- As Washington prepares to release the first of $1.3 billion
in aid to Colombia, the countryís leftist guerrillas are preparing
for a wider war. In the last 18 months, they have stockpiled huge amounts
of weapons with the assistance of a global arms network, particularly from
Russian organized crime. The major guerrilla armies are set to take the
battlefield with some 45,000 weapons in their arsenals.
- As the United States ratchets up its role in helping
Colombia fight drug traffickers and insurgents, the fingerprints of Russian
organized criminals appear more frequently.
- For nearly a decade, the Russian mafia, or mafiya, has
been trading weapons and cash to Colombian drug cartels in exchange for
cocaine and heroin. In recent months, however, several discoveries suggest
Colombian narcotics-for-weapons trade deeply involves Russian criminals,
motivated by profit.
- Indicators also suggest Russian gangs in Colombia are
getting some help from officials in the Russian government. These gangs
operate with tremendous freedom and resources and use Russian airspace,
facilities and large transport aircraft with impunity.
- In the last several months, a clear route of trafficking
has emerged, encircling half the globe, from Russia to Jordan and Israel,
and culminating in parachute drops and jungle airstrips in Colombia. In
exchange, these aircraft leave with cocaine bound for Russia and eventually
- In May, Colombian intelligence agents captured two Israelis
in Cali, Colombia, who were arranging delivery of 50,000 assault rifles
to Colombiaís largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia (FARC), which has about 17,000 fighters.
- In June, a combined operation by the governments of the
United States, Israel and Colombia smashed an arms-smuggling ring that
investigators said had ties to criminals in Russia and Israel. Investigators
also said the $100-million ring planned to sell to FARC 50,000 AK-47 automatic
weapons, made in the former East Germany. The ring was to ship the guns
from Austria to Ecuador and smuggle them into Colombia by sea.
- In August, a month before he provoked a crisis with his
main intelligence service, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori announced
the capture of a gang of international smugglers. These smugglers allegedly
purchased 10,000 AK-47s from the Jordanian government by posing as Peruvian
- The gang apparently flew the weapons from the Jordanian
capital of Amman to the Canary Islands and Guyana, airdropping them to
FARC in southern Colombia. Fujimori said the gang planned to ship another
40,000 AK-47s to FARC. The Jordanian government insists the deal was a
legitimate government-to-government transaction, despite Fujimoriís
claim. The U.S. government doubts both explanations.
- The Russian connection to the guerrillas began to grow
two years ago, when Colombian President Andres Pastrana gave FARC a demilitarized
zone in southern Colombia. Ever since, Russian cargo planes have delivered
small arms and ammunition to guerrillas there.
- Aircraft fly from airstrips in Russia and Ukraine, stop
in Amman, Jordan, to refuel and then deliver cargo to FARC at remote landing
strips, sometimes dropping the loads by parachute. FARCís 16th Front,
which operates in southeastern Colombia, coordinates deliveries of the
arms. On the return flight, FARC loads the planes with cocaine.
- Russian organized crime has long operated in Colombia,
alongside the drug cartels. In the 1990s, criminals tried to sell surface-to-air
missiles, helicopters and even a Russian Navy submarine. In many cases,
authorities broke up these sales and imprisoned gang members; some now
sit in U.S. prisons.
- On Sept. 7, Colombian anti-drug authorities seized a
100-foot submarine under construction in a warehouse near Bogota along
with assembly manuals printed in Russian and Spanish. The submarine was
designed to carry 200 tons of cocaine over long distances. According to
the Colombian news magazine Semana, Stalisnar A. Osipov, an intelligence
officer with the Russian embassy in Bogota, said the submarine could not
have been built without Russian technology.
- But as the large Colombian drug cartels broke up ñ
into as many as 200 smaller organizations ñ the FARC increasingly
took control of the lionís share of the drug trade. And the Russians
appear to be doing more business with the dominant force in the narcotics
- Supported by so much help from abroad, the guerrillas
will be able to turn a heavy arsenal on freshly trained battalions of government
troops eradicating drugs in southern Colombia. The FARC and the National
Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller Marxist guerrilla group, have about 22,000
fighters and more than 45,000 weapons, according to the Colombian Army.
These include heavy machine guns, mortar tubes and rocket-propelled grenades.
Each month, 1 ton of weapons and explosives enter the country via sea from
ports in nearby Ecuador.
- This arms-for-drugs trade could benefit some in the Russian
government who wouldnít mind a major insurgency in Americaís
backyard. Arming FARC is profitable and makes good business sense for Russian
criminals who want to protect their trafficking interests. Many Russian
criminals are ex-KGB agents who still have close ties with Russiaís
- The situation that unfolds in southern Colombia in the
coming months will not yield a quick and clear-cut victory for the government
forces Washington supports. Of three U.S.-trained battalions -- some 3,000
men -- only two battalions will begin to operate in the south, probably
early next year.
- While they will enjoy tremendous intelligence support,
government forces will not yet have all 60 helicopters Washington has promised.
And government troops will probably begin operations with only rough parity
with the guerrillas massing in the south, particularly in the Putumayo
department. A variety of theories suggest government forces need overwhelming
numerical advantages to defeat the guerrillas.
- Meanwhile, the United States continues to ratchet up
its involvement in Colombia. On Aug. 29, the Colombian government inaugurated
a new high-tech command-and-control center in Bogota built with cutting-edge
U.S. technology. Although Colombians officially will run the new center,
a senior U.S. military officer in Bogota will lead U.S. troops providing
intelligence and logistical support in Colombia.
- President Clinton has made assurances that the United
States will not get into a shooting war in Colombia. But the gap between
rhetoric and the likely course of action is growing.
- Next: How deeply will Washington become involved in Colombiaís
drug war? Will Americans become targets of the guerrillas?
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