Hawks and Hueys: the substance of Plan Colombia

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Eduardo Marino

With the classical meaning of a “diplomat is one who listens and reads twice”, I've been diplomatic with this book and diplomacy has paid. I underestimated the book when reading it first, I appreciate it better after going through it twice. Initially I was put off by some inaccuracies of fact and deficiencies of judgement when referring to Colombian history. Soon I came to value the usefulness of the overviews mainly for non Colombian readers and the ability of the book to fulfil its own title.1

A chapter on The Roots of Violence begins with an arbitrary and absurd comparison with violent conflicts in Kosov@ and Rwanda yet it manages to redeem itself when acknowledging (as not all authors do nowadays) that the origins of violence in Colombia lie in the countryside where “most of the serious disputes revolved around landownership especially in the Andean regions and eastern plains (llanos orientales); the conflicts often involving land invasions or the removal of squatters”. The text is referring to the period beginning in the 1920s. In fact, since 1936 (when a Constitutional reform proclaimed the “social function” of property) several governments have tried yet failed to properly conceptualise and implement an adequate rural land tenure system or “agrarian reform” as it has been commonly called. Quite on the contrary, aborting periods of rural reform in the late 1930s and early 1960s, prevailing policies, especially as from 1972, have been detrimental to democratic agrarian development. Land ownership has remained highly concentrated even more so when, as the book acknowledges, since the 1980s narcotics “traffickers' purchase of rural land with their profits …” made of them biggest land barons in the country. At the expense of the peasants pushed out of their holdings ending up destitute in big numbers in the town, or armed in small numbers with guerrilla groups. The author often helps himself with apt quotes, as this one:

“As fate would have it, the trafficker landowners, finding themselves to be the victims of exorbitant guerrilla tax increases, struck back. Fortified with considerable money, weapons and British and Israeli mercenaries to train them, the traffickers formed self-defence groups, which, in time, were converted into . . . paramilitary death squads . . . These groups unmercifully hunted down the FARC guerrillas, sympathisers, and even campesino peasant organizations and union leaders lobbying for land reform and higher wages . . . This let the majority of the population in the region in relative peace without having to pay any taxes at all. Again, what the army and police could not do, the narcotrafficker-sponsored, paramilitary sicarios (hired assassins) did2

There is an important reminder that political and ideological insurgency - beyond social protest - started in Colombia as early as 1952 when a first national conference of “Movimientos Populares de Liberacion” was held in Cundinamarca, the region around Bogota. Similar events were then taking place in other Latin American and in some Asian places, it can be added. Twelve years later, in another rural conference, following a first major offensive by the Government's Army on an until then defensive lightly armed rebel peasant settlement, a new FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) would declare : “Beginning today, July 20 (1964), we are a guerrilla movement”. Reportedly they were 700 or 800 persons. Today, reportedly, they are about 25,000 rural combatants plus an unreported number of urban militias.

Such a half-a-century span of essentially rural rebelliousness and struggle gives a perspective to what today is only the latest stage of the story. The Colombian Government, supported by the US Government, continues to engage FARC as an insurgency force but nowadays also fights it as an actor in the drugs business. Once more, a most useful quote:

”The system allegedly works as follows: the Estado Mayor (senior military staff) of a frente (guerrilla front) budgets its economic needs and plans a series of fundraising operations using various tactics. One of the classic ones involves the temporary seizure of a small town for propaganda purposes, usually including the robbery of all local banks and credit unions, a tactic which is said to have decreased use . . . A second tactic, allegedly still used, has been the kidnapping of the wealthy, both in urban and rural areas, demanding exorbitant amounts of ransom money in exchange for the victim's safe return, threatening his life if the national authorities intervene. (Another) fundraising tactic, known as gramaje (payment based on grams) has allegedly developed in the Eastern Plains in the form of protection services to the owners of cocaine plantations, laboratories, and narco-traffickers in exchange for a percentage of the grams of cocaine past produced in the area.” 3

The question that the book does not pose, but that the reading of the book prompts, is the following: would the US militarily have intervened in Colombia had the drug business be exclusively a mafia business? To what extent is US military activity along the Colombian army a political counter-insurgency operation, to what extent a law-enforcement counter-narcotics one? Over recent months and weeks the double-character of the Colombia-US alliance has become evident. For the first time ever US troops in uniform, with rules foreseeing the possibility of anti-guerrilla engagement, will land in Colombia in January 2003. The book went to print before this latest development.

Foreign trooper arrival early in the New Year will have been preceded by helicopter arrival one year before. I don't know whether it was a coincidence or not. As a coincidence it was or would have been an amazing one: in February 2002 only a few hours passed between the arrival of the helicopters from the United States - bolstering very much the capacity of the Colombian Army - and the cancellation by the Colombian Government of its 3-year old peace-talks with FARC in a 1999-demilitarised region. If the collapse of these totally unproductive talks was not surprising, people can speculate about its timing. It was the moment of materialisation of ‘Plan Colombia'. To understand it - the book shows - it's most useful to revisit Washington during the first half of 2000, between 11 January when the Clinton Administration announced the $1,6 billion proposal, which was put then before the Congress, and 13 July when Clinton signed the law.

To my mind, two major factors are worth highlighting: One, most of the proposal is of a military kind, this is made out almost totally of aircraft and Congressmen mainly debated helicopters rather than drugs. Two, a distinguished and vocal yet minority group of Congressmen took an unmilitary line advocating instead the investment of all the money not on air-war against drug supply in Colombia but on land-medicine and education against drug demand in the United States.4

Based on the Congressional record, book author Crandall explains how “the real tension in the Senate actually rested with the type of military assistance that Colombia should receive. Specifically, a debate erupted over whether to provide high-tech Black Hawk helicopters, manufactured by the Sikorsky Company in Connecticut, or the less sophisticated and less expensive Hueys, manufactured by Bell-Textron. The initial Senate Appropiations Committee version replaced all of the Black Hawks requested by the White House with Super Hueys ... it was Senator Dodd (D-Connecticut.), a vocal opponent of Reagan Administration's support for the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, who proposed the Black Hawks to be included in the package . . . While Dodd's proposal lost 47-51, it would not be long before the House version resurrected the Black Hawks . . . After leaving the Senate, the bill went to the House-Senate Conference committee for reconciliation . . . The committee . . . resolved the Black Hawk versus Huey dispute, deciding that the Colombian military would receive 42 Hueys and 18 Black Hawks, with 12 of the Hueys and 2 of the Black Hawks set aside for the National Police ...” 5Agreement on the helicopter question meant agreement on ‘Plan Colombia'.

Consistently, delays with ‘Plan Colombia' had to do with helicopter delays. “ . . . there were already signs that the package was running into difficulties. A US GAO (Government Audit Office) report issued in October 2000 stated that Plan Colombia's efficacy was being hindered by delays in the manufacturing and delivery of helicopters . . . Indeed, the full delivery of helicopters would not occur until late 2002 or even into 2003 . . . The Executive branch' admission that delivery of the helicopters would take significantly longer than expected served to provoke some of the drug hawks in Congress . . . “this is a war that's going to be lost if we wait two or three years”, Congressman Burton (R-Ind) declared.

Let us recall that 130 years and countless lives and resources have not been enough to win the ‘opium war' in South Asia nor 25 years to win the ‘coca war' in South America. To some minds, however, victory now hinges on timed helicopter delivery.

Topics: Empire