[Fwd: LAT: Concerns Grow About U.S. Military Aid to Colombia]
rsp at SPAMuniserve.com
Fri Aug 20 02:01:59 MDT 1999
[NOTE: In what I think is a first, this article quotes a
Pentagon spokesman admitting --on the record-- that
American personnel are, in fact, fighting "in the
field!" These are not "DEA agents", however. They are
"special operations." -DG]
"We do have Americans in the field, probably out
fighting, but those guys are not with the Department
of Defense," he said. "They are DEA" agents, he said,
and refused to comment further.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Tuesday, August 17, 1999
Concerns Grow About U.S. Military Aid to Colombia
By Juanita Darling, Ruth Morris
BOGOTA -- Back in 1982, when U.S. leaders feared communism more than
cocaine, then-Vice President George Bush attended the inauguration here
of President Belisario Betancur and offered to build him a U.S. military
base to keep an eye on his country's leftist insurgents, according to a
Colombian official of that era.
Wary of such a high-profile U.S. presence, Betancur demurred, but he did
agree to let the Americans install radar stations for surveillance. By
1990, relations were cordial enough that a group of U.S. military
advisors reviewed Colombia's military intelligence organizations and
Hundreds more soldiers, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and CIA and Drug
Enforcement Administration agents have since followed them to Colombia.
Today, Americans assist in operating five radar stations to monitor
Colombia, fly drug-eradicating crop dusters and are helping redesign the
Colombian army into a more effective drug-fighting force. They even pilot
spy planes like the one that crashed into a Colombian mountain last
month, killing all seven crew members, including five U.S. Army aviators.
The crash of that plane has raised questions about what exactly 200 or
more Department of Defense employees --both civilian and military-- are
doing in Colombia. And that's not counting the unknown number of CIA and
Are they here to combat drugs, or are they harbingers of another U.S.
venture into an intractable war with Marxist guerrillas? And what happens
to the information gleaned by U.S. spies?
The standard answer from U.S. military officials is that most of these
Americans are involved in training missions and that none are involved in
combating the Marxist guerrillas who have been fighting the Colombian
government for more than three decades. The number is unusually high now
--283 on Aug. 10-- because of investigations into last month's crash of
the De Havilland RC-7, said Lt. Col. Bill Darley, a Pentagon spokesman.
On top of that, 1,000 U.S. Marines arrived Thursday for a previously
scheduled training exercise on the Pacific Coast.
"We do have Americans in the field, probably out fighting, but those guys
are not with the Department of Defense," he said. "They are DEA" agents,
he said, and refused to comment further.
"Two hundred people scattered over a country . . . is not that much,"
Darley said. He contrasted that number with the 5,000 U.S. soldiers sent
to Central America to help with disaster relief after Hurricane Mitch
struck in October.
In a press briefing in Washington on his return Monday from a trip to
Colombia, Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering dismissed the
possibility that more U.S. troops will be deployed to this country.
"That is not our policy," he said. "It is a crazy idea."
In fact, he added, until Colombia makes significant new progress in
fighting the drug threat, the United States is unlikely to increase its
Analysts Recall Denials Regarding El Salvador
But those answers do not satisfy many political and human rights
analysts, who recall that until 1996, the Pentagon also denied that the
U.S. military advisors in El Salvador --officially never more than 55 at
a time-- were involved in combat against the country's leftist guerrillas
during the 1980s.
Such concerns have been heightened as U.S. officials point to the strong
ties between rebels and drug traffickers to justify the growth in U.S.
anti-narcotics assistance to Colombia.
Colombia's insurgents get an estimated $600 million a year in "taxes" on
opium poppies and coca --the raw material for cocaine-- grown in
territory under their control. Colombia supplies about three-fourths of
the cocaine and a growing share of the heroin consumed in the United States.
To curb that supply, the United States has budgeted $289 million in
anti-narcotics aid for Colombia this year, with the restriction that the
money is not to be used to fight Colombian rebels. U.S. officials insist
that careful logs are kept to enforce that rule, but the logs are not
About 90% of U.S. aid is given to the Colombian national police, because
the army's poor human rights record makes most of its units ineligible
Increased U.S. involvement in Colombia, said Teofilo Vasquez, a
researcher at the Center for Research and Popular Education, a group here
in the Colombian capital that studies human rights issues, "is simply
adding another factor to the violence so that the war in this country
will never be resolved."
Concerns about the U.S. military presence in Colombia center on both the
kind of training the United States is providing and the military
intelligence the U.S. advisors reviewed nine years ago. Spy missions put
Americans near territory controlled by rebels, and they also put the
United States in danger of inadvertently supporting some of the least
savory elements in Colombia's brutal civil war.
Still, Colombian military leaders insist that they need U.S. help with
"The population is involved with the guerrillas, so we cannot get
intelligence from them," said Gen. Fernando Tapias, commander of the
Colombian armed forces. In contrast, the rebels seem to have quite a
reliable network to tell them when the army and police plan to attack a
cocaine laboratory, he said. Often, the laboratories have been moved or
no one is there.
U.S. intelligence technology, such as the De Havilland RC-7 or the radar
stations, thus becomes crucial. In addition, U.S. tactical analysis teams
take the raw data the radar and planes gather, Darley said, "and combine
them into something useful in terms of establishing a pattern."
U.S. personnel are pulled out of the bases any time the situation looks
dangerous, U.S. and Colombian sources said. In fact, a radar station at
Araracuara in Putumayo province was dismantled in 1996 after the nearby
Las Delicias base was overrun by rebels.
Darley wouldn't specify how many U.S. soldiers are assigned to the radar
"Remember, there is an armed foe out there," he said.
Stations Said to Have Minimal U.S. Staff
Normally, one or two civilian maintenance employees of the U.S.
contractor for the radar are at each base, and no U.S. military personnel
are permanently assigned to any radar station, a U.S source in Colombia said.
The radar is supposed to detect planes carrying drugs, but low-flying
planes can dodge the radar. That explains the need for surveillance
planes like the one that crashed last month, a Colombian source said.
What worries many observers is that the planes may be learning about more
than drug crops and narcotics flights. They could be finding out about
the movements of the rebels who guard the drug fields.
Those concerns have increased since the State Department announced last
month that the U.S. is sharing more information with the Colombian military.
"Intelligence-sharing for counter-narcotics purposes covers threats to
counter-narcotics forces," a U.S. official said. "Before, we [only]
shared information for mission-planning" --for example, to locate a
cocaine laboratory that Colombian police and soldiers would then destroy.
The concern of many analysts is that the information provided to the
Colombian military under that broader definition might be leaked to
right-wing private armies. Estimated to have a troop strength of about
5,000, these groups fight the rebels mainly by attacking civilians
believed to support the insurgency.
"Members of the armed forces are involved in promoting the actions of the
paramilitaries," researcher Vasquez said. Indeed, several high-ranking
officers have been relieved of their commands pending investigations into
allegations that they had ties to armed right-wing groups.
It has happened before. Winifred Tate, a researcher at the Washington
Office on Latin America think tank, learned last year that the 1990 U.S.
intelligence review had an unexpected outcome.
"Clandestine intelligence networks were established that in at least one
case functioned as death squads," Tate stated. That squad killed 50
civilians, she said.
Vasquez warned: "I think the United States has a legitimate right to
worry whether the money [to strengthen Colombian anti-narcotics efforts]
is being used to combat the insurgency --or, worse still, to murder
unarmed civilians through paramilitaries."
U.S. training programs for the Colombian armed forces also have caused
Recently declassified documents show that Special Operations forces,
commonly known as Green Berets, conducted training in Colombia last year
involving infantry, naval special warfare, helicopters and planes for
counter-narcotics purposes. The 10 Special Forces training activities
listed for the 1998 fiscal year had a combined budget of $1.6 million, in
a year when the U.S. gave Colombia $109 million in anti-narcotics aid.
"It says counter-narcotics, but it is combat training," said Lisa
Haugarrd, a researcher at the Latin American Working Group, a Washington
Darley, the Pentagon spokesman, agreed--to a point.
"Counter-drug activity is combat," he said. "Admittedly, there is an
overlap between counter-insurgency training and counter-narcotics
training." But there are also important differences, he noted.
"In counter-insurgency training, advisors are in the field," he said. "In
El Salvador, our 55 guys were out in the field." In Colombia, he said,
"our trainers never leave the compound."
Further, anti-narcotics training includes a strong component of police
skills, he said: recognizing illegal drugs and making arrests, as well as
seizing, guarding and turning over evidence.
Right now, 45 U.S. trainers are instructing a new, 1,000-member
anti-narcotics brigade, Darley said.
"When it comes to stuff funded through the Department of Defense, there
is very little in the way of reporting requirements," said Joy Olsen,
also of the Latin American Working Group. For example, the U.S. military
never reports on anti-terrorist training, she said.
Anti-terrorist training in <strong>Colombia</strong> is confined to local
police who help guard the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Darley said.
The perception that U.S anti-narcotics aid and a U.S. military presence
are growing is dangerous, said researcher Vasquez. Even though recent
polls indicate that war-weary Colombians would actually welcome direct
U.S. intervention, the situation is not that simple.
"It would be a great justification for [the continued existence of] a
guerrilla [force] that, despite its military strength, has not been able
to develop political legitimacy," he said.
Darling is a Times staff writer, and Morris is a special
correspondent. Times staff writer Esther Schrader in
Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times
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