The Washington Times
Op/Ed, 22 September 1996

Maj. G. Andrew Macklin

Front Line of the Drug War


This place called Miraflores is where brave men die. The Colombian Army and National Police contingent of 180 troops have been under seige now for almost 30 hours in bloody street to street fighting. They are surrounded by more than 400 narco-guerrillas who are closing in on the police station. This day, the beleaguered government forces hope and pray that the relief element will break through--and soon! They are facing annihilation.

Capt. Silva is the commanding officer of the Colombian National Police Detachment. He's got eight dead and 21 wounded (counting himself) and his men are running low on ammunition. Rocket-propelled grenades have destroyed most of the outlying bunkers and watchtowers. This is not a good day to be in Miraflores.

The narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have massed their fronts to finish off this garrison that interrupts their drug trade. The riverfront and the dirt airstrip are closed. The only way into Miraflores is by helicopter, and there aren't many of them still flying.

Miraflores is the center of the drug trade in Eastern Colombia. In this isolated outpost in the Amazon basin, life is cheap--and it's getting cheaper by the minute. The FARC guerrillas have waited months to kick off this offensive, doing it when the Army and National Police are most vulnerable. They blew up sections of the oil pipeline as a diversion, just when the helicopters went into a maintenance standdown. Only four, outdated UH-1H HUEY helicopters (1960s Vietnam era) are flight-worthy from the airfield 100 miles away at San Jose del Guaviare.

This actually happened, just a year ago. The commander of the relief force was my friend, Maj. Alberto Castro. The force had to fight its way into Miraflores at a heavy price, with three killed and 10 wounded. But Miraflores was saved, the garrison reinforced, and order restored. The narco-guerrillas melted back into the jungles, abandoning their weapons, their dead and wounded in the face of superior forces with superior firepower.

The first DC-3 landed to take out the wounded soldiers and policemen within 10 minutes of the garrison being declared secure by Maj. Castro. The director general of the National Police, Maj. Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, got off the first aircraft to survey the scene for himself. He, and his director of the Anti-Narcotics Police, Col. Leonardo Gallego were amazed to find among the dead narco-guerrillas large amounts of US greenbacks. Also found were brand-new weapons, communications equipment and high-tech night vision goggles. The guerrillas are paid in US greenbacks.

Gen. Serrano is known as "the Gunfighter," and for good reason. He's been in many and won them all. He is an honest, and now, legendary figure in Colombia. In the past two years since he's been in command, he's tried to convince the US ambassador that the guerrillas are in the drug business, but Ambassador Frechette still declares they are not.

The narco-guerrillas today have better and newer weapons and equipment than most of the government forces. It's not hard to understand, when narco-dollars from the US purchase these weapons. The money comes in from the United States out of a drug trade that people in our country support. Money is coming into Colombia to support the narco-guerrillas at a time when President Clinton canceled US military assisstance to the forces that fight the guerrillas and the drug trade.

Today, another offensive has just concluded, costing more than 120 dead soldiers and policemen in the past week. This is a bloody cycle that continues to repeat itself with regular frequency. As the casualties mount, our State Department reduces assisstance.

History will record that the Clinton administration played "both ends against the middle" in the so-called Drug War. Talking tough, but short on action: making promises, but sitting on assisstance. This is emblematic of Mr. Clinton's underlying effort to soften the drug issue. Eight months ago, he appointed Gen. Barry McCaffrey as his new drug czar to tackle this problem. Right now, the general has less than 40 percent of the staff he was promised when he took the job. Robert Gelbard, assisstant secretary of state for narcotics matters withheld six UH-1H helicopters for more than eight months, after these aircraft were paid for. His objective was to deny assisstance, in order to force President Samper to step down: meanwhile Colombian soldiers and policemen were bleeding and dying to stop drugs at its starting point. And, all the while, President Clinton has two dozen admitted hard drug users on the White House payroll.

We won the Gulf War in eight months, and everybody was home to the parades and celebrations. There will be no parades or celebrations in Miraflores, just burials and more sniping incidents. Today, in our towns, neighborhoods, schools and homes we fear what comes out of places like Miraflores, but we fail to help those brave men fight it, at its source. This country of ours was not created by fearful men. But today, we could learn a great lesson from the Colombian drug fighters. They are fighting for their sovereignty and fighting alone in the Drug War. Gen. Serrano, Col. Gallego, Maj. Castro and Capt. Silva are the ones who must bury the brave men where they die. They are trying to stop drugs--where they start--in a place called Miraflores.

G. Andrew Macklin, a former US Marine, is staff director at the National Defense Council Foundation. He has served as a military adviser to the Colombian National Police.