- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia — U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is set to make his first official visit today and tomorrow to Colombia, where he will find this country of about 40 million people embroiled in a guerrilla war now financed by illegal drugs.

The 37-year-old conflict, which has killed up to 40,000 people over the past decade, threatens to destabilize its Latin American neighbors and raises serious national security issues for the United States.

The turmoil has already claimed several American lives in Colombia and flooded the United States with tons of cocaine and heroin and tens of thousands of Colombian illegal immigrants fleeing violence and economic crisis.

Among the dilemmas confronting the Bush administration and Congress are:

• A major anti-drug campaign in which a small percentage of drugs is intercepted and new exports routes spring up as quickly as old ones are shut down.

• A growing involvement in the drug trade by Marxist guerrilla movements seeking to overthrow the existing order.

• Large paramilitary groups united under the banner of the outlawed United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) fighting the rebels with past encouragement and support from the armed forces.

Bush backs Plan Colombia

In a visit here late last month, Marc Grossman, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, confirmed the Bush administration's support for Plan Colombia — the anti-guerrilla program of Colombian President Andres Pastrana that was also endorsed by the Clinton administration. It aims to fight drug trafficking and to strengthen democracy by a combination of social, economic, law-enforcement, military and crop-substitution measures.

Of the $7.5 billion budgeted for Plan Colombia — nearly half of it funded by the Bogota government — about 27 percent is allocated to the military and police, according to Mr. Pastrana's office.

Last year, Washington earmarked $1.3 billion, largely for military helicopters, technical intelligence, and training of special anti-narcotics brigades. President Bush has proposed to broaden this aid by almost $400 million as part of an $880 million Andean Regional Initiative.

A step forward, two back

The anti-drug campaign has produced a stream of arrests, seizures and extraditions. However, it is often one step forward, two steps back, complain some law enforcement officials.

"It is like trying to push an elephant uphill," said Carlos Perdomo, former information chief of the Colombian national police.

Colombian police figures show that in 1995, 62,770 acres believed to be planted in coca was sprayed with herbicide by the Virginia-based DynCorp., a State Department contractor. From January 2001 to early this month, that figure climbed to 170,725 acres sprayed. Yet, over the same period, police statistics show the extent of identified coca fields rose from 125,777 to 403,496 acres.

And not all crops sprayed are necessarily killed. DynCorp.'s U.S. pilots say the herbicide glysophate has to remain on the plant for at least three hours in dry conditions, which cannot be guaranteed in Colombia's rainy countryside.

Long-term project

Colombian police estimate that 403,496 acres of coca plants can produce 947,076 kilos (more than 2 million pounds) of refined cocaine. But from January until early September this year, only 13,932 kilos of cocaine was impounded and destroyed, down from 46,698 kilos in 1998.

Why the drop? Because clever drug smugglers often stay one step ahead of the law, says an anti-narcotics official.

Critics say these figures show Plan Colombia is not working. But Mr. Grossman counters, "It is easy to forget that U.S. assistance to Plan Colombia is less than a year old."

"One has to be patient," said Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombia's ambassador to the United States. "This is going to take at least five years."

Crop shift has problems

A key element of the strategy is crop substitution. With unemployment hovering around 18 percent, underemployment 29 percent, and 24 million Colombians in poverty, according to official figures, tens of thousands of families have migrated to the wilderness to work in coca plantations, mostly in southern and eastern Colombia, far from government control.

"More than 34,000 farm families have already signed manual-eradication pacts," as part of a five-year $222.5 million USAID package to help peasants make a living from legal crops, said Mr. Grossman. That is about half the 70,000 families estimated to be farming coca by Santiago Medina, president of the Bogota-based think tank ANIF.

Farmers concede that some among them accept crop-substitution funds but continue to grow drug crops. Said Jairo Martinez, a small coca farmer in southern Caqueta province: "The problem of legal crops like corn and plantains is that it is not profitable to take them to market because there are no roads, and they weigh a lot. It is easy to carry a kilo of coca base [later refined into cocaine], and coca produces up to six harvests a year."

Coca cultivation pays

Mr. Martinez said a kilo of coca base fetches about $900, of which he nets a few hundred dollars after expenses. Coca pickers sometimes earn double Colombia's monthly minimum wage of $129.

While roads, bridges, and industrial palm and rubber farms envisioned in Plan Colombia take years to develop, Mr. Medina said coca farmers should be encouraged "to return to regions where the mainstream economy is."

"Coffee and clothing manufacturing are among the few labor-intensive industries that can quickly absorb the unskilled labor now employed in drugs," said businessman Miguel Posada.

Ironically, U.S. and European trade policies have contributed to a collapse in the price of coffee, Colombia's second largest legal industry after petroleum, and clothing exports have to compete against U.S. trade preferences for Central America.

"The U.S. can really help by giving us trade preferences," said Mr. Posada.

Bolivia's example cited

Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, cites Bolivia, once a leading coca producer, as a success story for Colombia to emulate.

"When Bolivia combined enforcement activity with alternative development, there suddenly came to be a very dramatic reduction in coca cultivated," Mr. Beers said.

But that country didn't have powerful guerrilla armies involved in the drug trade. In Colombia, income from drug taxation "is main source of supply for continued unrest," said Mr. Grossman.

Marxist guerrillas and the anti-Marxist AUC admit taxing drug crops. But captured receipts, documents, and testimonies indicate that the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), also has a hand in the production and export of cocaine.

Snags for U.S. policy

With the destruction in the 1990s of Colombia's big Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels, the FARC has been filling the vacuum, says a Colombian intelligence officer. This complicates matters for U.S. policy, which calls for helping Colombia to fight the drug war while avoiding direct involvement in its guerrilla conflict.

"The Gringos' talk about fighting narcotics is a pretext for counterinsurgency," says the FARC's top military strategist, known as "Mono Jojoy." He says the FARC would like to be friends with the Americans. But the FARC killing of three U.S. activists who were staying with indigenous Colombian people — said to have been ordered by Mono Jojoy's brother, who thought they were spies — the kidnapping of American workers for ransom, and drug ties make some FARC commanders targets of U.S. law enforcement investigations.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Pastrana reject introducing U.S. combat troops. But U.S. communications intercepts, and aerial and satellite reconnaissance have, in fact, been used against guerrillas in drug areas, say Colombian military sources.

Army, rebels both grow

Colombia's 162,000-strong armed forces have improved substantially, with help from hundreds of U.S. military trainers. By next year, the Defense Ministry says Colombia's helicopter fleet is expected to reach about 170 — up from from 76 in 1998.

Meanwhile, illegal revenues helped the FARC grow from fewer than 10,000 guerrillas in 1998 to 16,492 troops at the start of this year. The second-largest Marxist rebel group — the National Liberation Army (ELN) — has maintained its strength at around 4,430. The FARC's growth coincided with Mr. Pastrana's giving the group a territorial safe haven to woo it to the conference table.

According to public-opinion polls, most Colombians believe this was a political mistake, and it has become a major issue for next May's presidential elections. Some U.S. officials privately question allowing the FARC to keep its privileged sanctuary, but Mr. Pastrana argues that without it, "the conflict intensifies."

A violent society

According to Colombian statistics, up to 15 percent of Colombia's 24,316 killings last year were war-related. In 2000, the army reported 286 soldiers, 674 FARC rebels, and 204 ELN guerrillas and 67 AUC militiamen killed. Guerrilla attacks killed many of about 400 police officers slain that year, and the conflict claimed up to 2,000 civilians.

From Jan. 1 to Sept. 4, 2001, the army reported 218 army fatalities as well as 474 FARC, 162 ELN and 73 AUC dead.

On his visit here, Mr. Powell will find it hard to ignore the AUC.

"We want to tell the U.S. government and American people that our interest is the defense of the Colombians whom the state doesn't protect from the subversive aggression," said Calos Castano, 36, whose father and other relatives were murdered by guerrillas.

Paramilitaries seek role

Although state-armed legal civilian defense forces were an important factor in thwarting insurgencies in Central America and Peru, Colombia's legislature voted to dismantle militias in this country because of human-rights concerns. Moving to fill the void, the AUC, with more than 8,000 fighters, opposes the Marxist guerrillas through a combination of combat, massacres of suspected civilian collaborators, and civic action.

Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch accuses the Colombian army of allowing the AUC to operate with near impunity.

Armed Forces chief Gen. Fernando Tapias rejects her charges, noting that soldiers and AUC combatants have died fighting each other and that high-ranking army officers linked to the AUC have been prosecuted.

No lack of theories

Mr. Castano, who recently relinquished his title of AUC military commander to become its "political director," has offered to negotiate with the government.

Warned by the FARC's septuagenarian leader, "Manuel Marulanda," that the FARC would abandon peace talks if the state negotiated with the AUC, Mr. Pastrana has rejected Mr. Castano's offer.

But Mr. Pastrana has signaled a willingness to resume peace talks with the ELN guerrillas, who stepped up their activity after negotiations were recently broken off.

The president hopes that by signing peace with the guerrillas first, the AUC will no longer have a reason to fight. But the government and FARC have not signed even the first major point on their negotiation agenda.

Says military chief Fernando Tapias, in Colombia's Semana magazine: "It is a question of militarily weakening them [the guerrillas] until they see in negotiation the best exit to the conflict."

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