Is U.S. Re-Creating El Salvador?

William M. LeoGrande is a professor of government at American University and the author of "Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992." Kenneth Sharpe is a professor of political science at Swarthmore College and coauthor of "Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial."

One year ago this month, President Bill Clinton publicly apologized to Guatemalans for decades of U.S. policy in support of a murderous military that “engaged in violent and widespread repression,” costing the lives of some 100,000 civilians. That policy “was wrong,” the president declared, “and the United States must not repeat that mistake.” One year later, Clinton is about to repeat it in Colombia.

In the name of fighting drugs, the United States is preparing to join the Colombian armed forces in a civil war that has been raging for more than 40 years, despite the fact they have they worst human-rights record in the hemisphere. On Jan. 11, the president sent to Congress a request for $1 billion in security aid for Colombia, up from $65 million in 1996 and $300 million last year. Most of the money will finance a new counterinsurgency campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest of three armed leftist guerrilla movements.

The insurgents are a serious force. Numbering about 20,000, they exercise significant influence in more than half of Colombia’s municipalities. Until now, the United States has had the wisdom to stay out of the military’s protracted war with the guerrillas. The rationale for abandoning that restraint is what drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey has called a “drug emergency": a dramatic increase in coca-leaf cultivation in the southern provinces of Putumayo and Caqueta, strongholds of the FARC. To “secure” these areas for drug eradication, Washington plans to outfit the Colombian army to wage counterinsurgency war.

But even if coca eradication in southern Colombia succeeds, production will simply move elsewhere. As long as demand for drugs in the United States remains high, and enormous profits can be made from the illicit trade, traffickers will adapt to eradication and interdiction programs the way they always have: by shifting from region to region and country to country. Decades of eradication campaigns the world over tell us the war in southern Colombia will have no significant effect on the supply of drugs entering the United States. The idea that we can win the war on drugs by waging war on the Colombian guerrillas is a dangerous fantasy.


The elements of Washington’s counterinsurgency strategy for Colombia are taken straight from the Pentagon’s experience in El Salvador: U.S.-trained and -outfitted rapid-deployment battalions, advanced gunships, intensive intelligence gathering and hundreds of U.S. military advisors who won’t go into combat (just as they weren’t supposed to in El Salvador, although they did, as the Pentagon acknowledged years later).

A billion dollars of aid turned the Salvadoran military into a large, well-equipped, politically powerful force that murdered more than 70,000 civilians with impunity for more than a decade. It did not win the war. The war ended when the United States finally recognized that it was unwinnable and forced the army to accept a negotiated peace or face a cutoff of U.S. aid.

The 40-year-old civil war in Colombia is unwinnable, too, as Colombian President Andres Pastrana acknowledges. Elected in 1998 on a peace platform, he has opened negotiations with the guerrillas, and rightly so. Despite their serious human-rights abuses and involvement with coca growers, they are a powerful force representing a constituency with real social and political grievances. But the guerrillas are wary of negotiations. The last time they signed a cease-fire and agreed to participate in elections, death squads of the paramilitary right, often paid by large landowners and assisted by the military, assassinated 3,000 activists of the left’s Patriotic Union party, including elected officials, two senators and two presidential candidates. Since then, the right has grow even stronger, now numbering greater than 5,000 combatants who terrorize whole regions of the country.

Pastrana cannot guarantee the personal security of the guerrillas if they lay down their arms, just as the Christian Democrats in El Salvador could not guarantee the security of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas in the early 1980s, at the height of the death-squad violence there. As long as the Colombian government is unwilling or unable to control the violent right, the guerrillas dare not agree to peace.


No one doubts Pastrana’s desire to halt paramilitary violence and to sever the ties that have long existed between the paramilitary right and the armed forces. But Pastrana, like Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte in the 1980s, has limited control over the military. He has managed to reduce the army’s human-rights abuses, but despite his best efforts, he has not been able to dissolve the silent partnership between mid-level, even senior, officers and the paramilitaries. A Human Rights Watch report last month links half of Colombia’s 18 brigade-level army units to paramilitary violence, which is now responsible for 78% of reported abuses, including several thousand political killings and disappearances annually. Investigations by Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Colombian government confirm the army’s collusion in paramilitary violence.

In El Salvador, the army had no interest in reining in the death squads because they were an essential weapon in its war against the left. The Colombian situation is similar; by leaving the dirtiest work in this dirty war to the paramilitaries, the regular army can claim a clean human-rights record as it seeks more military aid from Washington.

In lobbying Congress for the Colombian aid package, McCaffrey echoes the arguments made by Reagan administration officials who lobbied for military assistance to El Salvador and Guatemala, insisting that the death squads were independent of the armed forces. The declassified history of those wars has revealed that such arguments were disingenuous. In Colombia, the record of complicity is equally clear.

As in Central America, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the Colombian armed forces will make them more powerful politically and less answerable to civilian authority. Senior officers are already hostile to Pastrana’s peace overtures and his efforts to discipline officers linked to the paramilitary right. A massive infusion of U.S. aid will be seen by officers as Washington’s endorsement of their preferred strategy: escalating the war rather than ending it through negotiation. That will make it harder to stop the paramilitaries and harder to convince the guerrillas that the government’s desire for peace is genuine.

This month marks the 20th anniversary (on March 24) of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Two months before he was killed by a rightist death squad, he wrote a personal appeal to Jimmy Carter, asking the president to abstain from increasing U.S. military aid that “will surely aggravate the repression and injustice” inflicted on the populace by the armed forces. “If you truly want to defend human rights,” Romero wrote, “I ask that you . . . prohibit all military assistance.” Instead, we allowed our obsession with communism to justify arming and financing a murderous military, and a war that could have ended with a peace accord in 1980 dragged on for another decade, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians. In Colombia, we are about to let our fear of drugs lead us into an equally futile and bloody war. We failed to heed Romero’s plea 20 years ago; we ought not make the same mistake again.