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Doubts multiply about U.S. aid to Colombia


Sylvester Salcedo has seen firsthand both ends of the international drug pipeline. As a Spanish teacher at a junior high school in Roxbury, Mass., in the mid-1980s, he witnessed the lure that drugs have for kids -- particularly the money they could earn as lookouts for the local dealers. A student once belittled Salcedo’s teaching salary while bragging he was on his way to the local Volvo dealer to buy a car.

In his other life as a reserve naval intelligence officer who had brief stints in Colombia, Salcedo was privy to classified information on the source of so much misery back home -- the Colombian coca trade. Even with that experience, Salcedo thinks that the recent moves to increase military aid to Colombia to fight the drug war is a huge mistake. In a recent telephone interview, Salcedo noted that “as early as 1986-’87, you could see the amount of ... [drug] traffic” pouring out of Colombia. Given his extensive experience as a warrior in the war on drugs (he also spent two-and-a-half years as a member of the Pentagon’s Joint Task Force Six, which coordinates interagency counter-drug efforts) Salcedo sees the U.S. government’s latest push to squash the drug supply, a two-year $1.7 billion aid package for the Colombian military, as a “ridiculous” waste of time and money.

“The house is burning” Salcedo said, referring to the detrimental effects 14 million drug users (including 4 million hardcore drug addicts) have on America’s social fabric. Figures from the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy support his point. The crime, illness and lost worker productivity due to the drug scourge cost the United States some $110 billion annually. But in Salcedo’s eyes, the Clinton administration’s plan to send 45 helicopters (including 30 Black Hawks) and other military equipment to Colombia is akin to pointing the fire hose in the wrong direction. Supply will always meet demand, he believes, so the answer to the problem is not in Colombia, but on the streets of America. After having seen so many young lives get way off track before they even begin, Salcedo believes that focusing anti-drug efforts on the supplier misses the point. The House on March 31 approved a spending bill that included $1.7 billion in military aid for Colombia. Congressional sources said they expect the Senate to take up the Colombia aid package not as part of a broad spending measure but as part of the normal appropriations process. The body was expected to approve a measure similar to that passed by the House sometime in May.

Late last year the Clinton administration reversed a three-year policy of denying funds to supply advanced Black Hawk helicopters to Colombia. Not only was there an about-face, but the administration took up the cause of drug interdiction in Colombia with unusual zeal. In addition to the helicopters, the government’s plan also includes the creation and training of two new anti-drug battalions, 15 spray aircraft for crop eradication, upgrades to early warning and ground-attack aircraft, supplies, spare parts, training, air- and ground-based radars and a host of other equipment.

In all, the United States will spend more on drug interdiction in Colombia this year than it has in the last five years combined.

It is a dramatic shift in policy. Since 1996, the administration had infuriated Congressional leaders over the question of sending the $13 million Black Hawk to fight the Colombian drug traffickers because of cost concerns. While the Black Hawk, which is manufactured at a Sikorsky (a division of United Technologies) plant in Connecticut, is more capable than the Vietnam War-era Huey currently in service there, it is also six times the price and is more costly to maintain. Further, the Colombian military would have to be trained to fly the transport aircraft, which would not only add to the cost but would take up to 18 months. The administration had also argued that since Huey helicopters were only $2 million each, the United States could maintain drug interdiction efforts in all the Andean nations.

But new figures on Colombia’s growing prominence in the drug trade gave pause to policy planners at the White House. In an intelligence report released by the CIA in February, the amount of land devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia more than doubled over the past five years to 300,000 acres. Moreover, potential cocaine production skyrocketed in the same period from 230 metric tons in 1995 to 520 metric tons in 1999. And with increasing lobby pressure from the helicopter manufacturers to supply aircraft to the Colombian military, and an angry Republican Party looking for a hot campaign issue in an election year, the Clinton administration went on the offensive by crafting a plan even the Republicans could love.

Unfortunately, it is unclear that the huge influx of American technology will make much of a difference in the supply of drugs to communities like Roxbury. The area to be covered by the 30 Black Hawk helicopters, the Putumayo region of southern Colombia, is immense and comprised of thick jungle where it is easy to hide drug production facilities. From a tactical standpoint, Salcedo does not think there is much chance of success in Colombia. For example, he said the drug traffickers are “light years ahead of the law enforcement net. They read the papers like everyone else,” he said. “They know where the helicopters will be, how far they can fly and how often” and by accounting for those capabilities can continue to conduct their narcotics operations. “It’s not rocket science,” he said.

Moreover, despite massive amounts of money and personnel being thrown at the drug problem over the last decade, success has been elusive. According to a July 1999, General Accounting Office report, federal spending on drug control efforts has “risen by nearly 50 percent during the 1990s” to $18 billion. Further, the staff of the Drug Enforcement Agency, the department assigned the task of cutting the drug supply entering the country, has grown “from 6,000 in 1990 to 8,400 in 1998.” Sadly, the accounting office study also noted that the enforcement agency has not developed “measurable performance targets for its programs” and therefore “it is difficult to assess how successful DEA’s programs have been in reducing the supply of illegal drugs into the United States.”

In fact, despite the billions being spent to fight the drug problem, the cost of cocaine in the United States actually declined during the last decade from $246 per pure gram in 1990 to $169 per gram in 1998, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. And some members of Congress have noticed the disappointing results. In a speech on the House floor on Feb. 16, Jim McGovern, D-Mass., questioned the logic of spending even more money in Colombia, a country that already receives the third highest amount of U.S. foreign aid ($300 million) annually, when that assistance has not produced the expected outcome. “Our current policy ... has not,” McGovern said, “reduced coca cultivation ... the flow of cocaine or heroin to the U.S. from Colombia or the profits of drug traffickers. Why do we believe that more of the same is better?”

Some critics believe that because the government’s new aid program has no criteria to measure success, it too will become an expensive effort that will ultimately fail. “There are no benchmarks,” that allow the administration to determine progress, according to Adam Isacson, a Latin America analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington. To underscore the point, in the White House fact sheet describing the proposed aid plan, “components” of the package are discussed -- indicating how the money will be used -- but nowhere is the word goals used to reveal how the government knows when a breakthrough has been achieved.

Yet another lingering fear about the U.S. aid plan is the possibility of mission creep -- a situation where events on the ground force the United States to expand or extend its involvement. As it stands, the U.S. aid effort merely will enable Colombian forces to “actively engage the cocaine industry at its center of gravity,” according to the White House fact sheet. No American forces will be allowed to join the Colombians on missions intended to engage the drug traffickers, Pentagon officials assured a House panel in February. But the issue is not as simple as it appears.

Not only is this a drug interdiction effort, but because the traffickers and members of the so-called FARC rebel group work together -- the traffickers grow, process and ship drugs while the guerillas provide protection for a fee -- fears abound that the drug interdiction effort could turn into an anti-insurgency campaign as well. The Clinton administration did itself no favor when it touted its assistance package as a “push into the coca growing regions of southern Colombia, which are now dominated by insurgent guerillas.”

Given that the Colombian military has tussled with the rebels for 40 years and that the FARC has greatly improved its war-fighting capability with funds generated from the drug trade, the dreaded word quagmire has seeped into discussions about the aid package.

During a Feb. 24 hearing on the drug plan, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, voiced the concerns of many when he asked the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, “Who goes in if this thing blows up? Tell me this is not Vietnam again,” he said. Rep. McGovern also raised the issue during his floor statement in mid February when he noted that it would take almost two years for all the Black Hawks to be built and delivered to Colombia. “Are we going to be in Colombia for just two years,” he asked, “or who knows how many years?” And Isacson of the Center for International Policy went even further when he registered his belief that the Clinton administration plan “is Step 1 in a longer process for the U.S.” Indeed, Washington insiders are beginning to say that the present plan could turn into a commitment lasting five years or more.

The questions remain: If the government continues to dump billions of dollars into Colombia, what becomes of the kids in places like Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Roxbury? Will another generation of junior-high-school-age kids get sucked into a life of drugs and crime? History has shown that despite the name, the “war on drugs” isn’t being won with military equipment. The drug cartels, like the Viet Cong, adapt easily to changing conditions. When U.S. aid made it difficult for narcotics traffickers to operate in Bolivia and Peru, they moved their operations to Colombia. And, as Sylvester Salcedo points out, if the current effort in Colombia has an impact on production, the cartels will move their operations to Venezuela or Panama. To the runners, dealers and addicts back in the states, it doesn’t much matter where the cocaine comes from.

Thomas Cardamone is a project director for the Council For A Livable World Education Fund in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000