BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, JULY 23 -- U.S. efforts to expand the Colombian military's involvement in fighting drug traffickers has generated controversy here and in the United States, as legislators and analysts voice fears that the policy will lead to human rights abuses and a weakening of civilian rule and government officials defend it on national security grounds.
Critics of the U.S. policy contend that drugs are a law-enforcement and judicial problem and advocate giving most responsibility and resources to the police and courts. Bush administration officials say drug trafficking is a threat to U.S. and Colombian security that requires the military of both countries to take a broader role. The administration denies any plan to involve U.S. troops in combat.
Under the Bush administration's current Andean strategy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy projects that military aid to Colombia in fiscal 1990-94 will total $282 million, nearly triple the $100 million allocated for law enforcement.
With the additional aid, the military is expected to take primary responsibility for interdicting chemicals used to make cocaine, raiding cocaine laboratories, gathering intelligence and chasing leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel and other narcotics rings. Until now, those functions have been performed largely by the National Police.
U.S. and Colombian officials say the military carried out a spectacular raid on March 3 that netted 18 tons of cocaine, but more than 80 percent of all drug raids are carried out by the police, despite their getting less aid.
A European narcotics specialist said the military remains geared primarily to threats from outside the country, not the internal fight against traffickers. As an example, he cited the navy, which recently spent millions of dollars repairing submarines but little on developing a small-boat, "brown-water navy" to patrol the rivers along which most chemicals are transported.
Many Colombian leaders agree that the Colombian military, which traditionally has been used to combat Marxist guerrillas, is ill-prepared to take on the traffickers and reluctant to do so out of fear that cocaine money will corrupt the institution.
There is strong evidence, according to human rights workers and senior government officials, that some military officers in rural areas cooperated with and aided drug traffickers and their paramilitary bands in the slaying of peasants suspected of being Marxist guerrillas. An alliance was forged, they say, because many in the army still view the guerrillas, not the drug traffickers, as the principal enemy.
Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa.), a leading critic of U.S. policy, accused the Bush administration in a recent interview in Washington of seeking a "quick fix" in the drug war.
"I think we are headed down the wrong road, and a very dangerous road at that," said Kostmayer. "We are asking for trouble by providing assistance to a military with very serious human rights problems. There are problems with the police too, but not as great."
Some analysts also fear the large influx of military aid will shift the balance of power from the civilian government to the military in South America's oldest democracy, although few believe there is a possibility of a military coup.
"The National Police are much more subject to civilian control than the military," said Jorge Orlando Melo, director of the Institute for Political Studies at the National University. "What is needed is greater investigative capacity, controlled by civilians, and a greatly increased judicial capacity, not a great military campaign."
Melo said that while most people who go into the police do so as a career, all military personnel except officers are drafted for two years, are paid less than police and are thus more susceptible to corruption.
Sources close to President-elect Cesar Gaviria, who takes office Aug. 7, say he favors the police as the lead agency and wants most U.S. aid directed to them and toward strengthening the fragile judicial system. Outgoing President Virgilio Barco had fewer reservations about getting the military involved.
Responding to the growing concern, William J. Bennett, the Bush administration's drug-policy chief, defended military aid in a speech last month and blasted the "anxious hand-wringing among certain members of the press and Congress" over providing military assistance to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
"If these efforts are caricatured as another Vietnam, an American invasion or involvement in a foreign war, then we risk crippling a series of strengthened relationships that our president and the presidents of the Andean region have recently forged," Bennett said.
Administration officials say the aid to Colombia and other Andean nations was carefully negotiated with the host governments. "If those countries want to change the mix, we will continue to work with them," said John Walters, Bennett's chief of staff and national security adviser, in an interview.
The debate in Colombia also centers on whether a strategy of repression, by police or the military, can work at all if demand in cocaine-consuming countries is not cut substantially.
Rodrigo Losada, an analyst of Colombian social violence at the Ser Institute of Investigation, said that repression, whether by the police or army, would have little impact on cocaine production because it is such a lucrative business.
"In that sense, it is very similar to Vietnam, where one is seeking an enemy that has great possibilities of moving and hiding," Losada said. "And repression has not worked. If the United States, with all its technology and military might, cannot control its own borders, why does it think it will work in a foreign country?"