October 5, 1999
We are writing as members of the Arms Transfer Working Group—a body of arms control, human rights, peace, and religious organizations—to oppose sending military counter-narcotics aid to Colombia. As past experience shows, counter-narcotics assistance which emphasizes eradication and interdiction and provides only token aid for alternative development and judicial reform offers little hope of ending the drug flow into the U.S. Instead, sending more U.S. money, military equipment and training to Colombia threatens to worsen the human rights situation and prolong the bloody civil war, possibly dragging the U.S. into the counter-insurgency morass.
The most troubling aspect of most counter-narcotics packages being developed by the administration and members of Congress is the heightened level of support for the Colombian security forces. White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, Senators Paul Coverdell and Mike DeWine, and others are seeking to spend around $500 million next year on the Colombian military and police for programs which make no real distinction between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency operations. The Department of Defense is also increasing counter-narcotics aid to Andean states, including shipments of $75 million worth of “emergency drawdown” weapons and services in both 1998 and 1999. The State Department’s plan—not yet made public—is likely to dedicate the majority of the funding to new military equipment, intelligence support, and military training, while also supporting judicial reform, human rights, and humanitarian programs.
American weapons and support should not be given to the Colombian military, which has committed untold human rights abuses during the long counter-insurgency war. As these abuses have come under international criticism, the military has increasingly relied on notorious right-wing paramilitaries to continue its “dirty war” against suspected rebels, but that does not absolve the military of guilt for human rights abuses. Evidence suggests that Colombian military authorities have repeatedly failed to prevent paramilitary attacks on civilians—even when they had prior knowledge of planned massacres—and have not punished known offenders. The degree of violence by paramilitaries is profoundly disturbing. According to Amnesty International, over 1,000 civilians were killed in the first eight months of 1999, the vast majority murdered by army-backed paramilitary organizations. Victims were often tortured before being shot or were decapitated and dismembered.
Additionally, the drug trade thrives in the lawlessness of war, yet injecting a large quantity of U.S. weaponry and military resources into the counter-insurgency campaign risks prolonging Colombia’s brutal and intractable civil conflict. The war against Colombia’s insurgents cannot be won on the battlefield—as U.S. officials readily admit—and every mention of U.S. military aid pushes the leftist guerrillas further from the negotiating table. At the same time, increased military assistance is likely to draw the United States deeper into the war.
Finally, the current aid proposals all fail to recognize that past counter-narcotics aid to Colombia has been largely ineffective and therefore a great waste of money. Over the last ten years, the U.S. government has given Colombia over $1 billion in counter-narcotics aid, but Colombian drug production and trafficking continue to soar. Last year, Colombian coca production increased by 26%, cocaine smuggling into the U.S. continued at high levels, and Colombian-origin heroin has claimed an increasingly dominant share of the U.S. market. Counter-narcotics programs such as crop eradication also harm farmers and the environment, forcing those with few other opportunities to move their coca and opium poppy fields further into the rainforest to avoid detection.
Instead of increasing military aid to Colombia, the U.S. government should help Colombia improve its human rights practices, reform its judicial system, pursue the peace process initiated by President Pastrana, and provide alternative economic opportunities for poor farmers. Any counter-narcotics package that does provide assistance to Colombian security forces must be in full compliance with the “Leahy Law,” which withholds U.S. foreign aid and training from foreign security units known to have committed human rights violations. The U.S. should also encourage the Colombian army to supplement recent moves to address human rights abuses—such as the removal of two generals—with significant institutional reforms, removal from service and prosecution of officers suspected of human rights abuses or links with paramilitaries, and aggressive efforts to prevent atrocities by paramilitaries and guerrillas alike.
As you consider the different proposals for counter-insurgency aid to Colombia this fall, we urge you to chose policies that will make a positive difference—both to the people of Colombia and to communities in the U.S.
St. Louis Economic Conversion Project
Loyce Swartz Borgmann
Coordinator, Church of the Brethren Washington Office
Gordon S. Clark
Executive Director, Peace Action
Peter J. Davies
US Representative, Saferworld
Director, Maryknoll Office for Latin America
Director, International Security program
Council on Economic Priorities
Director, Arms Sales Monitoring Project
Federation of American Scientists
William D. Hartung
World Policy Institute at the New School
Director, Peace and Security Program,
Institute for Policy Studies
British American Security Information Council
Director of Policy and Programs
Women's Action for New Directions
President, Veterans for Peace
Edward (Ned) W. Stowe
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Women’s Strike for Peace
President, Center for International Policy
Phyllis S. Yingling
Chair, US Section, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom