Latin American Report
Drugs: New Pretext for US Intervention
By Daniel Gatti
MONTEVIDEO, Aug 2 (IPS) - The ''war on drugs'' has replaced the counterinsurgency struggle as a pretext for U.S. intervention in South America. The borders between the two, however, are often blurry.
That argument was put forth by the International Observatory on Drugs, a non-governmental body based in France, which recently substantiated the allegation that Washington may prepare a direct military intervention in Colombia, or sponsor an action by troops from South American countries. That view is also shared by the non-governmental human rights group, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), prominent U.S. thinkers like Noam Chomsky, and leftist political and social groupings in Latin America.
Senior government officials and military officers in the United States have publicly denied, on a number of occasions, that Washington is preparing or planning to sponsor an armed operation in Colombia or any other South American nation.
''There will be zero intervention, and that goes for any of the 32 countries in the American hemisphere,'' said Washington's drug czar, retired General Barry McCaffrey.
But other U.S. officials have been more ambiguous. President Bill Clinton himself stated last week that the decades-long conflict in Colombia was a ''national security issue'' for the United States.
''When a U.S. leader asserts something like this, it is because some level of intervention against the nation mentioned is being prepared, not necessarily with Washington at the head, but with it definitely behind the scenes,'' said a high-level official in Brazil's leftist Workers Party.
In South America, the strongest resistance to foreign intervention in Colombia under the pretext of fighting the drug trade and the expansion of violence would come from Brazil and Venezuela.
And according to reports last week by the Buenos Aires dailies 'La Nacion' and 'Clarin', Argentina would be at the forefront of a ''multilateral initiative for peace,'' consisting of sending troops from South American countries to Colombia, to be joined later by U.S. forces. The newspapers reported that Argentinian President Carlos Menem had been contacted by Washington regarding such an initiative. And on Jul 26, Menem said he was willing to send troops to Bogota if asked to do so by his opposite number in Colombia, Andres Pastrana.
Last week the Lima daily 'La Republica' revealed the existence of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plan to intervene militarily in Colombia using Peruvian and Ecuadorean troops - news that was later picked up by the Spanish daily 'ABC'. The plan, reportedly presented a month ago to Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's security adviser Vladimiro Montesino, widely considered the government's strongman, would allegedly involve a frontal attack on Colombia's guerrillas. Washington, however, denied such allegations.
Political analysts in the United States say the Clinton administration is divided into two camps - one which fears that increasing military aid would escalate the conflict in Colombia, and the other, led by McCaffrey and others at the Pentagon, that would like to see increased military aid and training for Colombia's army.
''The people who want more military aid are in the driver's seat now,'' according to Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert at the U.S.-based Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) think-tank.
Some 200 U.S. military personnel are currently stationed in Colombia, the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt. The U.S. personnel are officially assigned to drug enforcement tasks, although many believe they are also involved in the fight against Colombia's insurgents.
A report published Jul 27 by the Bogota daily 'El Espectador' cited a U.S. source, according to whom a U.S. military plane that crashed last week in Colombia was manned by counterinsurgency agents, even though the craft was officially assigned to anti-drug operations.
Washington's aim to establish a military base in Ecuador is also ostensibly based on the need to fight the drug trade. The bid to set up a base in Ecuador arose from the failed attempt to convert U.S. military bases in the Panama canal zone, to be handed over to Panama by Dec 31, into a regional anti-drugs centre. If Washington reaches an agreement with the government of Jamil Mahuad, the base will be located in the port city of Manta, where the United States already has an Advanced Observation Post for Regional Anti-Drug Operations.
On a visit to Quito, McCaffrey stated last Thursday that the United States would collaborate with the Ecuadorean army in protecting the border with Colombia, where he said ties between drug traffickers and guerrillas were close. Upon his arrival in Ecuador, Washington's drug czar said five vessels crewed by 12 soldiers would operate in Manta, although he later recommended that the number be doubled. He added that Washington would send around 200 military and coast guard officers and customs and Drug Enforcement Administration agents to Ecuador.
Ecuador and the United States already enjoy close military cooperation, indicated by the current construction of an anti-drugs base and plans for 10 similar installations. The Manta base ''would be an enormous affront to our freedom, our autonomy, and above all our sovereignty,'' Bishop Luis Luna Tobar of the Ecuadorean city of Cuenca told IPS.
The Ecumenical Commission on Human Rights in Ecuador echoed that sentiment, arguing that the country could be roped into ''the continentwide strategies redefining the role of national armies in the region,'' revolving around the fight against guerrilla groups and drug trafficking.
Spokespersons for social movements also expressed their opposition to the Manta base, particularly indigenous leaders, who announced that they would put up resistance.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News