The American military is fixated by a mission to hit cartels and leftist guerrillas in one strike. While western consumers fund the narco economy, is Bush going to war?by Mark Bowden / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
I was surprised to find Fast Eddie unarmed. A fit, ruddy man, he is otherwise exactly as described, a blunt businessman presiding with frenetic industry over his growing makeshift empire off the busy runways of Eldorado airport in Bogot?. This is my first day back in Colombia, trying to get a handle on what many feel will be America’s next great military adventure: a moving shadow beneath the calm surface of US foreign policy as George W Bush settles into the White House. The new president has presented a neo-isolationist face to most of the world, warning would-be supplicants not to count on American intervention, but Colombia may be the big exception. In April, the Bush administration requested another $800m to assist that country’s counter-drug efforts. The US is already heavily invested in Plan Colombia, an international effort to kill with one stone two stubborn old birds-cocaine trafficking and a 40-year-old leftist guerrilla insurgency. This is one of those plans that looks brilliant in a Capitol Hill briefing room. If it works, it could be a triumph. If it doesn’t, well, think quagmire. Some are already invoking the spectre of Vietnam.
To Fast Eddie, the word is “opportunity.” His empire is a network of tin-roofed trailers just off the airport tarmac, surrounded by an impressive assortment of small planes, vehicles, refrigerators, razor wire and all manner of supplies. These are boom times for Eddie’s Operation Support, which serves as supply depot, dispatch centre, reception and farewell station for every man, woman, weapon, field ration, dog and fence post shipped south by America’s escalating military investment in this beleaguered nation. It has been almost a year since Washington voted to contribute $1.3 billion (over three years) to Plan Colombia’s overall $7.5 billion stabilisation package. Colombian President Andr?s Pastrana has postponed implementation of the military component of the plan, a massive offensive against coca crops and processing facilities protected by the guerrillas in two of the country’s southern states. But so far the threat of this push has not been enough to force the country’s guerrillas to the negotiating table. Unless they back down, the thrust should begin this summer. To hear its most avid supporters sell it, that would merely be a necessary step towards making all of South America safe for Jeffersonian democracy.
There are optimists and there are pessimists, and then there are optimistic pessimists like Eddie, who sees the billion-plus as a first step down a twisting, bloody road for Uncle Sam. Eddie is a Colombian-born American citizen, a veteran of the US Air Force. “I’m a permanent alien,” he says. “I was a foreigner in the US and now I’m considered a foreigner here.” But first and foremost, he’s a businessman. As both a Colombian and American, a two-edged patriot, the prospect of protracted war pains him. Sadness etches his features as he ponders it. But hey, that’s no reason for a fella to take his eye off the ball! In anticipation of the build-up, Eddie has spruced up his waiting lounge. He has hosted as many as 200 troops here at any one time, orchestrating it all with a 9mm handgun strapped to his hip. But today, it is missing.
“No gun, Eddie? I was told you’re always armed.”
“What makes you think I’m not?” he says, lifting one of the flap cushions on his black leather sofa to reveal an automatic rifle, a CAR-15, loaded and a mere twitch from his jewelled fingers.
“I’m always armed,” he says. “This is a violent country. In this country, you can kill anybody and you got no problem. Everybody in Colombia has a bodyguard, except the average person, and I’m an average person. I believe the Strategic Air Command’s philosophy, you know-deterrence. I probably wouldn’t hit anything if I started shooting, but people see me coming and say, shit, don’t mess with him. He’s crazy.”
It’s important to have a survival strategy in Colombia, where kidnapping, assassination and bombings are the normal vocabulary of public discourse. My own survival-aid is a former US Army Special Forces officer, Brent Ballard, a short, bald, unflamboyant, pipe-smoking entrepreneur with a bushy moustache who met me at the airport in Cartagena two days ago and has been with me ever since. Brent moonlights as security/guide/translator for visiting gringos like me, when he’s not trying to corner the growing market for razor wire.
I’d arrived in search of an answer to one of the central questions about military power of our time. In the mess of the real world, can anything predictable (or desirable) be accomplished? In modern war we don’t do anything so old-fashioned as fight until the other side surrenders. Today, we “intervene.” We try to have “clearly-defined goals” and an “exit strategy.”
Colombia’s weak central government is dominated by a small urban elite (President Andr?s Pastrana is the son of a former president) that has traditionally served the interests of wealthy landowners. Racked by political violence in the 1950s and 1960s, then again by drug wars during the 1980s and 1990s, which saw the rise and fall of the Medell?-n and Cali cocaine cartels, the country has been bleeding for nearly 50 years. The decade of the 1950s is known as La Violencia, when civil war claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Narcotics wars in the 1980s and 1990s claimed thousands more lives, and made public service in Colombia a daunting risk. Assassins for cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar, killed scores of judges, three of the five candidates for president in 1989 and in an effort to kill a fourth in that same year downed an airliner, killing all 110 people on board. Amnesty International estimates that 35,000 civilians have been murdered or “disappeared” in the last ten years and in 2000 Colombia was again rated the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.
Colombia is also home to the world’s two oldest Marxist guerrilla movements, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and ELN (Ej?rcito de Liberaci?n Nacional). Both are stubborn but inept, strong enough to embarrass and threaten the government but not to topple it. In recent years, with the collapse of communism, the groups appear to have lost their ideological bearings. They have grown rich off drug trafficking, but have lost nearly all their popular support. In the year since Pastrana ceded the FARC its own small state (over 16,000 square miles of land), little of consequence has been accomplished, and reports of human rights abuses prompted Colombians in the northwestern part of the country to rise up in protest when Pastrana proposed turning their region over to the ELN. So far the guerrillas have declined the opportunity to make peace. Pastrana’s grand gesture, for which he was derided by his own military and by conservatives, has strengthened middle-class support for notorious right-wing paramilitaries like Carlos Casta?o, whose willingness to attack the guerrillas head-on has turned him into a popular figure, and whose private army is an essential partner to the peace talks.
Can $1.3 billion, a few hundred green berets, 24 Black Hawk helicopters and three new counter-narcotics battalions really make a difference here?
Inbound from the north by air, Bogot? always comes as a surprise. You see nothing from the plane window on the hour-long flight south from Cartagena but gorgeous green mountains cut with red-brown tributaries that gradually merge and widen down into deep river valleys. It’s a vast virgin wilderness. Then abruptly you’re over a bustling modern metropolis of 7m people, criss-crossed with expressways, shrouded in smog, studded with office towers, smokestacks and sprawling slums. To the north, Bogot? has wide landscaped avenues, with modern museums, classic cathedrals and graceful old mansions to rival the most elegant neighbourhoods in the world. But to the south and west are endless shantytowns where refugees from the violence in the jungles and hills pick their way through steaming acres of refuse with white kerchiefs wrapped across their faces against the monumental stench. Traffic is a nightmare, combining the madness of third-world driving with the congestion of LA. There are routinely four and five lane back-ups on a three-lane highways, because impatient Bogotanos simply carve impromptu lanes to the left and right of the paved roadways, creating their own dirt lanes, dodging right around the stanchions at every overpass. Fleets of fearless motorcyclists zip between the lanes of stalled cars, dodging death with Latino aplomb. During the drug wars, Colombia’s sicarios, or assassins, often worked from motorcycles, speeding up alongside their target and spraying a dose of lethal fire.
Brent and Eddie are among thousands of businessmen, American and Colombian, who are scrambling for pieces of that billion-plus and what it promises down the road. Most of them are recently retired military men, stoic about the dangers, well-connected and knowledgeable about the planned logistics of intervention. They have plenty of company. DynCorp, a company that employs retired US military special operators, won a $170m contract in 1998 and has been implementing the US-sponsored crop eradication programme ever since. The contract employees work alongside US Special Forces soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who have been rotating through in higher and higher numbers. Bars in the better hotels in Bogot? are crowded with crewcut young Americans most evenings. Whenever the US war machine arrives in these numbers it comes sloppy with largesse: sandbags, tarps, bug spray, generators, Coke machines, VCRs, cots, uniforms, radios, explosives, coffee-makers; every item in the field catalogue and plenty that’s not. The American military machine is mighty and impressive, but it is also a hog. It doesn’t just set up camp, it imports its entire fast-food, strip mall, throw-away container culture. And there’s little that won’t be needed. Few businessmen are confident that Plan Colombia will work as planned, but they keep their heads down and proceed in the time-honoured wisdom of the military contractor: ours not to reason why, buy low, sell high.
Ground Zero of Plan Colombia is about 300 miles south of Eddie in the muggy Amazon basin, out in the triple canopy rainforests along the border with Equador. One of my hopes on this trip is to visit US soldiers at two jungle bases, Larandia and Tres Esquinas, which are readily accessible only by Colombian military aircraft. After fruitless months seeking permission from the army back home, I’m here to get an audience with the new US Ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson. The previous ambassador had, in his wisdom, decided to keep all American personnel in Colombia off-limits to journalists, which is one reason why so few Americans have a clue about what is going on here. Then there are those who feel that building public support for difficult and dangerous foreign military missions requires actually telling US citizens what is going on, and I’ve been told Patterson is among them.
The old embassy was on a busy street in the built-up area of central Bogot?, a square modernist structure where American officials helped steer the bloody drug cartel wars from a windowless fifth-floor vault. The new embassy, in the north part of the city, is walled off like a prison. I have invited Mike Boettcher, one of CNN’s best known globetrotters, along for the briefing. We thread our way through layers of security; vigilant Colombian employees on the outer rim, giving way to marines in the interior. They are jittery at the embassy and not just about guerrillas and narco-terrorists. Having not been informed of Mike’s arrival, enraged embassy officials tell him to leave. I sheepishly make my way alone through a final thick steel door, accused of trying to smuggle a world-famous television reporter into a US embassy.
Before leaving on this trip, I’d received a briefing from a Pentagon official on the military thrust in Colombia. “We’re talking about a surgical application of violence,” he said. “Right now the trend lines are all going the wrong way. Drug shipments are up and the guerrillas are gaining strength. We have identified the geographical centre of the problem, and we plan to put a box around it. There are no roads, so the only way in and out of that area is by river or air. We may not be able to shut it down completely, but we can be good enough at it to make shipping drugs unprofitable. The Peruvians weren’t hitting more than 10 to 15 per cent of the drug planes, but, if you’re a pilot, the idea that there’s a 10 to 15 per cent chance you’re going to get shot out of the sky is enough to make you not want to do it. We can produce the same odds in Colombia.”
It’s useful to remember that, in real life, surgery involves blood. The guerrillas will strike back. Expect efforts to disrupt life in Colombian cities, an increase in kidnappings and bombings, more terrorised citizens and a new effort to hurt Americans, who are now conveniently in greater supply. The new counter-narcotics battalions have been trained and outfitted and are covertly guided by the US Army special forces. The FARC has already announced that it will regard the planned delivery this summer of Black Hawk helicopters as an act of war by the US.
Plan Colombia was sold to Congress last year as a strictly local operation that would not significantly increase US military profile. But figures on how many Americans are presently based in Colombia are fuzzy. On any given day last year, there were officially about 200 American soldiers in Colombia. That number would swell to around 500 when there was a Navy port of call or a special SIGINT (signals intelligence or electronic eavesdropping platform) unit at work. But those were just official numbers. The US military has had “black ops” units here ever since 1989, when it dispatched its premier secret radio telemetry unit, then code-named Centra Spike, to help hunt down Pablo Escobar, whose reign of terror and blackmail had all but paralysed the state. Delta Force soldiers followed a few years later to help finish the job, and remnants of such units have lingered. The official figures don’t include them or the private contractors-like the Dyncorp pilots spraying coca fields (and getting shot at) in small crop dusters over Putumayo. In recent years, the US military has increasingly privatised operations, which means that a lot of the same soldiers, pilots and technicians who have been carrying out American policy in Colombia for years are still here doing the same jobs for somewhat higher pay, but no longer officially members of the US military. The regional intelligence centre at Tres Esquinas at the confluence of the Caqueta and Orteguaza rivers at the western edge of the state of Caquet?, is now operated by contract employees-basically recently retired Special Forces soldiers. The centre provides intelligence and planning for Colombian army forces operating in the region.
This is the most likely first flash point. Defensive preparations around Tres Esquinas have been extensive, and the centre is guarded by several thousand Colombian troops. Surrounding forest has been clearcut to provide open fields of fire, but it is nevertheless isolated and vulnerable. There are lots of guerrillas in the steep hills around it. If the FARC decides to make an issue of US assistance, Tres Esquinas is a likely place to start. There’s a bunker there to house “employees” who stay overnight. It isn’t hard to imagine a force of Americans locked down and under siege and, if that moment comes, how important will it be to the Bush administration whether they are uniformed soldiers or contractors?
“The FARC people have studied Somalia,” said a retired US special forces officer who has spent two years in the Colombian drug wars and who was working as a security consultant there until last year. “They know that if they kill a few American soldiers, the US government might change its mind and leave. Then again, Bush is going to feel pressure to demonstrate that things have changed. So killing a few Americans might just force an escalation. “
If US soldiers are drawn into a shooting war with Colombian guerrillas, or if some assortment of them are captured and held hostage, what will Washington do? Or even if the US soldiers avoid that fate, what happens if two years on it’s evident that the plan isn’t working? Remember, the Colombian army has been battling the FARC and ELN with somewhat lower levels of US aid now for four decades. Does America want to be drawn into the hopeless, violent muddle of Colombian politics, the longest-running civil war in the western hemisphere?
The man whose job it is to make sure this does not happen is Col Patrick Higgins, US Military Group commander, the latest in a long line of frustrated commanders, the last of whom came home in disgrace when his wife was found smuggling cocaine in diplomatic pouches. This was a small story in the US, but a huge and satisfying one in Colombia, where for years US officials have more or less openly accused everyone in power of being secretly on the narco-dole. Higgins, though, is a gaunt, precise West Point graduate with the look of a long-distance runner. There are maps on the walls of his office and a framed cover of the 2nd June 1961 Life magazine, with a close-up portrait of Fidel Castro and the headline “Crisis in Our Hemisphere.”
“We never have someone in Colombia who doesn’t need to be here,” he says of the US military presence. “I have to do a separate risk determination assessment for every single soldier down here. Once you pass that test, we put you in places where traditionally things don’t happen. There are roughly 2,000 men at Tres Esquinas, and today 13 are ours. It has never been attacked. Ever. Even if it is attacked, we are fully capable of defending it.”
Higgins sprinkles his assessment of the developing mayhem with crisp exactitude, as if the mess were neatly calibrated. He says his family back in Detroit feels sorry for him having this mission, but he seems pleased with it. The most ambitious officers compete to be where the action is, and in this sense he may just have the most promising posting in the US Army. The Life cover of Castro is there to remind him, he says, that nearly four decades later, Castro is still in power, and there are still leftist guerrillas in the mountains of South America.
He tries not to think too far ahead. In purely military terms, Higgins feels sure Plan Colombia is going to hurt the guerrillas badly. It is estimated that the entire guerrilla movement consists of about 60,000 full and part-time fighters, “spread very thin.” That’s where the Black Hawks and several new twin-engine Hueys come in. Mobility is a force multiplier; it enables you to wield three times the impact with the same number of men. The three new battalions will consist of about 3,000 men. Their advantage, thanks in large part to US surveillance techniques, is knowing exactly where the enemy is at all times, where its bases are, its labs, its growing fields, its river routes. Two conventional army brigades will concentrate on securing the towns, newly-trained river units will shut down the water routes, crop eradication experts will assault the growing fields, and the new counter-narcotics battalions will hit the all-important processing labs, about 30 of them in total.
“In four years, we hope to decrease coca cultivation by 50 per cent,” says Higgins. “Personally, I think that bar is set low. I think we can do better than that.”
If they do, it will mark the first time counter-drug efforts in Colombia have got ahead of the growers’ capacity for re-cultivation. Luis Moreno, the narcotics affairs section officer at the embassy, whom I visit next, is convinced that the long futile counter-narcotics efforts are at a turning point. They are, he says, because of one critical fact: it takes almost 18 months to recoup a field of coca plants once it has been sprayed or manually destroyed.
Moreno is a boyishly enthusiastic man whose office is cluttered with maps, aerial photos, caps, toys and model airplanes. He exudes can-do. He’s not paid to process the big picture, he’s paid to kill coca plants, and he’s evangelical about it. For several years Moreno has been co-ordinating a programme that sprays Glycosate (found in the household weed-killer Round-up) on coca and poppy fields identified by satellite and high-flying imagery platforms. He says this effort and the Peruvian air force’s success in intercepting drug planes plying the “air bridge” from that country to Colombian labs, has squeezed coca cultivation and processing into one well-defined region, which happens also to be FARC country. Americans fly the planes (those Dyncorp pilots) and it is not unusual for them to encounter small arms fire on their passes over the fields-the planes have been hit 70 times, and three contract pilots have been killed in crashes. While he is talking to me, Moreno gets a call telling him that another of his spray planes had been hit. He’s relieved to hear that this time, as usual, the damage is minimal. His optimism about Plan Colombia is infectious.
“God has been good to us,” he says. “This is a golden moment in history… it won’t repeat itself. Right now, 60 per cent of the world’s coca is concentrated in this region of southern Colombia, which is primarily controlled by the FARC, who are reaping enormous drug profits. The Colombian government wants to force the FARC and the ELN to participate in peace talks. We have a chance of killing two birds with one stone, inflicting the heaviest blow ever to cocaine trafficking and ending the longest-running Marxist insurgency in the world.”
After leaving Moreno, I am ushered into the ornate office of the new ambassador. Patterson is a small woman, poised and deliberate, a Wellesley graduate and career foreign service officer who seems equally capable of gracefully hosting a state dinner or ordering a bombing run. With her neatly arranged hair and pink business suit, Patterson hardly fits the stereotype of a battle-zone ambassador, but she doesn’t scare easily. Just weeks into the job, Colombian police found a large bomb in the path of a motorcade carrying her and a visiting congressman to Barrancabermeja, a small city 155 miles north of Bogot?. There was some debate over the bomb’s target. The authorities initially called it an assassination attempt, then backtracked. “It is not unusual for such devices to be found in Barrancabermeja,” the state department spokesman said. Patterson went through the full day of scheduled events in Barrancabermeja without missing a step. She has lived and worked in the Andean region for more than a decade, most recently in El Salvador and Peru.
“If we take it one step at a time, it will work,” she says. “Ten years ago, Peru was the problem. When we talked about stemming the flow of coca out of Bolivia and Peru back then, no one thought that it was possible. We did it. It’s possible here, too.”
Patterson is one of a significant number of US diplomats and soldiers who have made a career out of the Andes drug war. For these mature professionals, circumstances have conspired to create opportunity. The failed policies of the Reagan administration begat the kingpin strategy of the Bush Snr administration, which took down the old Medell?-n and Cali cocaine cartels and, in the process, begat today’s supercartels: a cynical alliance between Colombia’s guerrillas, paramilitaries and the drug industry. Twenty years of US effort and billions of dollars have succeeded only in shifting the drug industry from place to place, rearranging the geography of growth and processing, altering smuggling routes and changing the names of those enriched by it-but not even slowing the steady rise in drug shipments north. The most recent arrangement of tiles has succeeded in creating an entirely new phenomenon: rich Marxist revolutionaries. It hasn’t always been easy convincing the Pentagon and Congress that narco-traffickers are a worthy target for American military might, but when you start talking leftist guerrillas you’re talking their language.
American money is making the moment possible, and Patterson knows how fragile that commitment might be. If American soldiers start getting killed in Colombia, “the consequences could be very serious,” she says. “We’ve been trying to prepare people back home for the risks. We have a lot of people down here now and this is a very dangerous country. But if we’re ready to tough it out, we can see this through, I think. The FARC can make a lot of noise, but they have no capacity for sustained activity like that.”
She thinks I ought to visit the soldiers down in Larandia. I leave her, Higgins and Moreno pretty fired up about the prospects for this “golden moment in history,” but I encounter sceptics immediately. In the bar at the posh Hotel Dann Carlton, a Colombian businessman nods agreeably through my summary of the military plan and then assures me with a world-weary grimace that all this business of halving cocaine trafficking and crippling the FARC is wishful thinking. He asks me not to mention his name-he’s angling for a few military contracts himself-and says, “at least half of the money America sends will be swindled before it ever reaches the government forces in the field.” An embassy employee at the bar nods and admits there’s some truth to this. He says that the shipment of American-made canvas jungle boots for the first of the new counter-narcotics battalions had, on delivery, magically turned into a less expensive one made of standard black leather.
A Medell?-n pilot and former drug trafficker I meet the following day offers his own lesson in why Plan Colombia is doomed to fail. He takes four bottles of mineral water and places them on the table between us. “Pretend that this mineral water is very, very valuable to you and I can sell you one bottle for $200,” he says. “Now suppose the government decides they don’t want me selling you my mineral water and their efforts cut my ability to bottle it and deliver it to you in half.” He removes two bottles from the table. “So now, regrettably, I must charge you $400 for each bottle. If you want it very badly, you will pay, won’t you? I might even charge you a little extra for all the trouble I am having.”
The moral of this story is that demand drives the cocaine business, not supply. Demand in the US has levelled out in recent years (around 330 tons gets in every year), but around 220 tons of cocaine is now annually flowing into Europe, as much as double the amount in 1996. Colombia itself has never had much of a drug abuse problem, so politicians there have traditionally had trouble selling aggressive crackdowns on narcos without looking like toadies for the gringos. So long as relatively well-to-do Americans and Europeans will pay exorbitant prices for the stuff, somebody will find a way to supply it. Many Colombians feel it might as well be them as anyone else.
Few understand this better than Luis Ramirez, the boyish defence minister, a 42-year-old accountant with a brown moustache and thick pile of wavy hair. His offices are well up in the decaying beehive of Colombia’s defence ministry. Inside it has the look and feel of a command centre, already fully engaged. Clusters of uniformed Colombian and American officers move briskly together through the halls, the Americans eyeing me curiously. Waiting in the lounge outside Ramirez’s office are men in well-tailored business suits, officers in full dress uniform and no-nonsense looking soldiers in dirty jungle fatigues, fresh from action. Waiters in white jackets move among us with trays of coffee, tea and mineral water.
As I wait for Ramirez, I keep thinking about the mineral water lesson. It makes sense. Drug users are captive customers, almost by definition. Most will find a way to pay if the price goes up. Higher prices create more of an incentive for other suppliers to move in. History suggests that even if Plan Colombia halves the cocaine being shipped from Colombia, somebody else will step in to take up the slack.
“I’m not so sure it will happen that easily,” says Ramirez, who looks small and out of place at the head of a broad oak conference table. With him is General Fernando Tapias, commander of the Colombian armed forces, a swarthy man with fat fingers. I pull out a map of Colombia and ask the men to point out the locations of Tres Esquinas and Larandia, and it takes them an alarmingly long time to do so. Finally, donning his specs, General Tapias smooths the lower half of the map and carefully inks two marks in distant southwestern Colombia.
“We have 120,000 hectares in coca cultivation here, in the Putumayo region,” says Ramirez. “Suppose we eliminate all of them, and in the US demand for cocaine stays the same. I don’t see any other country that can offer an area of this size, where the climate is perfect for growing and where you have guerrillas and paramilitaries to help take care of the crops. So for the first time ever, if we can seriously reduce the supply we might be able to have a worldwide impact.”
Another likely immediate impact is an increase in kidnappings and extortion, the two other primary sources of revenue for the FARC and ELN. The guerrillas could aim for high profile targets, and instead of fighting the well-trained mobile battalions in Putumayo and Coquet? head-on, might launch raids and bombing campaigns countrywide, trying to disrupt life in the supposedly safe big cities.
“They are already doing it,” says Tapias. “Or trying. Last night they attacked a military base at Cartagena, an 18-hour siege. They had no success. Not one of…