While Americans are pre-occupied with the Middle East, the U.S. government is furtively stoking a war in South America that has seethed for decades.
Since the advent of "Plan Colombia" in 1999, Colombia has been the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, following Israel and Egypt. That aid was originally intended to put a dent in the drug trade that bankrolls many violent groups in Colombia, including the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, and the right-wing paramilitaries calling themselves the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), who are allied with elements of the Colombian armed forces.
Washington regards all three groups, which count some 35,000 members, as terrorist organizations that threaten Colombian democracy, Andean security, and the prospects for free trade in the Americas.
Since the beginning of "Plan Colombia" the United States has spent more than $2.5 billion on its military and political campaign there and is expected to spend almost $700 million in the coming year.
But since last year, U.S. military assistance has expanded beyond fighting drugs to include defending the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline used by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. U.S. Special Forces are currently training Colombian soldiers in counter-insurgency tactics in order to protect the pipeline from guerrilla bombings.
By attempting to protect an oil pipeline and other sites of strategic infrastructure, the United States risks being dragged into a conflict that is more complex and deep-rooted than most policy-makers in the United States and even Colombia fully realize. What started as an open-ended but drug-centered Plan Colombia under President Bill Clinton has been transformed by the Bush administration into an ever-more-sprawling mission that lacks clearly defined goals, a definition of success, or an exit strategy. The choices made now regarding escalating assistance will limit the options available to policy-makers in both countries in the future.
Oil, like cocaine and heroin, provides revenues that enhance the armed actors' ability to participate in the war; the war in turn, provides them with opportunities for profit that they could not have under peaceful conditions. Guerrillas frequently extort money from oil companies in the eastern plains, while in the Middle Magdalena region, paramilitaries steal gasoline and sell it on the black market. For years, the Colombian armed forces have dedicated much of their limited resources to guarding pipelines and oil installations at the expense of establishing territorial control and protecting citizens from attacks by illegal armed groups.
Arauca province, nestled next to Venezuela in northeastern Colombia, is the center of Occidental's installations and increasingly the focus of U.S. and Colombian military operations. Intended to be a security priority and a showcase for how pacification can work under the new hard-nosed government of President Alvaro Uribe, the results in Arauca have been disturbing. The province has become a magnet for an explosive mix of characters, all jockeying to control the area's considerable material resources. The murder rate there is soaring, with about 160 killings per 100,000 people this year, twice the rate of the late 1990s. In the United States, the average is less than six per 100,000.
There are other telling examples of what U.S. engagement may look like in the future. In December 1998, a Colombian air force helicopter crew dropped a cluster bomb that killed 17 civilians (including six children) and seriously wounded 25 others (including fifteen children) in the town of Santo Domingo, approximately 30 miles south of Occidental's Cano Limon field installations. The bombing occurred with the participation of AirScan, a Florida-based aerial surveillance contractor that had recently worked for Occidental. Three U.S. citizens who worked for AirScan have been linked to the incident, one of them a then-active-duty member of the U.S. Coast Guard. No charges have been filed against them.
Although the AirScan pilots were employees of a foreign-based private-security company originally hired by a foreign oil company, they frequently provided assistance to the Colombian armed forces: in this case, for a counter-guerrilla operation that led to the death of innocent civilians. Because of their nebulous military status, the conduct of these and other contractors is unclear and their accountability to the U.S. public, and even the Colombian government, is limited.
This is particularly troubling when events go awry. At least 11 U.S. contractors have died in Colombia during the past five years (five already this year), and three others are being held captive by the FARC. Precious little information about them, and their activities, however, has been made public.