Members of Colombia’s opposition are warning that the deployment of US troops in the country is illegal, and that it could hamper the country’s fragile peace process and spark an international conflict.
“This could turn into a war that has nothing to do with us,” Senator Armando Benedetti told reporters.
The country’s minister of defence insists the American soldiers are only present in a support capacity and says the deployment does not need congressional approval.
“Regardless of whether it’s illegal or not, it’s a blow to the peace process,” said Senator Iván Cepeda. “It will fuel violence in areas that are already volatile.”
US forces will support the Colombian military in counter narcotics operations in rural regions, where the Colombian government is struggling to establish a state presence, including along the Venezuelan border, a stronghold of the Marxist guerrillas, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
ELN commanders told The Telegraph that Donald Trump, the US president, is playing a dangerous game. Israel Ramírez Pineda, a senior ELN commander, otherwise known as Pablo Beltran, claimed Mr Trump’s actions could lead to war or allow an unplanned confrontation to spiral out of control.
“It could be a prelude to World War Three,” he said. “The US is committed to overthrowing the Venezuelan regime and now it’s going to do it with the help of the Colombian government.”
Peace campaigner Léon Valencia also believes the deployment of US troops is a smokescreen for intervention. “Look at where some of the troops will be based,” he said.
“In strategic positions along the border. That’s no coincidence.”
In April, the US deployed naval warships to the Caribbean, specifically to target narcotraffickers, who work out of Venezuela.
Then last month, Venezuela arrested two former members of American special forces after a botched attempt to remove Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, from power.
Diplomatic tensions increased further recently with the arrival of five Iranian oil tankers in Venezuela carrying more than a million barrels of fuel, in violation of US sanctions.
“It’s a direct challenge to the US in its own backyard,” said Mr Beltran. “Venezuela has become a theatre of war, which pits the world’s greatest enemies against each other.”
The ELN are operational across large parts of Colombia as well as inside parts of Venezuela, a key ally. They have always denied their involvement in organised crime.
“This won’t be the first time we have seen Americans in the battlefield,” said Mr Beltran. “We won’t look to escalate conflict, but if they come looking for us armed, of course we will respond.”
Both the American and Colombian governments deny the troop deployment is about regime change and say the focus is the war on drugs.
Mr Trump has not been shy about airing his discontent at Colombia’s strategies against drug trafficking, telling journalists in March last year that his Colombian counterpart, Iván Duque, had “done nothing for us.”
The US and Colombia have largely measured the success of their anti-drug trafficking operations on the eradication of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, and according to their own statistics, they are struggling.
Cocaine production is at record highs. Last year Colombia saw the cultivation of coca leaves rise to 212,000 hectares (523,863 acres), from 208,000 hectares in 2018.
At the same time cocaine production capacity rose to 951 tonnes in 2019, from 879 tonnes the previous year, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
These increases come despite a crop substitution programme for coca farmers introduced as part of the 2016 peace accords, intended to reduce the cultivation of coca.
Peace advocates are concerned that the involvement of US forces will bring more hard line approaches.
Mr Trump has consistently called on Colombia to reintroduce the aerial spraying of herbicide, which has been suspended since 2015 because of concerns about the impact of glyphosate on health and the wider environment.
“Such a move would not just breach the peace process, it would destroy it,” said Senator Cepeda.