Memorandum: The U.S. military presence in Colombia, February 26, 2003
February 26, 2003
To: Interested Colleagues
From: Ingrid Vaicius, Associate, Center for International Policy
Re: The U.S. military presence in Colombia
On February 13, a
plane carrying four Defense Department-funded contractors and a Colombian
sergeant was forced to make an emergency landing while on an intelligence
mission over the department (province) of Caquetá in southern Colombia.
The four U.S. civilians aboard the Cessna 208 worked for California Microwave
Inc., a unit of Northrop Grumman, a leading defense contractor.
has long been a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC), a 17,000-member, nearly 40-year-old guerrilla group that since
1997 has been on the U.S. State Department's list of international terrorist
groups. It appears that FARC rebels arrived almost immediately at the
scene of the plane crash, where they killed the Colombian soldier on board
and one of the U.S. citizens. The FARC announced on February 24 that the
three remaining Americans are in their power, and that they plan to hold
them - along with over twenty prominent kidnapped politicians - to pressure
for the release of guerrillas in Colombian jails.
The Bush Administration
has sent additional specialized troops to Colombia to assist the Colombian
military's search-and-rescue operation, reportedly bringing the number
of U.S. military personnel in Colombia to a new high of 411.
The Center for International
Policy condemns the FARC's refusal to free the three captives and all
of their so-called "politically retained" individuals. We also
call on the United States to take this opportunity to consider ways to
reduce the risks associated with our current policy toward Colombia -
not just the force-protection risks that the February 13 incident makes
clear, but the longer-term risks of proximity to a large and very complicated
conflict. One such mechanism, a limit on the presence of U.S. personnel
in Colombia, is already in place - but it deserves a closer look.
Is this legal?
Last year, the Bush
Administration began widening the scope of its military assistance mission
in Colombia. In August, Congress approved an administration request to
allow all past and present anti-drug aid to be used against guerrillas
and paramilitaries. In November, President Bush signed a secret order,
National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) 18, which broadened several
of the American military's guidelines in Colombia, particularly with regard
In mid-January, a
contingent of sixty U.S. Special Forces arrived in the conflictive department
of Arauca in northeastern Colombia, where they are to train the Colombian
Army in an effort to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas
oil pipeline. These trainers' guidelines allow them to accompany their
Colombian military counterparts outside the perimeters of military bases,
but prohibit their presence in an area if there is a significant likelihood
While U.S. law gives
the executive branch a good deal of freedom to deploy troops in such "operations
other than war," the U.S. Congress has expressed concern about "mission
creep" - the possibility that U.S. personnel may find themselves
embroiled in Colombia's conflict. As a result, a provision that first
appeared in the 2000 "Plan Colombia" aid package, and which
has been renewed each year through 2003, sets a maximum of 400 U.S. military
personnel and 400 U.S. citizen contractors who can be in Colombia at any
given time. The law adds, "no United States Armed Forces personnel
or United States civilian contractor employed by the United States will
participate in any combat operation in connection with assistance made
available by this Act for Colombia".
In strict legal terms,
however, this "troop cap" provision does not cover all U.S.
personnel. The language of the law only applies the cap to U.S. personnel
in Colombia "in support of Plan Colombia" - the 2000 counter-drug
initiative supported with funding from the State Department's anti-narcotics
Many of the Bush
Administration's military-aid initiatives - in particular, the pipeline
protection program - are not anti-drug programs, nor are they paid for
with State Department anti-drug funds. They are not considered part of
"Plan Colombia" - so the troop cap, in its current form, would
not strictly apply to the U.S. military personnel in Colombia to carry
out these programs.
U.S. officials have
told members of Congress informally that they will nonetheless continue
to obey the caps of 400 each. The administration's required quarterly
reports to Congress on the U.S. presence indicate that the limit has not
been exceeded. The last report claimed that there were 208 military personnel
and 279 contract workers in Colombia on January 13, 2003; on November
13, 2002, the previous report cited 267 military personnel and 270 contractors.
While the law allows
the president to waive the troop cap for 90 days if involvement in hostilities
is likely, it states that even a formal waiver is unnecessary in the case
of search-and-rescue operations like the one currently underway in Caquetá.
While the current operation pushes the number of military personnel above
400, the administration is not legally bound even to notify Congress.
"We informally told Congress about the search-and-rescue personnel
that would be going down," explained State Department Spokesman Philip
Reeker on February 25, but "no formal notification or waiver is required
because the legislation makes quite clear that emergency personnel like
the search-and-rescue personnel don't fall under that category."
In two briefings
this week, Mr. Reeker has explained that, contrary to press reports, the
search-and-rescue operation was not a single deployment of 150 U.S. military
personnel. Instead, he says, the smaller number of search-and-rescue troops
are in addition to an already-increasing U.S. presence in Colombia. Whatever
the purpose, the reporting available indicates that the U.S. military
presence in Colombia grew from 208 on January 13, 2003 to 411 on February
21. Some of these 203 new arrivals are the trainers working on the pipeline-protection
program; some are search-and-rescue personnel. Others are what Mr. Reeker
has vaguely defined as "pre-planned deployments of U.S. military
Beyond numbers, however,
the effort to win the U.S. hostages' freedom signals a new role for U.S.
military personnel in Colombia. Though the Colombian military is on the
front lines of the search-and-rescue operation, U.S. personnel are in
the field as well, serving as advisors and providing intelligence. While
the trainers for the Arauca pipeline-protection effort have had to avoid
zones where combat could occur - staying behind when their Colombian counterparts
carry out an operation - the search-and-rescue personnel are actively
accompanying the effort in guerrilla-dominated rural Caquetá. The
possibility of combat is greater than it has ever been.
A government official
told the Washington Post, "We can certainly expect pressure to respond
in a very forceful way." Added Rep. James Moran (D-Virginia) during
a visit to Colombia last week, "I don't think rescue by itself is
a sufficient response." What that response should be, however, is
far from clear. The United States must decide to what extent it wants
to take on the counter-insurgency mission in Colombia. As the current
crisis indicates, to do so would be a very large and frustrating undertaking.
As Rep. James McGovern
(D-Massachusetts) said last May - the last time Congress debated Colombia
policy - "when you add it all up, increased U.S. troops plus increased
involvement in the civil war equals bad policy." Yet while support
for opening this large new front in the "war on terror" remains
in doubt, Washington continues to steadily increase its involvement. Instead
of letting the policy drift in an unintended direction, Congress must
rigorously apply strong safeguards - among them, a "troop cap"
that actually applies to all troops in Colombia.