As Washington prepares to release the first of $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia, the country's leftist guerrillas are preparing for a wider war. In the last 18 months, they have stockpiled huge amounts of weapons with the assistance of a global arms network, particularly from Russian organized crime. The major guerrilla armies are set to take the battlefield with some 45,000 weapons in their arsenals.
As the United States ratchets up its role in helping Colombia fight drug traffickers and insurgents, the fingerprints of Russian organized criminals appear more frequently.
For nearly a decade, the Russian mafia, or mafiya, has been trading weapons and cash to Colombian drug cartels in exchange for cocaine and heroin. In recent months, however, several discoveries suggest Colombian narcotics-for-weapons trade deeply involves Russian criminals, motivated by profit.
Indicators also suggest Russian gangs in Colombia are getting some help from officials in the Russian government. These gangs operate with tremendous freedom and resources and use Russian airspace, facilities and large transport aircraft with impunity.
In the last several months, a clear route of trafficking has emerged, encircling half the globe, from Russia to Jordan and Israel, and culminating in parachute drops and jungle airstrips in Colombia. In exchange, these aircraft leave with cocaine bound for Russia and eventually Europe.
In May, Colombian intelligence agents captured two Israelis in Cali, Colombia, who were arranging delivery of 50,000 assault rifles to Colombia's largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has about 17,000 fighters.
In June, a combined operation by the governments of the United States, Israel and Colombia smashed an arms-smuggling ring that investigators said had ties to criminals in Russia and Israel. Investigators also said the $100-million ring planned to sell to the FARC 50,000 AK-47 automatic weapons, made in the former East Germany. The ring was to ship the guns from Austria to Ecuador and smuggle them into Colombia by sea.
In August, a month before he provoked a crisis with his main intelligence service, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori announced the capture of a gang of international smugglers. These smugglers allegedly purchased 10,000 AK-47s from the Jordanian government by posing as Peruvian military officials.
The gang apparently flew the weapons from the Jordanian capital of Amman to the Canary Islands and Guyana, airdropping them to the FARC in southern Colombia. Fujimori said the gang planned to ship another 40,000 AK-47s to the FARC. The Jordanian government insists the deal was a legitimate government-to-government transaction, despite Fujimori's claim. The U.S. government doubts both explanations.
The Russian connection to the guerrillas began to grow two years ago, when Colombian President Andres Pastrana gave the FARC a demilitarized zone in southern Colombia. Ever since, Russian cargo planes have delivered small arms and ammunition to guerrillas there.
Aircraft fly from airstrips in Russia and Ukraine, stop in Amman, Jordan, to refuel and then deliver cargo to the FARC at remote landing strips, sometimes dropping the loads by parachute. The FARC's 16th Front, which operates in southeastern Colombia, coordinates deliveries of the arms. On the return flight, the FARC loads the planes with cocaine.
Russian organized crime has long operated in Colombia, alongside the drug cartels. In the 1990s, criminals tried to sell surface-to-air missiles, helicopters and even a Russian Navy submarine. In many cases, authorities broke up these sales and imprisoned gang members; some now sit in U.S. prisons.
On Sept. 7, Colombian anti-drug authorities seized a 100-foot submarine under construction in a warehouse near Bogota along with assembly manuals printed in Russian and Spanish. The submarine was designed to carry 200 tons of cocaine over long distances. According to the Colombian news magazine Semana, Stalisnar A. Osipov, an intelligence officer with the Russian embassy in Bogota, said the submarine could not have been built without Russian technology.
But as the large Colombian drug cartels broke up - into as many as 200 smaller organizations - the FARC increasingly took control of the lion's share of the drug trade. And the Russians appear to be doing more business with the dominant force in the narcotics trade.
Supported by so much help from abroad, the guerrillas will be able to turn a heavy arsenal on freshly trained battalions of government troops eradicating drugs in southern Colombia. The FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller Marxist guerrilla group, have about 22,000 fighters and more than 45,000 weapons, according to the Colombian Army. These include heavy machine guns, mortar tubes and rocket-propelled grenades. Each month, 1 ton of weapons and explosives enter the country via sea from ports in nearby Ecuador.
This arms-for-drugs trade could benefit some in the Russian government who wouldn't mind a major insurgency in America's backyard. Arming the FARC is profitable and makes good business sense for Russian criminals who want to protect their trafficking interests. Many Russian criminals are ex-KGB agents who still have close ties with Russia's intelligence services.
The situation that unfolds in southern Colombia in the coming months will not yield a quick and clear-cut victory for the government forces Washington supports. Of three U.S.-trained battalions — some 3,000 men — only two battalions will begin to operate in the south, probably early next year.
While they will enjoy tremendous intelligence support, government forces will not yet have all 60 helicopters Washington has promised. And government troops will probably begin operations with only rough parity with the guerrillas massing in the south, particularly in the Putumayo department. A variety of theories suggest government forces need overwhelming numerical advantages to defeat the guerrillas.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to ratchet up its involvement in Colombia. On Aug. 29, the Colombian government inaugurated a new high-tech command-and-control center in Bogota built with cutting-edge U.S. technology. Although Colombians officially will run the new center, a senior U.S. military officer in Bogota will lead U.S. troops providing intelligence and logistical support in Colombia.
President Clinton has made assurances that the United States will not get into a shooting war in Colombia. But the gap between rhetoric and the likely course of action is growing.
Next: How deeply will Washington become involved in Colombia's drug war? Will Americans become targets of the guerrillas?