The US is increasing its assault against the coca-farmers of Colombia, while avoiding direct US military presence by “outsourcing” the drug war to private mercenaries. The largest of these is a private Virginia company called DynCorp, which provides mechanics and pilots for aerial spraying and eradication missions.
These missions apparently include shooting at rebel guerillas. On February 25, a Colombian police helicopter was shot down in southern Colombia. The rescue mission included at least three helicopter gunships, all piloted by American DynCorp employees, firing on rebel ground positions to protect fellow Americans who were helping to rescue crewmen.
These “armed civilians” are employed under a State Department contract, as part of Washington’s $1.6 billion “Plan Colombia.” The US State Department said that because they are civilians, this type of direct conflict did not count as “military involvement.”
More than 50 US helicopters and three battalions of US-trained Colombian troops are scheduled to be on the field very soon.
According to a US government report, Colombian coca plantations grew by 11% in 2000, to 336,000 acres. This is double Colombia’s production of five years ago. More than half of this is grown in the Southern province of Putumayo, where over 60,000 acres were sprayed by deadly herbicides between December and February. The herbicide of choice is Round-up, produced by Monsanto.
The February 27 UK Guardian reported how the crop-dusters, escorted by combat helicopters, both piloted by American DynCorp employees, often miss their targets. In one typical case they “doused tin-roofed classrooms with herbicides… clouds of defoliant engulfed the school, the Roman Catholic church, and the fields of plantain, cassava and maize… schoolchildren complained of rashes, headaches and vomiting after the weedkiller fell.”
Despite the massive US investment in military equipment and training of Colombian troops, the $80 million in US aid to encourage farmers to pull up coca in favor of legal crops has yet to reach Putumayo, and the amount originally promised has dropped by 75%.
Some South American politicians are raising the question of legalization as an alternative to war and toxic spray campaigns. Colombian opposition Congressman Julio Angel Restrepo has promoted debate on legalization, and Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle Ibanez had promised to raise the issue at the April 20-22 Quebec Summit of the Americas. Mexican President Vicente Fox also spoke out for legalization as this issue went to press in late March, telling the newspaper Unomasuno that he agreed with top police officials who also backed ending the drug war, but added that “it would have to come all over the world.”