- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2000

During his brief August sojourn in Cartagena, President Clinton made a media splash by symbolically delivering call it virtual foreign assistance the $1 billion Colombia emergency aid package recently approved by the U.S. Congress. Now that the klieg lights have cooled, it is time to take a hard look at how this aid should be delivered so it can effectively help that beleaguered nation fight the illicit drugs that are destabilizing its democracy. Experience has demonstrated that the bureaucratic pipeline can indeed be long and convoluted.

We welcomed the president's visit to Colombia. Regrettably, it comes in an election year and at the end of his term in office. Four years ago, many of us in the Congress sounded the alarm about the deteriorating situation in Colombia. Our voices fell on deaf ears. Resolute action then could have decisively stemmed the threat of a consolidated "narco-state" in South America's oldest democracy. Colombia is not a far-off land its capital, Bogota, is only three hours from Miami by plane.

Our young people are being cynically targeted by Colombian drug cartels. Their aim is to create new addicts and an insatiable demand for the Colombian cocaine and heroin that are cutting a deadly swath through communities across our nation.

Colombia's democracy also hangs in the balance. By the start of President Clinton's second administration, it was clear to us in the Congress that Colombia's insurgents were flush with drug profits and rapidly swelling their ranks. While Colombia's guerrillas took in as much as $2 million a day from drugs, kidnaping and extortion, the Clinton White House dozed. We can only hope that our aid in support of Plan Colombia won't be too little too late.

A decade ago to the world's amazement Colombian anti-drug police worked side by side with our own Drug Enforcement Administration and destroyed the dreaded Medellin and Cali cartels. Now the Colombian police are shouldering the grueling task of eradicating coca in trackless jungles and opium poppies at high altitude in the rugged Andes. They face constant gunfire from narco-guerrillas who aggressively protect illicit crops, production labs, and clandestine airstrips. Despite these hardships, Colombia's cops have proven, time and again, that given the right equipment and defensive weapons they have the will to win this very real war on drugs.

Airlift mobility is key to reaching Colombia's remote and inhospitable drug-producing regions. Adequate defensive weapons and timely intelligence are key to protecting the helicopters that ferry Colombia's drug fighters. These courageous men and women are not only fighting for their nation's very survival, they are protecting our young people here at home from having their lives destroyed by illicit drugs. We owe them and our U.S. taxpayers who provide this equipment our very best efforts.

Years ago, the GOP majority in Congress began pushing for desperately needed aid for Colombia's anti-narcotics police. In 1998, we funded six new, modern Black Hawk utility helicopters for the police. We knew that unlike Colombia's Army the Colombian National Police air-wing had experienced pilots, mechanics and maintenance infrastructure.

The U.S. State Department's history of inept efforts to aid the Colombian National Police's anti-narcotics fighting force does not bode well. Absent a real change of direction at Foggy Bottom, we are in for more problems and more disappointments.

The State Department's amateurish efforts to procure and equip the six Black Hawk helicopters were disgraceful. The first bungle came when the floor armoring didn't fit the Black Hawks. Then the State Department put two incompatible weapons systems on either door of these helicopters. The two gun systems one of which operates on DC current and the other on AC current fire different calibers of ammunition. A brief consultation with a salesman in Home Depot's electrical department would have been enough to scrap the installation of this Rube Goldberg-style weapons system.

This isn't the worst bungle. If the FARC narco-guerrillas don't already have surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), they have the money and the motive to acquire them. Each much needed Black Hawk helicopter costs some $13 million. It is, therefore, incomprehensible that the State Department failed to install inexpensive anti-missile mechanisms. This not nitpicking. The FARC publicly confirmed they are shopping on the international market for more sophisticated weapons, including SAMs.

We will work to ensure that the State Department and the Defense Department will get it right this time, with Congress' $1 billion dollar aid package in the assembly stage. The challenges in Colombia are trebled. The narco-guerrillas are bolder, stronger and better-equipped.

We have unwisely put almost all our eggs in the Colombian army's basket. As matters stand, the Colombian army lacks the pilots, mechanics and infrastructure to support a substantial number of helicopters. Eradication and interdiction are law enforcement problems and the Colombian National Police is tested, proven and effective in resolving these problems.

The clock has been running for our allies who are struggling to save Colombian democracy and thousands of our young people from the scourge of drugs. Now the hard work begins. The fanfare and photo-ops in Cartagena are over. The administration must now pay attention to making certain that our nation's contribution to Plan Colombia will be effective. To do less will saddle the next administration with a vastly worse problem.

Rep. Benjamin Gilman, New York Republican, is chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Rep. Dan Burton , Indiana Republican, is chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

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