The United States is planning to expand its training role in Colombia, instructing military units to fight drugs in parts of the country where leftist guerrillas are becoming increasingly involved in narcotics trafficking, the top U.S. official in the country said Wednesday.
So far, the U.S. has focused its training efforts on three special counter-narcotics battalions that operate in southern Colombia, the source of nearly half the cocaine sold in the United States.
But a plan under consideration by American Ambassador Anne W. Patterson calls for the U.S. to begin training additional Colombian army units to take down drug labs protected by leftist insurgents elsewhere in the war-torn nation.
Under the plan, U.S. forces or private contractors would conduct the training, embassy officials said.
Patterson said she envisioned a modest training regime, working with perhaps one battalion at a time over the next several years. The plan would have the added benefit of helping reform the Colombian army, which has a long history of human rights abuses, she said.
"We can do a lot under the counter-narcotics rubric," Patterson said in extensive remarks to a group of reporters Wednesday at her heavily guarded residence in an upscale neighborhood of Bogota, the capital. "We think we can do a lot to professionalize the army."
News of the training plan comes just after several members of the U.S. House of Representatives expressed fears about deeper involvement in the Colombian conflict during debate on military, social and economic aid packages for Andean nations. The Senate will consider similar proposals today.
Opponents of current U.S. policy in Colombia said the plan would risk drawing Washington deeper into Colombia's messy, four-decade internal war.
"We're definitely getting further into this," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Center for International Policy in Washington. "Not only would there be more battalions and trainers, but they would be in new, conflicted parts of the country."
Additional counter-narcotics troops could be used to help secure new coca-growing areas protected or controlled by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, or by right-wing paramilitary forces, whose ranks have soared in recent years.
In addition to allowing police safe entry to wipe out the coca crops, the troops could have the additional effect of attacking a prime revenue source for both the guerrillas and the paramilitary fighters, who have become increasingly involved in the drug trade. Colombian police estimate that the guerrillas make more than $500 million a year taxing and trafficking in drugs.
"The urgent issue is to take the money [earned from drugs] out of the hands of the armed groups," Patterson said.
Part of the problem in Colombia is that military operations and recent aerial surveys have detected extensive and previously unknown fields of coca and opium poppies in rebel-held zones in the vast, mostly unpopulated eastern plains of Colombia.
With more coca in more guerrilla-held zones, more troops with narcotics training will be needed, embassy officials said.
"It's quite possible we've underestimated the coca in Colombia," Patterson said. "Everywhere we look there is more coca than we expected. There's just more out there than we thought."
Embassy officials said that the plan was only under consideration and that the money was still not in hand. Although funds are available from current State Department resources to support some aspects of the new training, money to bring in new Special Forces trainers and for other large training expenses would have to come from the Department of Defense budget now pending in Congress.
In the past, it has cost about $20 million to train a battalion, excluding costs for military hardware that may be needed, according to the Center for International Policy.
Still, embassy officials do not anticipate strong objection to the new training. In one form or another, the U.S. has been providing military instruction to troops in Colombia for decades; the training ranges from outboard motor repair to flying advanced helicopters.
"We don't think there is going to be a problem on the Hill with that. The U.S. Congress would be notified if that plan goes forward," Patterson said.
The exact scope of the plan is under consideration. One embassy military official recently told a visiting group of human rights workers that he envisioned the U.S. training one battalion in every Colombian army brigade, as well as supplying all of them with equipment.
Those battalions, the military official said, would be better able to protect Colombian infrastructure such as highways and oil pipelines, which are under constant attack by leftist groups.
"This is exactly the fear of mission creep that people have been having," said George Vickers, the executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, who spoke to the embassy military official last week.
That fear was a focus of discussion on the floor of the House on Tuesday about whether the aid package was leading the U.S. into a quagmire similar to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s, when the U.S. trained troops to battle leftist guerrillas in places such as El Salvador.
In fact, the House explicitly voted down a White House request to lift strict caps on the number of U.S. citizens and military officials who can participate in operations in Colombia, citing mission creep as a concern.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat who worked out a deal to keep a cap, said he worried that the embassy's new plan would lead the U.S. deeper into Colombia's civil conflict.
"These are the kinds of developments that make it clear that we have to monitor the activities between our government . . . and the rebels much more carefully," Conyers said in a telephone interview. "What it sounds like is that we may be in the process of erasing the line between the civil war, the rebel activity and the counter-narcotics initiative. It's not going to lead us in a good direction."
Patterson, however, stressed that U.S. training was devoted exclusively to fighting drugs, not rebels. The three counter-narcotics battalions, for instance, were instructed by Green Berets in how to seize a drug lab, avoid firing at the workers inside and secure the scene for processing by police.
"The political stomach for going into the counterinsurgency business is zero. It's not going to happen," Patterson said. "It's not an issue for debate. It wasn't under the Clinton administration, it's not under the Bush administration.
"When I do a briefing, I'm going to put up a sign: 'Colombia is not El Salvador,' " she joked.