Few Americans know it, but the United States is currently embroiled in the biggest guerrilla war since Vietnam. Hundreds of American troops, spies and civilian contract employees are on the ground in Colombia and neighboring lands, helping to coordinate a $1.3 billion counterdrug program that will probably continue for many years. It is a bigger U.S. commitment—in personnel, cash and risk—than the previous leading post-Vietnam counterinsurgency campaign, the 1980s war in El Salvador.

In light of the growing U.S. military involvement in Latin America—building even as a 1999 truth commission report concluded that the United States had given money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed “acts of genocide” during that country’s 36-year civil war—the Center for Public Integrity set out to examine U.S. military aid to Latin America in the 1990s. The yearlong investigation by the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found, among other things, that in three of the four Latin American countries examined, U.S. military and intelligence aid was implicated in human rights abuses.

In Colombia, as in El Salvador, the United States has found its moral flanks exposed by alliances with corrupt and brutal military institutions. In El Salvador, the purpose of that questionable alliance was at least well-defined: to contain a Marxist rebel army. In Colombia, a nominally Marxist rebel army is again the main target of U.S. aid, but Washington’s motivations are multiple and, at times, murky. In Peru, the CIA paid millions of dollars to a shadowy government official, Vladimiro Montesinos, who allegedly used his influence to arrange an arms deal with the left-wing Colombian guerrillas, in an affront to his patrons reminiscent of Panama’s Manuel Noriega.

The U.S.-backed assistance program called Plan Colombia, which is one year old on July 13, 2001, ostensibly is a “drug war” aimed at eradicating Colombian drug lords’ ability to continue supplying three-quarters of the cocaine and 65 percent of the heroin entering the United States. But, as the ICIJ’s two-continent investigation shows, U.S. funding for Plan Colombia isn’t aimed solely at limiting the supply and raising the price of cocaine and heroin on the streets of Baltimore and Seattle or at eliminating “narcoterrorism’’—the drug-trafficking operations that left-wing guerrillas employ to fund their war in Colombia.

The protection of U.S. oil and trade interests is also a key factor in the plan, and historic links to drug-trafficking right-wing guerrillas by U.S. allies belie an exclusive commitment to extirpating drug traffic. The United States imports more oil from Latin America than from the Persian Gulf. And while oil has long been significant to U.S. policymakers (and especially to the current Bush administration, with its emphasis on increasing energy production in the United States and other zones of influence), until recently hemispheric oil supplies have been viewed as much more secure than the petroleum lying under the Middle East.

But the nationalistic talk coming from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a former army colonel who has dallied with Colombian guerrillas, has alarmed some U.S. officials. Major U.S. oil companies have lobbied Congress intensely to promote additional military aid to Colombia, in order to secure their investments in that country and create a better climate for future exploration of Colombia’s vast potential reserves. Additionally, Latin America is the fastest-growing market for U.S. exports. In fact, large U.S. corporations with Latin American interests spent more than $92 million lobbying Congress in the latter half of the 1990s, in part to affect U.S. policy in the region. These companies and their employees contributed an additional $18.9 million to federal election campaigns during the same period. Business leaders with interests in the region are worried about economic instability and lawlessness engendered by guerrilla violence—not, particularly, by drug smuggling.

The constellation of violence in Colombia, where both leftist rebels and rightist paramilitaries build their armies with drug money, will make it extremely difficult for the United States to focus simultaneously on cutting drug supplies while strengthening stability and rule of law in the region. Although the bulk of U.S. aid to Colombia has been directed at territory controlled by leftist guerrillas, the U.S. government has been aware for years of links between drug smugglers and the right-wing militia movement, the investigation found.

Reporting on the ground in southern Colombia, where the U.S.-funded eradication of coca plantations has wiped out thousands of acres of coca as well as legitimate plantings in the past year, showed a continuing hand-in-glove relationship between drug-trafficking paramilitaries and the Colombian army that U.S. officials could hardly be unaware of. In the early 1990s, the United States helped Colombia set up intelligence networks that employed right-wing hit squads against unionists and human rights workers. Recently, under U.S. pressure, the Colombian government has begun a military campaign against some of these same paramilitaries. But it is difficult to know how far the army will go to open a new front against the now-formidable rightists. In much of the country, the government and paramilitaries—and the United States—share the same targets.

The perils of picking the wrong bedfellow in such a fight are nowhere more apparent than in Peru, where a government that worked closely with U.S. intelligence for a decade collapsed in scandal in 2000. The ICIJ investigation found evidence that the CIA, after years of working closely with Montesinos, the lead figure in the scandal, might have intentionally undermined him after discovering in 2000 that he was the middleman in an arms deal that sent 10,000 East German-made assault rifles from Jordan to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC. When news of this deal was publicized, Peru’s Congress ousted President Alberto Fujimori, who then fled to Japan. Montesinos, after eight months in hiding, has recently been returned to Peru to face an array of charges, including murder and drug and arms trafficking. But the implications for U.S. policy were remarkable. The United States’ main Peruvian asset in the drug war was revealed to be arming the FARC—its main enemy in Colombia.

Death of missionary and her infant

The fall of Montesinos led to investigations and jailings of many intelligence and military officials with whom the United States worked closely during Fujimori’s 10 years in power. Yet the U.S.-Fujimori era truly crystallized on April 20, when a missionary and her infant died over the Amazon at the hands of a Peruvian air crew, flying an old U.S. fighter plane directed by U.S. radar. The United States had provided the tools and the information that enabled this tragedy—then looked on with horror, like a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein, when its creation got out of control.

The same could be said of Washington’s relationship with Fujimori and Montesinos. U.S. officials such as former drug czar Barry McCaffrey were quick to praise Fujimori’s government for cutting coca leaf production and shooting down drug-laden planes in the late 1990s – even though they knew of Montesinos’ previous work as a lawyer for drug traffickers. Even before Montesinos left in disgrace, his relationship with the United States had cooled over concerns about human rights abuses and persecution of democratic opposition figures. As the Fujimori years ended, it was not clear how much long-term good was achieved. As of 2000, new coca crops were planted in eastern Peru in response to the pressure on Colombian coca fields. And the anti-air campaign bore tragic, though predictable fruit.

Even before the April incident, the United States had wavered on the wisdom of shooting down suspected drug planes in the coca-growing area. At one time the U.S. government was pressing Brazil to shoot down suspected drug-running craft; it reversed course under former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. But the United States is helping to finance a $1.7 billion project to build an enormous radar network in Brazil. The ostensible purpose is to detect drug smuggling, but the 200 or more stations that will be built throughout the Amazon hinterland also will have sensors capable of collecting data on environmental destruction and settler activity, ICIJ has learned. Brazilian officers, meanwhile, are concerned that the data gleaned from the network—whose lead contractor is the U.S. engineering firm Raytheon—will be secretly borrowed by U.S. intelligence. In any case, what passes for a technological fix to drug smuggling doubles as a massive national security project with long-term strategic interest for both Brazil and the United States.

The same could be said for the massive training program that Mexico’s armed forces have been receiving in the United States. Mexico, whose traditionally nationalistic military has generally shied from contact with the United States, has quietly reversed course in the past decade. With U.S. urging, Mexico has increasingly thrown its army into the counternarcotics effort. Partly because of this, Mexican soldiers have been among the top trainees of the School of the Americas (renamed in January 2001 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and of other U.S. training programs. ICIJ’s investigation tracked this increase in training of Mexican troops and discovered that, just as in South America, U.S. assistance to the military ends up as dual use – to counter drugs and to deal with internal security matters. Elite GAFE troops, members of an airmobile special forces unit trained in part by the United States, have been seen occupying villages in Chiapas. The ICIJ investigation also chronicles human rights abuses by U.S.-trained members of the GAFE. The national security team of President Vicente Fox, who in 2000 ended the dominant Mexican party’s 71 years in power, has been reviewing the use of soldiers in the anti-drug war, a troubling trend to many Mexicans, who view the subservience of the military to civilian forces as a milestone of Mexican history.

Because it is receiving the largest chunk of U.S. security aid and holds the most potential for future conflagration, Colombia has been the focus of the ICIJ investigation. Levels of violence and desperation in Colombia present all involved there—U.S. policymakers, Colombia’s neighbors, and Colombians themselves—with anguished choices. In El Salvador, the most comparable conflict of recent decades, fighting stopped when both sides saw that they couldn’t win and found goals that they could achieve through peaceful means. Colombia is less hopeful. Both right- and left-wing guerillas thrive on drug money and lawlessness and seem little better than indifferent about popular support. Arguably, if U.S. assistance to Colombia ends up strengthening the central government and the rule of law, it will have done a good thing. However, U.S. policymakers have been less than forthcoming about U.S. objectives in the region. And the history of U.S. activity in Latin America shows that violent means employed in pursuit of peaceful goals tend to lead to more violence.