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 Guerrillas, Drugs and Human Rights in U.S.-Colombia Policy, 1988-2002
National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 69
Edited by Michael Evans <mevans@gwu.edu>
Director, Colombia Documentation Project
Phone: 202 / 994-7029
3 May 2002

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Summary and Findings
Background and Current Policy Proposals
Part I: The Andean Strategy, 1989
“Attacking drugs by hitting the insurgency”
Part II: Counterdrug Operations
“The most dangerous flying in the so-called drug war”
Part III: Conditioning Security Assistance
Human rights, end-use monitoring and “the government’s inability to curb the paramilitary threat”

On February 20, 2002, Colombian President Andres Pastrana announced the collapse of peace talks with rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and ordered Colombia’s military to retake the 15,000-square mile zone in southern Colombia ceded to the guerrilla group as a peace gesture in 1998.  Bombing began almost immediately and was followed by the deployment of some 13,000 infantry and special counterinsurgency troops to the region.  Three days later – as FARC forces fled into the surrounding jungle – the Colombian Army captured San Vicente del Caguan, the de facto capital of the guerrilla stronghold.(1)  Colombia’s decades-old civil war has once again reached its boiling point.

    Washington welcomed Pastrana’s readiness to escalate the conflict with the guerrillas.  The day after the offensive began, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced that the United States “understands and supports” Pastrana’s decision to end the peace talks – a statement echoed the following day by Secretary of State Colin Powell.  Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) director Asa Hutchinson characterized the Colombian military offensive as “a benefit in that region,” citing the potential gains for counterdrug efforts.(2)

    Other statements from Bush administration officials have signaled an interest in expanding the war on terrorism to Colombia and in assisting with Colombia’s military offensive.  The administration has asked Congress for an extra $35 million in aid for Colombia in the current fiscal year as part of a $27 billion anti-terrorism package.  The bulk of the new money would go to enhance the counter-kidnapping capabilities of the armed forces and is in addition to funds already appropriated or requested by the administration for the coming fiscal year totaling about $435 million.  $98 million of the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2003 would support the establishment of a new Colombian Army brigade to protect important infrastructure, including the Cano-Limon oil pipeline, which is often bombed by guerrilla forces.

    On its face, the new proposal is a major departure from the narrow counterdrug focus applied to previous U.S. assistance.  Most significant in the supplemental request is the administration’s appeal for the lifting of restrictions to allow Colombian security forces to use all past, present and future aid – much of it in the form of advanced helicopters – in operations against guerrilla forces, which many officials say are now virtually indistinguishable from drug traffickers.(3)  Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) – the primary sponsor of legislation tying security assistance to human rights conditions and a frequent critic of U.S. policy in Colombia – has put it this way: “For the first time, the Administration is proposing to cross the line from counter-narcotics to counter-insurgency.  Now, as a matter of our national policy, this is no longer about stopping drugs but about fighting the guerrillas.”(4)

    In what may be another sign of a more aggressive U.S. policy toward Colombia’s insurgency, Attorney General John Ashcroft recently announced the indictment of the FARC organization and six of its members on charges relating to the 1999 killings of three Americans working in Colombia on behalf of the U’wa Indians.(5)  Three other FARC members were indicted on drug trafficking charges in March, including Tomas Molina Caracas, one of the group’s principal commanders.(6)  The indictments place additional pressure on Congress to unfetter current restrictions on U.S. security assistance so that it can be used to capture those named in these indictments.  The Bush administration is also investigating the drug trafficking activities of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the leaders of which have openly admitted their ties with drug trafficking.  Moreover, three Colombian groups – the FARC, the AUC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – have been designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department.  Any or all of these groups are potential targets in an escalated war against international terrorism.(7)

    The administration has also indicated that it has been studying ways to expand its intelligence-sharing program with Colombia to include more information on rebel forces.  Previous restrictions on the sharing of guerrilla-related intelligence were loosened in March 1999 to permit its use in the course of planning counternarcotics operations.  U.S. intelligence programs in Colombia were seriously affected by the April 2001 shootdown of an American missionary plane by the Peruvian air force based on information provided by a contractor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  U.S. intelligence overflights, suspended in both countries in the wake of the shootdown, have yet to be resumed, but recent statements from Bush administration officials indicate that intelligence support across the board may expand dramatically in response to the Colombian military offensive and especially in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States.(8)

    But while the offer of direct support for Colombia’s counterinsurgency campaign would no doubt signal an expansion of the U.S. role in Colombia, a look at the declassified record indicates that from the beginning U.S. officials stressed that counterdrug-related assistance would also be used to suppress Colombian insurgent groups, long recognized as the principal mission of the Colombian armed forces.  Indeed, Colombian counterdrug operations in many respects already resemble counterinsurgency operations, and many U.S. and Colombian officials have suggested that efforts to limit military assistance to counternarcotics operations create a distinction where none truly exists.  These same arguments were central to the formation of the first Bush administration’s Andean strategy in 1989.  Draft policy papers from that period, for example, proposed encouraging the “interoperability” of regional counternarcotics and counterguerrilla forces.

    In recent years, the increasingly perilous nature of anti-drug operations in Colombia has led to a shift in U.S. counterdrug strategy to rely more heavily on Colombian military forces, reversing a previous trend in which most assistance had been earmarked for the Colombian National Police (CNP).  At the same time, however, U.S. officials report that the Colombian armed forces cannot and often do not try to distinguish between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations.  These anti-drug operations are being carried out in zones contested by guerrilla forces and other armed actors, and aircraft dedicated to the aerial crop eradication program – many of which are still piloted or co-piloted by American military or contractor personnel – are routinely hit by ground fire from insurgents, drug traffickers and farmers alike.  Over the years, the support of the Colombian Army in such dangerous missions has been deemed essential by U.S. officials, even while many others have expressed doubts about the depth of the Army’s commitment to the counterdrug mission, and concern over its ties with illegal paramilitary groups.

    Ironically, this reemphasis on military operations gained momentum in 1996 and 1997, at a time when the Colombian government was under intense scrutiny for its connections to the narcotics trade, and when human rights abuses attributed to Colombian security forces and their paramilitary allies were attracting broad international criticism.  These issues prompted the unprecedented “decertification” of Colombia’s cooperation with U.S. anti-narcotics efforts in 1996 and 1997.  But the perceived need to continue and even intensify the U.S. anti-narcotics program under these strained circumstances led Congress to impose a number of restrictions on the provision of counterdrug assistance.  These measures included the so-called “Leahy law,” which applied a human rights standard to foreign military units proposed for U.S. security assistance, and the negotiation of a formal End-Use Monitoring (EUM) agreement in 1997, which also covered human rights matters and limited the use of U.S. aid to areas associated with the narcotics trade.  Documents included in this collection, however, suggest that the end-use restrictions steadily eroded over time, and that influential members of Congress promised to ease these conditions in meetings with Colombian military officials.

    For a time, though, these human rights and end-use conditions made it difficult for the State Department to identify Colombian military components eligible for aid.  Two units, the Army’s 12th and 24th brigades, both cleared to receive counterdrug assistance in 1998, were denied further aid in September 2000 after allegations of their involvement in serious human rights crimes.  Both of these units, however, are located in areas now hosting the activities of the U.S.-backed counternarcotics battalions, carefully developed in recent years to comply with human rights and end-use restrictions.  These units – the vetted counterdrug battalions and the brigades that have been found ineligible for aid – operate together as part of Joint Task Force South (JTF-S), which is spearheading the Army’s “push” into Colombia’s southern coca growing regions to clear the way for the drug crop eradication campaign.

    The documents presented here shed light on these issues at a time when the Bush administration seeks to broaden the scope of U.S. interests in Colombia from strictly drug trafficking to include counter-terrorism, anti-insurgency operations, infrastructure protection and other missions.  But while the administration’s proposal is certainly a watershed in terms of stated policy, the declassified evidence suggests that U.S. counterdrug strategy has been creeping slowly – perhaps inevitably – toward a more direct confrontation with Colombian insurgent groups ever since Washington began to enhance the role of regular military forces in the drug war.  This emphasis on military operations has waxed and waned in the years since, but the Colombian military has continued to focus on the suppression of guerrilla forces – whether characterized as drug traffickers, terrorists or both.  The documents indicate that U.S.-funded counternarcotics programs in Colombia have often and knowingly targeted insurgent organizations; groups whose actual connection to drug trafficking has been a subject of considerable debate.  The differing and sometimes conflicting perceptions of this link by U.S. and Colombian officials – including embassy staff, in-country military personnel, and intelligence analysts in Washington – reflect the ambiguities and contradictions in U.S. counterdrug policy that are now coming more sharply into focus.


1.  Andrew Selsky, “Colombian Gov’t Launches Airstrikes,” Associated Press, February 21, 2002; Selsky, “Colombia in Anti-Guerrilla Offensive,” Associated Press, February 23, 2002.

2.  “U.S. Supports Colombia’s Move Against Rebels,” Reuters, February 21, 2002; George Gedda, “White House Trying to Help Colombia,” Associated Press, February 22, 2002; John Rice, “DEA Chief Discusses Colombia Action,” Associated Press, February 22, 2002.

3.  Paul Richter, “Bush Asks to Unfetter Anti-Drug Aid; Colombia: President seeks to allow use of previous U.S. help and any new funds to fight rebels,” Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2002; For a detailed discussion of the new aid package see The Center for International Policy’s Colombia Project,  http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/aid03.htm

4.  Reaction Of Sen. Patrick Leahy To The White House Budget For Fiscal Year 2003 (Including Budget Highlights), February 4, 2002, http://www.senate.gov/~leahy/press/200202/020402.html

5.  Dan Eggen, “U.S. Indicts Colombian Terror Group,” Washingtonpost.com, April 30, 2002, 3:07 PM, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A8339-2002Apr30.html

6.  U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Transcript, News Conference – FARC, Monday, March 18, 2002, DOJ Conference Center, http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/speeches/2002/031802newsconferencefarc.htm

7.  Jared Kotler, “Colombian rebels, narcos becoming 'one and the same,' U.S. DEA chief says,” Associated Press, March 26, 2002; Scott Wilson, “Interview with Carlos Castano, Head of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia: 'Colombians Do Not Perceive Other Solutions Than the AUC,'” The Washington Post, May 12, 2001.

8.  State Department Daily Press Briefing, Richard Boucher, Spokesman, Washington, DC, February 22, 2002.

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