Military Aid to Colombia: The Human Rights Implications," by CIP
Senior Associate Adam Isacson, LASA Forum, Fall 2000
Military Aid to Colombia: The Human Rights Implications
by Adam Isacson
Center for International Policy, Washington DC
[This is one of a
series of articles commissioned by the LASA Task Force on Human Rights
and Academic Freedom]
On July 13, 2000,
President Clinton signed into law a bill approving what is by far the
largest single infusion of U.S. military aid that Latin America has ever
seen. The so-called "Plan Colombia" aid package, proposed by
the Clinton Administration in January and passed by Congress in June,
will provide about $2 million per day to Colombias military and
police between July 2000 and the end of 2001. At the height of the Reagan
Administrations 1980s crusade in Central America, by contrast, aid
to El Salvador never exceeded $1 million per day.
its democratically elected government are facing an urgent crisis that
has narcotics, military and economic dimensions," warned the White
Houses original January 2000 proposal.1 The response to this crisis,
though, is a $1.32 billion package that fails to address any of these
three dimensions. The package includes funding for Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia
and increases for U.S. agencies counternarcotics programs, but Colombia
will receive the lions share: $860.3 million for the remainder of
2000 and all of 2001.
The aid is meant
to contribute to "Plan Colombia," the Colombian governments
program for "peace, prosperity and the strengthening of the state."
The U.S. package, however, bears little resemblance to the "Plan
Colombia" that Colombian President Andrés Pastrana had originally
proposed. For several months after he entered office in August 1998, Pastrana
appealed frequently for collaboration between Bogotá and foreign
governments on a "Marshall Plan" of economic aid for Colombias
neglected countryside. Pastranas initial planin which military
aid did not appeargot no commitments of foreign financial support,
and the term "Plan Colombia" was seldom heard by mid-1999.
By August 1999, U.S.
officialsdismayed by a faltering peace process and increased drug
productionwere discussing a significant increase in aid to Colombias
military. That month, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering visited
Colombia, explaining that while the United States wished to give about
a billion dollars in aid, this aid must respond to a larger strategy presented
by the Colombian government. "Plan Colombia" was reborn, this
time as a thirty-page document that was available in English by October,
and in Spanish several months later. The new "Plan Colombia,"
vigorously promoted by a Pastrana administration suffering from low approval
ratings and difficult relations with the military, would spend $7.5 billion
$3 billion from foreign contributions on a variety of economic
initiatives, and with a significant military component.
Alternative Development, and the "Push"
The U.S. contribution
to this plan is heavily weighted toward military assistance. Seventy-five
percent of the assistance ($642.3 million) will go to Colombias
security forces. Much of this military aid will support an operation that
the administrations proposals call "the push into southern
Colombia." The "push" will create, equip and train new
army battalions to serve in two guerrilla-dominated departments near the
Ecuadorian border. Taking into account an estimated $330 million in ongoing,
previously approved assistance, which consists almost entirely of military
and police aid, Colombia will get a total of about $1.19 billion, roughly
80 percent of it for the security forces.
The rest of the new
assistanceabout $218 millionwill fund alternative development
for producers of drug crops, humanitarian aid for displaced persons, judicial
reform, rule of law programs and training for peace negotiators. Though
the share for these programs is disappointingly low, it represents an
astronomical increase over the tiny amounts the United States had previously
dedicated to these priorities in Colombia. In 1999, for instance, support
for alternative development and other non-coercive programs in Colombia
totaled $7 million, while police and military aid reached almost $300
The $51 million dedicated
to strengthening human rights will fund protection and capacity-building
for state and nongovernmental human rights workers and investigators,
among other initiatives. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering has
said the U.S. government will rely on Colombian NGOs for advice on how
this money will be spent. In signed statements, however, the countrys
chief nongovernmental organizations have made clear their opposition to
the U.S. aid package and their refusal to accept any offer of U.S. assistance.2
Many of these groups
share the concerns of their counterparts in U.S. nongovernmental
organizations about the new aid, particularly the planned "push".
The operation will send less than 3,000 troops in newly trained battalions
equipped with expensive Blackhawk helicopters, to "secure" the
departments of Putumayo and Caquetá, a jungle-covered area the
size of Pennsylvania that has been a fiercely defended guerrilla stronghold
for decades. The move, designed to allow aerial fumigation and other anti-drug
activities to occur more safely in this "epicenter of coca production,"
will encounter stiff resistance.
Anti-Drug or Anti-Peace?
Critics in both countries
also question whether the "Plan Colombia" aid package makes
sense as an anti-drug strategy. Even if, by some miracle, the Colombian
Army counternarcotics battalions manage to eradicate every coca plant
in Caquetá and Putumayo, there is no assurance that coca cultivation
will not simply relocate elsewhere in Colombias California-sized
Amazon basin plains, or across the border into Ecuador, Peru, Brazil or
Venezuela. Pushed by a lack of viable economic choices, state neglect
and the lack of rule of law, and pulled by a ravenous demand for drugs
in the United States, poor rural Colombians will continue to view coca
cultivation as an indispensable survival strategy.
The aid packages
potential impact on Colombias fragile peace process also worries
many. Since shortly after he assumed office in August 1998, Colombian
President Andrés Pastrana has been engaged in an erratic and often
frustrating process of talks with Colombias two main leftist guerrilla
groups, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National
Liberation Army (ELN). Even before it begins delivery, however, the new
U.S. military assistance is already having a chilling effect, as communiqués
show that guerrilla groups are using the package to justify their latest
brutal attacks on Colombias civilian population. The U.S. equipment
and training are likely both to escalate the fighting and to strengthen
hardliners on both sides, especially among guerrilla leaders suspicious
of state motives and government and military leaders who will place less
stock in negotiations now that the United States is "coming to the
rescue." This will deal a serious setback to the peace talks if it
does not kill them entirely.
The Human Rights
and Violence Dimensions
While these concerns
are important, however, what has most motivated Colombian groups
opposition to the aid, and their refusal to accept offers of U.S. assistance,
is the issue most central to their mission: human rights. Colombia is
in the midst of the hemispheres worst and one of the worlds
worst human rights crises. About two thirds of the roughly 4,500 people
killed each year by Colombias conflict and related political violence
are civilian noncombatants.3 Armed groups specifically target civilians,
routinely using massacres, disappearances and forced displacement as tactics
for gaining territory or pressing their political agendas.
While the state security
forces were directly responsible for only two percent of these murders,
right-wing paramilitary groups funded by landowners and drug dealers
and frequently aided and abetted by the armed forcescarried out
about three-quarters of the total.4 Guerrilla groups, blamed for 23 percent
of killings, committed the vast majority of kidnappings and attacks on
civil infrastructure.5 The violence forced 288,000 people from their homes
in 1999; more than a million Colombians have been forcibly displaced since
1997, with paramilitaries responsible in the majority of cases.6 Colombias
crisis of internal refugees is the worlds third worst, after Angola
and the Sudan.
Sending 642 million-plus
dollars in military assistance runs a very real risk of worsening Colombias
already generalized violence. Long-term democratic stability may also
be threatened by an aid package that strengthens the militaryboth
in terms of resources and political supportfar more than civilian
in the "Field"
Perhaps even more
serious, though, are the possible consequences of a deepening relationship
with a military that suffers from serious human rights shortcomings. Though
Colombias armed forces deserve recognition for decreasing their
direct involvement in human rights abuses and for incorporating human
rights into their training curricula, a great deal remains to be done.
command says the right things about respect for noncombatants ("a
force multiplier of combat power," according to one Army publication7
), and no doubt believes what it says. Nonetheless, the situation can
be quite different in the field. The frequent collaboration between the
armed forces and the right-wing paramilitary groups which are responsible
for the majority of massacres, extrajudicial executions and forced displacements
in Colombia, is well documented. A February 2000 report by Human Rights
Watch found that nine of the Colombian Armys eighteen brigades have
links to paramilitary activity.8
Principals and Accomplices,
Crime and Impunity
collaboration takes several forms. Sharing of intelligence, transportation
and logistical support occurs with disturbing frequency. (Intelligence-sharing
is particularly worrisome, since intelligence support is a significant
element of the U.S. aid package.) Several military units have faced recent
accusations of failing to respond to pleas for help when paramilitary
atrocities occur, ignoring advance warnings of imminent massacres, or
vacating zones shortly before they occur. Human rights organizations have
also documented the practice of "legalization," in which military
units give the paramilitaries weapons in exchange for the corpses of civilian
victims, who are then dressed in guerrilla uniforms and presented as enemies
killed in battle. In Cali in mid-1999, Human Rights Watch noted, the Armys
Third Brigade even helped establish a new paramilitary group, the "Frente
Calima," which has since killed dozens and displaced thousands in
the surrounding countryside.9
military personnel who stand accused of human rights violationswhether
directly or through collaboration with paramilitariesare virtually
guaranteed impunity. No general, and only one colonel, has ever been successfully
prosecuted for a human rights crime, and the most egregious cases routinely
end up in the lenient military court system, in blatant violation of a
1997 decision of Colombias Constitutional Court. There have been
halting steps in the right direction in the past year and a half: four
generals were fired for encouraging or ignoring paramilitary activity,
and a military penal code was passed which requires that cases of genocide,
torture or forced disappearance go to the civilian judicial system (again,
merely duplicating the Constitutional Courts earlier decision).
Yet investigations and prosecutions of military personnel who aid or abet
paramilitary groups remain exceedingly rarenot least because of
a campaign of threat and assassination that has killed or exiled dozens
of human rights advocates, prosecutors and investigative journalists.
A Softening U.S.
The United States
support of human rights in Colombia has been generally goodthough
often timid and inconsistentbut the future is unclear. The aid packages
supporters claim that a closer military relationship will provide more
"leverage" over the armed forces performance. Yet past
experiences elsewhere give strong reason for concern that it will instead
lead to a much softer U.S. stance. As the Colombian military becomes central
to U.S. policy, Washingtons defense of the policy will necessarily
include a defense of its main partner and beneficiary, even against human
rights concerns. Already, U.S. officials are very quick to cite the Colombian
armed forces low share of direct human rights violations (leaving
out the paramilitary connection), play up the few erratic steps that have
been taken to end impunity, and even to trumpet the militarys approval
ratings in Colombian newspaper polls.
The aid package itself
exhibits a rather disturbing neglect of the paramilitary question. Though
much is made of the guerrilla threat to Colombian stability (which I do
not dispute), the word "paramilitary" appears infrequently in
U.S. government documents justifying and explaining the aid package. Even
the administrations long-range plans make only vague reference to
combating rapidly growing coca cultivation in paramilitary-controlled
zones of northern Colombia, such as the Urabá, Magdalena Medio
and Catatumbo regions, which some analysts estimate may now account for
as much as 40 percent of all Colombian coca cultivation.
Civilians and Noncombatants
Also disturbing is
the possible impact that the "push into southern Colombia" foreseen
in the aid package will have on the civilian noncombatant residents of
Putumayo department. The administrations original aid package proposal
expects that some 10,000 of Putumayos 300,000 residents will be
forcibly displaced by the "push." This number keeps getting
revised upward: in a May 2000 report, Sen. Joseph Bidenhimself a
key supporter of the aid packagepredicts 30,000 to 40,000 displaced,
and prominent humanitarian organizations like the Consultoría para
los Derechos Humanos y el Desarrollo (CODHES) are predicting at least
100,000.10 Ecuador, in the midst of the continents deepest economic
crisis, is preparing to deal with a mass influx of refugees from the U.S.-funded
Meanwhile, the "push"
may be carried out with the enthusiastic support of paramilitaries who
control the centers of Putumayos main towns. "Commander Yair,"
a paramilitary leader in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, told Reuters in
May 2000 that the paramilitaries "may even spearhead the U.S.-backed
offensive, flushing out rebel strongholds and then ceding the territory
to the Colombian army."11
The Alternative and
is serious, sufficiently so that abandoning Colombia is not a valid U.S.
policy option. But the human rights implications of the aid package are
also serious. They could be significantly mitigated by an alternative
policy, one which, abandoning the "push into southern Colombia"
and such a close embrace of the Colombian military, could achieve the
same goals, probably more quickly, without risking U.S. involvement in
counterinsurgency, harming the peace process, or worsening the human rights
One need not even
look far for this alternative, for the aid packages designers included
much of it in the 20 percent that supports alternative development, judicial
reform, human rights, institutional strengthening and peace. The programs
and support in these sections, which include crop substitution efforts,
assistance for displaced persons, training and protection for human rights
defenders, and judicial reform, do much to address the reasons poor Colombians
enter the drug trade and join armed groups in the first place. These initiatives
are worth pursuing and should have received greater emphasisperhaps
by diverting the funding now destined for the risky and questionable "push."
Finally, the aid
package legislation included a tool that, if used properly, could have
done much to minimize the new assistances impact on Colombias
human rights situation. The law states that the U.S. military aid cannot
go forward until the Secretary of State certifies that Colombian military
personnel accused of human rights crimes are being prosecuted only in
civilian courts and promptly suspended from duty, that the armed forces
are cooperating with civilian investigations of military personnel for
human rights crimes, and that the Colombian government is vigorously prosecuting
paramilitaries and military personnel who aid and abet them.
law also allows the President to waive the certification if he finds that
the "national security interest" demands it. Indeed, on August
22, 2000, President Clinton issued a statement waiving all but the first
condition included in the aid package, an embarrassing admission that
the United States third-largest aid recipient does not meet these
minimal human rights standards.
The Traditional Ways
Given the Clinton
certification, human rights advocates and monitors must rely on traditional
methodseducation, research, and organizingto minimize the
impact of the aid package on human rights. Concerned U.S. citizens must
be informed about this major shift in U.S. policy and its potential human
rights consequences. Education must be based on a body of solid, credible
research about human rights conditions in Colombiaespecially in
areas where U.S.-supported military units will operateand about
the nature, destination, and end use of all forms of U.S. military support.
Citizens must continue
to organize to pressure the U.S. and Colombian governments to fulfill
their human rights obligations. This pressure can be exerted directly
on officials, through the media, through concerned members of Congress,
and through international organizations with human rights mandates. Colombian
human rights organizations and government investigators, which do crucially
important work under conditions of extreme threat, deserve continued high-profile
and others uncomfortable with the current direction of U.S. policy must
be vigilant for the next escalation of U.S. military assistance. The current
aid package is extremely unlikely to reduce drug production or to end
the conflict in Colombia, which means that another, possibly larger aid
package may be on its way in either 2001 or 2002. As the United States
Commitment to Colombias security forces lengthens and deepens, the
human rights community will continue to have much to do.
1 The White House,
"Proposal for U.S. Assistance to Plan Colombia," Washington,
January 11, 2000 http:// www.ciponline.org/colombia/aid/aidprop2.htm
2 See, for instance,
Juan Pablo Toro, "Colombian Groups Reject U.S. Plan," Associated
Press, August 16, 2000.
Colombiana de Juristas, Panorama de los derechos humanos y del derecho
humanitario en Colombia, Bogotá, Colombia, February, 2000.
Colombiana de Juristas.
5 United States Department
of State, "Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1999: Colombia,"
Washington, February 25, 2000 http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1999_hrp_report/colombia.html.
para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), "CODHES Informa,"
number 28, Bogotá, Colombia, February 22, 2000 http://www.codhes.org.co/bolcodhes-28-eng.html.
7 Colombian National
Army, "Guerrillas and illegal self-defense groups guilty of genocide,"
Bogotá, Colombia, February 2000.
8 Human Rights Watch,
"The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links,"
New York, N.Y., February 2000. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/colombia/.
9 Human Rights Watch.
10 The White House,
"Proposal for U.S. Assistance to Plan Colombia," Washington,
D.C., February 3, 2000 http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/aid/aidprop4.htm.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden,
Jr., "Aid to Plan Colombia: The Time for U.S. Assistance
Is Now," report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate,
May 2000 http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/aid/050302.htm.
See, for instance,
"Desplazados, en el límite del delirio," El Tiempo, Bogotá,
Colombia, February 23, 2000 excerpted at http://www.hchr.org.co/2000/Prensa/Febrero/Febrer23.html.
11 Karl Penhaul,
"Judgment Day looms in Colombia," Reuters, May 22, 2000 http://www.colombiasupport.net/200005/reuters-judgmentday-0522.html.
As of February 21,
2001, this document was also available online at http://lasa.international.pitt.edu/MilitaryAidColombia.htm