U.S. Linked to Abuses in Latin America
The Public i, September 2001
Center for Public Integrity
U.S. anti-drug money spent on Latin America has been funneled
through corrupt military, paramilitary and intelligence organizations
and has ended up violating basic human rights, a Center for Public
Integrity investigation shows.
The investigation by the Center's International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists found that in three of the Latin
American countries examined, U.S. aid was implicated in civilian
human rights abuses. Other findings:
The $1.3 billion Plan Colombia aid package-a year old on July
13-represents the largest American commitment in a guerrilla war
since Vietnam. With the drug war's focus on leftist guerrillas,
successive U.S. administrations have tolerated the Colombian military's
ties to right-wing paramilitaries, even though they, too, are
steeped in drugs.
* In Peru, the CIA paid at least $10 million to spymaster
Vladimiro Montesinos, who also diverted U.S. high-tech surveillance
equipment to spy on political opponents. Montesinos betrayed his
American benefactors by arming Colombia's FARC guerrillas.
* The ICIJ investigation reveals human rights abuses by members
of the elite Mexican special forces unit known as GAFE, many of
whose troops are trained by the United States. As in South America,
U.S. assistance to the Mexican military ends up as dual use-to
counter drugs and to deal with internal security matters.
U.S. officials are particularly concerned about regional stability
in Latin America, which ships more oil to the United States than
the Persian Gulf. Major U.S. corporations with Latin American
interests spent more than $92 million lobbying the U.S. Congress
in the latter half of the l990s, in part to affect U.S. policy
in the region.
Few Americans know it, but the United States is currently
embroiled in the biggest guerrilla war since Vietnam. Hundreds
of American troops, spies and civilian contract employees are
on the ground in Colombia and neighboring lands, helping to coordinate
a $1.3 billion counter-drug program that will probably continue
for many years. It is a bigger U.S. commitment-in personnel, cash
and risk-than the previous leading post-Vietnam counterinsurgency
campaign, the 1980s war in E1 Salvador.
In light of the growing U.S. military involvement in Latin
America-building even as a 1999 truth commission report concluded
that the United States had given money and training to a Guatemalan
military that committed "acts of genocide" during that
country's 36-year civil war-the Center for Public Integrity set
out to examine U.S. military aid to Latin America in the 1990s.
The yearlong investigation by the Center's International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists found, among other things, that in
three of the four Latin American countries examined, U.S. military
and intelligence aid was implicated in human rights abuses.
In Colombia, as in El Salvador, the United States has found
its moral flanks exposed by alliances with corrupt and brutal
military institutions. In El Salvador, the purpose of that questionable
alliance was at least well-defined: to contain a Marxist rebel
army. In Colombia, a nominally Marxist rebel army is again the
main target of U.S. aid, but Washington's motivations are multiple
and, at times, murky. In Peru, the CIA paid millions of dollars
to a shadowy government official, Vladimiro Montesinos, who allegedly
used his influence to arrange an arms deal with the left-wing
Colombian guerrillas, in an affront to his patrons reminiscent
of Panama's Manuel Noriega.
The U.S.-backed assistance program called Plan Colombia, which
was one year old on July 13, 2001, ostensibly is a "drug
war" aimed at eradicating Colombian drug lords' ability to
continue supplying three-quarters of the cocaine and 65 percent
of the heroin entering the United States. But, as the ICIJ's two-continent
investigation shows, U.S. funding for Plan Colombia isn't aimed
solely at limiting the supply and raising the price of cocaine
and heroin on the streets of Baltimore and Seattle or at eliminating
"narco-terrorism"- the drug-trafficking operations that
left-wing guerrillas employ to fund their war in Colombia.
PROTECTION OF OIL INTERESTS
The protection of U.S. oil and trade interests is also a key
factor in the plan, and historic links to drug-trafficking right-wing
guerrillas by U.S. allies belie an exclusive commitment to extirpating
drug traffic. The United States imports more oil from Latin America
than from the Persian Gulf And while oil has long been significant
to U.S. policymakers (and especially to the current Bush administration,
with its emphasis on increasing energy production in the United
States and other zones of influence), until recently hemispheric
oil supplies have been viewed as much more secure than the petroleum
lying under the Middle East.
But the nationalistic talk coming from Venezuelan President
Hugo Chavez, a former army colonel who has dallied with Colombian
guerrillas, has alarmed some U.S. officials. Major U.S. oil companies
have lobbied Congress intensely to promote additional military
aid to Colombia in order to secure their investments in that country
and create a better climate for future exploration of Colombia's
vast potential reserves.
Additionally, Latin America is the fastest-growing market
for U.S. exports.
In fact, large U.S. corporations with Latin American interests
spent more than $92 million lobbying Congress in the latter half
of the l990s, in part to affect U.S. policy in the region. These
companies and their employees contributed an additional $18.9
million to federal election campaigns during the same period.
Business leaders with interests in the region are worried about
economic instability and lawlessness engendered by guerrilla violence-not,
particularly, by drug smuggling.
The constellation of violence in Colombia, where both leftist
rebels and rightist paramilitaries build their armies with drug
money, will make it extremely difficult for the United States
to focus simultaneously on cutting drug supplies while strengthening
stability and the rule of law in the region. Although the bulk
of U.S. aid to Colombia has been directed at territory controlled
by leftist guerrillas, the U.S. government has been aware for
years of links between drug smugglers and the right-wing militia
movement, the investigation found.
WORKING HAND IN GLOVE
Reporting on the ground in southern Colombia, where the U.S.-funded
eradication of coca plantations has wiped out thousands of acres
of coca as well as legitimate plantings in the past year, showed
a continuing hand-in-glove relationship between drug-trafficking
paramilitaries and the Colombian army of which U.S. officials
could hardly be unaware. In the early l990s, the United States
helped Colombia set up intelligence networks that employed right-wing
hit squads against unionists and human rights workers. Recently,
under U.S. pressure, the Colombian government has begun a military
campaign against some of these same paramilitaries. But it is
difficult to know how far the army will go to open a new front
against the now-formidable rightists. In much of the country,
the government and paramilitaries-and the United States- share
the same targets.
The perils of picking the wrong bedfellow in such a fight
are nowhere more apparent than in Peru, where a government that
worked closely with U.S. intelligence for a decade collapsed in
scandal in 2000. The ICIJ investigation found evidence that the
CIA, after years of working closely with Montesinos, the lead
figure in the scandal, might have intentionally undermined him
after discovering in 2000 that he was the middleman in an arms
deal that sent 10,000 East German-made assault rifles from Jordan
to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by
its Spanish acronym FARC. When news of this deal was publicized,
Peru's Congress ousted President Alberto Fujimori, who then fled
to Japan. Montesinos, after eight months in hiding, has recently
been returned to Peru to face an array of charges, including murder
and drug and arms trafficking. But the implications for U.S. policy
were remarkable. The United States' main Peruvian asset in the
drug war was revealed to be arming the FARC-its main enemy in
DEATH OF MISSIONARY, INFANT
The fall of Montesinos led to investigations and jailings
of many intelligence and military officials with whom the United
States worked closely during Fujimori's 10 years in power. Yet
the U.S.-Fujimori era truly crystallized on April 20, when a missionary
and her infant died over the Amazon at the hands of a Peruvian
air crew, flying an old U.S. fighter plane directed by U.S. radar.
The United States had provided the tools and the information that
enabled this tragedy-then looked on with horror, like a latter-day
Dr. Frankenstein, when its creation got out of control.
The same could be said of Washington's relationship with Fujimori
and Montesinos. U.S. officials such as former drug czar Barry
McCaffrey were quick to praise Fujimori's government for cutting
coca leaf production and shooting down drug-laden planes in the
late l990s-even though they knew of Montesinos' previous work
as a lawyer for drug traffickers. Even before Montesinos left
in disgrace, his relationship with the United
States had cooled over concerns about human rights abuses
and persecution of democratic opposition figures. As the Fujimori
years ended, it was not clear how much long-term good was achieved.
As of 2000, new coca crops were planted in eastern Peru in response
to the pressure on Colombian coca fields. And the anti-air campaign
bore tragic, though predictable fruit.
Even before the April incident, the United States had wavered
on the wisdom of shooting down suspected drug planes in the coca-growing
area. At one time the U.S. government was pressing Brazil to shoot
down suspected drug-running craft; it reversed course under former
secretary of state Madeleine Albright. But the United States is
helping to finance a $1.7 billion project to build an enormous
radar network in Brazil. The ostensible purpose is to detect drug
smuggling, but the 200 or more stations that will be built throughout
the Amazon hinterland also will have sensors capable of collecting
data on environmental destruction and settler activity, ICIJ has
learned. Brazilian officers, meanwhile, are concerned that the
data gleaned from the network-whose lead contractor is the U.S.
engineering firm Raytheon-will be secretly borrowed by U.S. intelligence.
In any case, what passes for a technological fix to drug smuggling
doubles as a massive national security project with long-term
strategic interest for both Brazil and the United States.
MEXICO REVERSED COURSE
The same could be said for the massive training program that
Mexico's armed forces have been receiving in the United States.
Mexico, whose traditionally nationalistic military has generally
shied from contact with the United States, has quietly reversed
course in the past decade. With U.S. urging, Mexico has increasingly
thrown its army into the counternarcotics effort. Partly because
of this, Mexican soldiers have been among the top trainees of
the School of the Americas (renamed in January 2001 the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and of other U.S.
training programs. ICIJ's investigation tracked this increase
in training of Mexican troops and discovered that, just as in
South America, U.S. assistance to the military ends up as dual
use-to counter drugs and to deal with internal security matters.
Elite GAFE troops, members of an air mobile special forces unit
trained in part by the United States, have been seen occupying
villages in Chiapas. The ICIJ investigation also chronicles human
rights abuses by U.S.-trained members of the GAFE. The national
security team of President Vicente Fox, who in 2000 ended the
dominant Mexican party's 71 years in power, has been reviewing
the use of soldiers in the anti-drug war, a troubling trend to
many Mexicans, who view the subservience of the military to civilian
forces as a milestone of Mexican history.
Because it is receiving the largest chunk of U.S. security
aid and holds the most potential for future conflagration, Colombia
was the focus of the ICIJ investigation. Levels of violence and
desperation in Colombia present all involved there-U.S. policymakers,
Colombia's neighbors, and Colombians themselves- with anguished
choices. In E1 Salvador, the most comparable conflict of recent
decades, fighting stopped when both sides saw that they couldn't
win and found goals that they could achieve through peaceful means.
Colombia is less hopeful. Both right- and left-wing guerrillas
thrive on drug money and lawlessness and seem little better than
indifferent about popular support. Arguably, if U.S. assistance
to Colombia ends up strengthening the central government and the
rule of law, it will have done a good thing. However, U.S. policymakers
have been less than forthcoming about U.S. objectives in the region.
And the history of U.S. activity in Latin America shows that violent
means employed in pursuit of peaceful goals tend to lead to more