2005: The year of non-military aid? No progress on impunity
Jan 042005

Administration officials have recently begun responding to U.S. papers’ editorials
criticizing U.S. policy in Colombia. While this posting hardly qualifies as
"rapid response" – the editorials in question were published back
in October – here are our rebuttals to the officials’ letters.

January 3, 2005

Editorial Board
The Chicago Tribune
435 North Michigan Ave.
Chicago IL 60611

Dear Sir or Madam:

I write to thank you for your editorial of October 12, 2004 (“Sliding into
Colombia’s morass,” reposted href="http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/colombia/doc/chicago.html" target="_blank">here)
regarding increasing U.S. military involvement in Colombia. “American policy
in Colombia is not working,” your editorial stated. “This nation needs to
rethink its involvement in Colombia’s civil war, rather than pouring more
money and personnel into a failing enterprise.” The Center for International
Policy completely supports this assertion, and shares your concerns about
where the United States is headed in Colombia.

I also wish to respond to some of the assertions in the letters to the editor
you received from Rafael Lemaitre, the deputy press secretary of the White
House’s drug czar’s office ( href="http://usinfo.state.gov/is/Archive/2004/Oct/28-90228.html" target="_blank">published
October 22), and from Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc
Grossman (published
October 27).

“Your analysis is inaccurate on several counts,” Mr. Grossman’s letter reads.
Yet the officials’ letters themselves include several misstatements, or overstatements,
which deserve a response.

  • Mr. Grossman’s assertion that “violence in Colombia is at the lowest
    level in decades”
    is an oversimplication. Common crime may be dropping,
    but conflict-related violence persists. Interpreting data gathered by several
    prominent Colombian human-rights organizations, the Colombian Commission of
    Jurists target="_blank">reports that the drop has not been at all steep. In 2003,
    6,335 people – over 17 per day – were killed by “sociopolitical violence.”
    Corresponding numbers for past years were 6,639 in 2000, 6,641 in 2001, and
    7,803 in 2002. If anything, violence had dropped to 2000 levels, not “the
    lowest in decades.” The Colombian human-rights group CODHES meanwhile notes
    that 130,346 people were violently displaced from their homes during the first
    half of 2004, a 33.5 percent increase over the last six months of 2003.

  • Mr. Grossman observes that “drug crop eradication, interdiction and drug-related
    arrests are at record high levels,”
    while Mr. Lemaitre’s letter argues
    that “the assertion that coca cultivation in Colombia has simply ‘just
    moved from one place to another’ is false.”
    Mr. Grossman’s statement is
    true, as far as it goes; indeed, aerial herbicide fumigation in drug crop-growing
    areas has reached record levels, as have arrests and amounts of drugs confiscated.
    Mr. Lemaitre’s argument is off base: even though satellites are showing some
    reduction in coca acreage in Colombia, the product still moves from one place
    to another with astonishing frequency.

    Neither letter mentions the uncomfortable fact that, as U.S. government statistics
    show ( href="http://www.wola.org/publications/ddhr_measures_brief.pdf" target="_blank">PDF
    format), years of aid, eradication and interdiction have so far failed to
    affect the price, purity and availability of drugs in the United States. In
    dollar terms, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports ( href="http://www.unodc.org.co/Publicaciones/Colombia%20coca_survey%20report_2003%20English%20Final%20print%20Version.pdf"
    target="_blank">PDF format), the price of coca paste in Colombia’s illegal
    market has not risen either. This probably indicates that while satellite
    measurements are showing reduced coca acreage, growers are adapting. Coca
    plots are getting smaller and harder to detect, with plants sown closer together
    and even in shade. The crop is appearing in new, often very remote zones.

    Meanwhile, leaders in some drug-producing areas claim that official estimates
    of reduced coca acreage are far too optimistic. Antonio Navarro, a prominent
    senator from southwestern Colombia, href="http://www.revistacambio.com/html/columnistas/antonio_navarro/articulos/3050/"
    target="_blank">wrote of a recent meeting between police officials and local-government
    leaders in his home province of Nariño. “While the police spoke of 13,000
    hectares [33,500 acres] of coca [in Nariño], the governor’s office estimated
    that the real amount is three times greater. When results were considered
    by county, it was even more surprising. While official statistics found zero
    hectares in various counties, every one of us present who is familiar with
    the region knew that there are thousands of hectares planted there.”

  • “The Colombian economy grew by 3.7% in 2003, and is expected to grow
    by 3.8% in 2004,”
    Mr. Grossman contends. Even if the 3.8 percent target
    is reached – which may be unlikely, given a disappointing annualized third-quarter
    GDP growth rate of href="http://www.iadb.org/NEWS/Display/PRView.cfm?PR_Num=291_04&Language=English"
    target="_blank">2.43 percent – Colombia still lags far behind the Latin American
    average for 2004, which href="http://www.iadb.org/NEWS/Display/PRView.cfm?PR_Num=291_04&Language=English"
    target="_blank">according to the Inter-American Development Bank has reached
    5.5 percent. Is Colombia’s growth rate due to U.S. assistance, then, or is
    its economy being modestly buoyed by a rising regional tide?

  • Finally, Mr. Grossman writes, “you say that increasing the cap on U.S.
    personnel constitutes ‘mission creep.’ In fact the mission for these personnel
    is unchanged.”
    True, the nature of the U.S. military-aid mission did not
    expand on the day the troop cap was increased. But as your editorial points
    out, the U.S. mission has been steadily expanding since the 1990s. The latest
    innovation in 2004 was “Plan Patriota,” a large-scale military offensive in
    southern Colombia, in which over 15,000 Colombian personnel have been trying
    to conquer remote guerrilla-held jungle zones. The offensive depends in part
    on the logistical support, intelligence and advice provided by U.S. military
    and contractor personnel – a new level of involvement in counter-insurgency
    – and is a key reason why the Bush administration asked Congress to double
    the limit on U.S. troops in Colombia.

As both letters correctly note, U.S. military personnel are not involved
in combat in Colombia. That threshold has not been crossed yet. I hope that
it will not be. In order to avoid that outcome, we must keep on sounding the
alarms about “mission creep” whenever we perceive it. For that reason, your
editorial made a timely contribution to the continuing debate over where our
country is headed in Colombia.

Sincerely,

Adam Isacson                                                                      

Director, Colombia Program                                                                       

Center for International Policy


January 3, 2005

Editorial Board
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
34 Blvd. of the Allies
Pittsburgh, PA  15222

Dear Sir or Madam:

I write to thank you for your editorial of October 28, 2004 (“ target="_blank">Blood for oil”) regarding U.S. military aid and U.S. oil firms’
exploration in Colombia. I also wish to respond to some of the assertions
in the target="_blank">letter to the editor, published on November 3, you received
from Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega.

“Your Oct. 28 editorial about our troop presence in Colombia contains a number
of misstatements,” Mr. Noriega’s letter begins. I wish to reassure you that,
although oil is only one of many interests the United States is pursuing in
Colombia, your arguments are sound.

At the beginning of 2003 the Bush administration, having won a $99 million
appropriation from Congress, began sending Special Forces personnel to the
conflictive department of Arauca in northeastern Colombia. They have since
trained and equipped thousands of members of the Colombian military charged
with defending the Caño Limón oil pipeline from guerrilla bombings. It was
the first major non-drug military aid program implemented after a 2002 href="http://ciponline.org/colombia/02supp.htm">expansion in the mission of
U.S. aid to encompass “counter-terrorism.”

Forty-four percent of the oil in that pipeline is the property of a U.S.
company, Occidental Petroleum (or “Oxy”). “While Oxy did not push specifically
for a U.S.-funded training program,” the Los Angeles Times href="http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-arauca28dec28,1,6143387.story?coll=la-headlines-world"
target="_blank">reported on December 28, “it waged a far more aggressive campaign
to persuade the U.S. and Colombia to improve security for its operations than
it has publicly acknowledged.” Since the initial $99 million outlay, smaller
amounts of U.S. funds have continued to flow to the pipeline-protection program.

While Mr. Noriega’s letter accuses the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of
misstatements, his letter includes some of its own, several which deserve
a response:

  • “Thanks to the Uribe administration, Colombia’s government now has
    retaken significant portions of its national territory that criminal groups
    had once controlled and used to cultivate and transport illegal narcotics.”

    To say that territory has been “retaken” is quite misleading. Yes, military
    and police presence has been increased in town centers and along main roads
    in many conflictive parts of Colombia. In general, though, security conditions
    and a lack of funds have kept the civilian part of Colombia’s government
    from making any appearance in “re-conquered” zones, and there has been little
    change in violence levels or illegal armed groups’ activity in these zones’
    rural areas.

    This is absolutely the case in two areas that have attracted the bulk of
    U.S. military assistance. In the coca-growing province of Putumayo in the
    south, and oil-producing Arauca in the northeast, guerrillas and paramilitaries
    continue to operate freely, attacks on infrastructure remain frequent, and
    murder is commonplace. Colombia’s non-governmental Security and Democracy
    Foundation noted ( href="http://www.seguridadydemocracia.org/documentosocasionales/BalancedeSeguridad2004.pdf"
    target="_blank">PDF format) that Arauca had the country’s highest murder rate
    in 2004, and that Putumayo’s murder rate increased by 19 percent last year.
    (On New Year’s Eve, meanwhile, FARC guerrillas faced no obstacles as they
    massacred sixteen civilians just south of the pipeline in Tame, Arauca.)

    While Mr. Noriega credits the U.S. aid program with reducing the frequency
    of pipeline attacks, the cause-and-effect relationship is less clear. The
    State Department’s annual “Patterns of Global Terrorism” report href="http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/2002/html/19980.htm" target="_blank">notes
    that pipeline bombings dropped precipitiously in Colombia from 2001 (178)
    to 2002 (41). The Special Forces training program did not even begin
    until January 2003.

  • “While more work needs to be done, the Colombian leader has made great
    progress in reforming his country’s military and political institutions, as
    well as improving the security situation for Colombian citizens, while creating
    the conditions that have spurred economic growth.”

    Military reforms have included improvements to combat effectiveness, mobility,
    logistics, intelligence and similar measures. Almost no progress has been
    made, however, on a crucial measure of military and civilian institutions’
    effectiveness: impunity. In a country where the judicial system fails to punish
    over 95 percent of crimes, it is exceedingly rare to see powerful individuals
    found guilty of human rights abuses or corruption. For instance, though the
    State Department’s regular certifications of Colombia’s human-rights performance
    acknowledge that “more needs to be done to protect human rights and to sever
    military-paramilitary ties,” the href="http://ciponline.org/colombia/0409cert.htm">latest report cites only
    three examples of judicial or disciplinary action for human rights abuses
    against military officers above the rank of captain.

    The point about economic growth is also disputable. Colombia’s 2004 economic
    growth was in fact anemic by the standards of Latin America, which saw GDP
    growth of about 5.5 percent last year, href="http://www.iadb.org/NEWS/Display/PRView.cfm?PR_Num=291_04&Language=English"
    target="_blank">according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Colombia
    likely saw its hope of reaching 4 percent in 2004 dashed by third-quarter
    results showing growth at an annual rate of just href="http://www.dane.gov.co/" target="_blank">2.43 percent.

  • “If oil fields and the pipelines are more secure, that helps Colombia’s
    economy to provide more opportunities for its citizens and resources to
    help fight the illicit narcotics trade.”

    This argument could be applied to nearly all U.S. investments in Colombia,
    which of course employ at least some Colombians and generate at least some
    income for the country (and in the case of the Caño Limón oil pipeline,
    hundreds of millions for Oxy). In the name of “providing more opportunities
    and resources,” should U.S. military aid, trainers and taxpayer dollars
    be deployed to defend all enterprises – from mines to factories – that count
    U.S. citizens or corporations among their owners?

Your editorial’s main point is on the mark. Though Mr. Noriega’s letter makes it appear that the purpose of U.S. military assistance has been to promote the well-being of Colombians, most of our military presence, and the vast majority of our over $3 billion in military and police aid since 2000, has not gone to protect Colombians. It has paid to protect drug-crop spray planes and oil infrastructure that benefits U.S. companies. Though there are exceptions, when the Colombian government has sought to protect its citizens from harm, it has had to do so with its own funds.

Thanks again for your valuable contribution to the debate over U.S. policy toward Colombia.

Sincerely,

Adam Isacson                                                                      

Director, Colombia Program                                                                       

Center for International Policy

One Response to “Rebutting the rebuttals”

  1. jcg Says:

    As far as contributing to the debate goes, I do believe that such an objective was achieved. I’m sure that Mr. Grossman’s and CIP’s representatives could exchange a dozen letters discussing this subject and pointing out each others flaws or omissions (both benign and not so).

    Now, whether those editorials/articles and these discussions are headed in the direction of improving and streamlining aid to Colombia or, as some of the statements made in them may suggest when read from a certain point of view, towards simple disengagement, is another matter…CIP argues one thing, Mr. Grossman another, and the press has its own opinions.

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