may in fact be content with this overlap between the drug war and the real war, given the other U.S. interests at stake in the Andean ridge (see map on page 8). With nearby non-drug concerns like Venezuelan oil and the Panama Canal, many in Washington are coming to view instability in Colombia – and the country's guerrilla groups in particular – as a threat to national security. Though the official rhetoric remains that of the drug war, it is likely that other interests are also pushing the current shift toward a military response.

Effect on Colombia’s peace process

Colombia's president, Andrés Pastrana, has made pursuit of a negotiated end to the conflict the centerpiece of his term in office so far. Though they have proceeded slowly and faced many obstacles, talks with the FARC have been taking place for over a year, and the ELN guerrillas have expressed interest in a separate process.

The addition of hundreds of millions of dollars in new military aid risks damaging the fragile peace process, not just by escalating the fighting but by radicalizing anti-peace elements on both sides. The FARC's militaristic wing may see the aid as evidence of the Colombian government's bad faith and as a reason to keep fighting. The aid will also reassure hard-liners in Colombia's ruling circles who resist making any further concessions.

Military aid advocates sometimes argue that more arms will hasten peace, since "gains on the battlefield will be reflected at the negotiating table." This ignores the nature of Colombia's "battlefield," in which civilian non-combatants make up over two-thirds of the casualties. If the United States introduces more weapons and trains more fighters to participate in this conflict, it risks intensifying the crossfire in which innocent civilians are already caught. The case of El Salvador is instructive: a peace accord was signed in 1992, twelve years and 70,000 deaths after the initial ratcheting-up of U.S. military aid.

Impact on human rights

The rapid growth of aid to Colombia has raised concerns about its possible contribution to human rights abuses. Though its overall record is improving, the Colombian Army today is the hemisphere’s worst abuser of human rights and international humanitarian law. Its crimes take place both through direct action and through middle and lower-ranking officers’ collaboration with, or acquiescence to, paramilitary groups’ atrocities.

The "Leahy Amendments" to the annual foreign aid and defense-budget appropriations bills (named for their sponsor, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy) prohibit units of a country's security forces from receiving assistance if their members face credible evidence of gross human rights violations. The laws allow accused units to receive aid through foreign operations-funded programs if "effective measures" are taken to bring the accused unit members to justice, and to receive aid through defense budget-funded programs if unspecified "corrective steps" are taken.

Colombia is a key test case for the Leahy Law’s implementation. A vetting procedure, established by an August 1997 end-use monitoring agreement between the U.S. Embassy and Colombia’s Defense Ministry, screens unit members for past corruption or human rights abuse.

All counternarcotics units within Colombia’s National Police, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps have passed the vetting process and are cleared to receive assistance. Four brigades, a command, a Special Forces school and the new counternarcotics battalion, whose members were individually screened upon the unit’s creation, are the only Army units to have cleared the process.

The State and Defense Departments have struggled with the Leahy Law’s implementation, trying to resolve basic questions like "what is a unit," and whether, for example, a unit can get aid if its offending members are merely transferred out without being brought to justice. The law’s lack of specificity has also made possible strategies that violate its intent, if not its wording. Two such "workarounds" appear to be developing in Colombia.

The first is the creation of new military units from scratch, like the new counternarcotics battalions. All candidates for the new units have their names run through databases of past crimes or human rights abuses. In Colombia, where the military is planning a rapid expansion, it seems to be proving easier to create new, vetted units than to bring abusive officers in the old units to justice. Creating new units not only evades the law’s intent, it risks creating an "army within an army" that is better equipped and trained than the rest of the institution.

The second way around the law’s intent has to do with the definition of "unit." When training is involved, the State and Defense Departments have determined that "the unit to be trained is the unit that is vetted." In other words, a soldier from a banned unit can still receive training if his record is clean, because he – the individual and not his entire company, battalion, or brigade – is the "unit" that is going to be trained. As a result, the Leahy Law in fact applies to an entire unit only when weapons are being granted; training with a "dirty" unit can proceed merely by excluding the unit’s abusive members from the training activity.

The problem with this "unit to be trained" issue is that the Leahy Law was originally intended to encourage foreign militaries to end impunity for rights abusers. Instead of a search for creative shortcuts, it should be cause for alarm that a military receiving heavy U.S. assistance is unwilling to punish criminals within its ranks.

Continuation of a failed strategy

If the United States really has $1.6 billion to spend on the anti-drug effort in Colombia, it should be part of a long-term effort to eliminate the reasons why Colombians choose to cultivate drugs in the first place. These reasons – state neglect of rural areas, a nonexistent rule of law, a lack of economic infrastructure and opportunity – not only explain the flourishing drug trade; they also account in part for the proliferation of armed groups.

President Pastrana has indicated a strong interest in bringing state services and the rule of law to rural Colombia. But U.S. assistance so far has been overwhelmingly military in nature. While military and police aid to Colombia totaled almost $300 million in 1999 – plus nearly $70 million for crop fumigation – assistance for alternative development, judicial reform and human rights added up to less than $7 million. The upcoming aid package promises more economic assistance in the aggregate, but it carries a similar imbalance in favor of military assistance (85 percent of $1.6 billion). Future economic aid will also run up against a U.S. refusal to fund alternative development in parts of Colombia that are not under the Bogotá government’s complete, unambiguous control – excluding many areas that need assistance the most.

The immediate future

The administration’s aid proposal will be introduced in Congress in early February. Funding for 2000 will be requested in a $954 million "emergency supplemental appropriation," while money for 2001 will be part of the government’s usual budget request. Though serious concerns exist, the proposed aid package is expected to move easily through Congress, and many observers expect passage in early to mid-spring. In an election year, few legislators will dare to vote against a bill that opponents’ thirty-second television commercials can portray as "protecting our kids from drugs." Though the new military aid has an aura of inevitability to it, more thoughtful members of Congress will push for stronger human rights conditions on the new assistance, beyond the Leahy Law; measures to guarantee transparency in the aid’s use, including tracking of trainees to ensure that they remain in counternarcotics units; and greater funding for alternative development, human rights, judicial reform, peace, and aid for displaced people.

The more distant future is, of course, impossible to predict, though one depressing trend seems almost certain: no matter which candidate wins or what happens in Colombia, the amount of military aid is very likely to increase for some time. As we get in deeper, either success or failure can be used to justify greater aid and U.S. involvement: if coca cultivation drops, U.S. officials will call for an intensification of the "successful" strategy; if drug production grows or the counternarcotics battalions suffer defeats, Washington’s drug warriors will call for a redoubling of efforts. This gloomy prospect might not be realized, particularly if Colombia’s peace process gains momentum. If current trends continue, however, Colombia heads the list of candidates for the first U.S. overseas military quagmire of the twenty-first century.

CIP thanks the Compton Foundation and the General Service Foundation for the generous support that made this report possible.

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