The other war

October 07, 2003

IF IRAQ IS the central front in the U.S. war on terrorism, Colombia is the hot spot of America's war on drugs. With American troops dying nearly every day in the former, the Bush administration received some encouraging news recently in the latter confrontation. Colombia, the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, posted a significant decrease -- 32 percent -- in coca production in the first seven months of this year, according to the United Nations Drug Control Program.

The study attributed the decline in acres planted to the U.S.-financed aerial spraying campaign, a major component of American foreign policy in an impoverished nation that is engulfed in a protracted civil war. The decline in coca production should mean a decrease in the cocaine moving through U.S. cities and a financial hit for the leftist insurgents and right-wing militias that rely on it to fund their brutal civil war.

But the U.N. findings shouldn't lead to automatic approval of the U.S. aid package to Colombia when it comes up for a vote in the Senate later this year. Here's why:

The U.N. numbers may be high -- the U.S. figures record only a 15 percent drop in coca production in the past 18 months, the first serious decline since 1988. Coca yields in neighboring Peru and Bolivia have increased, suggesting that coca production in Colombia relocated. Also, the number of cocaine users in the United States has fluctuated between 1.4 million in 1992 and 2 million in 2002.

The Bush White House has deepened its support of the Colombians' campaign, increasing to about $700 million in aid for counter-narcotics efforts, military training for Colombians and economic development funds. But human rights advocates say U.S. policy should be as focused on developing alternative agricultural and employment opportunities for Colombians as on stopping the narcotics traffic. Critics charge that aerial spraying has resulted in tens of thousands of Colombians leaving their homes. The U.S. Committee on Refugees ranks Colombia as second in the world in the number of internally displaced persons.

And while kidnappings dropped between 2000 and 2002, human rights violations committed by the Colombian military rose, according to the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights. Another concern is President Alvaro Uribe's proposed amnesty plan for right-wing paramilitaries whose drug activity and human rights abuses are well known. Mr. Uribe, who was in New York and Washington late last month to defend his plan, describes the proposal as a way to demobilize a lead perpetrator of terror and illegal drug activity in Colombia.

Mr. Uribe's amnesty plan may be a step in the right direction, provided the groups' leaders are brought to justice. But the problems of Colombia are complex and longstanding. The reported decline in coca production may be a bright spot. The Bush administration, however, has a responsibility to ensure that U.S. dollars are being used to improve the prospects for peace in a country beset by a 40-year civil war.

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