- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

Colombian police have suspended the use of four machine guns they obtained from the United States for use aboard Black Hawk helicopters in the drug war, but U.S. officials yesterday said problems will be fixed and the weapons should be back in service shortly.

"These weapons have shifted the balance of power on the battlefield and are critical in protecting the airborne crews and their $15 million U.S.-financed helicopters," said John Mackey, spokesman for Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican, who led efforts to supply the Colombian drug-eradication effort.

Mr. Mackey said the .50-caliber machine guns, which have proven effective in penetrating the dense Colombian jungle, already are operational on 34 Colombian Air Force Black Hawk helicopters and have been used for years "without a problem."

He said the four aboard the Colombian National Police helicopters were not installed by the gun's manufacturer, General Dynamics Corp., as had been the case on the Colombian Air Force craft. He said the firm sent a team to Colombia this week and has said the weapons will be operational shortly.

Mr. Mackey said a preliminary analysis showed the guns were improperly installed, adding that two different machine-gun systems were placed aboard the helicopters one using AC current and the other using DC current.

"More than 5,000 Colombian police have been killed in the last 10 years and several captured because of a lack of adequate defensive weapons," Mr. Mackey said. "We can't afford not to make sure they have the equipment they need."

Police officials said this week the four guns, purchased by the administration for $2.1 million, threatened to "eat up our budget … faster than it could possibly chew up narcoterrorists." They said the triple-barrel weapons were "temperamental" to use, adding that they were so heavy they threatened to "tip the aircraft dangerously forward."

Use of the Gatling guns was proposed by Mr. Gilman, chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, and Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Both have accused the administration of supplying Colombia with inadequate and unsafe equipment.

This week's suspension was not the first time the Colombian police had responded to problems with equipment obtained from the United States. In June, the police agency said it would have to suspend its use of Black Hawk helicopters because the State Department could not find new .50-

caliber ammunition to replace the unsafe, half-century-old ammo it received last year.

That warning came at a time when the police have seen dramatic increases in the eradication of opium fields.

In May, The Washington Times reported that the State Department had sent 17 million rounds of half-century-old ammunition to Colombia to use in machine guns aboard the Black Hawk helicopters despite warnings the rounds were unsafe and could injure those who fired them. The .50-caliber ammunition was manufactured in 1952 for the Korean War, but forwarded to the Colombian police for use in the .50-caliber guns.

The ammunition was approved by the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement despite a written warning by the maker of the Gatling guns, General Dynamics Armament Systems, that .50-caliber ammunition made before 1983 "is suspect and should not be used in the … machine gun."

The firm said only .50-caliber ammunition manufactured after 1983 should be used "in order to maintain gun performance and reliability." The ammunition was manufactured by Twin Cities Arsenal and sent to Colombia in boxes still dated Aug. 20, 1952.

The U.S. aid package was aimed at helping Colombia win back some of the more than 30 percent of the country held by the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym FARC. The regions under FARC control, mostly in southern Colombia, supply most of the cocaine and much of the heroin coming to the United States.

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