Alliance With a Predator

William M. LeoGrande is professor of government at American University. Kenneth E. Sharpe is professor of political science at Swarthmore College. They coauthored "Two Wars or One? Drugs, Guerrillas, and Colombia's New Violencia," in the fall issue of World Policy Journal

President Bill Clinton’s trip to Colombia on Wednesday put a presidential imprimatur on Washington’s deepening commitment to the guerrilla war there. But all the pomp and circumstance of a presidential visit cannot conceal the weakness at the core of this budding alliance: The Colombian armed forces, to which the U.S. has tied its fortunes, are badly--perhaps fatally--flawed.

Clinton has been forced to admit as much. Despite the Colombian government’s failure to meet basic human-rights conditions imposed by Congress, he exercised a national-security waiver allowing the administration to send nearly a billion dollars in new military aid.

The Colombian military has a notorious history of abusing human rights and collaborating with right-wing paramilitary death squads during its four decades of armed conflict with Marxist guerrillas. Under pressure from national and international human-rights groups, the military’s direct involvement in abuses has declined in recent years, but politically motivated murders by its paramiltary allies are on the rise. By leaving the dirtiest work in this war to the paramilitaries, the regular army can claim a cleaner human-rights record as it seeks more military aid from Washington. The recent massacre of dozens of peasants in the village of El Salado illustrates the modus operandi. Hundreds of heavily armed paramilitaries occupied the village and held a kangaroo court, summarily executing peasants they suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers. The carnage went on for two days while the Colombian armed forces not only refused to intervene but also blocked access to the village by outsiders.

The Colombian armed forces’ record of brutality and impunity moved Congress to impose strict human-rights conditions on military assistance to Colombia, which constitutes 75% of the $1.3 billion drug-war aid package. Short of a presidential waiver, the law requires the secretary of state to certify that the Colombian government is vigorously investigating and prosecuting human-rights violations by military personnel and paramilitary leaders, and acting affirmatively to sever the military’s ties with the paramilitary groups before aid can be sent.


Similar conditions were imposed on military aid to El Salvador in 1981, for exactly the same reasons, but President Ronald Reagan routinely ignored them, certifying human-rights progress even when there was none. The charade of certification on El Salvador went on for two years until Reagan vetoed a renewal of the certification law. During those 24 months, Washington sent El Salvador $418 million in security assistance while the armed forces and their death-squad allies murdered 10,000 noncombatant civilians.

Although the Colombia aid law includes tough human-rights conditions, drug-war enthusiasts in Congress managed to insert an escape-hatch provision allowing the president to waive the conditions on “national security” grounds if Colombia does not meet them, thus circumventing certification without flouting the letter of the law. That’s precisely what Clinton did Aug. 22, one week before his trip to Colombia. Conceding that only one of the six human-rights conditions had been met (military personnel accused of human-rights abuses will be tried in civilian rather than military courts), the president waived the others, tacitly admitting that Colombia’s military does not meet even the most minimal human-rights requirements.

Congress did not insert the human-rights conditions into the law to embarrass the president, though he apparently was embarrassed about waiving them: He signed the waiver late at night, thereby missing the regular news cycle. Congress insisted on the conditions because a military unwilling to comply with them is an unworthy ally for the United States. To finance an escalation of Colombia’s combat capability despite its depredations is to be complicit in the increased carnage that is apt to follow. No presidential waiver can absolve Washington of that moral burden.

Reagan certified Potemkin progress in El Salvador because fighting communism in Central America was more important to him than human rights. Clinton waived the human-rights requirements in Colombia because fighting drugs in the Andes is more important to him than human rights. Both presidents make the mistake of thinking that U.S. security interests and human-rights concerns are in conflict.


Protecting human rights is a prerequisite for the successful defense of U.S. long-term interests in Colombia. The United States cannot build stable democratic allies out of regimes that have predatory military institutions at their core. Granted, Colombia today is more democratic than El Salvador was in 1981, and its armed forces are more professional. But a military that routinely kills civilians with impunity and makes common cause with paramilitary terrorists is more a threat to democracy than a pillar of it.

The human-rights conditions imposed by Congress give the Clinton administration a potent policy instrument to force the Colombian military to clean up its act, but circumventing the conditions by granting a waiver has sent exactly the wrong signal. The Colombian armed forces and their paramilitary partners, like their Salvadoran brethren before them, are bound to conclude that Washington’s concern for human rights is nothing but window dressing to sell the policy domestically. A rash of deadly paramilitary attacks in the days following Clinton’s waiver shows that the death squads are undeterred by U.S. protestations of support for human rights. They are watching what we do, not what we say.

Financed by drug traffickers and protected by the military, the paramilitary right is at least as serious a threat to Colombian democracy and U.S. interests as are the leftist guerrillas. Yet, Washington’s military aid package ignores the paramilitaries, focusing instead on expanding the war into guerrilla strongholds.

In a speech broadcast to the people of Colombia on the eve of his visit, Clinton affirmed Washington’s support for the peace negotiations currently underway between the government and the guerrillas. “We do not believe your conflict has a military solution,” he declared. “We support the peace process.” But the peace process will remain stalled as long as the Colombian and U.S. governments turn a blind eye toward paramilitary terrorism. The guerrillas will never agree to lay down their arms and participate in electoral politics so long as rightist death squads roam free, killing anyone they suspect of leftist sympathies.

Thus, the success of U.S. policy depends fundamentally on fulfilling the human-rights conditions enumerated by Congress, not waiving them. Within the next few weeks and every six months thereafter, the secretary of state must report to Congress on what progress Colombia has made toward meeting these conditions. That will be a good opportunity for Congress and the American people to assess whether or not the White House is willing to back up its rhetorical commitment to human rights with actions. If Colombia’s progress is no better than it has been so far, the president should rescind his waiver and halt the distribution of military aid. *