- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2000

Confronting a line of fire to bust up a viciously defended drug lab is surely one of the most dangerous missions a law-enforcement official can undertake. Imagine having to carry out the task with a pre-World War II, single-barrel machine gun attached to your helicopter that frequently jams, while your well-financed rivals have modern weapons that can spit out bullets at least four times as fast with far superior precision.

This is precisely what the Clinton administration has proposed the Colombian police do, after sending the old ammunition in error. Based on this and other appalling errors, lawmakers have called for hearings to investigate the State Department's inability to get the right equipment to Colombia on time. Congress had set aside $8 million for fiscal year 1999 to buy ammunition and defensive weaponry. By recommending the Colombians use old guns and ammunition, the State Department reprehensibly set a low value to the lives of brave officers.

The State Department's proposal was also outrageous in economic terms. Using outdated guns on helicopters whose value ranges anywhere from $2 million to $14 million is utter folly, especially when new ammunition costs only about $2.20 a round, compared to $1.48 for the old kind. Unfortunately, the ammunition fiasco is only one example of the State Department's incompetence. In addition, the agency has failed to ship Colombia urgently needed helicopters, helmets, trucks and other equipment on time.

But the State Department isn't the only party to blame for Colombia's dwindling counter-narcotics resources. The Senate leadership has demonstrated an indefensible apathy towards the dire situation in Colombia. Although Colombia provides at least 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States, and narco-traffickers are increasingly controlling and wreaking havoc in the country, the Senate failed this year to give emergency priority to an aid bill of about $1 billion. Instead, this aid will be voted on during the Senate's drawn-out appropriations cycle.

Colombian authorities have proven they can make remarkable advances against drug traffickers when given the necessary means. Since March, when the Colombian police finally received six new Black Hawk helicopters, the force has eradicated more acres of poppy, used to make heroin, than they did in all of 1998. In the month of May the police took down over 100 cocaine laboratories using the Black Hawks.

Although conservative lawmakers have traditionally taken a lead in combating this problem, the Senate has failed to give fighting drugs at their source the priority it deserves. The White House, meanwhile, has contributed to the problem through bewildering incompetence and mismanagement. The drug producers are certainly enjoying Washington's inaction.

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