BOGOTA – Shrouded in silence in Colombia, the Plan Patriot has begun to emerge as the most ambitious military offensive to date against the leftist guerrillas, in which the U.S. military is providing tactical and logistical support.
Taking part in the operation, which according to press reports involves 17,000 soldiers deployed in southern Colombia, are mobile forces and special jungle commandos trained by U.S. advisers and backed up by modern technology from the United States.
The offensive is being carried out in a vast territory under the control of the main rebel group, the 18,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which rose up in arms four decades ago.
According to a memorandum sent to the U.S. Congress by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the government of President George W. Bush “is offering substantial new levels of military aid in support of a massive Colombian military offensive against the FARC insurgents.”
WOLA describes the Patriot Plan as “the most ambitious counter-insurgency offensive ever undertaken by the Colombian government.”
“The Patriot Plan signals the entrance of the U.S. into a new, more intense phase of military involvement in Colombia’s internal armed conflict,” says the memorandum dated May 14 and addressed to Foreign Policy and Defense Policy Aides in the U.S. Congress.
WOLA, which is pressing Congress not to approve an increase in the U.S. military presence in Colombia, says that unlike Plan Colombia also financed by Washington Plan Patriot “makes no pretense of furthering U.S. counter-drug objectives.”
Instead, Plan Patriot “underscores the potential for escalation beyond the mission understood by Congress and beyond the appetite of the American public,” adds the group.
Unlike its predecessor, Plan Colombia, “this strategy has no humanitarian component,” said Jorge Rojas, director of the local Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).
Former president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) secured U.S. military support for Plan Colombia while engaging in peace talks with the FARC in a 42,000-sq. km (16,216 sq. mi.) demilitarized zone in El Caguán, in southern Colombia.
But when the talks collapsed in February 2002, the army was sent back into the area, which had been cleared of government security forces in 1998 to pave the way for a peace process.
It is the same region where Plan Patriot is being carried out today.
Plan Colombia, which many observers have declared a failure, sought to reduce the supply of drugs to the United States the world’s largest market for illegal drugs by attacking production of coca and the jungle labs that convert the leaves into cocaine, a strategy that was simultaneously supposed to reduce the revenues of the leftist insurgents.
Critics of the two plans say they were designed by Bogota in conjunction with the U.S. departments of State and Defense, and the U.S. Southern Army Command.
While Bogota has avoided making public references to the new U.S.-backed offensive against FARC, the Quito-based Latin American Human Rights Association (ALDHU) warned of the impact of Plan Patriot on Ecuador, which shares a 640-km (398 mi.) border with Colombia.
ALDHU warned that the Plan could lead to an increased flow across the border of Colombian civilians fleeing the conflict, and that it could push drug and arms traffickers into Ecuador as well.
Plan Patriot is seen as complementary to the U.S. Andean Regional Initiative, which is focused on Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Panama, and aimed, among other things, at beefing up controls along the borders with Colombia.
Last week, General James Hill, in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, confirmed what Colombian authorities have not admitted: the magnitude and extent of the offensive against FARC.
Hill, who in the past year has held 13 meetings with Colombian military officers and has visited Ecuador six times, passed through Bogota on June 23 after touring the Larandia military base in the southern department of Caquetá, where Plan Patriot is coordinated.
The general praised the progress of the offensive that, it has now been revealed, began in June 2003 with an attack on rural areas where local peasant farmers support FARC, south of Bogota.
The U.S. Congress is now voting on an increase in U.S. military personnel in Colombia. Currently the cap is 400 military troops and 400 civilian contractors at any given time.
But the Bush administration has requested an increase in the limit on military personnel from 400 to 800 and on civilians contracted by the Defense Department from 400 to 600.
The challenge facing the Colombian army is to recover and maintain control for at least a year over a vast territory that has long been under FARC influence.
Hill explained that the U.S. military is providing the Colombian armed forces with fuel, logistical support, and planning.
He warned that the operation will be “long and difficult”, but said that in the end, victory will be won, and the guerrillas will be forced to demobilize or to sit down at the negotiating table by 2006.
But according to WOLA, “U.S. and Colombian military analysts recognize that the FARC has not suffered heavy losses, that its leadership is intact, and that it appears to be biding its time by engaging in a tactical retreat. There should be no illusions of a quick and decisive military campaign in Colombia.”
Hill said he backed the request for more U.S. troops, to support deeper military engagement in Plan Patriot by the Colombian armed forces.
He added that success depended on the continued leadership of right-wing President Alvaro Uribe and continued aid from the United States. (Colombia is the world’s third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Egypt and Israel.)
Meanwhile, the Uribe administration has begun negotiations with another armed group, the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary umbrella, whose leaders are wanted on drug trafficking charges in the United States.
AUC, which is held responsible by the United Nations for the great majority of atrocities committed against civilians in the armed conflict, has been offered a sort of amnesty in exchange for demobilizing.
Plan Patriot is an ambitious program that will take a long time to implement, said Hill, who added that the Colombian armed forces have been doing a good job.
But a spokesman from the Boliviaran Movement, FARC’s clandestine political arm, told IPS that despite the impressive U.S. technology, “the popular resistance remains unbeatable.”
According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the ceiling set by the U.S. Congress on the number of military advisers has already been far surpassed. He said there are “around 2,000 U.S. mercenaries. People recognize them by their accent.”
“They walk around the town of Cartagena del Chairá (in Caquetá), and are very heavily protected. They don’t go into the jungle but stay on the edges, very exposed.”
The Colombian army “has not even got past the first ring” of the guerrillas in the area where Plan Patriot is being implemented, he said.
The military are committing “a strategic error by moving into the deep rearguard” of their adversary, he argued.
Many soldiers are asking to be discharged because of the pressure from the war, and the armed forces are suffering “troop fatigue”, but the insurgents “never get tired, because they live there,” the source added.