The wild, wild west Plan Patriota: don’t ask, don’t tell
May 132005

Wednesday’s hearing of the House International Relations Committee didn’t leave very much to write about. The witnesses, all from the Bush Administration, and the Reps from the Republican majority stayed close to their script of unqualified praise for Plan Colombia. The several Democrats who attended offered polite criticism in the few minutes available to them, though they did offer several tough questions (i.e. why are there no fewer U.S. cocaine and heroin addicts today than there were when Plan Colombia began?). Let’s hope they follow up on plans to submit much more in writing.

From my notes, here are a few things that were new, or at least noteworthy:

  • The Committee Republicans, who had strongly encouraged the administration to give several old DC-3 airplanes to the Colombian National Police, now want to see those planes used to transport guerrilla and paramilitary deserters to sites where they will manually eradicate drug crops.

    The committee’s Chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), and committee staff are pushing hard for this proposal. What’s stopping them is a still-unresolved debate between the State and Justice Departments about whether a program like this could be construed as “material support for terrorists” under current law (like Section 803 of the PATRIOT Act). This bizarre interpretation – which apparently considers ex-terrorists to still be terrorists – makes it impossible for the U.S. government to fund the demobilization and reintegration of any foreign terrorist group’s members, anywhere in the world.

    “Some in the executive branch hold the misguided view that putting defectors on these planes to engage in manual drug eradication would somehow constitute material support for terrorism,” said Rep. Hyde. This was never the intent of Congress. We are needlessly and unwisely tying our own hands. How could having former members of a terrorist organization eliminate the very drugs that help finance the terrorist organization they have turned against possibly constitute material support for terrorism?”

    We have no strong views about this proposal, and we agree that the current legal interpretation – which fails to admit the possibility that a terrorist can stop being a terrorist – is silly. We have four observations, however:

    1) A guerrilla or paramilitary considering turning himself in might be discouraged by the prospect that he may find himself forced to eradicate crops in dangerous areas dominated by armed groups.

    2) Proponents of fumigation in Colombia argue that the spraying is necessary because security conditions don’t allow manual eradication. So why are we proposing a big new manual eradication effort? Can we begin to reduce fumigation?

    3) Why can’t this program operate now, even in the absence of demobilized guerrillas or paramilitaries? Colombia has double-digit unemployment, greater underemployment, and a huge displaced population – probably hundreds of thousands who would gladly participate in a make-work project like this in order to feed their families.

    4) No matter what, forced manual eradication – just like fumigation – will fail unless it’s closely coordinated with a real effort to help the affected communities to make a living in the legal economy. Eradication without development assistance will increase rural residents’ anger at the state, push them into the arms of illegal groups, and lead many to re-plant after the eradicators leave.

  • The committee also appears to be pushing the administration to do more to interdict drugs leaving Colombia by sea, noting that “marine air patrols” in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific slowed after September 11, when many patrol planes were called back to the “homeland.” It’s not clear what they expect the interdictors (mainly Defense Department, Coast Guard, and Customs) to do, since they are not appropriating money for those agencies to buy new planes.
  • House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), who gave a statement as a witness but didn’t stay for questioning, made the remarkable claim that “Areas like Putumayo used to be like the wild, wild west…outlaw villages thriving off of the drug trade. Today, Putumayo has been reformed.” This is nonsense, and I address it in the last posting.
  • Rep. Burton pushed Drug Czar John Walters very hard on the issue of mycoherbicides – fungi like Fusarium oxysporum that kill coca plants. (Burton, however, called them “micro-herbicides,” both at the hearing and in a written statement published in the Inter-American Dialogue’s daily “Latin America Advisor” newsletter.) We have been concerned that the Bush administration would push to use these fungi in Colombia, with potentially disastrous environmental effects. We were pleased, then, to hear Walters strongly refusing to consider even spending money to test mycoherbicides. I’m paraphrasing here – taking dictation is hard – but Walters said “We’re not sure that the mycoherbicide is specific to coca. If we were to drop it [from planes], it could cause significant environmental damage.”
  • In his oral testimony, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics Jonathan Farrar said that fumigation was discouraging coca-growing. A minute or so later, he said that lots of new coca was being planted “as the narco-terrorists plant more plants in an attempt to negate our record spray efforts.” Well, which is it? Are the growers discouraged, or are they planting more than ever?

    If you guessed “more than ever,” you’re right. According to State Department figures, attempted coca-growing – the amount of coca eradicated plus the amount of coca left over – has skyrocketed in Colombia as fumigation has increased, from 166,000 hectares (415,000 acres) in 1999 to 251,000 hectares (627,500 acres) last year.

  • Farrar also defended the idea of spraying coca in Colombia’s national parks – a proposal that Colombia’s government appears to be on the verge of adopting – by estimating that 6,000 to 12,000 hectares of coca are grown in parkland. That’s 5 to 10 percent of all coca grown in Colombia.

    Why can’t this fraction be manually eradicated? Surely the government can maintain control over its own national parks long enough to allow manual eradication to take place instead of chemical spraying. Especially since, as indicated above, increased spraying has been shown to bring increased attempted coca-growing, which involves increased cutting down of forests – much of it, probably, in parks.

  • I was confused – no, disturbed – by an exchange between Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega. McCollum cited the arrest last week of two U.S. Special Forces non-commissioned officers for allegedly running guns to the paramilitaries. She then asked a simple question (I’m paraphrasing): “Can you categorically deny that no U.S. government agency is in contact with paramilitaries, or gives support to paramilitaries?”

    The correct answer would have been a flat “yes,” but for some reason – was he confused by the question? – Noriega never offered a denial. Instead, he gave an answer at least fifty words long, at the end of which (paraphrasing, again), he said that the U.S. government is “categorically” rooting out any activity that goes against U.S. policy.

  • In his testimony, Noriega indicated that, instead of committing itself to a multi-year Plan Colombia II, the State Department is keeping its options open post-2006: “We have made no decisions about specific funding assistance levels beyond FY 2006, but will continue working with the Congress as planning is further developed.”
  • It is interesting to note what was not mentioned. Nobody uttered the words “Plan Patriota” or referred in any way to that large, year-long U.S.-supported military offensive. There was almost no mention at all of the Colombian government’s request for $130 million to create a new herbicide-fumigation base in Nariño, complete with 4 new spray planes and eight new helicopters (2 Blackhawks and 6 Hueys), described in detail in Tuesday’s El Tiempo. Though Barbara Lee (D-California) asked about the human rights conditions on military aid – no approval has been forthcoming because there’s no human rights progress to certify – she hardly got any answer.

5 Responses to “Notes on the 5/11 House Hearing”

  1. jcg Says:

    Those are certainly interesting tidbits.

    Perhaps the red tape about the issue of ex-terrorists may also stem from situations outside the Colombia context, that are not specifically relevant to the discussion.

    Apparently, one could speculate that Plan Patriota wasn’t on the table because either it’s not seen as relevant enough to the already heavy subject that constitutes U.S.-Colombia drug policy/Plan Colombia.

    Btw, on the subject of mycoherbicides…wasn’t that the specific fungi responsible for contributing to a major reduction of Peruvian coca fields around the early 1990s?

  2. Paquita Says:

    If you want to have more informations about the “Fusarium Oxysporum” make a Google search: Dr David Sands- fusarium oxysporum EN-4.
    You will find that the researches on that fungus has nothing to do with coca eradication in Peru in 1990.
    And even, the US shouln’t use that biological weapon…
    Lies, lies and more lies from the US Government.

  3. jcg Says:

    Actually, now that I’ve managed to search for the information, while Dr. Sands may have isolated the EN4 strain, it seems to be confirmed that such a fungus was indeed present in a epidemic in Peru around that period, which did affect drug fields (and apparently also part of the ecosystem as well).

    Of course, there appears to be some controversy as to the occurrence of the plague, whether it was naturally or artificially produced, but in any event such an outbreak did occur.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    A few points to follow up on this posting.

    First, there was an outbreak of Fusarium that killed a lot of coca in Peru during the mid-90s. (Campesinos there reportedly called it the “Clinton fungus,” though the US government has emphatically denied having anything to do with it.)

    Second, I want to share excerpts from an observation about spraying in parks shared with me by a colleague who just finished a Fulbright in Colombia that involved work with Colombia’s national parks system.

    Do you really think the govt. can maintain control over its national parks long enough to do anything or were you being facetious? Even if it wanted to, manual eradication would still be extremely difficult. Short of a full-on military operation to manually eradicate the crops, which would cost a fortune due the expenses associated with accessing these areas, I don`t see how it would be possible. And, as I think you mentioned, recruiting local campesinos to do it has also proven ineffective as most campesinos are afraid of being shot. So lets just say the army helicopters in a bunch of troops to manually eradicate the crops, or cover the local campesinos as they do so, how long before the crops are re-planted?

    It seems to me that a better way to do this would be to give the National Parks Unit a halfway decent budget- supplemented in part by Plan Colombia. Perhaps a manual eradication and illicit crops monitoring brigade or something along those lines. This way they could actually maintain some kind of presence in the areas. Some of these Parks, like Macarena, which are about the size of Connecticut, literally have 3 funcionarios.

    What really stinks about this fumigation in parks is that it makes countries like Holland (who almost single handedly ensure the survival of the parks service) want to withold their aid.

    I agree with most of his critique (exception: I actually do think that the government can control specific zones – if not an entire park – long enough to eradicate manually) and endorse his recommendations. We should have included the recommendation to fund the park service in the “Blueprint for a New Colombia Policy” published 2 months ago [PDF format].

    Third, the 5/11 hearing is now viewable in streaming video on the committee’s website. Here, as a result, is an exact transcript of Roger Noriega’s non-denial in response to Rep. McCollum’s question about possible U.S. support for paramilitaries. As her question begins with a long, convoluted introduction, Noriega’s failure to state clearly that the United States doesn’t support paramilitaries may owe simply to confusion. I hope.

    Beginning at 1:56:44

    Rep. Mccollum: Mr. Noriega, … It’s my understanding that there are two servicemen now in U.S. custody. My question for each one of the departments and agencies, because in reading newspaper articles, this is not the first time that we have had either someone in uniform, or someone that is attached with diplomatic credentials involved in breaking the law of Colombia as well as working in contrary to what we are trying to do. So, my question is, can you categorically deny that there’s no U.S. government personnel – Department of Defense, State, drug enforcement officials, contractors that are paid with U.S. funds – or through the Colombian military, can you deny that there has been no official contact, or support, or assistance, with the Colombian paramilitary organizations, which would lead to this type of exposure for them then to become corrupted?

    Assistant Secretary Noriega: We take very seriously the allegations against these American servicemen. Noting of course that of the hundreds of people who risk their lives in uniform helping the Colombian people, this is a relatively small number of people who have been alleged to have crossed the line into illegality. I would have to say that the investigation is still underway in this case, as it is underway in the case of about two or three or four who were implicated in cocaine smuggling, allegedly again. These investigations are underway. What I can assert, quite categorically, is a commitment on the part of the U.S. executive branch – as well as, in particular, the military – in holding people accountable for any violations of U.S. law.

  5. Paquita Says:

    Sorry JCQ, you where right about Peru.
    In 1990 was the fusarium oxysporum EN-4 already mixed with the same chemicals as they do now?

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