The Clinton administration, fearing Colombia is losing its war against Marxist-led insurgents, has for the first time begun sharing sensitive real-time intelligence on the guerrillas with the Colombian military, according to U.S. officials and documents.
The new guidelines, authorized in March by an interagency task force led by the State Department, represents a shift away from a long-standing policy that only limited intelligence could be shared with Colombian army and only when the information was directly related to counter-drug activities. This policy reflected a desire to avoid getting involved in counterinsurgency operations and concern over the army's history of human rights abuses.
Colombia, which produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine and about two-thirds of the heroin consumed in the United States, will receive $300 million in U.S. counter-drug aid this year, making it the third-largest military aid recipient in the world, after Israel and Egypt.
U.S. and Colombian officials said the loosening of restrictions on immediate sharing of satellite images, communications intercepts and other sensitive data was still geared to fighting the flow of drugs from Colombia. But the officials said the new policy recognizes that in many areas the guerrilla forces and drug traffickers are the same people.
"There is a difference between providing information on the insurgents and providing information on drug activities, of which the insurgents are a significant part," said one White House official.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), with about 15,000 combatants, and the National Liberation Army (ELN), with about 5,000 combatants, control about 50 percent of Colombia's territory. Colombian and U.S. intelligence reports say both insurgent groups derive much of their money--up to $600 million a year--from protecting drug traffickers, their routes and laboratories.
In their latest move,the FARC on Thursday launched a 12-hour attack on the town of Gutierrez, about 15 miles south of Bogota, killing at least 48 soldiers, wounding 30 and leaving scores missing.
The attack came despite the fact that sporadic peace talks with the government are scheduled to resume on July 20.
It was the latest in a series of devastating military defeats over the past 18 months, setbacks a Pentagon spokesman said led to a "policy determination to expand the definition of counter-narcotics to anything that poses a threat to counter-drug forces."
The result is that "U.S. Embassy officials have decided to routinely provide intelligence information related to the insurgents to Colombian units under control of the joint [military and police] task force," said a report on Colombia released last week by the General Accounting Office. "According to these officials, the information is being used to plan counternarcotics operations in the area controlled by insurgents; however, they do not have a system to ensure that it is not being used for other than counternarcotics purposes."
Human rights groups said the new guidelines were alarming because the Colombian military has provided intelligence to paramilitary groups that target human rights activists, labor leaders and other civilians that are suspected leftists.
"As far as we know, there have been no reforms instituted that would guarantee that does not happen again," said Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America.
Pentagon officials said U.S. officials in Colombia are carefully monitoring how the information was being used.
"We want the information to reach the units on the front lines in as timely a fashion as possible," said a Pentagon official. "But the United States is well aware of what the information is being used for and the pipeline can be shut off at any time."
Another Pentagon official said the United States had no choice but to expand intelligence cooperation.
"We have U.S. interests there and either we help Colombia or we don't," the senior official said. "And if we help we have to share intelligence. Otherwise, we might as well pack it in."