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September 21, 1999

Colombia: Counterinsurgency vs. Counter-narcotics

The Honorable Rand Beers
Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International
             Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Department of State

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Caucus:

I want to thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today about the situation in Colombia, and about our on-going policy review. Colombia stands at a critical crossroads now, and there are considerable threats to U.S. national security interests in Colombia. What the United States does or does not do in Colombia over the next few years, and perhaps even over the next several months, will have a great impact on the future of that country.

The Current Situation

It is difficult to describe the current situation in Colombia without sounding alarmist. Colombia's national sovereignty is increasingly threatened -- not from anti-democratic elements in the military or the political sphere, but from well-armed and ruthless guerrillas, paramilitaries and the narcotrafficking interests to whom they are inextricably linked. Although the central government in Bogota is not directly at risk, these threats are slowly eroding the authority of the central government and depriving it of the ability to govern in outlying areas. And it is in these very areas, where the guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and narcotics traffickers flourish, that the narcotics industry is finding refuge.

The links between narcotics trafficking and the guerrilla and paramilitary movements are well documented. We estimate that two-thirds of the FARC fronts and one half of the ELN fronts are involved in narcotics trafficking to one degree or another. By involvement, we mean not just that the guerrilla groups collect "taxes" as they do with all legitimate businesses in areas they control, but that they actively participate in other ways. Reporting indicates that guerrilla groups protect illicit fields and labs, transport drugs and precursor chemicals within Colombia, run labs, encourage or intimidate peasants to grow coca, accept drugs as payment from narcotics traffickers and resell those drugs for profit, trade drugs for weapons, and have even begun to ship drugs out of the country - to Brazil and Venezuela. Estimates of guerrilla income from narcotics trafficking and other illicit activities, such as kidnapping and extortion, are undependable, but it clearly exceeds $100 million a year, and could be far greater. Of this, some 30 - 40% comes directly from the drug trade. Paramilitary groups also have clear ties to important narcotics traffickers, and obtain much of their funding from traffickers. Carlos Castano, the paramilitary leader, has been previously identified as a significant narcotics trafficker in his own right.

Profits from illegal activities, combined with a weakening economy and high unemployment, have enabled the FARC, in particular, to grow rapidly in terms of manpower. This growth has occurred despite an apparent loss of ideological support in the cities, where polls show extremely low approval ratings for the FARC. Much of their recruiting success occurs in marginalized rural areas where the groups can offer salaries much higher than those paid by legitimate employers. This is an example of an area where counternarcotics efforts will have a spillover effect on Colombia's counterinsurgency successes by reducing funds available to the insurgent groups.

The strength of Colombia's armed insurgent groups has, in turn, limited the effectiveness of joint U.S./Colombian counternarcotics efforts. While aggressive eradication has largely controlled the coca crop in the Guaviare region, and is beginning to make inroads in Caqueta, any gains made in Guaviare have been more than offset by explosive growth in the coca crop in Putumayo, an area which, until recently, has been off-limits for spray operations because the Colombian National Police have been unable to establish a secure base there due to heavy guerrilla presence. Only in recent weeks have eradication operations ventured into Putumayo. Even then, operations have moved no more than 10 miles into the area. Interdiction operations in Putumayo are similarly limited. We are unable to carry out any meaningful alternative development programs in most of the coca-growing region because the Colombian government lacks the ability to conduct the monitoring and enforcement necessary for the success of such programs. In order for our counternarcotics programs to be ultimately successful, we cannot allow certain areas of the country like Putumayo to be off-limits for counternarcotics operations.

Fortunately, there are reasons for optimism. In the Pastrana administration, the U.S. finally has a full and trustworthy partner that shares our counternarcotics goals in Colombia and is committed to full cooperation on the full range of counternarcotics efforts. The Colombian National Police, under the direction of General Serrano, has continued its superb record of counternarcotics activity, reinforcing its image as one of the premier counternarcotics forces in the world. Now, for the first time, the CNP's commitment to counternarcotics has been adopted by the Colombian armed forces.

Historically, Colombia's security forces have not fared well in confrontations with the guerrillas, who, over the last few years, have scored a string of tactical successes. Recently, however, the Colombian military and police have been able to inflict significant defeats on the guerrillas. While these recent engagements give us reason for optimism and are a sign of increasing commitment and aggressiveness by the Colombian armed forces, the Colombian military must still address severe deficiencies in training, doctrine, organization and equipment to be able to deal effectively with the guerrilla and paramilitary threat.

Under its current leadership, the Colombian military is also undergoing a cultural transformation which, if sustained, bodes well for Colombia. Defense Minister Ramirez and Armed Forces Commander Tapias have taken dramatic steps to deal with the legacy of human rights abuses and impunity that have clouded our bilateral relations in the past. Our human rights report has also documented a steadily declining number of reported human rights violations by the Colombian military. Clearly much work remains to be done to address the problem of human rights in the Colombian military, but we now believe that the will exists to do so.

Concurrent with this effort to clean up the military, is a renewed Colombian military commitment to counternarcotics. The new leadership realizes that one of the best ways to attack the guerrillas is to attack their financing, in the form of narcotics profits. The Colombian Army has greatly expanded cooperation with and support for the Colombian National Police, and is forming a brand new counternarcotics battalion, specifically designed to work directly with the CNP on counternarcotics missions. The Colombian Air Force has undertaken an aggressive program to regain control of their airspace, and deny its use to traffickers. They have registered some significant successes and demonstrated considerable competence and will, but are still limited by outdated equipment, limited operating funds and inadequate training. The Colombian Navy is working closely with U.S. forces on maritime interdiction, and has participated in many significant seizures, despite limits on equipment and operating funds. Overall, cooperation with the Colombian military on counternarcotics operations has never been better.

Joint Counternarcotics Programs

The USG in general, and INL in particular, is involved with the government of Colombia on a wide range of programs in support of our Colombia counternarcotics strategy, which is, in turn, an integral part of the President's Source Zone Strategy. Our strategy for Colombia calls for an integrated program of support for interdiction and eradication efforts, justice sector reform, alternative development, and institutional strengthening. Colombia is the largest single recipient of U.S. counternarcotics assistance, over $200 million in FY99 alone. Much of this is from the emergency supplemental passed by Congress last year.

In 1998, the joint CNP/INL eradication campaign sprayed record amounts of coca, over 65,000 hectares. In the Guaviare region, where much of the spray effort has been concentrated and which was the center of the Colombian cocaine industry, the crop has decreased more than 30% over the last two years, and very little new cultivation is reported. Similar inroads are being made in the Caqueta region now. Unfortunately, this success has been undermined by the inability of spray aircraft to make meaningful penetration into the Putumayo region, where coca cultivation has increased an astounding 330% over the last two years. The center of gravity of the coca industry in Colombia has clearly shifted.

On the opium poppy front, spray activity has prevented the expansion of the opium poppy crop, which has remained essentially stable for several years. During this time, however, Colombian-origin heroin dramatically increased its market share in the United States, and now increasingly dominates that market, particularly in the eastern U.S. For that reason, in conjunction with the CNP, we began an intensive opium poppy eradication campaign in December 1998. Already this year, the CNP has sprayed over 7600 hectares of opium poppy, a record total. They have essentially sprayed the entire poppy crop in the Huila growing area and have now shifted operations to Cauca.

We have just begun to provide support for a nascent alternative development program in Colombia - $5 million in FY99. We are limiting our support to areas in which the government can exercise reasonable control. Experience has taught us that without this control, alternative development cannot succeed because compliance among drug cultivating farmers cannot be monitored and enforced. As a practical matter, this has limited our assistance to programs in the opium poppy region, where the government has a better presence, and where the necessary infrastructure already exists. The alternative development program is being integrated with the aggressive opium poppy eradication program; and combined, the programs aim to eliminate the majority of Colombia's opium poppy crop within three years.

We continue to provide support for the interdiction operations of the Colombian National Police, which have continued at a high rate throughout this year. We are also working closely with the Colombian Air Force to improve the effectiveness of its aerial interdiction program, and its expansion into southern Colombia. To this end, the Department of State is funding facility improvements to the air base at Tres Esquinas, including a runway extension. We are also funding life-extension and night capability upgrades of A-37 interceptor aircraft and, with DOD, are examining the addition of OV-10s to the intercept fleet. Additionally, we are working with the interagency community to provide better detection and monitoring support, not just in Colombia, but throughout the source zone.

We support an administration of justice program in Colombia, working with AID, OPDAT and ICITAP to provide technical assistance and training to the beleaguered Colombian justice system, which continues to be the weakest link in the Colombian counternarcotics effort. We are pressing actively for continued reforms, including improved asset forfeiture procedures, tighter money-laundering enforcement, and stiffer penalties for narcotics trafficking offenses. We are also working with Colombian authorities on improved prison security to ensure that inmates cannot escape or continue to operate their illicit enterprises from behind bars.

We are working directly with the Colombian military in two important areas. First, we are coordinating with SOUTHCOM and DoD to provide training and equipment for the Colombian Army's new counternarcotics battalion. This battalion is a 950-man unit, comprised entirely of personnel who have been vetted by both the Embassy and the State Department to ensure that none of them have been involved in alleged human rights violations. In addition to training and equipment, the USG is providing mobility to the unit in the form of 18 UH-1N helicopters. I understand that the first two phases of training are complete and that the Colombian government believes the full battalion will be operational by January 2000. The mission of this unit is to conduct counternarcotics operations and to provide force protection support to the CNP. This is an important illustration of the growing ability of the military and the CNP to work cooperatively. Additionally, the clear definition of areas of responsibility for the military vis-a-vis the police strengthen them both as democratic institutions.

We are also working to improve the Colombian security forces' ability to collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence on counternarcotics activity and on insurgent activity which could threaten counternarcotics forces. A key element in this is helping the CNP and the military to share the information they do have, so that all relevant forces have access to the best available information on activity in their area. Intelligence is a force protection issue as well as an operational concern. We are taking steps to ensure that we have all of the information necessary to protect U.S. personnel in the region, including State Dept. contractors helping with the eradication effort and DoD personnel conducting training in non-operational areas.

Peace Process

One of the top priorities of the Pastrana government and of Plan Colombia is implementing a peace process to bring an end to the violent conflict that has drained that nation for four decades. The USG believes in and supports the peace process not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it would be of great benefit to U.S. interests in Colombia. It would stabilize the nation, help Colombia's economy to recover and allow for further improvement in the protection of human rights. More importantly, in the context of this hearing, a successful peace process would restore Colombian government authority in the coca-growing region. The demobilization and reintegration of former insurgents into civil society will remove the umbrella of insurgent and paramilitary protection that the narcotics traffickers currently enjoy.

However, we have made it very clear to the Pastrana government that "peace at any price" is not an acceptable policy. We have consistently asked the Colombian government to press the guerrillas to cease their practices of kidnapping and forced recruitment of children, and to provide a full accounting for the three New Tribes mission members who were kidnapped by the FARC on January 31, 1993. We have also demanded that the FARC turn over to the proper authorities those responsible for the March 4 murder of three U.S. citizen indigenous rights activists. We have made clear to all parties that the peace process must not interfere with counternarcotics cooperation, and that any agreement must permit continued expansion of all aspects of this cooperation, including aerial eradication. The Pastrana government understands our priorities and fully agrees with and supports them.

One of the key limitations confronting the Pastrana administration during the negotiations is the fact that the guerrillas currently feel little pressure to negotiate. Their intransigence is fueled by the perception that the Colombian armed forces do not pose a threat and by profits from narcotics trafficking and other illegal activities that will allow them to continue building their strength through recruiting and arms purchases for the foreseeable future. Essentially, the guerrillas have little reason to negotiate other than an opportunity to rejoin a society they are fighting to destroy. For this reason, we have encouraged the Colombian government to strengthen its military. Although it may not be possible for Colombia to end the insurgency militarily, we do believe that the Colombian armed forces must improve their capacity to defend the civilian population against guerrilla and paramilitary aggression and defend national sovereignty. Furthermore, a stronger military will enhance the negotiating position of the Colombian government by offering the FARC a much-needed incentive to pursue peace.

Plan Colombia

Over the past several weeks, the government of Colombia has developed a comprehensive strategy, the Plan Colombia, to address the economic, security, and drug-related problems facing that country. By bringing together the various entities already engaged in confronting these issues, the Colombians are producing a unified strategy of mutually supporting actions that will address these interrelated crises. This strategy integrates four fundamental tenets: social development, economic development, integrated counternarcotic strategy, and resolution of the insurgency. All four elements are essential to the success of the plan and all four deserve our support.

Colombia invited the U.S. government to contribute to the development of this plan. An interagency team, under the leadership of Under Secretary Pickering and including representatives from ONDCP, USAID, and the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, Treasury, and Commerce are in an on-going discussion with the Colombian government to determine how we can best support their efforts. Clearly, the Plan Colombia will have resource implications. We expect the major part of these resources to come from Colombia itself and other donors. We are currently involved in discussions within the Administration regarding how we can use existing authorities and funds to support counternarcotics operations. We are ready to work with the Colombians to assess the resource implications of their strategy and the optimum ways in which the United States can assist.

Of primary importance to us with regard to the United States' interest in counternarcotics is the commencement of operations in Putumayo. As long as this region remains a sanctuary for traffickers, progress elsewhere will be undermined. In order to operate effectively in this area, which is heavily dominated by the FARC, the CNP will need the support of the Colombian military. The CNP cannot operate there alone. We must therefore begin working with the Colombian military to bring their capabilities up to a level where they can successfully operate alongside the CNP and contribute to the counternarcotics effort. We are currently examining the needs of the Colombian military forces involved in counternarcotics and searching for ways to steer the appropriate resources toward them. We have no intention of becoming involved in Colombia's counterinsurgency, but we do recognize that given the extensive links between Colombia's guerrilla groups and the narcotics trade, that counternarcotics forces will come into contact with the guerrillas, and must be provided with the means to defend themselves and carry out their mission.

We also believe an active aerial interdiction program is absolutely necessary. In Peru, we have seen the dramatic effect such a program can have on the economics of the drug trade, and we would like to recreate that effect in Colombia. The Colombian Air Force is willing, but requires considerable assistance to carry out the mission. Monies have already been appropriated to upgrade the capabilities of Colombian intercept aircraft. With the Colombian government, we are working to implement a system to better track air traffic in the skies over rural Colombia. Additionally, our governments have established improved means to share a wide range of trafficking-related intelligence.

We cannot forget the Colombian National Police, which maintains primary responsibility for counternarcotics operations in Colombia. While the list of CNP achievements is illustrious, they still have outstanding equipment needs and an ongoing need for operational support.

Finally, we need to continue working to reform the Colombian justice system and provide licit alternatives for coca and opium producers so that they do not replant illicit crops after eradication.

Conclusion

The problem of narcotics in Colombia is daunting and complex. While it is convenient to think of it in criminal terms, it is linked at a fundamental level to the equally complex issue of insurgency, and any action directed at one will have spillover effects on the other. Because of this, it is all the more important to maintain our focus on the counternarcotics question at hand. In Colombia, we have a partner who shares our counternarcotics concerns and a leadership that regularly demonstrates the political will to execute the needed reforms and operations. Our challenge, as a neighbor and a partner, is to identify ways in which the U.S. Government can assist the Colombian government and to assure that we are able to deliver that assistance in a timely manner. I look forward to working closely with Congress as we continue to address these critical issues.