South America: Countries Worry Plan Colombia Will Spillover

Publisher Name: 
LatinAmerica Press

In countries bordering Colombia, there are increasing fears of the immediate and long-term impact of military and anti-drug operations.

*This article is extracted from the new report Conflict Colombia

In one highland city in the Andes, it's hard to walk a single block without coming across graffiti denouncing the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia: "Stop spraying," "Yankees go home," "No military buildup."

This isn't Bogotá, the Colombian capital and neurological center of Plan Colombia, but Quito, Ecuador, where people are growing increasingly incensed over the plan and its effects on this country of 12.4 million people.

"Quito is closer to the area of conflict than Bogotá. We're the ones feeling the environmental and military pressure of Plan Colombia," said retired Gen. René Vargas Pazzos, who is part of a broad civil society coalition monitoring Plan Colombia's impact on Ecuador.

Ecuadorans are not alone in their concern. The original U.S. funding for Plan Colombia included anti-drug aid for neighboring countries, and the regional approach has been broadened through the U.S. government's Andean Regional Initiative. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has requested US$731 million for 2003, including military and police aid for Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama, as well as economic assistance and aid for social programs in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Colombia's neighbors worry about the spillover of the armed conflict, the effects of chemical spraying to eradicate illicit drug crops, waves of Colombian refugees escaping violence and environmental problems, and the possibility of increased U.S. military action in the Andes and Amazon.

Long stretches of Colombia's borders run through dense, sparsely populated jungle that is nearly impossible to patrol thoroughly. In areas where towns exist, family and commercial ties lead to a cross-border flow of people and goods. This combination of factors makes it easy for members of armed groups to slip across the border to rest or restock supplies.

The $7.5-billion Plan Colombia was initially designed by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana after he took office in 1998. While Colombia aimed to provide the bulk of the money, the United States, multilateral financial institutions and other foreign countries have also pledged to foot a substantial part of the bill.

The U.S. allotment for 2000-2001 totaled $1.3 billion, including $520 million for purchasing new helicopters and $453 million for aerial spraying of herbicide on drug crops. Multilateral organizations, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank, contributed approximately $900 million in loans, and European Union countries and Japan pledged nearly $600 million.

The thrust of the plan is to destroy drug-producing crops, including coca, from which cocaine is made; poppies, the raw material for producing heroin; and marijuana. Colombia is the world's largest producer of coca and cocaine. In recent years, it has become the fourth-largest producer of heroin. By ridding the country of drug crops, Pastrana's administration argues, the plan would eliminate a main source of the funds that fuel the country's four-decade-old civil conflict. Aerial spraying of drug crops began in late 2000.

But María Teresa Ronderos, editor of the Colombian weekly Semana, said, "Plan Colombia has both a theoretical and a practical foundation, but the two do not necessarily go together."

In theory, Plan Colombia was designed to fight drugs, but this has become increasingly overshadowed in practice by the war against the country's subversive groups, which has received increased attention since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Colombia has been engaged in an internal conflict since 1964, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) declared war on the state. Since then, a number of other insurgencies, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), which also got its start in the 1960s, have risen up against the government. The FARC are believed to have about 16,000 armed combatants, while the ELN's numbers have fallen to about 5,000.

A number of Colombian administrations have initiated peace talks with the FARC and other groups, many of which have disarmed, but Pastrana has gone furthest in efforts at negotiation. In November 1998, the government granted the FARC a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland in the southern part of the country, which is also a major coca- and cocaine-producing area.

The demilitarized zone and negotiations with the FARC were part of the deal that helped former U.S. President Bill Clinton (1997-2001) win U.S. congressional approval for Plan Colombia. Washington later came to see the demilitarized zone as more a curse than a blessing, according to the Colombian weekly Cambio.

"If in 2000 the [demilitarized zone] seemed to be proof of a peace process, today Wash-ington sees it as a terrorist enclave that is only four hours by plane from Miami," according to an article in the magazine's Nov. 12, 2001, issue.

Further complicating the situation is the FARC's increasing -- and increasingly open -- involvement in the drug trade. Analysts say that the drug money has helped the guerrillas build a better army, acquire more sophisticated weapons and wage a more professional public relations campaign.

In a visit to Washington in mid-November 2001, Pastrana heard a shift in the views of Republican congressional leaders.

"We are committed to helping the Colombian government eradicate the terrorist plague," Rep. Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois and speaker of the lower house of Congress, said.

Rep. Marc Souder, a Republican from Indiana, put the shift more clearly, saying, "The line that may have existed between insurgency, drug trafficking and terrorism has disappeared completely."

Washington's new view of the Colombian conflict is directly related to the war on terrorism that Bush declared after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Colombia's major armed groups -- the FARC, ELN and United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary umbrella organization -- are three of the four Latin American groups that the U.S. government has classified as foreign terrorist organizations.

The Shining Path, the Maoist group that waged war on the Peruvian government in the 1980s and early 1990s, is the fourth.

The possibility that Plan Colombia may slide rapidly into a Vietnam-like war against the FARC is raising fears in the five countries border.

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