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Last Updated:5/2/01
Trip report of Senators Levin, Reed, Nelson and Nelson, February 23-25, 2001
Trip Report of Senate Armed Services Committee Delegation to
SOUTHCOM Headquarters, Colombia and Curacao
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Senator Jack Reed (D-RI),
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Senator E. Benjamin Nelson (D-NE)
February 23-25, 2001

During February 23-25, 2001, Senators Levin, Reed, Bill Nelson and Ben Nelson visited U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Headquarters in Miami, Colombia, and the U.S. Forward Operating Location (FOL) on the island of Curacao. The delegation was accompanied throughout the trip by General Peter Pace, Commander in Chief of SOUTHCOM. The purpose of the trip was to review the initial implementation of Plan Colombia and to examine the prospects for the future success of this effort. Plan Colombia is a multi-year, $7.5 billion integrated strategy developed by the Government of Colombia to promote the peace process, combat the narcotics industry, revive the Colombian economy, and strengthen the democratic pillars of Colombian society.

A summary of the delegation's meetings and site visits is included in Part I of this trip report. The situation in Colombia is described in Part II. Our observations and conclusions from our visit are summarized in Part III.

I. Delegation Meetings and Site Visits

On Friday, February 23, the delegation met at SOUTHCOM Headquarters in Miami to receive an overview of SOUTHCOM's area of responsibility, with a special emphasis on drug trafficking and drug interdiction efforts. From there the delegation flew to Cartagena, Colombia for meetings with the U.S. Embassy country team; with Colombian Minister of Defense Ramirez and Chief of the Colombian Armed Forces General Tapias; and with President Pastrana.

On Saturday, the delegation flew from Cartagena to two Colombian Armed Forces bases in southern Colombia. The Colombian Army base at Larandia is the hub for coca eradication efforts in southern Colombia, the training base for the 2nd and 3rd Counter Drug Battalions of the Colombian Army, and the Headquarters of the Colombia Army Counter Drug Brigade. The delegation met with U.S. pilots under contract to the Department of State flying missions along with civilian pilots from Colombia and other countries in support of the coca eradication effort, and observed training exercises of the 3rd Counter Drug Battalion under the direction of U.S. Army Special Forces.

At the Colombian Army Base at Tres Esquinas, the delegation visited the Joint Intelligence Center, which is the nerve center of Colombian military operations in southern Colombia, and met with the Department of State personnel operating an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in support of the drug eradication effort.

Returning to Bogota, the delegation met with representatives of Colombian human rights groups and with the Director of the Bogota Office of the UN Commission on Human Rights to hear their views on the implementation of Plan Colombia.

On Sunday, the delegation met with representatives of the American business community in Bogota, and visited the Forward Operating Location at Curacao airport on the return trip to Washington.

II. Situation in Colombia

According to a February 2001 U.S. Department of State report, in the year 2000 the Government of Colombia "continued to face serious challenges to its control over the national territory, as longstanding and widespread internal armed conflict and rampant violence – both political and criminal – persisted." Guerillas and paramilitaries supplanted absent state institutions in many sparsely populated areas. For example, more than 150 municipalities have no police or other Government of Colombia presence as a result of guerilla/paramilitaries violence.

The 2 major guerilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), consist of an estimated 11,000 to 17,000 full-time combatants. The FARC and the ELN , along with other smaller insurgent groups, exercised a significant degree of territorial influence and initiated armed action in nearly 1,000 of the country's 1,085 municipalities during the year. The FARC and ELN regularly attacked civilian populations, committed massacres and summary executions, and killed medical and religious personnel. They were responsible for the majority of cases of forcible recruitment of indigenous people and of hundreds of children; they also were responsible for the majority of kidnapings, holding more than 1,000 kidnaped civilians for ransom.

The United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary organization, which was created in response to guerrilla violence against and kidnapings of civilians and whose membership totals approximately 8,150 armed combatants, exercised increasing influence during the year and fought to extend its presence through intimidation and violence into areas previously under guerrilla control while summarily killing thousands of civilians it alleged collaborated with the guerrillas. They are now responsible for the majority of the killings.

The narcotraffickers are providing funding for both the guerrillas and paramilitaries. They also utilize violence, intimidation and corruption of judges, witnesses and prosecutors to advance their interests.

As Colombian President Pastrana noted in describing Plan Colombia:

"The destabilizing forces of drug trafficking have aggravated the weaknesses of a State still engaged in a process of consolidation. Progressive reforms introduced in the 1990s heralded an age of increased opportunity for Colombians, but they were distorted and penetrated by corrupting influences in economic and political circles; they fostered violence and corruption. More recently, the financial relationship between the various armed groups and the drug-traffickers has contributed to the intensification of armed conflict and limited the capacity of the State to discharge its major responsibilities."
III. Observations and Conclusion

The initial phase of the implementation of Plan Colombia in the Putumayo Department is proceeding well. Almost one-third of the area under coca cultivation in Putumayo, the most dense area of coca cultivation in the world, has been sprayed. Plan Colombia involves unprecedented cooperation between the Colombian military and National Police forces, the integration of new equipment and tactics on a real time basis, and a requirement to respect human rights while dealing both with guerrillas and paramilitaries who continue massive violations of human rights.

It is clear that the widespread narcotrafficking threatens democracy in Colombia. We are convinced that the continued strengthening, modernization and professionalization of the Colombian military is the best hope for weakening the narcotraffickers stranglehold on Colombian society, advancing the rule of law to protect the rights of all Colombians, and ending the massive violations of human rights in Colombia.

We are also convinced that military action alone cannot solve the underlying social and economic problems of Colombia. But, without the effective and immediate involvement of Colombian military forces, the democratically elected government of Colombia would likely be overwhelmed by forces funded by narcotrafficking which would extinguish any chance for democratic reform. Preserving democracy in this region is unequivocally in the national interest of the United States.

Plan Colombia

Plan Colombia is a multi-faceted and multi-year plan to address the military, political, economic, and social problems of Colombia to recover the capacity of the State in all respects. One of the strategic priorities of Plan Colombia is to deal with drug production and trafficking. As a result, Plan Colombia represents the confluence of the national security interests of the United States and Colombia.

Part of its underlying strategy is to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine processing so as to deprive the guerillas and paramilitaries of narco-trafficking derived funds which they use to procure arms and finance their operations that destabilize Colombia. The strategy also is based on the belief that, if they lose their primary funding source, the guerrillas are more likely to negotiate with the Government of Colombia and the paramilitaries strength will also be sapped by the loss of narco-trafficking funds which help support them, as well as by the loss of their claimed reason for existence - the defense against the guerrillas' kidnaping and other violent behavior.

The first phase of Plan Colombia involves a push into the southern Colombian Departments of Putumayo and Caqueta. The concept is for the newly formed Colombian Army Counter Drug Battalions on the ground to provide security for aerial spraying and to destroy drug labs. From December 19, 2000 to February 22, 2001, approximately 30,000 hectares out of an estimated total of 90,000 hectares of coca have been eradicated, mostly in Putumayo and some in Caqueta. Additionally, 46 labs producing cocaine base and 5 labs producing refined cocaine have been destroyed. These results, which were achieved with almost no resistance on the ground, exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. According to the U.S. Embassy, there was minimal displacement of people from the area as a result of these operations and these results were achieved without any allegations of violations of human rights by the Colombian military.

During our visit we learned that aerial spraying in Putumayo, which began in December of last year, was ended by the Government of Colombia on February 6, 2001. We have sent a letter to President Pastrana recommending that spraying recommence in Putumayo promptly, since it is the greatest source of coca.

The role of the Colombian military in this first phase of Plan Colombia has been crucial. That will remain true for the foreseeable future. The Colombian military has demonstrated its ability to utilize the assistance and training provided by the United States to make a real contribution to the fight against drugs. Unlike too many militaries historically in the region, it defends democracy in its country. We believe that the Colombian military deserves continued support from the United States.

There have, however, been growing pains, including some tension between the military and the national police. We remain hopeful that such tensions will be overcome in the same fashion that tensions between the U.S. military and U.S. law enforcement agencies that arose when the U.S. military first undertook a supporting role in the national counterdrug effort, were overcome. We also believe that the Colombian Air Force has not yet found its appropriate role in the fight against drugs, except in the air interdiction effort.

We recognize that a substantial success in significantly reducing coca cultivation by eradication or substitution of alternate crops in southern Colombia may result in a relocation of coca planting to other locations in Colombia or to neighboring countries. We need to be alert to that possibility and to make plans to deal with it wherever it relocates.

Human Rights

Colombia has experienced a political/ideological insurgency for more than forty years. The relatively recent link between the guerrillas and the narcotraffickers and between the paramilitaries and the narcotraffickers has produced a three-pronged criminal/terrorist attack on the State and its citizens.

Over the years, guerrilla groups have engaged in numerous violations of human rights ranging from kidnaping and extortion to assassination to mass murders of civilians. The FARC, in particular, has used improvised mortars fashioned from propane gas tanks loaded with explosives to attack police stations. These highly inaccurate but powerful weapons destroy numerous homes and businesses as well as police stations, thus filling the role of a typical terror weapon.

The paramilitaries typically use cold-blooded murder of anyone suspected of cooperation with the guerillas as well as murder as a tool of terror to prevent such cooperation.

The Colombian military has also been involved in violations of human rights over the years. However, according to the Government of Colombia, from 1995 to 1999, the last year for which data is available, the percentage of human rights violations in Colombia attributed to the Colombian military and police fell from 16% to 2% (98% were attributed to the guerrillas and paramilitaries in a ratio of 7 to 3). Further evidence of progress in reducing human rights violations by Colombian military personnel is that, employing powers conferred on it under a law passed in 2000, the Government dismissed 388 officers and non-commissioned officers of the military and national police from active duty.

In our discussions with the authorities of the Colombian security forces, starting with President Pastrana as Commander in Chief, through Minister of Defense Ramirez, Chief of the Colombian Armed Forces General Tapias, and the senior leadership of the Military Services, we sense a real commitment on their part to respect for human rights and to the termination of any collusion or cooperation by the military with the paramilitaries. That commitment must be extended throughout the ranks of the Colombian military.

The so-called Leahy amendment to the annual Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which prohibits U.S. assistance to military units whose members have been implicated in human rights abuses unless the government is taking effective measures to bring the individuals responsible to justice, has served to prod action on allegations of human rights violations by the Colombian military in the past. There are recent instances where one interpretation of the Leahy amendment may be hampering the implementation of Plan Colombia, however. For example, the failure of the Colombian Air Force to properly investigate an allegation that a Colombian Air Force aircraft dropped bombs on civilians three years ago, has led to demands that no U.S. Plan Colombia assistance may be used to support a unit which makes up virtually the entire Colombian Air Force. Because we believe that, properly implemented, Plan Colombia will promote human rights in Colombia, we are concerned that some interpretations of the Leahy amendment could hurt the human rights cause.

We believe that it would be appropriate to review the provisions of the Leahy amendment with an eye towards its clarification in order to continue the improvement of the human rights' performance of the Colombian military, while still permitting the provision of U.S. military assistance which can promote that goal.

U.S. Military Role

At the Colombian military bases at Larandia and Tres Esquinas we were able to speak to the U.S. military personnel who are present in Colombia in connection with Plan Colombia. We were deeply impressed with the professionalism and dedication of the Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs and Navy Special Boat Unit personnel.

The training being provided by U.S. military personnel, including the integration of human rights principles into training exercise scenarios, is very valuable. We recommend that consideration be given to transition such training, over time, to a "train the trainer" program that would be self sustaining.

We were, of course, very interested in force protection for the U.S. military personnel involved in the training of the Colombian military. We reviewed the numerous force protection enhancements undertaken as a part of Plan Colombia and were gratified that the Colombian military chain of command expressed their strong commitment to the safety of U.S. personnel.

We were struck by the commitment of the senior levels of the Colombian military to respect for human rights and their understanding of the proper role of the military in a democratic society. In a number of instances, those officers recounted their attendance at U.S. military education and training institutions and their interaction with U.S. military personnel. The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program and military-to-military engagement with the Colombian military have made a contribution to the growth of democracy in Colombia.

We looked into the matter of personnel ceilings placed upon U.S. personnel assigned in Colombia in connection with support of Plan Colombia. The ceiling of 500 for U.S. military personnel assigned for temporary or permanent duty in Colombia in connection with support for Plan Colombia is more than adequate. On the other hand, the ceiling of 300 U.S. individual civilians retained as contractors in Colombia in support of Plan Colombia may be insufficient. In view of these findings, we believe that it would be appropriate to revise the military personnel ceiling downward to 400 and to impose a combined U.S. military and U.S. individual contractor personnel ceiling of 800. This will provide the necessary flexibility while preserving the minimal risk of U.S. military involvement in hostilities.

At Tres Esquinas, we reviewed a tape of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flight operated by Department of State contractor personnel that provided dramatic footage of people carrying coca leaves into and product out of a cocaine base lab. We believe that this low cost and low risk technology should be carefully assessed for expanded use for the detection of drug labs and other important missions, such as border control. We believe that Colombia offers an excellent area for such an assessment.

Next Steps in Plan Colombia

Another important objective of the push into southern Colombia is the planting of alternative crops as a substitute for coca. This will require a commitment to sustain aerial spraying and to provide support to affected farmers.

While the United States has made the decision to prioritize funding of assistance and training for Colombian security forces, U.S. assistance is also provided for the non-military side of Plan Colombia such as the reform of the judicial and penal systems and for alternative development and other economic activities. The Government of Colombia has made a concerted effort to secure additional support for the non-military side from the European Union (EU) on a multilateral basis and from the European nations on a bilateral basis. We are disappointed at the low level of support that has been forthcoming from the EU and the European nations. We recommend that the Department of State vigorously urge our European friends to do more, particularly since about one-half of the cocaine produced in Colombia is destined for Europe.

Demand Reduction

If Americans and Europeans did not consume cocaine, the narcotraffickers would soon be out of business and the easy money for the guerillas and the paramilitaries would dry up. As Secretary Rumsfeld stated at his confirmation hearing on January 11th "I am one who believes that the drug problem is probably overwhelmingly a demand problem and that it is going to find - if the demand persists, it is going to find ways to get what it wants." And as President Bush stated in his joint press conference with Mexican President Fox in Mexico on February 16th, "One of the reasons why drugs are shipped through Mexico to the United States is because United States citizens use drugs. And our nation must do a better job of educating our citizenry about the dangers and evils of drug use."

We believe that our National Drug Control Strategy should place increased emphasis and resources on the prevention of drug abuse and on the treatment and rehabilitation of drug abusers.

Conclusion

We are convinced that the continued strengthening, modernization and professionalization of the Colombia military is the best hope for weakening the narcotraffickers stranglehold on Colombian society, advancing the rule of law, and ending the massive violations of human rights in Colombia. We are also convinced that military action alone cannot solve the underlying social and economic problems of Colombia. Judicial and penal reform as well as alternative development and other economic activities will also be needed. But without the effective and immediate involvement of Colombian military forces, the democratically elected government of Colombia would likely be overwhelmed by forces funded by narcotrafficking which would extinguish any chance for democratic reform. Preserving democracy in this region is unequivocally in the national interest of the United States.

As of May 2, 2001, this document was also available online at http://levin.senate.gov/issues/colombia.htm

See also the trip photos on Sen. Levin's website at http://levin.senate.gov/photogal/photogalcolombia.htm

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