New York Times
December 1, 1998
Pg. 1

Congress Steps Up Aid For Colombians To Combat Drugs

By Diana Jean Schemo

The Clinton administration initially opposed it, and the Colombian government was taken by surprise. But a recent congressional initiative, spurred by direct appeals to conservative Republicans by the Colombian national police, has more than doubled drug-fighting money to Colombia and made the country a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

Along with an administration-sponsored increase, the congressional infusion brings the assistance to $289 million for 1999, compared with $80 million in 1997 and $88.6 million this year. It is mostly in the form of weapons, helicopters and surveillance planes and will sharply increase the American-supplied firepower to the Colombian police.

Congressional Republicans are calling it the first installment of a three-year campaign to reduce substantially the flow of illicit drugs into the United States.

But critics fear that the huge jump in aid and the heightened U.S. interest in attacking the drug trade at its source will lure Washington into supporting the seemingly endless war by Colombia's armed forces with leftist guerrillas, which has slowly bled Colombia of tens of thousands of lives and untold resources for more than 30 years.

While the money has been designated for use against drug crop growers and drug traffickers, much of the equipment could easily be used against the guerrillas. The equipment will require substantial American training of pilots, maintenance workers and support staff.

In the appeal for aid by the Colombian police, and in the congressional response, the distinction between drug traffickers and guerrillas usually insisted on by officials of the State Department and other American agencies has become blurred.

Some guerrilla groups are involved in protecting coca crops and landing strips in southern Colombia and skim a commission from the drug trade. A report last year by the Colombian drug police estimated that 3,155 of the country's 15,000 guerrillas were active in the drug trade.

Some lawmakers like Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., have adopted the label applied to the rebels by the Colombian police and military -- narcoterrorists -- lumping the insurgency and drug traffickers into a single threat to United States interests.

The Colombian drug police have at times dropped the distinction altogether. For instance, they recently highlighted an army defeat at the hands of rebels to press the case for acquiring American-made Blackhawk helicopters, even though the combat had nothing to do with drugs.

"It's another step in the wrong direction," said Adam Isaacson, an associate at the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research institute. He said the increased American commitment could bring closer the prospect of American involvement in Colombia's war with the rebels. "I would call it a danger," he said. "There is all that overlap to worry about."

He said he was more concerned, however, with growing cooperation with the Colombian military, which Washington has kept at something of a distance in the past because of human rights concerns.

Most of the increase in aid will come as part of a $690 million package of supplemental appropriations for drug interdiction throughout the hemisphere.

The congressional aid for the national police includes the following:

$96 million for six Blackhawk helicopters.

$40 million for upgrading and arming 34 Huey helicopter gunships, which can fire high-powered machine guns over long distances.

$6 million for beefing up a crop fumigation air wing, in part with machine guns.

Administration-sponsored aid for Colombia also approved by Congress includes the following:

$70 million for aerial fumigation of drug crops.

$20 million in helicopters, transport and surveillance planes, weapons and other equipment for the Colombian National Police.

$20 million in patrol boats, weapons, ammunition and other supplies for the Colombian military.

A Tenfold Increase in Anti-Drug Aid

The $165 million in supplemental aid from Congress is in addition to $124 million already appropriated for Colombia, and represents a tenfold increase in counter-narcotics funding over five year period. Roughly 80 percent of the cocaine in the United States originates in Colombia.

"It was a decision that surprised everybody," Colombia's defense minister, Rodrigo Lloreda, said in an interview. He added that the Clinton administration had previously supported drug-fighting efforts in Colombia, "but they kept a certain balance between Colombia, Peru and other countries."

Both administration and congressional officials described the appropriation as a kind of "wish list," that they were surprised to see pass virtually in its entirety. Administration officials like Barry McCaffrey, the retired general who is in charge of anti-drug efforts, initially complained that the congressional authorization -- which at first specified that $1.2 million should go for concertina wire around a Bogota prison -- "micromanaged" drug policy.

Other administration officials said the initial spending plan overextended the American commitment to Colombia, and was too costly. But in the end, the plan won White House backing because it was more attuned to overall strategy, and won their support.

Though Congress took the lead, the increased spending matches a growing closeness between Washington and Bogota since Andres Pasrtrana was elected president last summer. Pastrana, who has visited Washington three times in the last four months.

The momentum for the increase came from a group of conservative Republicans who have embraced the Colombian national police and who are determined to increase anti-drug efforts and lend a show of force as Pastrana sets the stage for peace talks with leftist rebels.

With government forces having temporarily evacuated an area of Colombia as big as Switzerland, congressional Republicans describe the infusion as a signal of American interest in the outcome of peace talks. It will also shore up Colombian security forces, which have been humiliated by the rebels in a series of clashes over the last two years, they say. Until now, a de facto division of labor has had the Colombian military leading the fight against rebels, while the police tackled drug trafficking.

Aim Is Eradication and Interception

"I look at this as giving Colombia the support it needs to do what it wants to do," Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said. "It will put the government in a better bargaining position."

The major share of Washington's anti-drug aid is trained on stepping up aerial eradication in zones under rebel control and intercepting boats and planes transporting drugs. Officials say the Blackhawk and upgraded Huey helicopters are better for reaching high altitudes, where opium poppies are grown. The Blackhawks, armored and able to transport up to 15 troops, would also represent greater firepower and maneuverability in Colombia's continuing war against leftist rebels.

In a bid to perhaps appease Washington and the Colombian government, the rebels have said they would eliminate the drug trade in areas they control as part of an eventual peace agreement. Respected political analysts in Colombia, including Alejandro Reyes, a professor at the National University in Bogota, contend that the guerrillas are the only authority with enough credibility among peasants to eliminate the trade.

In recent years the insurgents' fighting strategy has grown from hit-and-run ambushes of soldiers to more conventional assaults on military and police bases, in which the rebels have repeatedly outnumbered and overrun government security forces.

The most recent of these occurred last month in an attack against the police base at Mitu, where Lloreda said 45 policemen and civilians were known to have been killed and 48 people were abducted. He said 82 others had disappeared.

While the Mitu attack bolstered Colombia's case for the Blackhawks, the police had earlier cited military defeats -- unconnected to the drug trade -- in appealing for the more sophisticated helicopters.

In a letter last March to Rep. Dan Burton, R.-Ind., Col. Jose Leonardo Gallego reiterated an appeal for Blackhawk helicopters he made in testimony before Congress only a month earlier. In requesting the helicopters for drug-fighting missions he cited the deaths of hundreds of government troops in rebel attacks.

Most of those deaths, however, occurred early this year after rebels ambushed the Colombian army's third brigade at a canyon in El Billar. The operation was unrelated to any fumigation or anti-drug operation.

Though the State Department had initially opposed sending Blackhawks to Colombia, largely because of the higher expense and maintenance costs involved, Colombia's national police chief, Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, has set up direct lines of contact with the congressional committees controlling the pursestrings. He has acted as host to most of the key figures in the congressional debate on their visits to Colombia, making his case for increased firepower.

Serrano has also been adopted by conservative policy advocates influential with congressional Republicans. One of these is F. Andy Messing Jr., executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation, a conservative think tank whose chairman is congressman Burton.

New Broom in Bogota a Gain for U.S. Ties

Messing, a retired Special Forces major, has been a frequent visitor to Colombia and was honored with an anti-narcotics award from the Colombian police last year. He predicts that as the situation stands now, the rebels will take control of the Bogota government in one year, regardless of the outcome of peace talks.

During the years of alienation between Washington and Colombia during the presidency of Ernesto Samper, who was accused of accepting $6 million from drug traffickers, Serrano became the face of the Colombian government on Capitol Hill, as relations between the United States and Colombia narrowed down to the drug issue. In congressional hearings, Serrano has been hailed as "a cop's cop."

"He was someone during that administration who Congress felt comfortable with," said Senator DeWine.

In the atmosphere of violence that dominates Colombia, the rebels and the government forces have continued to wage war while talking peace. "You can't negotiate unless you have strength," LLoreda, the defense minister, said. "We would all like peace to come spontaneously out of good will, but it doesn't always work that way."