July 17, 2000


For years the US government has been criticizing the Colombians for letting drug traffickers go with a slap on the wrist. The bipartisan approval of $1.3 billion for "Plan Colombia" in military aid to the beleaguered regime of President Andres Pastrana, launched with much brouhaha and an overwhelming vote of approval in the American Congress, is supposed to augur the beginning of a new crackdown, in which the Colombians have pledged to get tough with the drug cartels in exchange for greatly increased levels of funding. But now the shoe is on the other foot: a US Army officer who headed up the "drug war" campaign in Colombia, Col. James Hiett – commander of the Military Group at the American embassy in Bogota, Colombia's capital city – has been sentenced to a measly 5 months in jail, and a mere 5 months probation, for helping his wife launder tens of thousands of dollars in drug money. "This is almost a joke," said newly-installed National Police chief Gen. Luis Ernesto Gilibert. "When Colombian narco-traffickers are sent to the United States they are given long sentences."


Is it one law for the gringo, and another for Colombians? No, it is much worse – for Col. Hiett and his drug dealer wife have it a lot better than ordinary Americans who are caught smuggling drugs into this country. Mrs. Hiett got just five years for a crime that would ordinarily get you at least 20 to 30 years in the slammer. But agents and employees of the US government are exempt from the rules they impose on the rest of us. Although they are not, of course, immune from the temptations that bedevil us all, as the rest of this developing story makes all too clear. . . .


Jorge Ayala, chauffeur and bodyguard formerly in the employ of the American Embassy in Bogota, has a rather interesting story to tell. From his jail cell in a high-security Bogota prison, Ayala avers that a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official was instrumental in the Hietts' heroin-smuggling scheme. Hiett and his wife are just the tip of the iceberg: the real shocker is that all this went on while US Marine guards obligingly looked the other way: Colombians are up in arms over the Hietts' lenient sentence, and the left-of-center Cabinet recently installed by Pastrana is under considerable political pressure to stand up to the Americans. Tensions are high. When it was reported that Colombians had cleared the way for the US to introduce a coca-eradicating fungus, the Colombian minister of the environment denounced US government officials as "liars."

These are our allies, to whom we just handed $1.3 billion, faithfully reflecting the views of their constituents. If the government falls, only the Colombian military stands between the guerrillas and Bogota. In this context, the Hiett scandal couldn't have come at a worse time for the US: it has electrified the political atmosphere of Colombia, inflamed public opinion against the American interlopers, and could yet lead to increased political instability in an already volatile region. The charges of a cover-up are reverberating throughout Colombia, and Ayala, who is fighting extradition to the US for his alleged involvement in the scheme, is a potent symbol of just why they are beginning to hate us in Colombia – because Ayala won't get five months and probation, of that you can be sure. The DEA has conducted its own internal investigation of Ayala's allegations, but has taken no action against the official named.


In all the reporting on this story, one phrase stuck out. According to Reuters :

"The U.S. Department of the Army, which led the initial inquiry, said Tuesday there was an 'ongoing investigation' into the embassy-based heroin ring, but declined to say whether the DEA official named by Ayala was under scrutiny."

What is stunning about this sentence is the casual manner in which the phrase "embassy-based heroin ring" seems to roll off the writer's tongue – a phrase fraught with ominous implications for the entire US effort in Colombia. For clearly this is just the beginning. In the all-pervasive atmosphere of corruption that permeates Colombian society like a poisonous fog, all who come in contact with it are infected. There is simply too much money to be made. If the top US commander in the Colombian "drug war" is not immune, then surely the lower echelons are even more susceptible.


As we sink deeper into this poisonous bog, the infusion of $1.3 billion will give new impetus to the growth of the corruption process. If and when it comes to US troops on the ground, the boomerang effects of US intervention will be dramatic and immediate. US "peacekeepers" living on military pay and dependent on food stamps back in the States will prove a useful conduit for drug smugglers. The strange irony of the whole military effort to eradicate drugs in the region is that the invasion of Colombia by US will create new links between Colombian exporters and American markets just as fast as it breaks them. This is what it means to be stuck in quicksand – once you fall in, or are pushed, the harder you struggle the faster you sink.


The current game plan is that we will let the Colombians fight their own war, and refrain from putting our own troops in the field. That is what they said about the Balkans. There have already been 5 American casualties in this war: the crew of a reconnaissance plane shot down by guerrillas. In any case, the real extent of direct US participation in the anti-guerrilla effort is probably much more extensive than Washington is willing to admit, and, the way things are going, the American role can only increase. The news that the Colombian army stood by while right-wing paramilitary units massacred villagers will, paradoxically, have the effect of drawing us closer into the conflict. The cry will go up for more American "oversight" – with Americans not only training but commanding Colombian forces at all levels, and this can only lead to the swift evolution of American "advisors" into combat soldiers on the ground. Down the slippery slope we go, and where we stop nobody wants to know. . . .


The Occidental Oil Company, the source of much of Al Gore's personal wealth, was a major lobbyist for "Plan Colombia," but everyone is trying to get in on the war profits, with Congressman Ben Gilman's sales job on behalf of Blackhawk helicopters standing out due to its brazenness. This is a bipartisan quagmire, brought to you by the Clinton administration in alliance with a Republican majority in both houses of Congress. The lobbyists of the War Party have been working overtime – and with frightening success – to pull off a massive intervention in the most volatile region of a volcanic continent, just as they did in the Balkans. We are being sucked into a quagmire, without opposition or any real debate, and where are the "major minor" party nominees on this issue? Pat Buchanan has yet to make a statement. Ralph Nader talks in fuzzy generalities, never naming names or giving examples of concrete foreign policy proposals. Time is short. I urge supporters of both candidates, in the Green Party and Reform, to get on the horn, or fire off those emails, asking their respective campaigns to make Colombia and the "drug war" an issue this election year. It is now, or never.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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