- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

American interests at home and in South America have been increasingly threatened by ongoing, interrelated crises in Colombia. We must protect ourselves from the flow of Colombian heroin and cocaine, in particular, as well as support democratic government, the rule of law, economic stability and human rights in that beleaguered country.

The Clinton administration has proposed a two-year assistance package of $1.6 billion. Colombia would receive equipment like UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, training and technical assistance for its police and criminal justice system, funds for alternate economic development, drug interdiction, and support for peace initiatives. Peru and Bolivia, which achieved dramatic reductions in cocaine production, would also receive modest enhancements in U.S. aid.

The Pastrana government has committed $4 billion dollars to "Plan Colombia" and requested $3.5 billion in bilateral foreign assistance from the international community. Colombia estimates that $7.5 billion will be required over the next three years to reverse the country's role as the hemispheric hub for drugs. Efforts are underway to build support among potential donors in Europe and Asia. The world has come to realize that the drug problem is multinational and demands an international response.

A nation the size of Texas, New Mexico and Arkansas combined Colombia is home to 38 million citizens caught in the crossfire between 20,000 guerrillas, 6,000 paramilitary terrorists, and national democratic forces trying to defend an elected government. The level of violence is greatly exacerbated by drug profits, which fuel different parties to the conflict and allow outlaw factions to purchase more weapons. Some 35,000 Colombians were killed over the past decade in Latin America's longest-running internal conflict. If the United States doesn't help Colombia, even greater quantities of cocaine and heroin are likely to be exported.

Colombia's role in the drug trade changed over the last decade. As coca cultivation plummeted in Peru (down 66 percent since 1995) and in Bolivia (down 55 percent since 1995), it rose in Colombia by 140 percent an increase compounded by the introduction of a higher-yield strain of plant. In the past, Colombia primarily distributed Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine. Colombia now produces 520 metric tons of cocaine a year, two-thirds of the world's total. At the beginning of the 1990s, Colombian drug organizations made a strategic decision to enter the heroin business. Opium poppies can be grown year-round in Colombia with multiple harvests. A majority of the heroin seized on America's eastern seaboard now comes from Colombia. After the demise of integrated cartels based in Medellin and Cali, smaller cells began specializing in limited aspects of the drug trade. Such groups are hard to disrupt. Dismantling one has little impact on the others.

The increase in drug production acted like gasoline thrown on the fire of Colombia's insurgency problems. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups on both the left and right profit enormously from the drug trade and organize peasants who grow illegal substances. The drug industry swelled the war chests of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), and the AUC (a paramilitary group). Dollar estimates of their income from drugs run as high as hundreds of millions annually. Drug money augments the funds such organizations get from kidnapping, extortion and bank robbery. The State Department documented that these groups hijack airplanes and murder Americans as well as innocent Colombians. Serious human rights violations committed by the outlaws include torturing and executing prisoners, expropriating property and recruiting minors.

Colombia's economy is shrinking for the first time in three decades. The gross national product decreased 5 percent in the first six months of 1999. Unemployment exceeds 20 percent. Displaced people, especially in rural areas, are seeking paid jobs with narcotraffickers and illegally armed groups. Recruits reportedly earn twice as much as army conscripts. Nearly a million citizens lost their homes, so Colombia has more displaced people than Kosovo. Without help from international partners, the Colombian government will be unable to reduce narcotrafficking or regain control of areas where illegal drugs are flourishing.

The old drug dichotomy between source countries and consumer nations is misleading. Drugs are used wherever they are produced. Therefore, a global strategy is imperative against international trafficking. Colombia is too close geographically for us to pretend we aren't affected, and it is currently responsible for 90 percent of the cocaine being shipped into the United States. The House of Representatives approved aid for Colombia, and President Clinton is urging the Senate to vote soon. Our communities are being poisoned by illegal drugs, which cost the United States 52,000 lives and $110 billion each year.

Barry R. McCaffrey is director of the Office of National Drug-Control Policy.

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