May 23, 2003

Commentary

U.S. Hostage Standoff in Colombia Could Escalate Country’s Civil War

By Carmen Ospina

In a troublesome development, the U.S. government has begun to formulate a new tone in its strategy for dealing with the Colombian conflict.

This approach came after three Americans were taken hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) when their plane crashed in rebel territory on Feb. 13. A fourth American and a Colombian army sergeant on the plane were killed near the crash site. The Americans were working for a division of Northrop Grumman, which has a contract with the Pentagon in Colombia.

This marks the first time in more than 20 years that U.S. government employees have been captured or killed by a Colombian rebel group. And it raises troubling questions about the extend of U.S. involvement in Colombia’s counterinsurgency war and its implications.

The kidnapping comes as the United States has been stepping up its involvement in Colombia’s 40-year-old civil conflict. Starting in 2000, the United States has handed Colombia approximately $2 billion, mostly in military aid, and Congress recently approved another $500 million as part of its 2003 budget.

After Sept. 11, the Bush administration added Colombia’s two leftist guerrilla groups (FARC and ELN), as well as the major right-wing paramilitary army (AUC), to its list of international terrorists. This designation helped allow the Bush administration last year to extend the U.S. military mission in Colombia from counternarcotic activities to direct assistance in the country’s long-running counterinsur-gency war. Colombian troops can now use U.S.-supplied equipment and intelligence to fight the rebels. Last week, for the first time since Plan Colombia was launched four years ago, the United States surpassed the allowed limit of 400 U.S. military personnel by sending in 49 specialized troops to assist in the rescue operation.

The capture of the Americans may further intensify U.S. involvement in this complex conflict. President Alvaro Uribe now has a stronger argument to demand more resources from the United States and more attention to the Colombian conflict. And those Washington officials who had regularly expressed concern that the United States could slip into a Vietnam-like conundrum in Colombia may now be less resistant to using the aid against the rebels. The FARC are no longer a distant threat, but direct aggressors against the U.S. government, Washington officials will argue.

“This precipitous action by the FARC is going to meet with very strong retaliation,” said Rep. Tom Davis, D-Va.

With the U.S. embassy in Colombia calling for a “major response” to the rebels, and with members of Congress escalating the war rhetoric, the frightening possibility of direct U.S. military action in Colombian territory seems more probable than ever.

But rather than an increased U.S. presence in the country, which justifies the FARC’s political project in a country already suspicious of U.S. foreign policy, Colombia needs to reassess its use of U.S. aid and the form it has taken.

There are more than 250 employees of U.S. security and surveillance companies working in Colombia, but their contracts with the U.S. government remain classified. U.S. authorities vaguely describe their mission as counterdrug operations, but in this conflict, where the insurgent groups depend on drug trafficking to finance their venture, there seem to be no lines dividing counterdrug and counterinsurgency efforts.

The latest standoff raises several questions regarding the identities of the capture Americans and the nature of their mission when their plane crashed. Colombian and American citizens deserve to know more about the role of these U.S. civilians or at least be reassured that their actions will be closely monitored by government institutions, nongovernmental organizations and the press.

Some argue that if U.S. troops have not yet directly participated in combat operations, American military contractors have. The leading Colombian news weekly, Semana, ran a cover story last year describing the contractors as “gringo mercenaries” and “lawless Rambos” who can get away with anything in Colombia --from minor drug trafficking to participation in the combats-- as they are not bound by U.S. military codes and are not watched as closely as U.S. military personnel would be.

The FARC considers Washington’s involvement in Colombia as an act of war, and last week’s dispatch of more U.S. troops into the country has provided the group with a political argument to justify its actions against an American “invasion.” As Colombian congressman Gustavo Petro, a former leftist rebel, told Radionet last week, “This is precisely what they wanted. Now they can transform their senseless war into some sort of patriotic war.”

The United States should not get drawn more deeply into Colombia’s civil war, and the Pentagon should stop hiding behind secret contracts with private firms.

Carmen Ospina, who is from Colombia, is an editor and writer living in New York. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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