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Forget Drugs, This is About the Guerrillas: the US is turning its attention and its guns towards Colombia

13 February 2002

In the normal run of business, the customer is disinclined to pay for shoddy goods. If someone lets you down then comes back with his hand out, you might send him packing, as you would any mountebank or snake oil salesman. Why, then, does the intelligence community consider itself exempt from this elementary rule of the market?

None of the western intelligence services predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps they did not see it coming - or had they seen it coming but preferred not to mention it as that would stop taxpayers' money continuing to pour down their particular drain? But the years between the collapse of the Berlin wall and September 11 2001 were spent on a more urgent quest: the search for a new threat.

Briefing papers and conferences proliferated; security experts scrambled around with a rag-tag list of lesser evils, auditioning them all for the lead part of primary threat. It was a confusing time, but the bottom line was that the world had become a more, not a less dangerous place. Vigilance - and bigger budgets - would be required.

Now that Osama bin Laden has been chosen for the lead role, what happened to the also-rans? Last week the US administration indicated that it planned to ask Congress for $98m in military aid to the Colombian army to buy helicopters, communications equipment and training for Colombian troops to guard Occidental Petroleum's Cano Limon pipeline, a frequent target for Colombia's guerrillas. For the first time, the administration is not bothering to hide its military aid to Colombia under the threadbare blanket of the drugs war. This, an administration official admitted, is aimed at the guerrillas.

It's a significant shift, because drug barons showed early promise as a possible metaphor for evil. They were wealthy, anonymous, violent and unscrupulous. Their tentacles reached into our homes and threatened our children. The natural home of the drug baron, as every schoolchild knows, is Colombia.

The rebels, who control nearly 40% of the country, trade under the catchy name of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. This happy conjunction of evils gave birth to the term narco-terrorists. It was a highly satisfactory threat.

War was duly declared in Washington and Plan Colombia was born - a $1.3bn aid package, allocated in 2000. Most of it went into training and equipping a Colombian army brigade of 3,000 men to conduct counter-drug operations in the south, coincidentally an area of the country held by FARC. FARC, according to Washington, were financing their wicked schemes with drug money.

But Plan Colombia, measured even by Enron standards, would not encourage the average investor to buy more shares: 100,000 hectares of land have been sprayed with toxic chemicals. When the spraying began, there were an estimated 140,000 hectares under coca cultivation; today there are 170,000. The US ambassador in Colombia has responded by calling for more spraying.

Worse, the peace process initiated by the Colombian president, Andres Pastrana, nearly collapsed earlier this year and was only saved by the energetic intervention of a team of negotiators led by the French ambassador. The crisis was averted, but not resolved: Pastrana's term is nearly over and elections are due. The most likely candidate is Alvaro Uribe Bellos, an Oxford graduate who is campaigning on a platform of all-out war against FARC. Meanwhile, in Washington, with the new liberty of action afforded by September 11, the administration has abandoned the pretense of fighting the drugs trade, hence last week's request for military aid to the Colombian army.

It has been a while since a US administration has declared a direct interest in fighting guerrillas in another country. Pre-September 11, there was a law in the US that required the Colombian army to demonstrate that it had severed ties to the rightwing paramilitary death squads that have been responsible for the most sickening atrocities in Colombia, before it could receive military aid. This it has failed to do, but somehow it does not seem to matter any more

FARC are no angels, but it is worth noting that their primary policy demand is for the introduction of unemployment benefit. If their candidates were not murdered first, (as happened with another insurgent movement that laid down the gun and took to the hustings in the eighties), the FARC might even get elected. Those in Colombia trying to promote democracy - civil society, a reduction in weapons, the return to their homes of the 25% of the population displaced by the war - remain perplexed by how more military aid is going to help. As Senator Patrick J Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee, observed last week: "This is no longer about stopping drugs, it's about fighting the guerrillas."

Isabel Hilton
Published in the Guardian of London Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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