P.W.'s Big Adventure

Dodging hyperbole and herbicide in Colombia with U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone

Standing alongside Paul Wellstone on a lush Colombian mountainside, surrounded by coca plants, I could see the senator was worried. Three twin-engine airplanes had just done their best imitation of a Midwestern cropduster, leaving a thin mist of herbicide to settle into our skin, eyes, and digestive tracts. Blackhawk helicopters were swirling through the valley, keeping a lookout for the left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups embroiled in this nation's brutal civil war. But what concerned Wellstone the most was that he was running late for his next meeting. "I just don't want to leave a bad impression," he said, sweat dripping off the tip of his nose. "I promised these people I'd be there."

Like much of Wellstone's criticism of U.S. policy toward Colombia, the senator's plea to cut short this part of his two-day junket fell on deaf ears. Police commanders hovered about, explaining to us in minute detail how they were winning the war against coca. The senator was skeptical of their arguments but impressed by their commitment. "I admire them," he told me as a couple of officers blew up an immense laboratory that growers had been using to process coca leaves into a paste--the first step toward creating powder cocaine. When the bonfire died down, Wellstone's chaperones whisked us by helicopter to a secret landing strip allegedly used by drug traffickers, then fed us a hearty buffet lunch before finally allowing the senator to set off for his next appointment.

Wellstone may not have realized what he was getting into when he came to Colombia. According to U.S. government reports, Colombian cocaine production has doubled in the past five years, thanks in great measure to protection afforded by both factions in the civil war. A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of only three U.S. senators who earlier this year voted against a $1.3 billion aid package for Plan Colombia--the Colombian government's amorphous $7 billion strategy to fight drugs and shore up its economy--Wellstone had read a few articles, sat through a half-dozen briefings, and taken in some debates on Capitol Hill. He knew that cutting the drug supply in a country like Colombia is no simple undertaking. Upward of 20,000 Marxist rebels compose three guerrilla groups that fight the government with homemade mortars and finance their war by extorting money from coca growers, drug traffickers, and legitimate businesses, and by collecting ransom from kidnappings. On the other side, nearly 10,000 paramilitary soldiers combat the rebels by killing suspected collaborators--sometimes with the help of the Colombian military. They get their money the same way the rebels do.

In Washington Wellstone had made his position on U.S. aid to Colombia quite clear: more action at home, less military hardware abroad. What irked him most was that almost half the Plan Colombia aid is to come in the form of helicopter gunships, military training, and technological equipment for a notoriously abusive and corrupt Colombian army. Further, President Clinton has begun bestowing the aid even though Colombia has failed to meet the human-rights conditions Congress imposed when the $1.3 billion was approved. Human rights, the senator declared, must be respected at all costs.

But as he was now discovering, Colombia looks very different when you're up close. The confident lawmaker was finding himself prefacing answers to my questions with phrases such as, "I hate to say two different things at once," and ending them with, "There are some other people I want to talk to." The day before he made his police-escorted trek through the coca fields, he'd met with Colombia's president, vice president, and defense minister. "I have as many questions now as before I came," he told me afterward. "The difference is, I have more appreciation for the people who are trying to do this."

As his plane tardily made its way to his final appointment, Wellstone was wondering: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Having spoken with the highest-ranking government officials, he surmised they did need help to counter the increasingly powerful guerrillas--rebels who, as he put it, have "no ideology." But how? "Something has to be done," he muttered, almost to himself. It was an ironic echo of the same vague argument some of his Congressional colleagues had made to justify their support for U.S. aid just a few months before.

And now we were on our way to the blue-collar town of Barrancabermeja to meet with a dozen human-rights workers. Barrancabermeja boasts the highest homicide rate per capita in Colombia, which makes even the bravest natives wary of visiting. Certainly, no U.S. senator had dared set foot there before. But in many ways it was a perfect destination for Wellstone, combining everything that has fueled this nation's 40-year-old conflict. A city of 200,000 inhabitants located between two spectacular mountain ranges in the swampy netherlands of the country's central valley, it's home to Colombia's largest oil refinery. Sputtering oil fields dot the surrounding countryside, along with a network of pipelines that run through the low hills. The refinery itself lies along the muddy Magdalena River, which snakes its way through Colombia's most important economic corridor and up to the northern coast. To the west of town, gold and nickel deposits lie buried in the San Lucas mountain range--along with as many as 70,000 acres of coca fields. The city is also home to a black-market gasoline trade fueled by local families who puncture the pipelines and siphon fuel into empty milk cartons. Amid it all is the war, in which the two sides battle for control of the illicit businesses and extort money from the oil producers. In all, these armed groups have assassinated nearly 500 people in Barrancabermeja this year.

"I come for your guidance and your wisdom," Wellstone proclaimed, addressing his hosts over the din of the refinery, in an air-conditioned room provided by the government's oil company, Ecopetrol. "Please be my teachers." When the human-rights workers proceeded to speak of how the government was abetting the right-wing paramilitary groups, the senator was back on familiar turf. He prodded the locals for more detail, so that his traveling companion Anne W. Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, might hear as well. "Are you saying that you think that the paramilitary and the military are the same?" he asked at one point. Yes, the activists said, prompting the senator to pointedly glare at Patterson.

But Wellstone didn't hold that line for long. "I'm not under the impression that this is a government that is repressive, or that this is a government that doesn't care about human rights," he said, no doubt mindful of his earlier meetings with Pres. Andrés Pastrana and Luís Fernando Ramírez, Pastrana's earnest minister of defense. (The human-rights workers, of course, had heard this line before. "The government has done a good job of selling themselves as the victim," one of them commented to me after the meeting. "Looks like they got to the senator as well.")

Wellstone would get few straight answers to his questions in Colombia--and fewer yet after he left. Even as he was en route back to the States, the Associated Press was reporting that Barrancabermeja police had thwarted a bomb attack that might have been aimed at the senator and Ambassador Patterson as they traveled from the Barrancabermeja airport into the city. Despite subsequent evidence to the contrary--including photos of the two bombs that had been found in a wooded area far from the visiting party's route into town--the report managed to find its way into the international press, alarming Wellstone and his aides. Though the sense of panic subsided as more information filtered into his office, the senator had to be concerned that the "assassination" attempt will make it harder for him to convince his colleagues to accompany him on his next trip to Colombia.

 

Steven Dudley is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. He reports regularly for theWashington Post and National Public Radio.

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