Defense Ministers Reject Intervention in Colombia

QUITO – The final declaration of the sixth conference of western hemisphere defense ministers, which ended Friday in the Ecuadorian capital, did not include several of the proposals set forth by the United States and seconded by Colombia.

During the meeting, the gap between the U.S. government’s positions and those of a number of South American countries was sometimes expressed as sharp discrepancies, such as when José Alencar, Brazil’s vice president and acting defense minister, staunchly opposed any attempt to create a multinational military force to intervene in Colombia’s armed conflict.

But Alencar went even further. In an allusion to the United States, he questioned countries that believe that terrorism can be fought by intervening in other nations.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday that Latin American countries should join forces and work harder to combat “terrorism” in the region.

“The new threats of the 21st century recognize no borders,” said Rumsfeld. “Terrorists, drug traffickers, hostage-takers, and criminal gangs form an anti-social combination that increasingly seeks to destabilize civil societies.”

The “enemies” find refuge in border zones and areas where there is no government presence, he added.

According to activist Alexis Ponce with the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, an Ecuadorian organization, Rumsfeld’s remark about border areas had to do with Washington’s interest in exercising greater control over border regions in civil war-torn Colombia, and in the “tri-border region” where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay converge.

The U.S. position is not reflected in the most controversial of the 36 points in the final declaration, the one that talks about a new architecture of hemispheric security to counter drug trafficking and deal with the rise in poverty, seen as two new security threats.

The U.S. delegation, with the support of Colombia and Peru and the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, insisted that the fight against “narco-terrorism” should be given top priority.

However, the view shared by Brazil and a number of South American nations, according to which it is absolutely essential to curb poverty in order to strengthen security in the hemisphere, prevailed in the final document adopted by the 34 ministers.

Nor did the initiative forwarded by Colombia and the United States to build a multinational force to intervene in Colombia awaken an echo.

Washington already has a military presence in Colombia, which is caught in the grip of a four-decade civil war pitting leftist insurgents against the army and right-wing paramilitary militias.

In October, the U.S. Congress approved a twofold increase in the number of U.S. troops and advisers in Colombia, to 800, and Washington has provided $3.3 billion in aid, mainly military, to that country since 2002.

Another U.S.-Colombian proposal that was rejected urged the Organization of American States (OAS) to draw up a list of terrorist and insurgent groups and individuals in the region, to prevent them from obtaining visas and traveling between countries.

Each state must determine how to best exercise sovereignty over their national territories, on the basis of their own needs, laws, circumstances, and resources, while respecting international treaties and obligations, says the final declaration.

The ministers also called for clear definitions of the tasks and missions to be undertaken by their defense and security forces, and of the mechanisms to reach these goals.

But right up until the conclusion of the discussions, the Colombian delegation continued to demand that the final document include mention of the situation the country faces in terms of the drug trade and guerrilla activity.

Colombian Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, visibly upset, told the press that his country would continue to insist that these issues be taken into account at future meetings.

The defense minister of Ecuador, retired general Nelson Herrera, said that his country refused to get involved in the Colombian conflict.

For his part, Captain Jorge Gross, a chief Ecuadorian defense ministry aide who spoke at numerous working sessions, maintained that “Colombia’s problem is the Colombian people’s problem,” and that “you cannot fight terrorism with terrorism.”

Argentine Minister José Pampuro said his country would lend all of the political support necessary to keep Colombia’s problems from spreading further, because “this is a conflict that will also affect Argentina.” Nevertheless, he remained firmly opposed to any form of foreign military intervention.

Chilean Defense Minister Jaime Ravinet noted that “there is a general spirit of supporting and cooperating with Colombia, but not of intervening in the country.”

Jorge Luis García Carneiro, the Venezuelan minister of defense, was emphatic in stating that his country’s army was not prepared “to participate in a war outside its borders.” Moreover, Venezuela is currently occupied with “carrying out an important process, forging unity between its armed forces and the people,” he added.

One of the points in the final declaration, proposed by Ecuador, establishes a commitment to undertaking coordinated efforts to eliminate landmines from countries in the region, including the so-called “smart mines” manufactured and used by the United States.

Despite the defeat of its proposals, Washington was able to use the Quito meeting to reach an agreement with the Central American countries for cooperation aimed at strengthening security in that subregion.

The idea is to create a joint security area, which the United States has pledged to support with human, technological, and logistical resources.

The defense minister of Honduras, Federico Brevé, said the agreement will allow the countries of Central America to share intelligence and thus more effectively protect security throughout the subregion.

Gastón Chillier, the senior associate for security and human rights at the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), criticized the United States’ heavy emphasis on the issue of terrorism in Quito, and its failure to take into account the most pressing matters in Latin America today: the weakening of democratic institutions, poverty, and social inequality.