Tanya Castaneda

Cambodia in South America. Will the Bush's administration repeat history?

It was a Wednesday night at 7:00 pm. Ximena's father did not come for dinner. He was always home at this time, but something happened that night. Trying not to worry, she decided to postpone dinner and wait for him. Mr. Villa, Ximena's father is a 70-year-old farmer in Tulcan, the Ecuadorian town at the border between Colombia and Ecuador. The Villa's like many families in this region own a few acres of land and make their living from agriculture mainly by the production of potatoes and the raising of cattle.

Mr. Villa leaves early in the morning to tend his farm, but he is always home for dinner. That Wednesday night, after waiting for a few hours Ximena decided to go look for him. As she and her younger brother were getting ready to leave the house someone knocked on their door. It was Horace, one of the farm workers. He was very agitated. Sweating and out breath he could barely articulate clearly. Ximena gave him a glass of water that she quickly grabbed from the kitchen and Horace told her that Mr. Villa had being kidnapped. It was the guerrillas- he said. There were six of them, all with weapons. They stopped Mr. Villa's car as he was driving back home with Mario, another of his workers. The guerillas shot Mario in the head and as Mr. Villa tried to resist they knocked him out, tied his hands, dragged him into a truck and drove away.

Horace saw the incident form the distance and was so terrified, he ran as fast as he could to get to the Villa's house. In this small town events like this never happened before. Kidnapping, guerilla warfare, paramilitary resistance and drug trade were conflicts that happened across the border, on Colombian territory. However, life has being changing in the last few years as the American war on drugs intensified in Colombia known as the "Andean Initiative" transferred the conflict form one territory to another in the Andean region, and in the last few years "Plan Colombia" had deepened the internal social conflict in Colombia, slowly transferring the political, social and economical conflict to neighboring Ecuador. With the Aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th the Bush administration announced its decision to expand the war on drugs on Colombian territory, but now, more than ever when the underlying reasons for American foreign policy in this region needs to be revised.

The unilateral policy of eradicating coca production in Colombia has already proven itself inefficient. The American decision of following the Clinton's legacy, inherited from the conflict in Colombia will turn the country into the next Vietnam and Ecuador will become the next Cambodia, Vietnam's neighbor that was pulled into the conflict that eventually involved most of Southeast Asia. To understand better the American position in this region it is important to note that a few days after the terrorist attack of September 11th 2002, the US government through house Speaker Dennis Hastert, announced measures to escalate the war on drugs in Latin America. The original assumption is that to escalate the war on drugs on the Andean region should help protect the US against terrorism.

I fail to see how the escalation of an already failed policy in the region will increase the security of US citizens in the US and around the hemisphere. Instead, I see that this policy sidetracks the recently re-energized policy debate about democracy, economic development and immigration in the region. It threatens the fragile advances towards democracy, human rights and civil liberties in Latin America and it takes advantage of these troubled times to undo the safeguards put in place after past abuses of US policy in the region. This difficulties are not new in the Andean region. "Andean Initiative" the American war on drugs policy started in 1989. The policy focused on coca eradication from the territories of Peru and Bolivia. During the years of 1996 and 2000, much of the resources of "Andean Initiative" where utilized in intense aerial fumigation in coca producing areas.

The program was said to be successful because production fell from 118,000 to 36,000 acres in Bolivia and from 230,000 to 84,000 acres in Peru. But the doubling of coca cultivation in Colombia quickly offset the success of this policy. (Production increased from 165,000 to 334,000 acres in the year 2000) In response to the rapid expansion of coca cultivation in Colombia, in the summer of 2000, the Clinton administration lunched a $1.3 billion counter drug package called "Plan Colombia" The aim was to eradicate the rapidly expanding coca production intensifying fumigation and by training a new elite counter insurgence and anti-drug battalion to protect eradication efforts form FARC guerrillas stationed in production areas. Plan Colombia originally focused in the provinces of Caqueta and Guaviare, which together made up 148,000 of Colombia's 165,000 acres of coca cultivation. But by the year 2001 the fumigation efforts in these areas moved cultivation to Putumayo, and to the neighboring province of Narino, the border with Ecuador.

Since these eradication efforts, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson told the Los Angeles Times in July of 2001: "Everywhere we look there is more coca than we expected. There's just more out there than we thought." By now there are reports of coca cultivation being restarted in areas of Peru that had been eradicated, and coca is increasingly appearing across the frontier in Ecuador. Ecuador managed to stay aside of the chaos of war, revolutions, guerrilla warfare and narcotic scandals that invaded its neighbors Colombia and Peru. But during the last few years the increasing pression of the US policy in the region has slowly pulled the country into a dangerous roll in a drug war that can completely destroy its already unstable political, social and economical systems. Ecuador's official involvement in the U.S. drug war grew out of a series of international agreements that culminated in a 1999 accord for what the U.S. military refers to as a Forward Operating Location (FOL) at the Manta base.

When Howard Air Force base in Panama closed that same year, the US. started to look for strategic replacements for its base in the Caribbean and in South America. A report by the Ecuadorian Ministries of Foreign Relations and Defense made the case for the FOL. presence at Manta in U.S. terms: "With Howard closed, the United States needs Manta. Ecuador depends on exports to the U. S. and should not jeopardize this relationship". When US proposal to utilize Manta reached the Ecuadorian prime Minister desk, its fate was already sealed. Ecuador decided not to fight against the USA so as to prove they were a country with heart in the struggle against drugs.

The reasons for the selection of this location as an American base are clearly stated in the accord, which states: "Ecuador was selected for its strategic location and for the security it offers, since Ecuador has no "serious problems of violence and terrorism". Ironically problems started arising as the US settled in the Manta base. Right after the signature of the accord, a group calling itself the People's Liberation Army took responsibility for several letter bombs mailed to supporters of neo-liberal programs and the Manta accord as Ecuadorians protested their nation's role in Plan Colombia. They believed that it would destroy Ecuador's peace and sovereignty and could have serious environmental effects, even as it furthers neo-liberal economic goals and U.S. security interests that go well beyond fighting drugs.

German Petras writes " If Plan Colombia is an anaconda trying to wrap its coils around Latin America, Ecuador is already in its grip: The United States has turned Manta Air Force Base on the Pacific Coast into a key link in its region-wide air surveillance system. Northeast Ecuador's border regions are in danger of becoming new zones of conflict as Colombian drug traffickers, guerrillas, military and paramilitary forces filter into border towns, and civilian refugees scatter". In his 2000 book, Plan Colombia: La paz armada (the Armed Peace), Uruguayan journalist Kintto Lucas suggests other motives behind Manta's creation. As evidence that the U.S. surveillance operations based there are not just aimed at drug traffickers, Lucas cites the June 2000 case in which the United States warship Hali Burton detained a fishing boat carrying 190 undocumented immigrants bound for the United States from Ecuador's southern provinces of Canar and Loja.

An intelligence flight originating in Manta had alerted the warship to the boat's presence, a violation of terms that Manta should only be used to combat narcotrafficking. Lucas notes that the United States had urged the intervention of Ecuadorian and Peruvian troops in Colombia's internal conflict, had transferred U.S. Special Forces to Peruvian and Ecuadorian locations along the Colombian border, and, in July 1999, mobilized 24 U.S. planes stationed in the Ecuadorian Amazon to rescue a U.S. RC-713 military aircraft that had crashed in Colombia. The refusal of a White House functionary to reveal whether or not the plane was part of a covert operation confirmed Lucas' suspicions that Manta could well involve Ecuador further in the Colombian counterinsurgency.

Oil and economic ties contribute to U.S. concerns about regional insurgencies and social disorder. A 1999 report by the Ecuadorian Joint Military Command recommended special measures to protect U.S. oil facilities against paramilitary members and left wing guerrillas infiltrating from Colombia. The kidnapping and murder of oil technician Ron Sander on January 31 in Lago Agrio, a frontier town just across the border from Colombia's conflict-ridden Putumayo region, reinforced oil companies' fears of social breakdown in the area. By the year 2001, Lago Agrio become infiltrated by criminal gangs, some connected to drug traffickers, and has recently become a favored retreat for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC) and U.S. Special Forces members. In the Ecuadorian rainforest, the indigenous communities have being hit hard by the expansion of the drug war in Colombia. An example of this is the Cofan community. According to Randy Borman, Director of the Foundation for the Survival of the Cofan, in Ecuador. Only 4000 survive. They came form Colombia to refuge in Ecuador for a variety of reasons, including threats by AUC paramilitaries. But as plan Colombia progress, hundreds of Kichwa and Shuar natives on the Ecuadorian side are also threatened by AUC in the small towns of the Amazonian border province of Sucumbios.

This is happening because even though there is little coca being grown in Ecuador now,as eradication in Colombia advances, cocaine producers are seeking out new production territory and new suppliers. The advent of large-scale Ecuadorian coca farming would surely be followed by U.S. pressure to carry out a large-scale aerial eradication program. In Ecuador, as it already did in Colombia, this measure would challenge the livelihood of thousands of small peasants destroying foods and the production of legal crops. In response to neighboring countries' concerns about the spillover of drug traffic, violence and refugees the Bush administration repackaged Plan Colombia as the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI). This includes significant increases in military and police aid to Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama.

The Bush package also substantially increases social and economic aid, including aid for alternative development. But in Ecuador, this is not enough to fix the already existing problem of hundreds of refugees without work or means for survival, the increment on violence, and the threat of becoming the next territory inundated by drug production. Chasing down coca crops, however, may not be the worst of the American policy in the region. The drug war is dragging the United States deeper into the central conflict in Colombia, the guerrilla war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and other insurgent groups have been engaged in a protracted guerrilla war with the Colombian government for decades over issues of political power, land reform, and other grievances.

In recent years, the FARC has expanded its size and power, extending its control over areas of the Colombia countryside where the police and the military have difficulty operating. One of the key sources of financing for the FARC has been the taxes it has imposed in the coca- and heroin-growing zones. The U.S. drug war is being fought in many FARC strongholds, leading the U.S. to provide the "counter narcotics" battalions with counterinsurgency training and weapons and financial aid. However, for many in the military, the drug war is not an end in itself, but rather a means to get helicopters, weapons, and training to go after their central enemies in the guerrilla movements. The official U.S. position-still maintained by the Bush administration-is that our central interest is drug eradication and that we do not want to be involved in the civil war. But I see the separation between both as artificial.

The very structure of the policy itself drags the United States more deeply into the Colombian internal conflict because U.S.-trained counter narcotics battalions will inevitably use their counterinsurgency training against the guerrillas in southern Colombia, pushing their strongholds towards Ecuadorian Territory. What is needed, but thus far only dimly visible on the horizon, is a serious re-evaluation of the American policy in the Andean region. Plan Colombia and its repercussions in Ecuadorian territory are showing that the drug war in Colombia is clearly unwinnable by militarization, aerial fumigation and American intervention. The question that remains is: Will the Bush administration have the wisdom to change the course of the American policy in Colombia, or will it repeat history and turn Colombia in the next Vietnam and Ecuador in the next Cambodia in South America?

Ecuadorian Soldier Patrolling the Columbian Border


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