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Colombia aid gets new scrutiny

Published May 4, 2007


Iraq isn't the only war that Congress is giving a hard look at these days.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visited Washington this week to promote his government's case for continued financial support for Plan Colombia, a decade-old U.S.-backed counter-drug effort central to the U.S. war on drugs. Colombia is by far the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in this hemisphere - $6-billion since 1998.

But after Democrats took control of Congress in November, aid to Colombia has come under intense scrutiny. A free trade agreement with Colombia is on hold because of concerns over human rights abuses and the murder of Colombian labor leaders, which also implicate two American companies.

After meeting with Uribe Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and members of Congress "expressed our growing concerns about the serious allegations of connections between illegal paramilitary forces and a number of high-ranking Colombian officials."

She called on the Colombian government to "investigate and prosecute such officials, including those at high levels."


What has Plan Colombia achieved since 1998?

U.S. and Colombian officials say it has been a success. That is partially true. Colombia has made strides in professionalizing its armed forces. Illegal right-wing paramilitary forces have been substantially demobilized, but the main left-wing guerrilla army is still intact. Both groups remain heavily involved in drug trafficking, as well as intimidation and murder of civilians.

Despite massive spraying of illegal coca crops, Plan Colombia has had no impact on drug prices in the United States. In fact, U.S. drug czar John Walters' office reported last week that the street value of cocaine has fallen while purity has increased.


How bad is the human rights situation?

While conditions have improved compared with a few years ago, union leaders, human rights activists and journalists are still targeted on a regular basis. Some 236 trade unionists have been killed there in the last three years, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit group critical of U.S. drug policy in the region. Almost none of the assassins have been convicted.

"More trade unionists have been killed in Colombia than any other country on the planet, " says Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami.


Has Uribe been implicated?

Alleged ties between paramilitary leaders and the Colombian government have cast a dark shadow over the demobilization process.

So far no solid evidence implicates Uribe, but the scandal is getting closer to him.

Nine members of Colombia's Congress representing Uribe's ruling coalition are in jail for alleged paramilitary ties, including the brother of Uribe's former foreign minister.

Uribe's former intelligence chief, Jorge Noguera, was also arrested and is under investigation for providing hit lists of trade unionists who were later killed.


If Plan Colombia is doing so poorly will Congress give Uribe more money?

Yes. The White House has requested an additional $750-million for 2008, mostly for counter-narcotics and military funding, and the U.S. drug strategy in the Andean region enjoys bipartisan support. In fact, Plan Colombia began under the Clinton administration.

Additionally, the illegal armed groups on the right and left in Colombia are considered by Washington to be "foreign terrorist" organizations.


What will Congress do?

With the Democrats now in charge the emphasis on aid has begun to shift to alternative development and institution building rather than military solutions.

Some members of Congress feel it's time that Colombia paid for its own war. As critics of drug policy like to point out, the United States ends up paying for both sides of the war: drug addicts help finance the armed groups on left and right because both receive money from the cocaine trade, and the government pays Colombia to crack down on drug cultivation.

David Adams can be reached at

[Last modified May 4, 2007, 01:11:07]

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