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U.S. War on Drugs Becomes Blurry in Colombia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. government has made its position clear:

1) The United States will do all it can to support Colombia’s war on drugs.

2) The United States will not become involved in Colombia’s other war: its long, internal conflict. The Colombian army has been fighting leftist guerrillas for three decades and is increasingly coming into confrontation with right-wing private armies.

What is not clear is where one war ends and the other begins.

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“You really can’t draw the line,” one U.S. official admitted.

Armed Colombian factions--on the left and right--control the territories where the coca bushes and opium poppies are grown, and they levy a “tax” on that production. They fire at the crop dusters--many piloted by U.S. civilians hired by the Colombian government with American funding--that fly over the fields, spraying herbicides to destroy the illegal crops. One U.S. civilian pilot has already been killed in guerrilla attacks on fumigation planes.

Thus, the war against drugs becomes a war against the insurgents. And some observers see signs that the United States is being drawn more deeply into that conflict.

Colombia received $90 million in U.S. anti-drug funding in the 1997 fiscal year, according to the State Department. Now, for the first time in more than two years, the United States can offer Colombia military aid once the armed forces clean up their human rights record, which has been among the worst in the Americas.

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Colombia’s eagerness to remove obstacles to direct military aid became evident Tuesday, when the army’s 20th Intelligence Brigade was disbanded. Colombian prosecutors have repeatedly implicated the unit in death squad activity, but it was dissolved only after 34 Capitol Hill lawmakers specifically mentioned the brigade’s activities in a May 6 letter that urged President Ernesto Samper to control military violence.

Previously, military aid was blocked because an annual State Department review determined that Colombia had not fully cooperated in the fight against narcotics. This year, the review found that any penalties against Colombia should be waived because of U.S. national security interests.

“This decision can open the doors for better, more comprehensive and more effective security support to the security forces of Colombia as they attempt to regain the initiative” against the country’s leftist guerrillas, Lt. Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military interests in Latin America, said in recent testimony before the U.S. Congress.

That statement, combined with Wilhelm’s critique of the Colombian military’s performance against guerrillas and private armies involved in the drug trade, ignited widespread speculation here about a U.S. military invasion. In a joint statement last month, Wilhelm and Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett, commander of Colombia’s armed forces, called such rumors absurd and false.

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Still, the parallels with the U.S. experience in Vietnam are chilling: Colombia is a country vital to U.S. security interests that is half jungle. Its government’s integrity--even legitimacy--is widely questioned. A decades-long war has been waged by dogged rebels; this time, however, the rebels’ financing comes not from foreign Communist powers but from illegal drugs sold in the United States.

U.S. officials are clearly concerned about Colombia’s seeming inability to control armed groups of all political stripes. At the same time, the leftist guerrillas worry about an expanded U.S. role in their country.

Wilhelm told Congress that Colombia is “the most threatened country in the United States Southern Command area of responsibility” because of “the growing strength of insurgent forces and the inability of Colombian security forces to answer their challenge.”

Bonett acknowledged that guerrillas and private armies operate in 40% of his country’s territory, explaining: “We do not have enough men or budget, [and] we lack mobility and the ability to control the rivers.” Those rivers, he said, are the turnpikes of the jungles, where coca, used to make cocaine, is grown.

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As the army fights for control of the rivers, so do the Marxist rebels and right-wing militias. The latter, founded as self-defense forces to protect ranchers and rural merchants from the leftist guerrillas, have increasingly become more involved in the illegal drug trade, authorities believe.

Last month, Colombian police confiscated a major cocaine laboratory believed to belong to one of the private armies. “All of the outlaws in Colombia are financed by drug trafficking,” Bonett said.

U.S. intelligence sources estimate that Colombia’s leftist guerrillas receive about $100 million a month from the drug trade. They also finance themselves through kidnapping and extortion, such as threatening to blow up oil pipelines.

Halting drug trafficking will cut off a major source of money--and with it supplies and arms--allowing the army a military victory, Bonett argued.

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“The United States does not have to become directly involved” in the internal conflict, Bonett said. “If we can deal drug trafficking a strong blow, [the insurgents] will be affected, because they live off that.”

Still, fighting drug production and staying out of the conflict is nearly impossible, as Colombia’s own police forces have learned. Theoretically, the army is responsible for fighting the insurgents, and the police are in charge of halting drug trafficking. But the line separating their tasks often blurs.

“It is difficult to distinguish between the two,” said Rosso Jose Serrano, Colombia’s respected national police chief. “When one arrives at a field or a [narcotics] laboratory, it is hard to tell the difference between drug traffickers and guerrillas, because the guerrillas are firing at us.”

Further, the insurgents do not make such fine distinctions in taking aim at enemies. Two months ago, five anti-narcotics police officers were taken hostage by leftist rebels, who had previously taken only soldiers prisoner.

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While denying drug trafficking, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia--the country’s oldest and largest leftist insurgent group, known by the initials FARC--admitted in a recent communique that its members shoot at planes spraying defoliants on coca bushes and opium poppies.

“If we have attacked flotillas of fumigation planes and helicopters, we have done so because not only are they an obvious military target, but because we do not agree with the harm [they cause] the environment,” the group said.

Last month, a guerrilla commander told reporters that all U.S. officials working with Colombia’s anti-drug program will be considered military targets. That is particularly troubling because in Wilhelm’s congressional testimony, he outlined a proposed program of intercepting drug-laden planes as an example of how the U.S. can contribute to Colombia’s anti-drug effort.

The high-tech equipment needed for the program will almost certainly have to be operated by U.S. military personnel, according to a source familiar with the project.

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An estimated 150 to 200 members of the U.S. military are serving in Colombia. At times they include troops sent on training missions--a total of 284 people so far this fiscal year, according to the Pentagon. Most were involved in 18 anti-drug training operations, but 32 provided other services, including counter-terrorism training and reviewing U.S. Embassy security.

“We do not have military advisors in Colombia,” a U.S. Embassy official said here. “There are military personnel here, but not military advisors.”

That distinction appears to elude the leftist rebels, who remain convinced that the United States is simply waiting for an excuse to invade their country.


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