US ‘Doubts’ about Guerrilla Drug Trafficking Reflected Political Reality

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Documents declassified by the government of Brazil say the US underestimated the potential for the deep links between the region’s guerrillas and drug traffickers that exist today, an assertion that illustrates more about US politics than the US government’s true beliefs at the time.

The documents emanate from an October 1988 meeting between the two nations’ militaries, in which US officials acknowledged that drug trafficking groups paid protection money to rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Shining Path in Peru.

However, on the subject of Brazilian concerns over insurgencies joining forces with these groups, O Estadão de São Paulo said US officials claimed: “This link tends to fail because the overall objectives of the guerrillas and drug traffickers are different.”  

The documents say the US was more concerned with the role of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega in the region’s drug supply route. Fourteen months after the meeting, US marines invaded Panama City and deposed Noriega.

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US officials had been voicing concern in private about guerrillas for several years prior to that meeting. Although there is no documentation to back it up, the term “narcoguerrilla” is often attributed to a US Ambassador to Colombia in the mid-1980s named Lewis Tambs.

The problem was more political than analytical. The US could not, and did not want to declare the guerrillas in South America a target or a threat to its national interests. It was already deeply enmeshed in various proxy wars in Central America and was trying to steer clear getting into other conflicts further south, especially with the memory of Vietnam still fresh.

The focus in the region was drug traffickers. Not until the US began the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia in 2000 did it move to classify the FARC as an enemy and even this took some political maneuvering.  

Throughout, the US helped both Colombia and Peru fight guerrillas and have assisted in decimating the rebel armies’ manpower and funding sources, leading many to believe that the shift from political movement to drug trafficking organizations is now inevitable.

SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

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