by James E. Garcia
Americans may not know it, but a volatile mix of drugs, trade and combat troops in Latin America is threatening to spark an international crisis involving U.S. forces in the region.
According to a team of investigative journalists assigned by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, American military and civilian personnel in Latin America are embroiled today in the biggest guerrilla war since Vietnam.
In a series of stories examining Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Brazil, CPI's team of Latin American writers reported that "Hundreds of U.S. troops, spies and civilian contract employees are on the ground in Colombia and neighboring lands."
It's all related to a $1.3 billion anti-narcotics operation known as Plan Colombia. The operation is designed to bring down Colombia's drug lords, who produce three-quarters of the cocaine and 65 percent of the heroin consumed by Americans.
But according to CPI's news team, Plan Colombia is also about protecting U.S. oil and trade interests.
How many of us realize that the United States imports more oil from Latin America than from the Persian Gulf? And let's not forget that the first President Bush waged war against Saddam Hussein, at least in part, to protect that region's critically important oil supply.
Already, some worry that Latin America's oil fields are threatened. Some see that threat coming from the instability created by Colombia's on-going civil war and even from a smaller guerrilla uprising in southern Mexico.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Colombia's leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups have helped finance their armies with drug money, making them primary targets in the U.S. government's war against international drug trafficking.
Many fear the murkiness of just who the enemy is in Colombia could drag the United States into that nation's civil war.
In Peru, meanwhile, the CIA worked closely for years with that nation's top spy, Vladimiro Montesinos, who now stands accused, among other things, of working as a middleman to ship arms from Jordan to Colombia's largest guerrilla group.
U.S. involvement in Peru also contributed to the death of an American missionary and her baby last April. Guided by U.S. radar, a Peruvian air force pilot mistook the missionary for a drug trafficker and shot the plane down, then strafed the plane with machine gun fire as the victims lay dying in the wreckage.
In the words of CPI's reporting team: The United States supplied the tools and the information that led to that tragedy -- then looked on with horror, like a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein, when its creation got out of control.
Booming trade with Latin America has also boosted the region's strategic importance for the U.S.
Latin America is the fastest-growing market for U.S. exports. Aware of the economic stakes and worried that instability in the region could threaten profits, U.S. corporations spent more than $92 million lobbying Congress in the latter half of the 1990s.
Especially disturbing is the finding that in three of the four countries investigated by the CPI reporting team, U.S. aid was implicated in human rights abuses.
How deep is U.S. involvement in Latin America? According to CPI's investigative team, the level of U.S. personnel, cash and risk in Latin America is now greater than during our nation's commitment in El Salvador in the 1980s.
The danger in all of this is that most Americans know little about the risks that U.S. troops and other personnel are being exposed to in Mexico and Central and South America.
As CPI's investigative report makes clear, U.S. policymakers, namely Congress and the Bush administration, need to be more forthcoming about our goals and activities in the region.
That way, at least, the American public will have an opportunity to decide whether our presence in Latin America is in our national interest or if it's time we packed up and came home.
August 6, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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