$1.3 Billion In US Military
Aid To Begin Flowing Into
Columbia's Civil War
From <>
Next month, the U.S. government releases the first in $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia's besieged government. Officially, the aid is intended to eradicate drugs. But the aid will probably have impacts far beyond Colombia's coca fields, as is detailed in this first installment of a three-part series, The Price of War.
The Price of War Part I. Beyond Colombia
Marxist guerillas battling to control Colombia threaten to escalate the country's civil war when more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid begins to flow into the country in October. After 36 years, Colombia's civil war is at a turning point, its impacts about to flood across its borders into neighboring nations. Washington is inadvertently gambling with its interests in Colombia and much of the rest of the region.
Plan Colombia is a U.S. $7.5 billion strategy to eradicate the cocaine trade in Colombia -- the world's largest producer of the drug. The aid package involves military force to combat drug traffickers and programs to encourage crop-substitution that will wean peasant farmers from growing coca and poppies.
Over the next several years, the United States will spend $1.3 billion to train and equip three anti-narcotic battalions, made up of 3,000 Colombian soldiers, who will fly into combat aboard 60 helicopters. With this added reach, Colombian forces will destroy coca plantations, laboratories and distribution networks in joint operations with the Colombian National Police. The United States also will provide logistics, intelligence and unified command-and- control support to Colombian forces deployed on anti-drug missions.
These missions will put Colombian troops face-to-face with Marxist guerillas, known as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who control a substantial part of the drug trade and who have battled for control of Colombia for more than 30 years. To what degree will Plan Colombia escalate the war and trigger a flood of refugees? How will the plan impact the security and stability of the entire Andean region of South America?
In fact, the U.S. cure for what White House Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey calls a cancer, not a war, will fail. The drug trade and FARC will suffer losses, but both will survive as they have for decades. Loss of life and civilian displacement, however, will increase significantly. Many refugees and some fighting will spill over borders into Ecuador and Peru. U.S. relations with Colombia's neighbors will suffer, and Americans will be targets, as a result.
The first phase of Plan Colombia's drug eradication strategy will focus on southern Colombia, particularly the departments of Putumayo, Caqueta and Guaviare. In the south, German Briceno, also known as Mono Jojoy, commands 11 FARC fronts, of some 2,000 fighters. Briceno is the top warlord in the entire organization and its best battlefield commander. Under him, the organization grows, processes and ships cocaine all along the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers that form part of the borders with Ecuador and Peru.
Within this complex of jungles and rivers, FARC trades cocaine for weapons with Brazilian and Russian organized crime elements. A key target of government forces is FARC's 14th front, which controls coca labs in the Peruvian jungle between the Napo and Putumayo rivers. These rivers flow directly into Brazil, allowing FARC to ship cocaine down the Amazon River to ports on the Atlantic Ocean and on to the United States and Europe.
Early next year, when a second battalion completes its training, government troops will begin to destroy crops, particularly in Putumayo, and Colombia's neighbors will quickly feel the effects.
Ecuador is at greatest risk of fighting and refugees spilling across the border. The United Nations has warned Ecuador to expect an influx of between 25,000 and 30,000 refugees, but Ecuadorian officials believe the total could exceed 40,000. Thousands more will flee into nearby Peru to escape the fighting and aerial defoliation of their coca crops.
The border is too porous to control and FARC sympathizers fill the area. The FARC has used the province of Sucumbios in Ecuador as a base for rest and re-supply for more than three decades and says it plans to continue doing so when the fighting begins in Putumayo. The Ecuadorian daily, El Universo, reports that FARC leaders have warned the government in Quito to maintain strict neutrality when FARC units cross the border.
Already, FARC threatens to attack targets in Ecuador. FARC has criticized Ecuador's government for letting the United States operate anti-drug flights out of the Pacific coastal town of Manta, one of the new forward operating locations set up by the Pentagon's Southern Command when Howard Air Base, Panama, closed. According to CRE Satelital radio, FARC leaders warn that if U.S. aircraft fly out of Manta to eradicate crops, the guerrillas will strike targets in Ecuador. Buffeted by political and economic crises, the country is significantly less stable than other nations in the region.
Anticipating trouble, Ecuador stationed more than 5,000 soldiers along the Colombian border, in the Napos and Sucumbio provinces. The troops comprise three battalions, a special forces unit, a jungle regiment and a helicopter regiment. Ecuador's government will spend $150 million to $200 million over the next three years to build a security buffer zone on its border. The United States reportedly put up $30 million and is supporting the border build-up from Manta and the Coca Jungle School training facility. Ecuador also has appealed for international help to set up camps for the anticipated influx of Colombian refugees.
Other governments in the region are bracing themselves. Peru will also see refugees spill over from Colombia. Raul Reyes, FARC's chief negotiator with the Pastrana government, says FARC has no military or other interests in Peru. FARC also wants to avoid provoking Brazil, the region's loudest critic of Plan Colombia. Guerrilla leaders have repeatedly assured the Cardoso government that FARC forces will stay out of Brazilian territory.
But Brazil will face problems because of its river routes for cocaine. Units of the Brazilian Army's Solimoes Frontier Command's 8th Jungle Infantry Battalion are in Tabatinga, directly across the Amazon River from its sister-city of Leticia at the southern tip of Colombia. Both cities have about 57,000 inhabitants.
Tabatinga and Leticia lie along a major route for shipping drugs to Brazilian organized crime elements and for smuggling in precursor chemicals, weapons and explosives. Drug trafficking and arms smuggling are the dominant economic activities and FARC units in the area frequently rest and re-supply in Leticia. While FARC will try to avoid provoking the Brazilian government, guerrilla operations in the area will complicate relations.
The Brazilian government fears the U.S. aid plan will ultimately force the drug trade increasingly into the Brazilian Amazon. The government openly worries that river-borne toxic chemical runoff from aerial defoliation in Colombia will enter river systems, poisoning the regions waters, while thousands of Colombian refugees push into the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The state is only about the size of Pennsylvania, with 130,000 inhabitants.
In Colombia, the guerrillas are bracing for a dramatically widened conflict. FARC has been preparing for all-out war since President Andres Pastrana conceded to FARC a demilitarized zone in southern Colombia, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. FARC has consolidated control over the cocaine trade in southern Colombia and its ranks now include more than 17,000 full-time fighters who range freely across more than half the country, supported by an estimated 36,000 civilian militia members.
FARC also has stockpiled a huge arsenal of weapons and explosives, some from Central America and Brazil, but many more from Russian organized crime syndicates. FARC negotiator Reyes says the organization's political goal has always been to achieve power, either peacefully or by force. But with peace talks stalled in Bogota, the fighting will only escalate.
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