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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 21:57 GMT 22:57 UK
Analysis: How can the US help Colombia?
Colombian anti-drugs soldiers
The US has trained three anti-narcotics battalions
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By Jeremy McDermott
BBC correspondent in Bogota

As the crisis deepens in the Middle East and the US lines up further foes in the war on terrorism, President George W Bush has petitioned Congress to lift restrictions on American aid to Colombia, currently limited to the war on drugs.

The Colombians want the US to help it defeat its estimated 25,000 guerrillas and end the 37-year civil conflict, but how far will the US go and what difference can they really make?

In 2000, President Bill Clinton granted more than $1bn of military aid to Colombia.

But to secure bipartisan support in Congress he laid out restrictions that it could only be used in the drugs war.

Black Hawk helicopters
The US has supplied the coveted Black Hawk helicopters
This was to reassure Congress that this would not result in the US being dragged into the Colombian civil conflict and that comparisons with the ever-present shadow of Vietnam were not apt.

So three elite anti-narcotics battalions were trained and equipped with helicopters and the aerial eradication of drug crops increased.

Yet the result in this country, which produces 80% of the world's cocaine and is the single biggest supplier of heroin to the US, is that drug cultivation has increased and the price of cocaine in the US has if anything gone down.

Changed climate

Now authorities seem to think that in the different climate after 11 September, two birds can be killed with one stone.

They believe that the three warring factions in Colombia on the US terrorism list, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the paramilitary United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) - all involved in the drugs trade - can be taken on in the name of terrorism.

Coca producers
Colombia produces 80% of the world's cocaine

The Colombian Government would like nothing more than for the US to come in and solve its problems.

But in the last 40 years of civil conflict the Colombian Government and military has proved itself utterly unable and unwilling to tackle the guerrilla issue.

Even now, with the peace process with the FARC finished and guerrilla attacks taking place across the country, Colombia is still spending less than 2% of its GDP on defence - less than most nations at peace.

Even if the restrictions are lifted, there is scepticism about what difference US military aid can actually make to Colombia. The deployment of US troops has been ruled out and so there are four main areas where the US can help Colombia.

  • Training - the US has already trained three anti-narcotics battalions and this training could be extended to regular army battalions
  • Equipment - the US has supplied about 60 helicopters, but more are needed
  • Intelligence - The US could provide intelligence on guerrilla movements, and positions
  • Money - The US can supply funds to be spent on justice system, human rights, fighting poverty etc

Yet even if all the above are made available there is still doubt as to what real impression US aid could have on the bloody civil conflict, particularly in the short term.

Human rights issue

Training could only be granted to Colombian units which have a clean human rights record, already significantly reducing the effect.

There is no point giving the Colombians more helicopters when they do not have the pilots needed to fly the ones they already have.

FARC rebel
The FARC ceasefire has been abandoned

The dangers of uncontrolled intelligence sharing were revealed last year in Peru when a plane carrying US missionaries was shot down by mistake, after a US intelligence tip off, which indicated the plane might be carrying drugs.

Imagine the consequences if Colombian planes, acting on US intelligence mistakenly bombed a village and not a guerrilla camp.

More funding would obviously help, but Colombia must first assume its own responsibility for financing the conflict - increasing military spending to match the threat and raising taxes from the laughably low levels that currently exist.

The US can support the democratically elected Colombian Government to gain control of the country and establish the rule of law.

But it can only help - the Colombians have to grasp the nettle themselves, and fight the battle they have so far avoided - not just the guerrilla and paramilitary scourge, but the social injustice and poverty that gave birth to it.

See also:

02 Mar 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Colombia's war without end
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Colombia
01 Mar 02 | Americas
Timeline: Colombia
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