War on drugs in Colombia stymied by U.S. politics

Delay of promised aid embarrasses Bogota

November 12, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Jay Hancock | Tom Bowman and Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A standoff between the Clinton White House and the Republican-controlled Congress has blocked an emergency, billion-dollar aid package for Colombia, upsetting Colombian officials and adding new instability to a nation racked by civil war, corruption and illegal drugs.

Some Clinton administration officials believe the money won't be available until spring at the earliest. That will delay U.S. anti-drug efforts even as Colombian drug shipments to major American cities, including Baltimore, are getting larger, cheaper and more potent.

The South American country's desperation was underscored yesterday by a powerful car bomb that killed seven people and injured 41 in a wealthy Bogota neighborhood. The city's mayor speculated that the bomb was related to government plans to renew extradition of alleged drug traffickers to the United States.

"Colombia is a disaster," said Barry R. McCaffrey, the White House's anti-drug chief. "Eighty percent of the illegal cocaine in this country and damn near the same amount of the illegal heroin originates in or transits through Colombia. It's gotten worse and worse."

Colombia has long been a fount of illegal narcotics. But as other countries in the Andean region have reduced drug cultivation in the past several years, increased cultivation in Colombia under the narco-terrorists has moved into the void. Marxist rebels, who have battled the government for decades, gained control over much of the drug trade that went up for grabs with the arrest of kingpins of the Cali cocaine cartel in recent years.

The guerrillas are spending their new wealth on shoulder-fired missiles and other potent weapons from dealers in the former Soviet Union, often paying directly in cocaine, thus feeding Eastern Europe's growing drug habit.

While both Democrats and Republicans agree that Colombia is in a tailspin and that a huge amount of military and economic aid is needed, the package is being sidelined by other pressing foreign assistance programs, concerns for a balanced budget, and simple politics, officials and independent experts said.

The delay has embarrassed Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who sought aid in Washington in September and said he received "big support" from President Clinton. One administration official said the Colombian ambassador "is in a panic" that the promised aid -- for military equipment, judicial training and economic development programs -- has evaporated for the near future.

"If we end up giving him nothing, it makes Pastrana look like an idiot," said a Pentagon official.

Marxist rebels

The holdup has undercut what little clout Pastrana wields against leftist rebels. His government recently returned to the negotiating table with the guerrillas.

The guerrillas "have really behaved in pretty outrageous fashion" in recent months, kidnapping and murdering on a scale that is shocking even battle-weary Colombians, said William Perry, a business consultant and Latin American expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In an interview, Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno said he was more baffled than panicked about the political stalemate that is freezing aid for Bogota.

"I guess you could call it a high-stakes game of chicken, which I don't know how to play," he said. "This is something that is a long-range problem, on which we're just asking the United States to invest more in hope of winning the war on drugs."

That war on drugs is intertwined with the country's battle against the Marxist rebels, who are financed by the sale of cocaine and heroin. The political situation is complicated by rightist paramilitary groups, which are linked to the Colombian army and which also benefit from drug money, although not to the extent that the guerrillas do, specialists say.

The violence has produced a million internal refugees and the emigration of a half-million people, mostly the business and professional class, from Colombia, which has a population of 39 million.

Increased aid package

Colombia receives about $290 million annually in U.S. assistance, the third-biggest U.S. foreign-aid package after Israel and Egypt. But McCaffrey pressed for a $1 billion package this year that would assist both Colombia and the region, while two senators unveiled a multiyear $1.6 billion proposal. That money would be combined with contributions from Japan, Europe and Colombia itself to finance "Plan Colombia," a $7.5 billion anti-drug effort directed by Bogota.

Despite all the plans for spending more, "at this point there is nothing there" beyond the usual U.S. appropriation, a State Department official said. "We still want to be helpful to the Colombians. Something will probably come forward, but so far nobody has put a number on it."

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