Colom­bia has up­per hand, at a cost

Bil­lions of U.S. anti-drug dol­lars have gone into beef­ing up se­cu­rity forces, which put pres­sure on rebels.

Los Angeles Times - - The World - Chris Kraul re­port­ing from puerto leguizamo, colom­bia Kraul is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

Ten years af­ter the U.S. be­gan pour­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into a largely mil­i­tary pro­gram in Colom­bia, the nation’s armed forces have got­ten the up­per hand in the fight against left­ist rebels and their pow­er­ful drug car­tel al­lies.

Here on the Pu­tu­mayo River 350 miles south of Bo­gota, the cap­i­tal, stands a bulked-up naval base with 40 pa­trol boats and more than 1,000 marines and sol­diers. Air cover from Black Hawk he­li­copters, Brazil­ian-made Su­per Tu­cano bombers and Is­raeli-pro­duced Kfir fighter jets is avail­able from the nearby Tres Es­quinas air base.

Their mis­sion is to deny FARC rebels, nar­cos and arms traf­fick­ers use of a cor­ri­dor on Colom­bia’s border with Peru and Ecuador.

“We’re de­stroy­ing the FARC’s fi­nan­cial foun­da­tion and pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity to le­gal river traf­fic at the same time,” said base com­man­der ma­rine Gen. Rafael Colon. “We are try­ing to make the pres­ence of the state felt in places it wasn’t be­fore.”

On the 10th an­niver­sary of the pro­gram known as Plan Colom­bia, this South Amer­i­can nation ap­pears more se­cure. U.S. aid has in­cluded four heav­ily armed boats that of­fi­cers call the “Mon­sters of Pu­tu­mayo,” 150-foot ves­sels armed to the gills that look like fear­some wa­ter­borne space­ships from a “Star Wars” set. Washington also has pro­vided spe­cial forces train­ing, in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing and the gift of 82 UH-60 Black Hawk he­li­copters.

The Colom­bian mil­i­tary has used that mus­cle to push rebels into re­mote ar­eas. The num­ber of Colom­bian “boots on the ground” has risen 60% to 447,000 sol­diers and po­lice. (Plan Colom­bia lim­its the phys­i­cal U.S. pres­ence to no more than 800 uni­formed mil­i­tary train­ers and 600 contractors, none of whom can take part in com­bat.)

Colom­bian na­tional po­lice claim to be present in all 1,100 coun­ties, up from 950 in 2000. Vi­o­lent crime has dropped to a frac­tion of what it was in 2002, when there was an av­er­age of 10 kid­nap­pings a day.

Still, progress in the war on drugs has been mixed.

‘We’re de­stroy­ing the FARC’s fi­nan­cial foun­da­tion.... We are try­ing to make the pres­ence of the state felt in places it wasn’t be­fore.’ — Ma­rine Gen. Rafael Colon,

com­man­der of the Puerto Leguizamo naval base, speak­ing of anti-rebel mea­sures

Coca pro­duc­tion has dropped 58% from its es­ti­mated peak a decade ago, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions’ 2010 World Drug Re­port. That’s progress, but not as much as many had hoped for, con­sid­er­ing that un­der Plan Colom­bia more than 1 mil­lion acres of coca fields have been sprayed.

Crit­ics ar­gue that the ex­ten­sive erad­i­ca­tion pro­gram has sim­ply pushed coca pro­duc­tion to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, no­tably Peru.

But for Colom­bians, the sit­u­a­tion is far im­proved from the late 1990s, when a Pen­tagon study warned that their coun­try could be­come a narco-state in five years. In the words of one ob­server, Colom­bia’s armed forces were “play­ing for a tie and los­ing.”

Colom­bia’s econ­omy now ranks as one of Latin Amer­ica’s most vi­brant, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. The govern­ment re­leased statis­tics this month show­ing that year-to-date for­eign in­vest­ment, air­line traf­fic and car sales have all in­creased by dou­ble-digit per­cent­ages.

The power of the FARC, or the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia, was im­plicit in the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent An­dres Pas­trana, who won of­fice in 1998 promis­ing he would ne­go­ti­ate a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment. He handed over con­trol of a demil­i­ta­rized “clear zone” as an act of good faith, but the rebels used the area to gather strength. Pas­trana’s suc­ces­sor, Al­varo Uribe, cam­paigned promis­ing to de­feat the rebels.

The FARC greeted Uribe on his in­au­gu­ra­tion day in 2002 with a mor­tar and rocket at­tack. But most of Plan Colom­bia and its progress came dur­ing Uribe’s eight years in power, which ended last month.

In re­cent years, Plan Colom­bia’s em­pha­sis has shifted some­what. Mil­i­tary aid once made up about 80% of the fund­ing; now it’s closer to60%, said Adam Isacson of the Washington Of­fice on Latin Amer­ica, a left-lean­ing think tank.

Sup­port­ers of Plan Colom­bia say mil­i­tary gains are not ir­re­versible. Hearts and minds re­main to be won, es­pe­cially in the ru­ral ar­eas where poor youths have few al­ter­na­tives to grow­ing coca or join­ing an in­sur­gency or a drug traf­fick­ing gang.

“A pill won’t do the job; a long-term treat­ment is needed,” said ma­rine Capt. Ce­sar Martinez, a base op­er­a­tions of­fi­cer at Puerto Leguizamo.

The FARC now re­lies more on hit-and-run tac­tics than brazen as­saults. Rebels launched attacks this month in re­mote ar­eas across the coun­try that killed 37 po­lice of­fi­cers and sol­diers. Eight were po­lice at an out­post not far from here. But un­like a decade ago, the Colom­bian armed forces struck back. They re­ported killing 22 guer­ril­las in an airstrike last Sun­day, in­clud­ing a top re­gional com­man­der.

The ag­gres­sive mil­i­tary re­sponse has been ac­com­pa­nied by hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. A study re­leased this year by the New York-based peace group Fel­low­ship of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion found that the Colom­bian mil­i­tary may have com­mit­ted 3,000 ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings from 2002 to 2009.

Many were so-called false pos­i­tives that in­volved the slay­ings of in­no­cent civil­ians who were tagged as rebels killed in ac­tion.

Many of the killings were com­mit­ted by units that had re­ceived U.S. mil­i­tary fund­ing even af­ter “cred­i­ble ev­i­dence” of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions had been pre­sented, said John Lind­say-Poland, the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s re­search di­rec­tor.

IN­VES­TI­GA­TION:

Af­ter a mil­i­tary at­tack on left­ist rebels a week ago in south­ern Colom­bia, po­lice in Puerto Asis in­spect bod­ies of sus­pected FARC guer­ril­las.

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