Europe’s Dirty War

The European Union is funding Plan Colombia

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 22nd May 2001

George Bush has made no secret of the primary mission of his presidency: to remunerate the companies which supported his bid for power. To the oil industry he has given the Arctic wildlife reserve and the abandonment of American action on climate change. To the tobacco industry he has granted an end to the federal lawsuits on behalf of the victims of smoking. To the mining firms he has pledged to remove the laws restricting arsenic in drinking water. But what do you give to the industry which has everything? Which already receives some $200bn a year from the US taxpayer? You give America’s arms companies what they most desire. You give them war.

To this end, and in the name of national security, Mr Bush has been seeking to revive the hostility and suspicion which proved so lucrative until the disastrous events of 1989. He hopes to scrap the anti-ballistic missile treaty, destabilising the world’s nuclear equilibrium. He is determined to extend NATO to all of Russia’s western borders, causing the moribund but dangerous old bear to feel more threatened than it has done for a decade. Welcome as these incipient crises are, however, the war industry also requires immediate conflict. So the US has been seeking opportunities all over world. None have so far proved as fruitful as its support for a scheme devised by the government of Colombia.

The purpose of Plan Colombia, according to the county’s president, Andres Pastrana, is to help eliminate the production of drugs, generate employment, boost trade and bring peace to a country which has been mauled by civil war for more than 50 years. The Clinton and Bush administrations have generously supplied this worthy scheme with $1.3bn, promising the American people that the money will be spent to assist the war on drugs. Eighty-four per cent of the funding will take the form of military aid.

To control drugs, the US insists, first it must control the country. To this end, it has supplied 104 combat helicopters and trained three Colombian army batallions. But the army is not exactly the instrument of peace that Mr Pastrana has claimed. As Amnesty International has recorded, “Colombian army personnel, trained by US special forces, have been implicated … in serious human rights violations, including the massacre of civilians.” The army works alongside Colombia’s ultra-right paramilitaries, who are responsible for the assassination of thousands of trades union and peasant leaders and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. As one of Colombia’s official human rights ombudsmen has noted, “The paramilitary phenomenon … is the spearhead of Plan Colombia: to create territorial control and to control the civilian population. This is a terror tactic.” The US, with the help of the Colombian government, is waging yet another dirty war in Latin America.

Far from eliminating drugs production, this war will only make it worse. Plan Colombia funds the aerial spraying of coca and opium fields with Roundup, the broad spectrum herbicide patented by Monsanto. Roundup destroys almost everything it touches, wiping out legal crops alongside illegal ones, poisoning the rivers, shattering one of the most fragile and biodiverse forest ecosystems on earth, precipitating both acute and chronic human diseases. It is, in other words, the Agent Orange of America’s new Vietnam. (Agent Orange, interestingly, was also a Monsanto product). Now the US administration wants to take this ecocide a step further, by spraying the jungle with a genetically engineered fungus which produces deadly toxins.

When their livelihood has been destroyed, the peasant farmers and indigenous people have no means of survival but to flee further into the jungle and start growing drugs. Since the aerial spraying programme began, the area devoted to drugs cultivation in Colombia has tripled.

But Plan Colombia is not a war against drugs: it is a war against people. Its ultimate purpose, as several international observers have pointed out, is to eliminate both left-wing guerillas and grassroots democratic movements, in order to facilitate the seizure of the country’s most valuable land. The US envisages a new inter-oceanic canal through the north of the country, to bypass the congested Panama canal. Its companies have identified billions of dollars’ worth of oil and mineral deposits. So, for the past five months, soldiers and paramilitaries have been murdering community leaders and expelling local people. The places identified for economic development by Plan Colombia are the places now being savaged by the paramilitaries.

The European Union is well aware of these atrocities and of their coordination by President Pastrana’s plan. At first sight, it appears to be contesting them. At a meeting on April 30th, the EU resolved to spend 330 million euros on “political support” for the “peace process” in Colombia. The money will be used to establish “peace laboratories”, contest human rights violations, and “relieve the social impact of conflict.” The package looks uncontroversial, and it received no significant coverage.

But the public statements issued by the EU, the European Commission and Chris Patten, the British commissioner who brokered the agreement, contain a number of curious omissions. “Plan Colombia” is mentioned nowhere. Nor is the US government. Nor are the atrocities committed by the army and coordinated by the state. The killings in the country are blamed solely upon paramilitaries and guerillas.

Only when you read an acccount of the same meeting by the InterAmerican Development Bank do you stumble across several interesting features missing from the European statements. The first is that the funding package is not a European initiative, but was provided at the request of the Colombian government. The second is that it will be supplemented by extra money from the US. The third is that Marc Grossman, the US Under Secretary of State, was sitting in the meeting. Trawl the European Commission’s archive, and you discover a further interesting feature: that the “peace process” to which the EU was referring is none other than Plan Colombia. The new funding represents the plan’s “social component”, attached to the US invasion in the hope of making it look like something rather different. Spain is prepared to go further still, and help the United States to finance the Colombian army.

The new European funding, in other words, provides the political credibility which President Pastrana and the US administration have desperately been seeking ever since they initiated their plan. Wittingly or otherwise, the European Union has helped the two governments to disguise a programme of state terror as humanitarian aid.

Mass killings, ecocide and the seizure of resources do not have a financial solution, but a political one. You cannot buy human rights, least of all from a scheme that’s responsible for their abuse. The only help foreign intervention can offer the Colombian people is intense diplomatic pressure, exposing the atrocities of their government and army, denouncing the scheme which coordinates them and isolating its supporters. Instead, we have chosen to collaborate.

At its best, the EU’s funding is a waste of money. At its worst, it amounts to complicity in crimes against humanity. How many of us would have agreed that our money should be used like this?