- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

The wages of inaction in Colombia are death, both in that beleaguered nation and ours.

For 36 hours over a recent weekend, rebels from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) assaulted the remote town of Vigia del Fuerte, killing a mother, her two children, the mayor of the town and 21 police officers. The attack flattened 10 houses, a church, a police barracks and the telephone company.

In a barbaric attempt to show "strength," the FARC mutilated the bodies of the police officers including the decapitation of one. Seven police officers from neighboring towns, including Bojaya, are believed to have been taken as hostages by the FARC.

Bojaya and Vigia del Fuerte are poor towns near Panama. For the past three years, the FARC has used profits from cocaine and Colombia's new-found heroin industry to destabilize a wide swath of Colombian territory from Venezuela to Panama to Ecuador.

Colombia's military and police, who fight the narco-guerrillas, have been overwhelmed by their offensive. Each passing day brings the rebels closer to their goal of a narco-state in Colombia and the resulting obeisance from surrounding nations.

President Clinton and the House of Representatives have taken action to bring the resources of the U.S. government to the side of the people of Colombia. The House has already voted to send $1.7 billion in emergency supplemental aid to Colombia. This assistance, which was specifically requested by the democratic government of Colombia, has bipartisan support in Congress.

In a rare speech on the floor of the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert said: "We must act now. We cannot wait. We have a responsibility to stop drugs in Colombia, to stop them in transit, to stop them at our border, and to stop them on our streets and in our schools."

The speaker is exactly right it is crucial that our nation act quickly. Even under the best of circumstances, it will take many months or years for American assistance to arrive in Colombia.

In October 1998, President Clinton gave his approval to a Congressional Republican plan to send six Black Hawk helicopters to the Colombian police. Already the Black Hawks have saved the lives of police officers pinned down by FARC fire and have been used to destroy cocaine labs, opium poppy fields and clandestine air strips. In fact, opium equivalent to 2.5 tons of heroin has been eradicated in the high Andes following the arrival of the six new Black Hawks this year.

The people of Colombia and their government need our help. They do not need our blood. No one has suggested that American troops be sent to Colombia. President Carlos Pastrana of Colombia and President Clinton have explicitly stated their opposition to the introduction of any American soldiers into Colombia's civil war.

The prospect of a rebel victory, however, shows how much American vital interests are at stake in Colombia. Over two-thirds of the heroin and cocaine consumed in our nation comes from Colombia. The dramatic increase in heroin consumption here is directly attributable to Colombia's entry into the heroin trade over the last five years. Fifteen thousand Americans die every year from illicit drugs.

Nearly one-fourth of America's imported oil comes from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela all of which are being destabilized by the narco-guerrillas. Panama, also an FARC target, remains an American national security priority despite our pullout from the Canal Zone.

Financed by vast amounts of illegal drug money, the civil war in Colombia is a guerrilla war. As Henry Kissinger has said, "Guerrilla wars are about winners and losers." It is in our national interest to help make the Colombian government the winner. I urge our Senate colleagues to act with the sense of urgency that the situation in Colombia warrants.

A FARC victory, which becomes more likely each day that passes without emergency American aid to Colombia, would directly threaten American national security interests and, in the worst-case scenario, could necessitate the deployment of U.S. armed forces in the region, which no one wants.

It is crucial that the Colombia aid package, now before the Senate as part of the Emergency Supplemental Appropriation, be approved as quickly as possible. We do not have the luxury of waiting for the regular appropriations cycle, which could add an additional seven months to the process. Each day that American aid is delayed, another Bojaya or Vigia del Fuerte is placed at risk.

Lives, both American and Colombian, are at stake.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican, is chairman of the House International Relations Committee.

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