Todayâ€™s big story (Reuters â€“ AP â€“ LA Times â€“ NY Times â€“ Houston Chronicle â€“ CNN) is the arrest, on Tuesday afternoon, of two U.S. soldiers in Colombia. Alan Tanquary and JesÃºs HernÃ¡ndez appear to have been caught red-handed by Colombian police with 32,000 rounds of ammunition. The Colombian authorities suspect that the materiel was probably destined for the paramilitaries.
For some, the episode raises the specter of Eugene Hasenfus, the U.S. citizen who was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986 while illegally supplying the contras for Ollie North. Are Tuesdayâ€™s arrests evidence of a secret U.S. plot to supply the paramilitaries, as a reporter asked during todayâ€™s State Department briefing?
Probably not. That doesnâ€™t make much sense. Even leaving aside concerns like human rights, terrorism and narcotrafficking, as a counter-insurgency force the paramilitaries have proven to be erratic at best. Just like the five U.S. soldiers arrested in late March for trafficking drugs out of Meta province, Tanquary and HernÃ¡ndez were probably freelancing in order to make money on the side.
The more interesting question is: how did U.S. military personnel, confined to a military base and its environs and meant to be kept out of harmâ€™s way, manage to make contact with paramilitaries?
The five U.S. soldiers arrested in March for trying to ship cocaine to the United States reportedly got the drugs from a Guaviare-based ring tied to the paramilitaries, while working at the Apiay airbase outside the city of Villavicencio. The two arrested on Tuesday were stationed at Tolemaida, the huge army base near Melgar, Tolima, where much U.S. training takes place and where many U.S.-donated helicopters are parked. (Paramilitary violence, incidentally, is common in Tolima province; last October Tolimaâ€™s local ombudsman said that the paramilitaries had killed 170 people since December 2002, when the AUC had declared a cease-fire. Is this why they need more bullets?)
How did the American troops manage to strike these deals? Itâ€™s not as though U.S. soldiers in Colombia are being pursued by members of the paramilitaries pestering them to run drugs and arms for them. This money-making opportunity will only knock if someone else first makes the introduction. Who, then, is helping the corrupt Americans to link up with their paramilitary customers? What bridges the two degrees of separation?
Obviously, the most likely "missing links" are the U.S. soldiers’ counterparts in the Colombian military, who are co-located with them on bases like Apiay and Tolemaida. Could it be that Colombian military personnel â€“ members of U.S.-aided units that have supposedly severed their ties with the paramilitaries â€“ helped facilitate contacts with "friends" among the local paramilitaries?
The coming investigations â€“ which had better be aggressive, thorough and transparent â€“ must reveal how U.S. personnel came to be in contact with AUC members. If it turns out that the Colombian military indeed played a role, this will make it even more difficult for the U.S. State Department to certify that Colombiaâ€™s security forces are actively breaking links with the paramilitaries. And without this certification, 25 percent of U.S. military assistance to Colombia must remain frozen.