At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 5, 1998, Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, then head of the U.S. Southern Command, laid out the rationale for a large-scale U.S. military aid program unfolding for Colombia.

“No one questions the strategic importance of the Middle East,” said Wilhelm, whose command was responsible for U.S. military activities in Central and South America and the Caribbean, “but Venezuela alone provides the same amount of oil to the U.S. as do all the Persian Gulf states combined. The discovery of major oil reserves in Colombia, and existing oil supplies in Trinidad-Tobago and Ecuador, further increase the strategic importance of this region’s energy resources.”

What’s more, he said, Latin America was ruled by democratic nations eager for U.S. investment and trade. “As we enter the new millennium, U.S. trade with this region is envisioned to exceed trade with all of Europe,” Wilhelm said. “By 2010, U.S. trade with this region is projected to exceed trade with Europe and Japan combined.”

But some things in Latin America had not fundamentally changed, Wilhelm went on—”terrorism, international organized crime, and drug trafficking” continued to threaten civil society. The benefits of trade and development would require a major U.S. investment “to deter aggression, foster peaceful conflict resolution, and encourage democratic development while promoting stability and prosperity.”

One country—Colombia—was at the center of all potential and peril, and it became the focus of an unprecedented U.S. military and economic aid package to the region. The country is in the grips of a five-decade-old guerrilla war, with powerful left-wing armies—who effectively control about 40 percent of Colombia—countered by a growing right-wing paramilitary movement that uses ghoulish death-squad tactics against its presumed enemies. Colombia continues to be the leading producer of narcotics destined for the U.S. market. In 1999, according to the United Nations, Colombia supplied an estimated 66 percent of the world’s cocaine supply—a staggering 300 metric tons annually. Both the leftist guerrilla groups and the paramilitaries are engorging their armies on the profits of that drug trade.

Colombia also leads the world in violence, with 77.5 murders per 100,000 people each year—more than 13 times the U.S. rate. A third of the world’s terrorist attacks occur in Colombia and more than half the kidnappings. Leftist rebel groups—including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, and the National Liberation Army, or ELN—are well-funded, sophisticated insurgencies. In 1998, then-Colombian Defense Minister Gilberto Echeverri estimated that the rebels pulled in $1 billion in revenue that year from kidnapping, extortion and participation in the country’s lucrative drug trade. The paramilitaries, with an estimated 8,000 men and women under arms, are intimately tied to drug-smuggling cartels. Their trademark is wanton disrespect for human life, and they are responsible for two-thirds of the estimated 4,000 annual political murders in Colombia.

Rebel wealth is reflected in the rebels’ operations against the overstretched Colombian military. Mobile units of the 15,000-strong FARC can crush entire Colombian army battalions; its armaments and machines of war include anti-aircraft missiles, cannons and light aircraft. Until recent setbacks on the battlefield, the ELN had a 5,000-man force, and the ability to disrupt with relative impunity the businesses of Fortune 500 firms and European energy conglomerates – kidnapping oilfield workers and executives, bombing machinery and pipelines. Between 1986, when Occidental Petroleum opened a pipeline linking the major Cano Limon oil field to the Caribbean port of Covenas, and April 2001, the 483-mile pipeline came under attack more than 800 times, mostly by the ELN. Occidental owns 35 percent of the pipeline in partnership with the Argentine-Spanish firm Repsol, which holds 15 percent, and the Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol. Each day the pipeline is shut down by a guerrilla bombing costs Occidental about $2.5 million.

Occidental Petroleum testifies

Just two years after Wilhelm testified, a House of Representatives subcommittee held a hearing that represented the first public discussion of President Clinton’s proposed $1.6 billion aid package to fight the drug trade in the Andean region, which came to be known as Plan Colombia. Occidental Petroleum’s vice president, Lawrence Meriage, testified about his company’s growing losses, and his presentation was seconded by Wilhelm and then-U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey. In justifying the massive infusion of aid, McCaffrey stressed that narcotics gave Colombia’s warring political outlaws a nasty resilience that threatened to drag down the entire region. “As long as the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitaries have this tremendous wealth from drugs,” he said, “if there’s no reward and punishment, why should they talk instead of fight?”

The hearing demonstrated well-grounded unease about developments in Colombia and revealed the wide range of political, military and corporate interests involved in U.S. policy on Latin America. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who chaired the House Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee hearing, summed up these interests in his opening remarks: “As we face this serious and growing challenge in Colombia, our vital national interests are undeniably at stake. With 20 percent of the U.S. daily supply of crude and refined oil imports coming from that area, and with the vitally important Panama Canal located just 150 miles to the north, the national security and economic implications of Colombia’s rebel activity spilling over into neighboring countries are enormous.”

Ever since the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, U.S. presidents have asserted their prerogatives in the Americas. From gunboat diplomacy to propping up shaky dictatorships in the Cold War to fighting the war on drugs, the United States has been deeply involved in the affairs of Latin America. To varying degrees, economic motivations have always influenced U.S. policy makers and underlain their approach to the region. Rarely, however, have human rights been of foremost concern in Washington’s involvement in Latin America. Indeed, U.S. military aid to the region has often been implicated in human rights abuses. Clinton even issued a mea culpa in 1999 after a Guatemalan truth commission found that U.S. military and intelligence aid had helped the Guatemalan military commit “acts of genocide” against the Mayans during that country’s 36-year civil war. Yet when Clinton’s own administration—and Congress—confronted the turmoil in Colombia, it took the traditional approach to Latin America. And, though corporate interests, military strategic needs, and law enforcement concerns were all duly taken into account in formulating a policy toward Colombia, respect for human rights could—quite literally—be waived by the president in favor of other priorities.

Colombia is third-largest aid recipient

Today, Colombia trails only Israel and Egypt as the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world. When Wilhelm equated U.S. interests in Latin America with the unquestioned “strategic importance of the Middle East,” he was not exaggerating. For the United States, Latin America is a colossal trading bloc, rich with natural resources, inexpensive labor and millions of potential consumers of U.S. products. Latin America accounted for 20 percent of all U.S. merchandise exports in 2000, compared with 13 percent a decade earlier.

Colombia has been one of Latin America’s most successful economies in recent decades, despite its civil war. In 2000, Colombia was the fifth-largest U.S. trading partner in Latin America; legitimate commodities such as oil, coffee and cut flowers have long been staples in U.S. markets. Throughout the 1990s, Colombia was also one of the top 10 suppliers of oil to the United States. Its economy has faltered in recent years, with the guerrilla and drug wars having a severe impact on legitimate businesses, and oil production fell in 2000 after rising steadily for two decades.

By the late 1990s, the violence was shaking Colombia’s economy and beginning to spill into neighboring countries. Fear of Colombia’s chaos was aggravated by developments in neighboring Andean nations. Economic crisis had deepened poverty and led to coup attempts and political upheaval in Ecuador and in Venezuela, until recently one of the most stable South American democracies. Peru defeated two major guerrilla movements in the 1990s, but the government of Alberto Fujimori, though elected, grew increasingly dictatorial before its collapse in late 2000. At a congressional hearing in October 2000, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., called the area surrounding Colombia a “tinder box.”

“Colombia’s fate is a national security threat to the United States,” Burton said. “In addition to its proximity to the U.S., Colombia borders Venezuela. Venezuela is the largest petroleum exporter to the U.S. Colombia also borders Panama, a country without a military and whose police force is ill-equipped to defend itself against the heavily armed FARC narco-terrorists. Much of the world’s economy passes through the now-defenseless Panama Canal at one point or another. The potential influx of refugees or narco-traffickers into any of Colombia’s bordering countries has the potential to destabilize the entire region.”

Burton’s remarks weren’t too far off the mark. Violent guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug operators have reportedly driven some 1 million Colombians from their country since 1996, and the number of Colombians applying for tourist visas to the United States doubled from 1997 to 2000, when 366,000 applied for tourist visas. Additionally, an estimated 1.6 million Colombians are living in internal exile, frightened into makeshift refugee camps and hovels by armies of the right, the left and the drug trade. 

Wilhelm testified in the Senate Armed Services Committee in November 1999 that Colombia’s instability “poses a localized threat to Panama’s sovereignty.” The United States handed over responsibility for the operation and defense of the 50-mile Panama Canal on Dec. 31, 1999. And there was widespread concern that Panama’s undergunned police force was incapable of dealing with incursions by FARC guerrillas and paramilitaries along Panama’s desolate, jungle border with Colombia. 

U.S. officials were also troubled by the situation in Venezuela, where Hugo Chavez, a former army colonel, was elected president in December 1998, six years after leading a failed coup attempt. A leader who enjoys thumbing his nose at the United States, Chavez was the first foreign head of state to visit Saddam Hussein after the end of the Gulf War. He also visited with Moammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro, with whom Venezuela signed an oil-for-medical aid agreement. With Venezuela chairing the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 2001, Chavez urged fellow OPEC members to cut production and boost the price of crude oil, in defiance of U.S. pressures. Relations between Chávez’s government and Colombia soured in 1999 after two FARC officials were allowed to speak on the floor of the Venezuelan National Assembly, which prompted Colombia to recall briefly its ambassador from Caracas. Chavez is also suspected of having made a secret concordat with the FARC, whose combatants frequently crossed the border to extort money and buy supplies.

Beyond such concerns, many officials with experience in Colombia believed the United States needed to intervene simply because Colombia was one of the largest and oldest democracies in Latin America. “Colombia is a big country and the closest South American country to the U.S. . . . It faces the U.S. in every way, from culture to trade,” said Michael Skol, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, who became a Latin America lobbyist after retiring from a 30-year government career. “If the Colombian democracy and economy crumbles, that would be terrible for U.S. interests in all of Latin America; it puts a serious hole in the Latin American free market.” 

But how was the U.S. government to sell its military buildup to a public leery of involvement in a complex foreign quagmire? In the same way that U.S. policy in the region was structured in previous decades within the framework of the Cold War, during the 1990s it adopted a single theme as its rallying cry—the war on drugs. The fact that Latin America supplies nearly all of the world’s cocaine and much of its heroin has served as justification for a sharp increase in U.S. military and economic aid since 1995. “The clear recognition was that for a whole host of reasons, the best way to package this was as narcotics because in today’s budget climate in the U.S. that’s what sells; that’s one of the few areas in which Democrats and Republicans can achieve some sort of agreement,” said Charles Gillespie, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

And so, “narcoterrorism”—a catchy if inexact characterization of Colombia’s blood-drenched drug trade—became the buzzword both the White House and Congress brandished to drum up military support for Colombia’s government. “Colombia is important because, should democracy fall there, and a narco-state prevail, or a Marxist-led government run by the FARC narcoterrorists succeed democracy, we are at severe risk here in the United States,” Burton told a 1999 subcommittee hearing. “Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America . . . . Should Colombia’s democracy fall, the result could be a domino effect through all of Central America.”

The equation went like this: Communism was no longer a threat to U.S. national security; drugs were. Since these particular communists were into drugs, they were still a threat to national security. Inconvenient details—such as the fact that right-wing paramilitaries who worked closely with U.S. government allies were every bit as drug-soaked as their leftist foes—could be largely brushed aside. Although U.S. policymakers readily acknowledged the paramilitary link to drugs, as of mid-2001 they had not pressed for a systematic campaign against the paramilitaries to rival the drive against the FARC.

The Clinton administration sold its policy as an intensification of the drug war, pure and simple. “Cocaine . . . is the heart and soul of the incredible impact that 26,000 armed people are having on Colombian democratic institutions,” McCaffrey, the former drug czar, said early in 2000. Others concurred. “In U.S. government circles, where counter-narcotics aid is widely viewed as a way to combat the insurgency ‘through the backdoor,’” Donald E. Schulz, a former U.S. Army War College professor, wrote in a war college publication, “the calculation is that if we were candid about what we were doing the political opposition would be so great that U.S. aid to Colombia would be greatly reduced, setting back the wars against both the narcos and the guerrillas.”

Trade, profits and policy: the strategic concerns 

For more than a decade, the United States has pursued two policies in Latin America: increasing international trade and controlling narcotics. Those two objectives would come into conflict in 1994, when Ernesto Samper, a former senator, Liberal Party stalwart and U.N. ambassador, was elected president of Colombia. Immediately after the election, allegations surfaced that Samper had accepted $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel. A U.S. investigation backed the charges, but a Colombian congressional committee dismissed them. The charges against Samper, and the U.S. response to them, would pit U.S. business interests against the Clinton administration.

The linkage of trade preferences to anti-narcotics policies first made an appearance in 1991 with the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which removed duties and tariffs on exports such as cut flowers and fish from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Trade between the United States and the Andean region more than doubled in the decade after the act’s passage; the four countries together increased their exports to the United States by about 80 percent, while U.S. grain exports to the region grew 124 percent and aircraft exports 135 percent. “A strong trade and investment relationship with the Andean region is a vital component of our counter-narcotics efforts,” then-Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Richard Fisher told a Senate hearing on narcotics control and international trade in February 2000. “Our trade policy . . . has been designed to give countries in the region greater opportunities to move away from narcotics cultivation into legitimate trade.”

The act was a key part of the Andean Initiative, a five-year, $2.2 billion program proposed by President George H.W. Bush and his drug czar, William Bennett, which in many ways foreshadowed the debate that would surround Clinton’s Colombian aid package. The initiative dramatically increased military aid to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, dispatching U.S. Special Forces to train Bolivian and Peruvian soldiers in “low-intensity” warfare. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert Brown told members of Congress at an October 1999 hearing that the U.S. aid could also be used by the Peruvian and Bolivian military to fight leftist guerrillas, which he said were becoming increasingly linked to drug traffickers. Members of Congress who opposed the initiative invoked images of Vietnam in voicing their concerns about becoming militarily embroiled in the region.

Under a 1986 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, the president is required each year to give Congress a list of narcotics-producing or trafficking countries, then determine by March 1 whether they are cooperating with U.S. drug-fighting efforts. Those deemed uncooperative are “decertified,” meaning that all U.S. financial assistance is blocked with the exception of specified humanitarian and counternarcotics aid. The amendment also cuts off financing from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and requires the United States to vote against the decertified country’s aid requests to six international development banks, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Though trade sanctions are optional, decertification can hurt foreign economies by discouraging foreign investment and straining relationships between corporations and national governments. As one senior U.S. official told the Chicago Tribune, decertification is “the financial equivalent of the scarlet letter.”

The Clinton administration’s decertification of Samper did not threaten the bulk of U.S. direct aid to Colombia because it was labeled counter-narcotics support. It did, however, endanger the country’s preferred trade status with the United States, as well as its chances of being included in an expanded North American Free Trade Agreement. In an effort to avoid decertification, Samper launched “Operation Splendor” three months after his election, which aimed to eradicate Colombia’s entire coca and poppy crop within two years. The Colombian government used U.S.-supplied planes and U.S.-trained pilots to spray coca fields with the herbicide glycophosphate, and Samper claimed 110,000 acres of drug crops were being destroyed. Thus began an annual dance between the two countries in which Colombia offered tokens of commitment to the anti-narcotics fight—drug spraying, captured drug dealers, judicial reforms—in the weeks prior to the certification announcement.

On March 1, 1995, President Clinton announced he would decertify Colombia, but he waived sanctions in the interest of national security. The waiver reportedly was granted with the caveat that Samper had to show within a year that he had broken ties with traffickers. But during the 1996 presidential campaign, feeling politically vulnerable because of his cuts in the White House drug office, Clinton reversed course and appointed McCaffrey to head it. “The appointment of General McCaffrey to that position will now bring, I think, a new added element to the arsenal we have available in fighting the war on drugs,” said White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

The most highly decorated and youngest Army four-star general, McCaffrey served four combat tours of duty, including two during the Vietnam War. He had been commander-in-chief of the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for Latin America, from 1994 until just before Clinton chose him. McCaffrey massively ramped up the anti-drug effort, increasing the drug office’s staff from 40 to 150 people and helping to boost the overall drug war budget from $13 billion annually to $18 billion.

McCaffrey’s tenure was peppered by battles with Congress that were essentially sideshows to the hot drug war on the streets of the United States and in the jungles of Latin America. In February 1996, Sens. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill to cut off all aid to Mexico unless Clinton notified Congress in writing that Mexico had taken steps to combat narcotics-related corruption. However, decertifying Mexico did not mesh with the administration’s goals of cooperating with President Ernesto Zedillo and strengthening the Mexican economy, especially after the battles to pass NAFTA and the administration’s controversial bailout of the Mexican peso.

Colombia was a safer bet: U.S. frustrations with Colombia had become personalized, focusing on Samper as the core problem. On March 1, 1996, amid growing signs of drug cartel corruption at the highest levels of Mexico’s security forces, Clinton certified Mexico and again decertified Colombia. Marc Thiessen, a spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said afterward, “This is a decertification not of Colombia, but of President Samper. This is a vote of no confidence for him, not the country.”

In 1997, Clinton once again certified Mexico and decertified Colombia, stating that Samper would have to show progress on issues such as extraditing drug traffickers, spraying herbicides on drug crops and prosecuting corrupt officials to regain favorable status. Colombia was allowed to continue exporting products duty-free to the United States under the Andean trade agreement, and Colombian officials claimed decertification had no effect on the country’s economy.

For U.S. corporations doing business in Colombia, decertification had a more immediate effect. It automatically stopped funding from the heavily politicized export credit agencies, whose millions in special financing made it possible for U.S. companies to invest in Colombia without fear of catastrophic losses. The Overseas Private Investment Corp., which helps U.S. corporations set up shop overseas, provides loans, loan guarantees and insurance against political instability. Ex-Im Bank provides loans and credit to foreign purchasers of U.S. products. In 2000, half of OPIC’s financing, or $7.4 billion, was directed toward Latin America. Ex-Im Bank provided $3.1 billion in financing—24 percent of its lending—for U.S. exports from Latin America in fiscal year 2000. OPIC valued its portfolio in Colombia alone at $914 million in 2000, with 17 projects worth another $1.7 billion in potential revenue in the pipeline. In March 2000, it estimated that nearly 3,000 jobs and $1 billion in revenue would result from current OPIC-supported projects there.

Expediting U.S. foreign policy had always been integral to the missions of both agencies. In 1999, OPIC launched several programs in response to a request by President Clinton to attract investment to Latin America, including an agreement with Citibank to establish a $200 million investment fund for Central America and the Caribbean. At a March 2000 hearing called by Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., OPIC President and CEO George Muñoz described the institution’s role in Plan Colombia as “part of . . . the administration’s efforts to help bring the U.S. private sector investments in the regions of Colombia that are safe.”

A powerful contingent of interests in the United States and Colombia, whose OPIC and Ex-Im Bank funding had been cut off, became the most vocal opponents of decertification. Exporters including the Colombia Flower Council argued that decertification would undercut legal alternatives to drug production. At a February 1997 “Certify Colombia” forum in Miami, Florida politicians, trade organizations and industry leaders estimated that Clinton’s move threatened 15,000 Florida jobs and 1,600 businesses. A 1996 survey by the Council of American Enterprises, an American business consortium in Colombia, concluded that the loss of Ex-Im Bank funding cost U.S. companies $875 million in potential sales, mostly to Asian and European competitors. Drummond Coal, electrical utility operator GPU and Caterpillar Inc., which supplies equipment to oil companies, all began lobbying in 1997 for a national security waiver for Colombia.

Decertification had interrupted OPIC and Ex-Im Bank financing for Thermobarranquilla, an enormous geothermal plant run by a consortium led by GPU. Decertification required OPIC and the Ex-Im Bank to freeze about $1.5 billion in investment credits and loans for U.S. companies investing in Colombia, according to the State Department. Oil companies were also hit: a $180 million credit for the $2 billion Oleoducto Central SA crude oil pipeline, which would support development of the massive Cusiana-Cupiagua field, was cut. Another $200 million in financing for Cusiana development affected a partnership of oil companies that included a pair based in the United States, IPL Enterprises Inc. and Triton Energy Corp.

One of the louder voices against decertification was that of Michael Skol, the State Department veteran who was now plying the lobbyist trade on the strength of his government contacts and experience. After leaving the State Department in 1996, he founded Skol and Associates, a consulting firm whose clients include the Bolivian government. Skol also was the first president of the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership, a lobbying group for U.S. companies. As a government official, Skol had met with Samper in New York in 1994 to warn him of decertification. Four years later, Skol the lobbyist attacked the move. “One of the insanities of this legislation is that if you take away Ex-Im Bank financing and OPIC guarantees, you’re hurting American companies and exporters rather than Colombians, and opening up the Colombian market to the French and other overseas competitors,” Skol said in a May 1997 news article.

Business opposition to decertification reflected that while American companies wanted more U.S. government aid to Colombia, illicit drugs, per se, didn’t bother them. They were more concerned about the rebels who used drug profits to arm themselves and harass U.S. businesses. At a February 2000 hearing, for example, Occidental executive Meriage reminded legislators that his company was drilling in Ecuador 40 miles from Colombia’s southern border. While calling for greater U.S. support to fight drug-trafficking rebels in northern Colombia, near Occidental’s Cano Limon oilfield, he worried that the U.S.-backed campaign against FARC-controlled coca fields in southern Colombia could cause guerrilla attacks to spill over into Ecuador, threatening his business. “I think looking exclusively to the south and ignoring what’s happening in broader areas of Colombia is a mistake,” he said.

Nearly all major oil firms have significant operations either in Colombia or Venezuela, and they were some of the first to react to decertification. Lobbying disclosure forms filed at the House of Representatives show that in 1996, Occidental lobbied for “improved commercial ties with Colombia.” Phillips Petroleum, which owns 40 percent of the Hamaca pipeline in Venezuela and drills the Orinoco field, lobbied on Latin American policy. In 1997, Exxon, Occidental, Unocal and Caterpillar, which sells heavy equipment to oil companies and the U.S. military, all lobbied for certification. Theresa Fariello, Occidental’s vice president for international affairs, lobbied on Colombian policy issues in Congress and the executive branch, including the Department of Energy, from 1996 to 1998, lobby records show. Then Fariello joined the Department of Energy as the deputy assistant secretary for international energy cooperation. She told ICIJ she did not work on Colombia in that position. (Fariello left her DOE position during the White House transition and is now a senior government-relations adviser for Exxon-Mobil.)

It wasn’t only the loss of Ex-Im Bank financing that hurt oil and its linked industries in Colombia. Decertification put a breach in the companies’ relationship with the Colombian government, on which they depended for access and, in some cases, security. Occidental, for example, pays the Colombian government to keep an army base next to its refinery. “When you build a pipeline and the political scene changes, you don’t just pack up your pipeline and go home,” Charles Andreae, president of the U.S.-Colombia Business Partnership, said in an interview with ICIJ. “There’s a lot of companies that, if they lost a plant, it would not affect their businesses too much; [oil] companies sunk their money in there in advance, and if you leave a country like [Colombia] in bad times, you usually don’t make money.”

By 2001, Colombia had 11,700 kilometers of oil and gas pipelines, many of them increasingly vulnerable to guerrilla attack. The Cupiagua oil field in the eastern Colombian province of Casanare has 2 billion barrels lying beneath it; Cano Limon in the Arauca province, bordering Venezuela, and Cusiana have about a billion barrels each. Cusiana and Cupiagua are located in the Llano Basin in eastern Colombia, which produces two-thirds of Colombia’s oil, and are managed by a consortium headed by BP Amoco.

While the war exposed U.S. oil companies to lower profits, rebel sabotage posed even graver risks to the Colombian economy as a whole. Oil money is key to Colombia’s national budget, which is in deep fiscal trouble. Oil accounted for 32.5 percent of all Colombian exports in 2000. And the Colombian government receives about $3 billion annually in royalties and taxes from the oil industry—twice what it earns from coffee, 10 percent of its entire budget and nearly half of what it spends on health and education. But so far in 2001, oil production has decreased by 90,000 barrels a day, a 9.7 percent drop over last year.

Much of Colombia’s oil reserves remain unexplored and lie under rebel-controlled lands. The country has an estimated 2.6 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, and 10 times that amount in potential reserves. Its proven reserves are projected to last only about a decade, and analysts predict that Colombia could become a net oil importer by 2004 if major new fields don’t come on line before then, according to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol said 11 companies, including Texaco, Chevron and Triton, pulled out of exploration contracts in 1999 after failing to find oil. Harken Energy, a Texas-based oil company that, until 1993, had George W. Bush on its board of directors, had a $152 million write-off in 2000 because of the failure of exploratory wells. In a May 2001 SEC filing, Harken attributed additional losses to periods in which oil crews were grounded by guerrilla roadblocks.

“The security issue is a big negative for companies doing business in Colombia,” Alejandro Martinez, head of the Colombian Petroleum Association, the country’s main industry trade group, told the St. Petersburg Times.

“It’s a very serious situation, very worrisome.” According to a security assessment report from the U.S. Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, half of Colombia’s potential oil reserves are under guerrilla-controlled territory. The Colombian government, concerned about how long oil supplies will hold out, has renegotiated contract conditions with oil companies to encourage exploration, reducing the percentage of oil revenues given back by the companies to the government from 50 percent to 30 percent and, when prospects for finding oil are not good, to 10 percent.

From 1995 to 1997, the number of barrels of oil exported to the United States from Andean Pact countries surpassed that of the Persian Gulf. In 1999, with Iraqi exports closer to pre-Gulf War levels, the Andean region was still exporting an average of 1.7 million barrels a day to the United States, compared with 2.4 million from the Gulf. While the bulk of the Andean exports came from Venezuela, which rivaled Mexico, Canada and Saudi Arabia for the title of No. 1 U.S. oil supplier, Colombia has consistently been one of the top 10 oil exporters to the United States in the past decade. In 2000, it ranked seventh, exporting 332,000 barrels per day to the United States.

The United States and Colombia have worked to tighten their relationship regarding this crucial resource: in 1999, Pastrana met with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush prior to speaking at an energy conference hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership business association. “Governor Bush and I both recognized that there are strong business ties between Colombia and Texas, and that both our economies can benefit from an increase in trade and investment activities,” stated Pastrana. Bush, for his part, mentioned his investments in Harken Energy, which has drilled in Colombia for many years.

While the Ex-Im Bank couldn’t finance oil companies under decertification, it could finance arms sales to Colombia—as long as the weapons were being used to fight drugs. Ex-Im Bank had been prohibited from financing arms exports in the early 1970s, after Congress learned it had guaranteed illegal back-door weapons sales to the shah of Iran. However, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 allowed the State Department to waive the law under an anti-narcotics provision if “a Presidential Determination of National Interest is obtained . . . which concludes that the item is to be used primarily for drug interdiction purposes.” The policy equivocation about whether the U.S. mission was to help the Colombians fight drugs or guerrillas was thus further muddled.

Ex-Im Bank has facilitated weapons sales to Colombia for more than a decade: Its first transaction under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1998 was a loan guarantee for a $200 million sale to Colombia in 1989 of Black Hawk helicopters, river patrol boats, arms, ammunition and other military equipment. In 1992, the bank guaranteed a $29.8 million loan allowing the Colombian government to purchase communications equipment, helicopters and patrol boats from the U.S. Defense Department. In 1999 and 2000, a total of $204.3 million was authorized for Colombia’s purchase of 19 Black Hawks.

Still, decertification created an uncertain environment for weapon sales, and contractors were fortunate to find a group of Republican champions who staunchly advocated the sale of sophisticated combat helicopters to the Colombian National Police. The group was headed by Benjamin Gilman of New York, then-chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Dan Burton of Indiana, head of the House Government Reform Committee. It also included Mark Souder of Indiana, Dennis Hastert of Illinois and John Mica of Florida.

Many of the legislators who took an interest in Colombia, including Gilman and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, had become interested in the drug war as a result of their experiences prosecuting drug offenders in district attorney offices before being elected to Congress. Most members of the group had traveled to Colombia at least once to see the drug war up close. At least six congressional delegations visited Colombia from 1995 to 2000.

Conservative lawmakers placed their hopes on Gen. Rosso José Serrano, a cocaine cartel buster of some renown whom Samper had named to head the National Police in November 1994. While Gilman, Burton and others demanded immediate shipments of Black Hawk helicopters for the National Police, the Clinton administration favored sending the expensive Black Hawks to the army, which it saw as better suited for counterinsurgency support. United Technologies and Textron, whose subsidiaries manufacture Black Hawk and Huey helicopters, respectively, weighed in as well. From 1996 to 2000, the two corporations spent at least $32 million to lobby for sales of their aircraft.

Serrano wanted Black Hawks to replace the National Police fleet of UH-1H Huey helicopters, which are smaller, slower and have a shorter range. He testified on Capitol Hill that the Black Hawks would help his agents conquer the mountainous terrain that hid opium fields. The less powerful Huey helicopter, manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, a subsidiary of Providence, R.I.-based Textron, required arming and refueling locations closer to the drug cultivation areas, putting personnel and equipment at greater risk. [See “The Helicopter War”]

While oil companies and defense contractors looked for loopholes or lobbied against decertification, the Colombian government launched its own campaign, taking a cue from Mexico’s million-dollar effort to push the NAFTA trade package through Congress in 1993. In Washington, lobbyists are only too happy to represent foreign interests—for a fee.

Colombian governmental bodies hired a Who’s Who of top firms to lobby against decertification. Records maintained by the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) show that seven of 14 contracts initiated with U.S. lobbying and public relations firms since 1995 were on behalf of the Export Promotion Trust Fund (ProExport), an agency of the Colombian Ministry of Commerce charged with promoting Colombian exports. Another two contracts were on behalf of the embassy’s trade bureau. Trade organizations representing the coffee and flower industries, among Colombia’s top legal exports, also retained lobby firms in Washington. Between October 1995 and April 1996, O’Connor & Hannan lobbyists representing ProExport contacted several federal agencies, including the Defense Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Security Council, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Central Intelligence Agency. They also scheduled meetings between legislators and Colombian officials to discuss “narco-trafficking and certification.” Clifford S. Gibbons, who also represented ProExport, contacted the National Security Council and State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs regarding “bilateral trade issues” in February 1997. 

One of the Colombian government’s longest-standing lobbying contracts was with Kelly Swofford Roy. According to FARA documents, the public relations firm placed advertisements in National Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald and The New York Times in September 1996 showing a gas-pump nozzle above the headline, “In the war against drugs, we have a powerful weapon at our disposal.” A consortium of petroleum companies including Amoco, BP, CAMPETROL, Shell, State, ECOPETROL, HOCOL, Nimir, Occidental and Triton sponsored the ads, which cost more than $250,000. Another ad, sponsored by the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (a coffee trade organization) and placed in the National Peace Association’s Worldview magazine in October 1996, proclaimed, “In Colombia, the soil and climate allow you to grow just about anything. We consider that a blessing and a curse.”

According to FARA documents, the Colombian Embassy Trade Bureau entered into a $30,000-per-month contract with one of the top D.C. lobbying powerhouses, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, in February 1999 to lobby for the government on “Plan Colombia, trade and economic relations,” among other issues. During the next 18 months, the firm contacted the White House drug office in addition to Gilman, Graham and other legislators regarding U.S. policy toward Colombia. 

Gilman, then-chairman of the House International Relations Committee, was contacted 25 times in five years by firms with Colombian clients—more than any other legislator on Capitol Hill. Gilman is described by those from both sides of the party divide as a “true believer,” a politician who adopted the drug issue as a personal crusade years ago. He has rallied fellow lawmakers including senators Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Bob Graham, D-Fla., to the cause. Lobbyists contacted McConnell and Graham 16 and 15 times, respectively.

Michele Manatt, a one-time director of legislative affairs in McCaffrey’s Office of Drug Control Policy, was one of the White House officials the Colombian lobbyists contacted during debates over funding. Manatt is the daughter of Charles Manatt, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and partner in the lobbying firm of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, whose clients include the Bolivian government and a Colombian flower exporters association. 

Colombia was not the only Latin government that had enlisted an American lobbyist. Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, one of Washington’s largest and most powerful law and lobbying firms, hired former senators Robert Dole and George Mitchell and former Treasury secretary Lloyd Bentsen to work on Latin American projects and opened an office in Miami in 1998 to facilitate access to markets there. The firm estimates that clients such as Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Uruguay account for a third of its foreign practice. 

According to FARA records, similar themes of trade and drugs echoed through the lobbying histories of Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru. The Bolivian government has entered into seven contracts with U.S. firms over the past five years, most of them after 1997, when Washington threatened to decertify the country because of its high coca production. It also began a contract in December 1999 with Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, which contacted numerous federal agencies over the next five months—including the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the State Department and the National Security Council—regarding the “Colombia assistance package and success of Bolivia in anti-drug campaign.” The Peruvian government’s lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, also contacted several strong backers of Plan Colombia, such as Gilman and the late Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia. 

When Mexico was nearly decertified along with Colombia in 1997 for failing to rein in drug traffickers, its government began a drug war lobbying effort. FARA documents show that lobbyists for the Mexican government from the firms of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips and Verner Liipfert contacted the White House, State Department officials and congressional committees, among others, between May and November 1999 on narcotics-related issues. The Manatt firm also contacted Rich Brown, State Department special negotiator for Forward Operating Locations, to discuss counternarcotics operations. Forward Operating Locations, or FOLs, are staging areas in Latin American and Caribbean countries for U.S. aircraft involved in surveillance and interdiction of drug traffickers. The facilities are owned and operated by the host countries. 

In short, decertification became an anguished process, as government officials, legislators, lobbyists, and corporate interests fought it or found ways around it. In February 2001, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., introduced legislation that would suspend the certification process for two years.


Plan Colombia: Washington offers a blueprint and a big stick

Colombia’s decertification drama ended on March 1, 1998, when Clinton issued a national security waiver allowing aid and export credit loans to again flow freely. Lobbyists, officials and corporate heads applauded the decision. Their outlook further brightened with the May 1998 election of Andres Pastrana, who was friendly toward U.S. policy and investment. “It was a wise decision at a time of transition,” Skol told the weekly newsletter Latin American Regional Reports. “The waiver is a signal that the U.S. does not want to appear to be interfering in the election.” 

As Pastrana took office, Colombia was entering its worst economic crisis in recent history, with 20 percent unemployment and a 5 percent decrease in its GDP. In fall 1998, Pastrana called for a “Marshall Plan” for Colombia, focused on negotiating peace with insurgent groups and encouraging social and economic investment in the country. The Colombian president lined up a $1.6 billion loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, but his government’s plan of action was found to be wanting and it soon was replaced by a new plan that U.S. officials played a major role in shaping, and which was heavily reliant on military aid. That plan—which by early 2001 had transformed tens of thousands of acres of southern Colombian coca fields into a wasteland, sending hundreds of peasants fleeing into neighboring Ecuador while right-wing paramilitaries and FARC guerrillas fought for control of turf and drug profits—is known as Plan Colombia. 

In October 1998, two months after Pastrana’s inauguration, Clinton hosted him at a state dinner. Although Pastrana’s plan didn’t include any new military strategy, when he spoke with Clinton the Colombian president’s focus was clearly martial, according to Eric Farnsworth, a Latin America policy adviser in the Clinton White House. “Pastrana came up and basically said we need a massive undertaking to once and for all eradicate the narco-traffickers and the guerrillas,” Farnsworth said in an interview. But a “Plan Colombia” presentation by Pastrana on Oct. 22, 1998, contained no mention of military aid. Other officials say it was the Clinton administration that pushed Colombia into a military strategy and, in fact, that the first version of the military-backed Plan Colombia appeared in English, not Spanish.

Pastrana’s October 1998 proposal also lacked an implementation strategy. It dealt mostly with “development, social questions and peace,” said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue. Meanwhile, officials at State, Defense, Justice, and the CIA prepared proposals for the assistance package, although U.S. officials made clear that they wanted Pastrana to be the one signing off on the plan. In short, said Shifter, “The current $7.5 billion Plan Colombia came about as a result or behest of the U.S.” As perception of the plan evolved from one of a Colombian social reform strategy to a U.S.-funded security operation, Europe lost interest. Although the European Union originally had pledged $750 million—a tenth of the plan’s total requirements—in February 2001 the European Parliament voted 474-1 against supporting Plan Colombia. 

In April 1999, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno, a key architect of and lobbyist for Plan Colombia, accompanied then-U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to Colombia. At a conference on energy investment in Cartagena, Richardson told Pastrana that Colombia was a “reliable oil supplier” and praised Pastrana’s government for opening “the precious resources that this country harbors” to foreign investment and development. “Foreign investment,” Richardson added, “will remain interested if business can count on a peaceful and competitive environment.” 

Subsequent visits to Colombia by McCaffrey, the Clinton administration’s drug czar, and then-Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, an experienced and polished diplomat, were critical to the development of Plan Colombia. McCaffrey returned from a July 1999 trip saying it would take $1 billion just to begin to slow Colombia’s descent into chaos. “That was the first time a Cabinet official said that publicly,” Farnsworth noted. The $1 billion figure stuck, framing the debate from then on. McCaffrey continued to be the Colombian government’s biggest advocate and the mouthpiece for the U.S. aid package. Pickering, Rand Beers, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs at the State Department, and Brian Sheridan, then assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, were other leading proponents of Plan Colombia. 

In August 1999, Pickering traveled to Bogota to meet with Pastrana and other Colombian officials “with a specific mandate to urge the Colombians to come up with a plan on this that the U.S. could support,” Farnsworth said. Not all Colombians have appreciated the frequent visits by U.S. officials. “We are being constantly visited and scolded by the State Department, by McCaffrey, and by any North American who gets near us,” Carlos Lemos Simmonds, a former Colombian vice president said at the time. “We have already been invaded.” Pickering, Beers, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Peter Romero and Arturo Valenzuela, then the chief Latin American specialist at the National Security Council, were the main U.S. actors, according to Marc Chernick, a Georgetown University professor who closely followed U.S. policy in Colombia. McCaffrey and Pickering reportedly told Pastrana that the United States would sharply increase aid if he developed a comprehensive plan to strengthen the military, halt the nation’s economic free fall and fight drug trafficking. Chernick said U.S. officials put together an English addendum to the plan that laid out a two-year campaign in southern Colombia against FARC-held lands. According to another account, Pastrana’s U.S.-educated chief of staff, Jaime Ruiz, wrote the plan. Pickering told reporters that he asked Pastrana to present his plan by mid-September in order to seek supplemental funding from Congress during 1999. In a September 1999 television address to his fellow Colombians, Pastrana officially introduced the new Plan Colombia. In six years, he said, the $7.5 billion plan aimed to stabilize the economy, further the peace process, and cut drug production by 50 percent. Pastrana said Colombia would raise $4 billion of the total cost, and appealed to the international community to put up the rest.

A group of Senate Republicans introduced a bill on Oct. 20, 1999, that was essentially a blueprint for the proposal that would emerge from the Clinton administration three months later. The Alianza Act, sponsored by Coverdell and Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Grassley would have provided $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Colombia and other countries in the region over three years. The bill included funding for up to 15 Black Hawks or “comparable transport helicopters” for the Colombian military and “eradication aircraft” for the Colombian National Police. According to a former Coverdell aide, the bill was developed with House Republicans Gilman and Burton, as well as with U.S. officials in South America. “Basically, we went to our people in our embassies on the ground in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru and asked them what they thought would be the bare bones,” the aide said. 

The Clinton administration’s proposal, released on Jan. 11, 2000, also called for $1.6 billion in aid to push into the drug-growing region of southern Colombia over a two-year period. The proposal earmarked nearly $600 million for “counter-narcotics” aid, including 30 Black Hawks and 33 Huey helicopters for the Colombian army and $96 million for the Colombian National Police. The president asked that the funding be considered as an emergency measure, and House leaders complied. A year after they voted to impeach Clinton, House Republicans, led by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., collaborated closely with his administration to push the Colombian aid package through Congress. 

In February 2000, George Muñoz, the president of OPIC traveled to Colombia and neighboring Ecuador and announced new plans to encourage U.S. investment in Colombia. Pastrana welcomed the news. Back in Washington, many companies joined the chorus of support for Plan Colombia. “It all comes down to security: Let’s face it, if there weren’t rebels there wouldn’t be a (security problem),” said Jeff Loving, a spokesman for GPU, the electrical utility operator that lobbied for Plan Colombia. As the Colombia aid package gained steam in early 2000, so did corporate lobbying.

U.S. corporations with significant business interests in Latin America spent more than $92 million lobbying Congress between 1995 and 2000, according to congressional lobbying disclosure forms, though not all of that money was spent on trying to affect U.S. policy in the region. Topping the list was General Motors Corp., which devoted some $20.7 million to lobbying the federal government. Among GM’s areas of legislative interest was trade in Brazil, Mexico and Latin America generally. General Electric spent $11.8 million on lobbying; among interests it identified were appropriations bills that included Huey helicopters, for which it supplied parts. Overall, defense companies accounted for $40 million of the $91 million total. Companies in the energy sector spent $25 million, including Exxon Corp. ($10.3 million), Occidental Petroleum, whose pipeline operations have consistently been attacked by the insurgent groups ($8.7 million), and BP Amoco Corp., another major Colombian oil producer, ($3.5 million). Exxon and Occidental both wanted their voices heard on Colombian decertification and potential sanctions; BP Amoco listed the “Colombian aid package” as being of particular concern. 

Employees, their family members, and the political action committees of that same group of companies with large Latin American business interests also contributed more than $18.9 million to federal election campaigns during the same period. (Under U.S. law, American companies cannot contribute directly to political candidates, but they can form committees, known as PACs, that can collect contributions from employees and give them to political candidates.) United Parcel Service, a member of the U.S.-Colombian Business Partnership, doled out more than $6.5 million in PAC and individual contributions; Lockheed Martin contributed more than $5.2 million. Occidental contributed $1.5 million. BP Amoco gave more than $2.9 million. United Technologies, which builds the Black Hawk helicopter, gave more than $1.9 million, while Textron, which manufactures the Huey, gave $1.8 million.

While some companies pressured lawmakers to pass the plan, others were more concerned with beefing up their own cut of the aid package. Consider the battling helicopter companies: the first two years of the aid package paid for 30 Black Hawks worth more than $360 million and 33 Hueys worth $66 million. Black Hawk manufacturer United Technologies spent $682,000 on lobbying in 2000 alone, on issues including the aid package and foreign arms sales, while Textron spent $444,000 lobbying, and retained Charles Gillespie of the Scowcroft Group, a former ambassador to Colombia, as a consultant.

Helicopter merchants weren’t the only defense companies to make their voices heard. Defense giant Raytheon lobbied between 1997 and 2000 on defense appropriations. The company, a leader of the consortium handling a $1.7 billion high-tech radar surveillance project called SIVAM (the System for Vigilance of the Amazon), lobbied on “all provisions related to anti-drug sensors.” General Electric, which makes parts for Apache, Black Hawk and Huey helicopters, lobbied heavily on the aid package, as did Northrop Grumman, which provides maintenance, system operations and logistic support for U.S. counterdrug surveillance and control systems in Latin America.

Pastrana made several visits to Washington, D.C., in late 1999 and early 2000 accompanied by Colombian officials, such as police chief Serrano and the armed forces chief, Gen. Fernando Tapias. Moreno, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, met with 120 members of Congress and was very effective in generating support for the bill, sources on Capitol Hill said. Pastrana’s personal appeals worked for some members of Congress. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, said he was initially skeptical of the proposal but changed his mind after he chaired a subcommittee meeting during Pastrana’s visit in April 2000. “I came away from our meeting fully convinced that President Pastrana is a courageous, reform-minded leader who is committed not only to ending drug trafficking in Colombia, but also to bringing stability, ending violence, and promoting human rights,” Chafee said. 

Pastrana also charmed legislators who traveled to Colombia on fact-finding trips during the bill’s passage through Congress. In fact, Colombia has been the most frequent Latin American destination for official congressional travel since 1995, and the Colombian aid package prompted a flurry of trips during the first half of 2000. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., had a change of heart after flying over the Colombian jungle during a June 2000 visit with Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. Durbin had supported an amendment proposed by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to redirect military aid money toward domestic drug treatment. During the trip, he and Reed met with Colombian police and soldiers at the Larandia and Tres Esquinas military bases. “You would not imagine what it was like yesterday flying over the jungles of Colombia to look down from a Black Hawk helicopter as a Colombian general pointed out to me all of the coca fields,” Durbin told senators the day of his return in a statement explaining his new support for the aid package. 

The package provided an unprecedented amount of military aid to the region. In the nine years from 1988 to 1996, the United States gave approximately $765 million in assistance to Colombia—an average of $85 million a year. In 1998, U.S. assistance topped $100 million for the first time. With the supplemental aid package and regular aid, that figure skyrocketed to more than $1 billion for fiscal year 2000. In the 1990s, U.S. assistance had gone mainly to the National Police, avoiding the Colombian military, which had a reputation for brutality, corruption and lack of professionalism. (Not until 2001 were Colombia’s professional soldiers given a full salary package, including benefits, and elite society’s distance from the military was reflected in laws that exempted high school graduates from combat duty.) But U.S. planners were convinced that a major buildup in Colombian security could take place only through the military. In a statement before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control in September 1999, Wilhelm praised the National Police but said they “lack the strength in numbers and combined arms capabilities that are required to engage FARC fronts and mobile columns that possess army-like capabilities. This is a mission that the armed forces and only the armed forces can and should undertake.” Wilhelm said that the armed forces, working with the National Police, which had traditionally focused on anti-narcotics work, would provide a “one-two punch.”

Most Democrats were upset with the balance of military versus other aid in the bill and told the administration not to send a package that was just “bullets and helicopters,” as one congressional aide described it. An amendment added to the bill by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., capped the number of U.S. military personnel in Colombia at 500 and the number of U.S. civilian contractors at 300. 

In the House, the military component ran into stiffer opposition. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., offered an amendment in March 2000 that would have delayed voting on the aid package until several House committees held hearings. Obey saw a parallel between U.S. involvement in Colombia and Vietnam: “When the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was debated in 1964, it took two days in the Senate. It took 40 minutes on the floor of this House. This Congress has rued the day ever since that it did not give more time to consider that proposition,” Obey said. “Today, when my amendment comes before us to eliminate the most dangerous parts of that Colombian package, we will have exactly 20 minutes to discuss it, 10 minutes for those of us who are opposed to undertaking that involvement at this time.” The State Department answered these concerns with a fact sheet titled “Why Colombia is not the ‘Next Vietnam,” stating that “the Colombian police and military—not the U.S. military—will implement the counter-narcotics portion of the plan.” The Obey amendment was defeated in the House, 186-239.

Some members expressed doubts that U.S. allies would contribute to the plan. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., noted that the United States was the only country coming forward with funds. “This is the only money on the table, the military money,” she said. “So when we are told this is the military part but we are told there is a big humanitarian part, we have not seen that yet.” 

A bipartisan group of House legislators sponsored a successful amendment that set improvements in human rights as requirements for the aid to go through. But the amendment also included a clause allowing the president to waive the human rights conditions in the interest of national security. Andrew Miller, acting director for Latin America at Amnesty International USA, said the waiver gave members the chance to have a discussion about human rights while at the same time allowing the aid to be sent. “It was politically untenable to send military aid without sugar coating,” he said. 

The House Appropriations Committee passed the bill without a hearing as part of the 2000 Emergency Supplemental aid package, which also included spending for issues that had broad bipartisan support, such as U.S. troops in Kosovo and victims of Hurricane Floyd. The bill passed on the House floor 263-146 on March 30, 2000, after the package to Colombia was reduced to $1.07 billion. The proposal met an unexpected roadblock in the Senate when Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., forced it into the regular appropriations process, where it was split between the military construction and foreign operations spending bills. The Senate also set aside $148 million—twice as much as Clinton had requested—in aid to Colombia’s neighbors.

Aid for human rights

This final version of the package contained $122 million in aid for human rights and judicial reform, including $25 million for establishing human rights units within the Colombian National Police and $4 million to protect human rights-oriented non-governmental organizations. Several senators added new conditions for receiving aid and eliminated the presidential waiver. One was Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., author of the 1997 Leahy Amendment, which prohibits U.S. aid to foreign military units that are credibly linked to gross human rights violations. The waiver was reinserted, however, during the House-Senate conference at the end of June. The package eventually passed in June 2000 and was signed into law by Clinton on July 13, 2000. The two-year U.S. contribution totaled $1.319 billion, of which $860.3 million was set aside for Colombia. The remainder was for neighboring countries and U.S. agencies involved in the Andean drug war. Administration officials have openly stated that the U.S. contribution to Plan Colombia will likely last more than two years. “We will be back to the Congress with a 2002 request which will be for additional money for Plan Colombia,” Beers, the State Department’s top official for international narcotics control, said at an October 2000 congressional hearing. “This is not even a three-year program. It’s a five-year program.” 

The bill requires the State Department to have regular meetings with non-governmental organizations to discuss Colombia’s compliance with the human rights conditions. “The message since [August 2000] is consistent from Democrats to Colombia: ‘This is not an automatic. You don’t get this again unless there’s been progress,’” a Democratic Senate aide said. But the waiver riled activists because it potentially rendered moot all the accounting of rights abuses. On Aug. 18, 2000, acting Secretary of State Frank E. Loy certified the first of seven conditions attached to the bill—that Pastrana had directed the armed forces to try soldiers accused of human rights violations in civilian courts. The following week, President Clinton waived the remaining conditions, citing U.S. national security interests. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington Office on Latin America issued a joint statement disputing the certification. They argued that Pastrana’s directive was based on the new Colombian Military Penal Code, which cites only three crimes—genocide, torture and forced disappearance—as suitable for civilian courts, and excludes crimes such as execution, rape, and aiding and abetting atrocities carried out by paramilitary groups. 

“The waiver sent a terrible signal to Colombia’s military and to its beleaguered defenders of human rights,” Wellstone wrote in a New York Times opinion piece on Dec. 26, 2000.”[It] eliminated what could have been an important source of leverage with the government for those working for human rights.” 

What lies ahead 

The international community has been slow putting money on the table for Plan Colombia—and leery of military aid. Following an April 2001 visit to Colombia, Chris Patten, the European Union’s commissioner for external affairs, announced that the EU would contribute close to $300 million in aid for Colombia, emphasizing that the funds would go toward social and economic development programs and not to military aid. Many of Colombia’s neighbors are deeply skeptical of the plan. Venezuela’s Chavez says it will lead to the “Vietnamization” of Latin America. “The Europeans and other Latin American countries feel Plan Colombia is responding to U.S. domestic policies,” says Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue, adding that the aid package “lacks strategic vision.” According to a report by the Center for International Policy, United Nations programs in Colombia received $131 million that would have been donated even if Plan Colombia did not exist. In addition, Colombia received $1.27 billion in loans, which are not specified for Plan Colombia, from Japan and international financial institutions.

Even with the U.S. aid component, Colombia is far short of the $3.5 billion it seeks from international donors, which has some lawmakers concerned that the United States will have to pick up the burden. Colombia’s neighbors in 2000 began requesting emergency U.S. aid to deal with the spillover of refugees, violence and drug traffickers buying up land to replace coca plantations sprayed by U.S. pilots. Ecuador, the most deeply affected neighbor, sought $400 million in U.S. aid over four years. And, as Clinton administration officials made clear, the U.S. contribution to Plan Colombia will go on for years. 

By late 2000, human rights advocates and members of Congress had begun to show alarm about Plan Colombia, which hadn’t diminished the violence but seems rather to have encouraged its spread—across borders into Venezuela and Ecuador, and also to new sectors of the economy, including power transmission and coal mining. After meeting with State Department officials in December 2000 to discuss the Colombian government’s progress on meeting the aid package’s human rights conditions, a group of non-governmental organizations announced their opposition to another waiver on grounds that the Colombian government had failed to sever its relationship with paramilitary groups. However, the Bush administration stated that another waiver was not required in order to spend the money provided by the 2000 bill. 

Additional doubts were expressed about the millions of dollars in U.S. aid going to secret missions by so-called contract services—in effect, mercenaries. On April 20, CIA contract employees provided the intelligence that led the Peruvian air force to mistakenly gun down a missionary plane, killing a Michigan woman and her infant daughter. In February, American employees of northern Virginia-based DynCorp rode aboard helicopters that sprayed left-wing guerrillas with gunfire en route to the rescue of a Colombian crew downed by rebel fire in southern Colombia. In addition, Military Professional Resources Inc., a Virginia-based company stacked with retired U.S. generals, conducted a military reform program with the Colombian army under a $4.3 million-dollar contract with the Pentagon. “The key word here is accountability,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who introduced a bill to limit the use of private contractors in military-related missions in the Andean region. “If this is a valid mission we’re on, it seems to me that to have it shrouded in secrecy . . . is a very dangerous process.” 

Republicans in the House, who have long backed aid to the Colombian National Police, have also expressed doubt about the plan’s future, criticizing the State and Defense departments for their slow deployment of military hardware to Colombia and neglect of the police. Gilman, R-N.Y., at the time chairman of the House International Relations Committee, called the aid package “a major mistake” in a November 2000 letter to McCaffrey and joined Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., in calling U.S. policy toward Colombia “a shambles” at a hearing in March 2001. “Absent a significant shift in the distribution of Plan Colombia aid to the Colombian National Police, I am doubtful Plan Colombia will do anything more than waste Colombian Army and Police lives, as well as U.S. taxpayer’s money,” Rep. Dan Burton said. “It is clear, the current approach does not serve U.S. national interests.” 

A General Accounting Office report on Plan Colombia, released in October 2000, echoes the sense of a plan with no mooring. “State, the Department of Defense, and other U.S. agencies are still developing implementation plans and do not have sufficient staff in place to support Plan Colombia,” the report says. “As for Colombia, its government has not demonstrated that it has the funding, detailed plans, and management structure necessary to effectively implement programs to meet its stated goals.” 

In May 2001, the Bush administration State Department revealed its 2002 budget for counternarcotics in the Andean region. Although the budget did not represent a major shift, it did move some aid from military into economic and social reforms, and also shifted resources from Colombia to its neighbors. “We heard all of the criticism and comments of the past year,” said William Brownfield, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. State’s 2002 budget request would allot $399 million for Colombia, $206 million for Peru, $143 million for Bolivia, $76 million for Ecuador and about $56 million for Brazil, Panama and Venezuela. 

However, critics were quick to point out that two-thirds of Colombia’s budget in the plan, which was no longer called Plan Colombia but rather the Andean Regional Initiative, was still military. Many portions of the military package for Colombia were even larger than previous years because the 2002 budget did not include new helicopters—which had chewed up more than $500 million of the $1.3 billion allotted to Plan Colombia in 2000-2001.

Too, there was a damning new report about coca production in Colombia, which came out the same week the State Department unveiled its budget for the Andean initiative. The report, commissioned by the Colombian government and reported by the Colombian news magazine Cambio, showed that the territory under coca cultivation had grown from 254,000 to 400,000 acres from December 1999 to December 2000. Rand Beers, the top State Department official for international narcotics control, acknowledged that coca production was on the increase in Colombia despite the massive U.S.-backed operation. “I think it is fair to say . . . that coca cultivation is still increasing,” he said at a May 16, 2001, news conference. 

Bush’s personnel choices for Latin America drew on the Cold War old guard from Reagan and his father’s day. He nominated Otto Reich, an anti-Castro Cuban-American, as his assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, a position held under Clinton by career diplomat Peter Romero. Reich was the Reagan White House’s chief propagandist in the contra war, heading the Office of Public Diplomacy, which worked closely with Oliver North to spread dirt about the left wing Sandinista government, some of it unsubstantiated or outright false. A Comptroller General report later concluded that Reich, who bullied and defamed reporters whose coverage was critical of U.S. policy in Central America, had “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public.” 

Bush chose John P. Walters to replace McCaffrey as his drug czar. Walters, deputy director for supply reduction under William Bennett, the first President Bush’s drug czar, supported criminal penalties for drug users, treatment behind bars as a first step, and endorsement of the certification process. McCaffrey, who while cheerleading for Andean security forces had also significantly increased funding for drug treatment, said in a television interview that Walters was “too focused on interdiction.” After resigning the drug czar post in January 2001, McCaffrey signed on as partner and principal adviser to eGetgoing, an Internet company that offers online drug and alcohol treatment. 

Top Bush foreign policy advisers have given mixed signals. When asked about Colombia during his confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sounded skeptical about fighting the drug war in Colombia. “I’m one who believes that the drug problem is probably overwhelmingly a demand problem,” he said. “If the demand persists, it’s going to find ways to get what it wants. And if it isn’t from Colombia, it will be from somebody else. And if I were the neighboring countries, I’d be concerned about spillover as well.”

But Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, opened the door to more aid. The United States, he said, “cannot continue to make a false distinction between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics efforts. The narcotraffickers and guerrillas compose one dangerous network.” He added, if “legitimately elected leaders of Colombia demonstrate the political will to take their country back from killers and drug lords, and if the Colombian people are willing to fight for their own country, then the U.S. should offer serious, sustained, and timely financial, material, and intelligence support.”

In his first opportunity to show interest in a political solution to Colombia’s problems, Bush didn’t take the bait. During Pastrana’s visit to Washington in February 2001, Bush declined Pastrana’s request to join leaders from other nations in overseeing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. Administration spokesmen refused to meet with FARC officials because of the 1999 killing of three Americans by FARC guerrillas, none of whom have faced justice in Colombia. Peace negotiation, Bush said, “is an issue that the Colombian people and the Colombian president can deal with.”