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Clinton’s Coming Colombia Catastrophe

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The Senate will soon consider President Clinton’s proposed $1.6 billion package to bankroll the government of Colombia’s war against leftist guerillas. The aid windfall purports to help staunch the flow of drugs from Colombia. But there is no reason to expect further U.S. anti-drug aid to be any more effective than past aid. Even worse, there is a growing danger that the United States will be bumbling into a civil war.

Colombia has received almost a billion dollars of anti-narcotics aid since 1990. U.S. tax dollars are magnificent fertilizer: coca production is skyrocketing — doubling since 1996 and forecast to increase another 50 percent in the next two years. Colombia now supplies roughly three-quarters of the heroin and almost all the cocaine consumed in the United States.

Most U.S. anti-drug aid has paid for chemical warfare: blanketing coca-growing areas with herbicides from crop-duster planes and helicopter gun ships, a policy the Colombian minister of health strongly opposed in 1992. Yet after continual escalation in the amount of spraying, the amount of land in coca production is four times greater than what it was in 1994, and now exceeds 300 square miles.

“Close enough for government work” seems to be the motto of some anti-drug pilots. The New York Times reported allegations on May 1 that U.S. — financed planes repeatedly sprayed pesticides onto school children in a Colombian village. Many children reportedly became sick; the spraying also killed crops, chickens, and 25,000 fish in fish farms.

Many farmers raising non-coca crops have been devastated by herbicides dropped indiscriminately on their fields. Coca farmers have responded to the attacks in part by going deeper into the jungles and hacking out new land for planting; environmentalists complain that herbicide attacks are a major cause of deforestation. Colombian environmental minister Juan Mayr publicly declared last year that the crop-spraying program has been a failure and warned, “We can’t permanently fumigate the country.”

The Clinton administration intensely pressured the Colombian government to allow a much more toxic chemical (tebuthiuron, known as SPIKE 20) to be dumped across the land, which would permit the planes to fly at much higher altitudes, Kosovo-style. Environmentalists warned that SPIKE 20 could poison ground water and permanently ruin the land for agriculture. Even as the Clinton administration decreed clean-air standards severely curtailing Americans’ exposure to chemicals that pose little or no health threat, it sought to deluge a foreign land with a toxic chemical in a way that would be forbidden in the United States.

The United States is foisting itself deeper into a civil war that has raged in Colombia for decades. There are approximately 200 U.S. military advisers already on site, and U.S. personnel are now actively training the Colombia military. The Dallas Morning News recently noted reports that “tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are going into covert operations across southern Colombia employing, among others, U.S. Special Forces, former Green Berets, Gulf War veterans and even a few figures from covert CIA-backed operations in Central America during the 1980’s.” The United States is providing key intelligence to the Colombian military from U.S. intercepts of guerrilla radio messages.

Congress in 1996 prohibited any U.S. foreign aid to military organizations with a penchant for atrocities. Human Rights Watch reported last month that the Colombian military continues to have an abysmal record on civilian atrocities and is in partnership with murderous paramilitaries, but few in Congress seem to care about the Clinton administration’s open flouting of the law. (The Marxist guerillas also routinely kill innocent civilians and terrorize the populace).

The San Diego Union reported last month that the United States will finance a Colombian army campaign to forcibly displace 100,000 peasants from the coca-growing area. The Colombia government will be compassionate: the new refugees will be given 90 days’ worth of food and other necessities. It is surprising that the Clinton administration is eager to use U.S. tax dollars for a compulsory resettlement project that sounds like something out of the playbook of Joseph Stalin.

Increased U.S. aid will not enable the Colombian government to win a decisive victory over the guerrillas any time soon. The Colombian military is renown for losing almost all the major engagements it fights with the guerrillas. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently warned that if Clinton’s $1.6 billion aid plan is approved, the United States will be locked into “a 5- to 10-year commitment which will cost U.S. taxpayers in excess of $5 billion.”

And even if the guerrillas are defeated, it’s ludicrous to pretend that Colombians will no longer have an incentive to grow coca — as long as U.S. laws make that crop 20 times more profitable than any other. American-funded drug suppression efforts have resulted in a “push down, pop up” effect: the harder the United States works to repress coca production in one area, the more likely production is to start up in another. It is time to recognize the futility of trying to micro-manage what foreign farmers grow.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.