Drugs, Guns, and Money

Recently, the RAND National Defense Research Institute published a report entitled, "Arms Trafficking and Colombia." As RAND explains, the report is based on federally-funded research "supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified commands, and the defense agencies . . . ." What RAND found is fascinating, while at the same time likely disappointing to these "sponsors" as well as the NRA which just held its national convention here in Pittsburgh.

Colombia has the highest murder rate in the world — 77.5 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. To put this in context, if the U.S. had the same murder rate, we would suffer approximately 230,000 murders per year as compared to the 18,000 a year we now endure. And, according to Colombia’s own National Police, 85% of Colombia’s murders are committed with small arms. Colombia has more than 3 million illegal small arms in addition to 1 million legal ones. RAND concludes that the proliferation of small arms is fuelling the violence in Colombia. As RAND concludes, "small arms proliferation remains among the most serious of the country’s problems" and is one of the chief factors contributing to the violence and instablility in Colombia — a country suffering from intense violence and a decades-long civil war involving the the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies (organized under the umbrella known as the AUC) on the one side, and two chief guerilla groups, the ELN and the FARC on the other. RAND concludes that the AUC, ELN and FARC — all designated as "terrorists" by the U.S. State Department — depend upon their very survival and growth on a ready supply of arms, particularly small arms. As the report states, "[s]ustained access to weapons and ammunition supplies is crucial to . . . to each group’s organizational strength, power and influence."

And, RAND concludes that armed groups in Colombia have a ready supply of small arms to continue the war and that small arms trafficking has "contributed to the escalation of violence in Colombia, revealing an important dynamic between weapons trafficking and political violence." Even more ominously, the Rand study concludes that "small arms transfers have had a negative impact on regional stability in Latin America. Ready access to weapons has helped to both entrench and empower guerilla and parmilitary forces in Colombia. Not only has this situation threatened the security ofthe fourth-largest economy in Latin America, it has also triggered highly deleterious cross-border flows of refugees, drugs and violence that have already had a negative impact on Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador."

What is most striking about this report, and which should cause great concern among U.S. citizens and policy makers is RAND’s conclusions about how these small arms have been made and continue to be made available. Thus, RAND relates that a large portion of the arms being shipped into Colombia are coming from "Cold War-era weapons stockpiles in Nicarauga, Honduras, [and] El Salvador." And, of course, these stockpiles largely came from the United States to begin with. Indeed, the Rand report notes that a large portion of these "Cold War-era weapons," including 20 to 75 thousand pounds of small arms and ammunition, were provided to various Central American governments illegally by the U.S. government through what is now known as the "Iran-Contra Affair." The Rand report notes that "[m]any of these weapons are still available throughout Latin America" and are making there way into Colombia, with disastrous effects. Indeed, the Rand report concludes that the small arms delivered to Central America illegally through the "Iran-Contra Affair" "consitute an important component of Latin America’s black market."

As the reader may recall, the "Iran-Contra Affair," some refer to it as a "scandal," involved the Regan Administration’s illegally and secretly providing financial and military support to the Nicaraguan Contras after Congress had expressly cut-off and forbidden any aid to the Contras. This support to the Contras was in turn funded by illegal sales of arms to Iran, which at the time was designated a "terrorist" state by the U.S., and to which arms sales were therefore prohibited. Finally, as the Senate Committee Report on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy (chaired by Senator John F. Kerry) reported, "it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers." In short, as RAND reports, this illegal and secret guns, money, and drugs scheme carried out by high-ranking officials of the Reagan administration are being felt today throughout Latin America, and in Colombia in particular, in tragic ways.

Next, RAND concludes that the three armed groups in Colombia all obtain arms from the Colombian military itself. To wit, as RAND explains, the ostensibly left-wing ELN and FARC obtain arms from the military through theft and force, and the right-wing AUC paramilitiaries through voluntary donations by the military which collaborates with these paramilitaries. What is most significant about this is that the U.S. is providing assistance to the Colombian military at record levels. Colombia, which is received over $2.5 billion in military aid from the U.S. since the year 2000 is now the 3rd largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world.

In short, RAND has concluded that the U.S.’s military assistance is finding its way into the hands of designated "terrorist" groups. And, in the case of the AUC paramilitaries, this military assistance is being voluntarily offered to these terrorists. Indeed, the U.S. government is quite aware of this fact, with the U.S. State Department reporting in its 2002 and 2003 human rights reports on Colombia that the military cooperates with the paramilitaries in a number of way, but most notably by "providing them with weapons and ammunition, and joining their ranks while off duty."

This is quite disconcerting for at least 2 reasons. First, while the U.S. is claiming to be fighting terrorism in Colombia, the AUC is undeniably the biggest perpetrator of terror in Colombia. Indeed, the well-respected Colombia Commission of Jurists has concluded that the paramiltiaries are responsible for 80 to 85% of the political assassinations in Colombia. Second, the AUC is also the single biggest drug trafficker in Colombia, accounting for 40% of Colombia’s drug trafficking according to our own Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA"). And, not surprisingly, the AUC uses its drug proceeds to continue purchasing weapons — again, in large part from the caches of arms dumped into Latin American through the "Iran-Contra Affair." The conclusion is unmistakable. As RAND itself states, much to the chagrin of its federal sponsors, the U.S. has, by the above, "fanned the flames of the violence in Colombia." And, it continues to do so through continued military assistance for Colombia. In terms of the moral and policy implications, the U.S. must now act to stop fueling this conflict in Colombia by, at a minimum, ending military aid to Colombia, prohibiting its allies from continuing to provide arms to Colombia (again, arms which largely came from the U.S. to begin with), and demand that the Colombian state and military cease their supplying of the paramilitaries and other criminal groups with arms necessary for these groups’ survival.

Daniel Kovalik is a Labor & Human Rights Lawyer living in Pittsburgh

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