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A billion in military aid ignores reality of Colombia

Will another billion and a half dollars thrown at Colombia’s armed forces achieve the double objective of crushing the guerrillas who now control almost half that nation’s territory and of eliminating the principal source of the heroin today entering the United States?

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, head of the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy, and Colombia’s Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez think so. They claim that the army with more U.S. aid could wipe out simultaneously the guerrillas and the drug lords. The U.S. administration is leaning in the same direction.

This view ignores the reality of Colombia. A military victory would have no impact on drug production and export. Nor would it create a more just and democratic society. The United States has already given over a billion dollars to Colombia in military aid over the past decade. Yet violence in that country continues to claim some 35,000 lives annually. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that the military and paramilitary groups sponsored by the military are as responsible for the killings as are the guerrillas.

Many government officials and armed forces officials, even at high levels, have close links to paramilitary groups that are widely involved in drug trafficking and maintain themselves by taxing the drug lords.

Washington recognized this reality when in 1996 and 1997 it ruled that Colombia was to be denied U.S. aid on the ground that drug money was being used to influence elections. Even in the unlikely event of a total defeat of the guerrillas by the military, the drug culture would continue to flourish.

Social conflict has been at explosive levels in Colombia for at least half a century, ever since the bogotazo, the outbreak of violence that destroyed much of the city of Bogotá following the assassination of a popular leader, Jorge Gaitán, in 1948. The causes of the social tension have been thoroughly studied and documented. The natural resources of the country are concentrated in the hands of a small ruling class that rejects all proposals to share power and decision-making. The present situation is the logical outcome of a population growth in this century from 4 million to nearly 40 million, with no corresponding growth of opportunity.

Although the economy of Colombia has been relatively good as compared with many of its neighbors, the benefits have been concentrated excessively among the already wealthy. In consequence, the insatiable demand for cocaine and heroin in the United States has proved a blessing to starving peasants with no other source of income, just as it has been welcomed by starving peasants in Peru and elsewhere.

As long as that demand continues, so will the supply, at least until an alternative source of survival is offered to those hungry peasants.

The only logical action for the United States in these circumstances is to use its influence and its money to promote the social change in Colombia that is desperately needed and that can initiate the process of providing peasants with an economic base other than drugs. President Andrés Pastraña of Colombia has shown that he is prepared to negotiate with the guerrillas. We should give all possible support to this peace effort. We have the experience of El Salvador and Guatemala, in both of which the United Nations played a decisive role as moderator.

As the negotiations in these countries showed, the issue is not simply the ending of hostilities. There has to be a radical restructuring of the political institutions to ensure that all classes and groups in society have an equitable part in political and economic life. It is only after these new structures are in place that the issue of direct concern to the United States, the cocaine and heroin production, can be addressed.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999