U.S. puts aid at risk in Colombia

Clinton to offer help to fight drugs, but rights abuses feared

August 30, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Conducting one of his last foreign visits as chief of state, President Clinton will briefly visit Colombia today to symbolically deliver an expensive, ambitious and risky package of drug-fighting aid to President Andres Pastrana.

Clinton will spend six hours in the coastal resort of Cartegena, avoiding Bogota, the dangerous inland capital of the war-torn nation. Accompanied by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other congressional leaders, he'll meet anti-drug police squads, visit a legal services center for poor people and greet widows of slain police officers.

Clinton aims to emphasize U.S. commitment to Colombian democracy, commemorate approval of the $1.3 billion aid package, which includes 60 military helicopters, and explain to the Colombian people why Washington is intervening so deeply in their affairs.

"Colombia's democracy is under attack. Profits from the drug trade fund civil conflict," Clinton said in a videotaped speech that was scheduled for Colombian TV last night. "Powerful forces make their own law, and you face danger every day, whether you're sending your children to school, taking your family on vacation or returning to your village to visit your mother or your father."

Perhaps Clinton's toughest task will be explaining how U.S. aid is supposed to accomplish multiple goals that few people outside his own administration believe are mutually compatible. The Colombian package is intended to eradicate drugs and promote human rights without generating direct military action against the leftist guerrillas who control much of the country - and live off the drug revenues.

"We have no military objective," Clinton said in his TV address. "We do not believe your conflict has a military solution. We support the peace process. Our approach is both pro-peace and anti-drug."

In crafting the Colombian deal, administration and congressional officials feared entangling Washington in a distant war and promoting already widespread anti-civilian atrocities linked to Colombian soldiers.

As a result, U.S. officials tried to produce an aid formula that contained human rights safeguards and focused exclusively on eradicating coca, poppies and the facilities for turning them into cocaine and heroin.

The Blackhawk and Huey helicopters at the core of the deal are supposed to protect Colombian planes as they dust coca and poppy fields with herbicide. A few hundred U.S. soldiers will train anti-drug battalions in Colombia but are prohibited from participating in combat.

Congress passed the aid measure, which includes $200 million to promote democracy, judicial reform, human rights and economic development, after the administration assured legislators that the United States would stay out of Colombia's decades-long civil war.

Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said last week that there is "no . . . possibility" that the anti-drug aid will finance Colombian aggression against Marxist insurgents.

But in reality, separating the fight against drug making from the fight against Colombia's ELN and FARC guerrillas will be difficult and perhaps impossible, say Latin America specialists and Colombian leaders. The insurgent groups derive huge revenues by taxing the people who grow and render drugs in the Amazonian outback, and they often defend coca and poppy farms from eradication efforts.

To demonstrate the symbiosis of the guerrilla and the cocaine farmer, Colombian Senator Enrique Gomez placed one hand on top of the other and stated: "Look. You cannot shoot one without shooting the other."

Gomez, a member of Pastrana's conservative party whose brother was assassinated by rebels, met with journalists and U.S. policymakers in Washington this week. "Journalists and politicians want to make a dichotomy between one and the other," he said of the drug war and the political war. But, he added, the dichotomy is false. "There is a narcotraffic boom in Colombia because there is a guerrilla."

Others worry about the potential for U.S. taxpayers to underwrite murders, rapes and other atrocities linked to Colombia's armed forces. In the anarchy that grips much of the country, many business owners and municipal governments have enlisted right-wing paramilitary groups to protect them from the guerrillas.

Human rights groups have reported numerous killings by the right-wing militias, who often work with and are protected by the army. Frequently the army itself is accused of horrific violations, a fact underscored last week when its Fourth Division allegedly attacked an elementary school and left six children dead.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, charged that the Clinton administration "is increasing the militarization of the anti-drug war through building up Colombia's military - which is nothing less than a prime human-rights violating machine."

The U.S. aid bill contains requirements for Colombia to make significant progress in respect for human rights, but last week the State Department conceded that most of the conditions haven't been met. Clinton ordered delivery of the assistance anyway, issuing a waiver of rights requirements, as the law allows.

Because the law was passed only a few weeks ago, administration officials argued that the Pastrana government had little time to comply with its requirements and was working to implement several of them soon.

In his address to Colombians, Clinton praised Pastrana as "a man who has risked his life to take on the drug traffickers, who was kidnapped ... but who kept speaking out." He praised Colombians as being "well-known for their resilience, their ability to adapt. But, my friends," he added, "enough is enough."

The FARC has vowed to increase its arsenal to prepare for Pastrana's escalation, calling it the "Vietnamization" of Colombia.

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