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Between 1989 and 1999, the United States exported over half a billion dollars worth of weaponry to Colombia, most of it financed with U.S. counter-narcotics assistance. The U.S. has consistently aided the Colombian government, in particular the Colombian police, to combat illicit drug trafficking.  With the 1998 election of President Pastrana, the Clinton Administration expressed greater support for military aid.  The Colombian military has cleaned up its human rights record significantly, but there is still continued evidence of ties between the military and paramilitary forces that are responsible for the vast majority of atrocities in Colombia. 

Instability and Violence

Colombia is plagued by violence, as guerrilla groups challenge often repressive central government and right-wing paramilitary groups for authority in much of the country. According to the 2002 State Department Human Rights report, 8,000 to 15,000 rightist guerrillas and 21,645 leftist guerrillas comprising more than 100 semiautonomous groups are operating in Colombia. Three of these groups, the FARC, the ELN, and the AUC have been designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department. These guerrilla groups have exercised a significant degree of influence and initiated armed action in nearly 1,000 of the country's 1,085 municipalities.  The major guerrilla organizations received a significant part of their revenues (in the hundreds of millions of dollars) from fees levied on narcotics production and trafficking.

The State Department's human rights report also notes that the security forces in Colombia regularly failed to confront paramilitary groups, and members of the security forces sometimes illegally collaborated with paramilitary forces. It also notes that the armed forces and the police committed numerous, serious violations of human rights throughout the year.  Colombia's armed forces and security units have an extensive history of severe human right abuse, including death squad activity within the military, mostly centered around combating leftist insurgents.  

Throughout the country, paramilitary groups killed, tortured, and threatened civilians suspected of sympathizing with guerrillas in an orchestrated campaign to terrorize them into fleeing their homes, thereby depriving guerrillas of civilian support.  Paramilitary forces were responsible for an increasing number of massacres and other politically motivated killings.  The army's record in dealing with paramilitary groups remained mixed.  In some locations the army on rare occasions attacked and captured members of such groups; in others it tolerated or even collaborated with paramilitary groups.  Violence and instability in rural areas displaced approximately 288,000 civilians from their homes during the year.  The total number of internally displaced citizens during 1995-99 probably exceeded 1 million. 

While a concerted effort to move forward with peace negotiations was made in late 2001, Pastrana suspended talks with the FARC on February 20, 2002. Violence in the demilitarized zone has escalated, further endangering civilians.

The History of Counter-Narcotics Assistance

During the 1990's, the U.S. anti-drug aid to the principal Andean coca-producing nations---Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru---centered around three initiatives. The first two involved the use of Over-the-Horizon Radar (ROTHR) stations for tracking drug trafficking flights, and the use of U.S.-controlled aircraft for in-air interdiction. The bulk of U.S. aid, however, was centered on enhancing the ground, river, and air interdiction capabilities of the drug source nations' militaries.  These measures were very effective in combating the production of illicit drugs in Bolivia and Peru, but has shifted almost all of Coca and Heroin manufacturing to Colombia, where it is now grown and processed.    

The National Police was the lead anti-drug agency in Colombia, while the military focused principally on the numerous guerrilla groups operating within Colombia. In September 1996, President Clinton gave an additional $40 million in counter-narcotics-related military aid to Colombia: $30 million to the Army and $10 million to the National Police. Yet the military did not have any specialized units focusing on anti-drug missions, leading many to speculate that the aid was used for counter-insurgency missions.

Despite the fact that the Clinton Administration decertified Colombia in 1996 as cooperating with American counter-narcotics policies, the U.S. government provided Colombia with more than $64 million of weaponry in the same year. In September 1996, at the urging of some members of Congress, the U.S. government gave 12 used UH-1 "Huey" utility helicopters with 24 M60D door mounted machine guns with 920,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition. The United States also sold 12 UH-60L "Blackhawk" helicopters to Colombia for $169 million. These utility helicopters are much more capable than the older "Hueys," in that they can carry more and are significantly faster.

On July 1, 2000, President Clinton signed into law the fiscal year 2000 Supplemental Appropriations bill. While $300 million below Clinton's request, the final package approved by Congress was for $1.3 billion (more aid than El Salvador received from the U.S. during their entire civil war), 75% of which is in military and police aid, including funds to pay for 42 Huey helicopters and 18 Blackhawks at a cost of $315 million. The remaining was allocated to support alternative development, aid for displaced persons, judicial reforms, and other human rights improvements. The aid comprises the U.S. contribution to President Pastrana's $7.5 billion "Plan Colombia" to combat illicit drug trafficking and to aid the Colombian government to regain control over its country.  Colombia is spending $4 billion of its own money.  

The debate in the Senate was marked by a bipartisan enthusiasm for spending funds on anti-drug initiatives abroad. Colombian President Pastrana was hailed as an embattled hero in need of support to face threats from the left, right and drug traffickers. A number of senators brushed aside critiques that the package was more geared toward counter-insurgency than counter-narcotics and would involve the U.S. in Colombia's internal conflict.  Proponents of the bill also put aside criticism that the aid package is an ineffective drug policy. Substantial evidence shows that investment in drug treatment and prevention is much more effective than investment in interdiction and eradication.  Two amendments against the package were offered and turned down: Senator Paul Wellstone's (D-MN) amendment to switch $225 million from military aid to drug treatment programs at home, and Senator  Gorton's (R-WA) amendment to slash the package from $934 million to $200 million.

In the bill passed by the Senate, firm human rights criteria were placed on the transfer of military aid and training. But in the House-Senate conference, the conditions were weakened, and a presidential waiver was added. Senate language stressing military-paramilitary links was also added to House language stressing counter-narcotics goals. President Clinton did eventually use his right to waive the human rights criteria, all but one of which had not been met. The only remaining check on the distribution of military aid and training is the "Leahy Law," which prohibits U.S. training and aid to go to specific military units "if the Secretary of State has credible evidence to believe such unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces units to justice." The law is now well known by U.S. officials operating in Colombia and has already been applied to some Colombian units.

In the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2002, Congress appropriated $625 million for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, $106 million below the administration's request. The majority of the funding is earmarked for military equipment and training, with some funds allocated for judicial reform and economic development. The final bill included a provision from the Senate version that conditions further aerial fumigation of coca plants on a determination that this practice does not pose "unreasonable health or safety risks" to Colombians. It also includes the Senate's requirements for alternative development programs witithin the next six months in each Colombian department where aerial fumigation is taking place. Finally the aid to Colombia cannot be distributed unless the administration certifies that Colombia is complying with certain human rights criteria, including the arrest and prosecution in civilian courts of militart personnel suspected of collaborating with brutal right-wing paramilitary groups. Certification is likely despite a lack of real progress on human rights.

The efficacy of this funding in stemming the tide of illicit drugs seems questionable in the face of the State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2001. This report noted that "The coca crop was estimated to be 136,200 hectares in 2000. Preliminary indications are that the 2001 crop will be larger." An analysis of the U.S. counter-drug program is discussed at length in the GAO's report, Drug Control Efforts to Develop Alternatives to Cultivating Illicit Crops in Colombia Have Made Little Progress and Face Serious Obstacles.

Find out which defense companies are producing what for the $1.3 billion counter-narcotics aid package and how much $ they gave your member of congress!

Changes in the scope and nature of U.S. aid to Colombia are in the works. The administration's Fiscal Year 2003 budget included a request for over $370 million in military aid for Colombia which --if granted-- would make this country the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world. The budget also seeks an additional $98 million to protect a Colombian oil pipeline which has become a frequent focus of rebel attacks.

Current limitations on U.S. military aid to Colombia restrict its use to counternarcotics objectives. The Bush administration has signalled that it wishes to revise these terms in an effort to fight Colombia's terrorist groups and to bolster the Pastrana government. Congress has similarly communicated its interests in the Colombian situation. On March 6, 2002 both houses passed resolutions (H.R. 358 and S. 219), which open the possibility of redesignating the funds allocated under U.S. counter-narcotics aid for the fight against terrorism. The Senate language states that: "it is the sense of the Senate that the President, without undue delay, should transmit to Congress for its consideration proposed legislation, consistent with United States law regarding the protection of human rights, to assist the Government of Colombia to protect its democracy from United States-designated foreign terrorist organizations and the scourge of illicit narcotics." A State Department analysis of these resolutions can be found in the Department's Washington File for March 6, 2002: Congress Passes Resolution in Support of Colombia. The loosening of restriction on U.S. aid to Colombia and the promise to hasten the transfer of weapons must be seen against the backdrop described by the State Department's human rights report released in March 2002 which noted that: "The Government's human rights record remained poor; there were continued efforts to improve the legal framework and institutional mechanisms, but implementation lagged, and serious problems remained in many areas...government security forces continued to commit serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings."

Background Information 

Government Resources NGO Reports and Websites

Last Updated:  March 2002

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