Bogota was a ghost town on inauguration day. Light rain and chilly winds supported the general feeling of gloom on what was supposed to be a day of national pride. The empty streets and shuttered gates contrasted sharply with the scene I witnessed four weeks earlier on Colombian Independence Day. On that day, it seemed that everyone was out, singing, dancing, enjoying ice creams and empanadas.
Today was different. I spent my time trying to figure out ways to sneak past the military checkpoints into Plaza de Bolivar, to get a better look at the ceremony. But because I was virtually the only one on the streets, I didn't stand a chance. Every street corner was protected by a military guard armed to the teeth. Alleyways were filled with milling troops, and roaming squads with bomb-sniffing dogs were everywhere. The officers I spoke with were edgy and displeased with my presence. So I had to settle for watching the celebration a block away on a storefront display TV.
Colombians stayed off the streets due to threats from las FARC, the left-wing guerilla group at war with the government. Four years earlier, the FARC fired mortars at the square during Uribe's first inuaguration. Their poor aim killed dozens of poor civilians in a neighboring barrio. A series of car bombings throughout the country in the weeks leading up to this inauguration lent credibility to FARC warnings to expect a repeat performance. Luckily, the day passed without incident, and the following morning Colombians resumed their normal lives.
Now comes word that the Colombian military itself played a part in the the violence. This is the latest outrage in a litany of other charges against officers of conspiring with rebel groups to commit acts of terrorism and drug-trafficking. The most disturbing incident came in May. An entire elite unit of counternarcotic policemen, trained by the United States, was massacred in the town of Jumundi, near Cali. Investigations into the mass-killing revealed that a group of military officers were responsible for the murders. (For excellent reporting on the incident, and the disgraceful refusal to deal appropriately with it, see Donna Harman's coverage at The Christian Science Monitor) These revelations of Colombian military activity will be duly discussed by the U.S. Congress as it debates raising its support for the army-led PlanColombia, to a tune of $750 million a year.
It has been evident for some time now that PlanColombia has largely failed to keep cocaine off Amercian streets, or those of Europe. A report recently issued by the United Nations demonstrates that even though chemical spraying of cocaine plantations in Colombia is at its highest levels, coca production is up, and the yields are greater than ever before. These statistics, combined with the potential health risks of massive crop spraying to local inhabitants, should give Congress pause.
The L.A. Times highlights an interesting point. Regardless of lawmakers' discomfort with PlanColombia's shortcomings, and the suspician that they may be bankrolling the very criminal groups they're trying to stop, the increased funding for Colombia will likely pass in November. Why? Because "Uribe knows that he is one of the only friends the U.S. has in Latin America, and he's taking advantage of it," syas Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy.
This should not be a consideration. Instead, Congress should adopt a new three-tiered plan. Continuing aid should be granted, but with strings attached. Colombian and American anti-narcotics forces should be held accountable for their progress, or lack thereof. If they demonstrate ineffectiveness, monies will be cut off. Second, a portion of the money alotted as part of PlanColombia should be directed away from chemical sprayiong, and directed at drug-prevention programs with a track record of success. Unlike spraying, research has proven that drug-prevention regimes are a highly effective way of combating the use of cocaine -when they're funded. Finally, as has been routinely noted, the United States needs to seriously mend their damaged relationship with Latin Ameria, especially in those countries north of the Southern Cone. Otherwise, the U.S. will continue to be held hostage by schemes like PlanColombia, which fill the pockets of those who should be in prisons, and do nothing to alleviate the suffering of people on both sides of the North-South divide.