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Published on Monday, August 28, 2000 in the Independent / UK
Colombia Aid Means More Pain
by Jan McGirk
President Clinton last week signed a $1.3bn (£880m) military aid bill to combat drug traffickers and promote peace in strife-torn Colombia. But Colombian human rights activists have profound reservations about the controversial package.

Most of this American assistance will pay for helicopters used for coca eradication, or will fund the US military advisers training Colombian security troops in the latest drug interdiction and intelligence techniques. A cornucopia of social development programmes, from crop substitution to health care, will also be showcased.

Meanwhile, the Colombian President, Andres Pastrana, aims to resolve four decades of bloody insurgency through negotiation with the guerrillas.

More than 35,000 lives have been lost in the past decade of unrest, but United Nations and European Union officials here have suggested privately that US military participation is likely to intensify the bloodshed in Colombia.

Rights activists from over 100 small agencies argue that the US military strategy behind "Plan Colombia" would make their own participation unethical and would cast them as potential targets for the left-wing guerrillas. But those who decline the new funding risk being reclassified by the paramilitary death squads as rebel sympathisers.

"We see this as one big package, in which you can't differentiate the military from the social part," complained Diego Perez, who heads a Jesuit think tank boycotting the Plan.

Most international economic development programmes are expected to participate, however, and an extra $700m is due from Japanese and European donors. Candido Rod-riguez, the EU's envoy in Bogota, may even seek advice from guerrillas. "We can't start a project without being sure that it can be implemented," Mr Rodriguez said.

Raul Reyes, a spokesman for the rebel movement Farc (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), warned that American interference means Colombians now must brace themselves for "the worst conflict the country has seen".

Even the Colombian armed forces commander, General Fernando Tapias, concedes that his divided nation has reached "a point of no return". "There will be peace – but first there will be war," he said.

Though the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels have been practically dismembered in recent years, Colombia continues to supply the US with 80 per cent of its cocaine. Washington's anti-drug chief, Barry McAffrey, says more than 16,000 Farc "narco-guerrillas" are filling the vacuum, using drug revenues to buy arms.

Right-wing paramilitary squads also have been caught trading cocaine for arms this year, while sales of Andes heroin are sky-rocketing. Addicts are routinely shot by guerrillas if they are found scavenging from illicit drug-processing plants, according to Timothy Ross, a British aid worker who runs street shelters in Bogota.

Amnesty International accuses the Colombian military of forced civilian displacements and disappearances, as well as village massacres in league with paramilitary squads. Under Plan Colombia, rights abuses by the armed forces must be subject to full scrutiny by a civilian rights tribunal. But the stricture has not so far inspired much confidence.

Such an investigation is already under way into the army's most recent atrocity, when machinegun fire mowed down half a dozen schoolchildren on a nature hike near Pueblo Rico. Army patrols claim to have exchanged fire with National Liberation Army (ELN) scouts in this northern area hours earlier, and suspected a human shield.

The six children, aged between 7 and 15, died in front of scores of straggling classmates. "I walked beside my daughter and the bullets went between her legs," recalled Mary Lopez, the only parent chaperone present. "We threw ourselves into a ravine and waited it out."

The Defence Minister, Luis Fernando Ramirez, told The Independent on Sunday that the tragedy "was a horrifying mistake, but was not intentional. The inquiries will be exhaustive." The 30 soldiers allegedly involved have been suspended from active duty.

Youngsters frequently are pressed to be informants and couriers for rebels; teenage casualties are commonplace in a guerrilla force that employs an estimated 6000 minors. Since January, 460 underage Colombians have died in battle or crossfire, and another 58 children have been maimed by landmines. At least 100 more are being held captive.

Inaugurating a Justice House, an innovative legal assistance centre in the Cartagena slums, will be the populist centrepiece when Mr Clinton visits on Wednesday. But it is difficult to see what justice Plan Colombia will bring for these children. Too many Colombians envision their children's future blighted by old hatreds and greed for easy drug profits. Few believe that, even with US military aid, daily life will get better before it gets worse.

2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.


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