Could the War on Drugs Become a Quagmire?

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Drugs and the war against them have a habit of corrupting Latin America's politics — and that could put Washington right back in the thick of the Reagan-era counterinsurgency from which President Clinton has tried so hard to distance himself. With a $1.6 billion U.S. aid package to the Colombian military at stake, President Andres Pastrana and U.S. drug czar General Barry McCaffrey found themselves forced Thursday to defend the Colombian army from allegations that it remains intimately connected with right-wing paramilitary groups notorious for human rights abuses. But despite Pastrana and McCaffrey's insistence that the military remains clean, Human Rights Watch reported Wednesday that there are documented ties between at least half of Colombia's army brigades and the paramilitaries, which range from supplying arms and equipment to sharing intelligence and joint planning.

U.S. military assistance to Colombia is intended for the war against drugs, but the line between counter-narcotics operations and counterinsurgency is blurred by both sides in Colombia's 40-year civil war: Leftist guerrillas, dubbed "narco-terrorists" by Washington, are believed to finance themselves via the drug trade; but human rights groups assert that neither side is entirely innocent of involvement in the narcotics industry. And the reports that the U.S.-backed military is cooperating with paramilitary groups that have killed thousands of civilians won't do anything to allay the fears of legislators on Capitol Hill concerned that deepening involvement in Colombia could eventually draw the U.S. into an intractable civil war (the ghost of Vietnam was invoked more than once in Thursday's congressional hearing on the aid package). But whether or not the Colombian military is using paramilitary killers to fight a dirty war, legislators may also find cause for concern in the progress on the war on drugs in the Latin American state — despite hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the authorities and the presence of some 800 U.S. military personnel, Colombia's cocaine output has doubled over the past five years.