- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

The U.S. government has frozen payments to a program for Colombia's anti-drug police after discovering that $2 million from the account had disappeared, the State Department said yesterday.
In Bogota, Gen. Gustavo Socha, the officer in charge of the anti-narcotics unit, was relieved of his command yesterday, a day after 12 officers in the anti-drug corps had been dismissed.
Both the Bush administration and Colombian government officials attempted to play down the significance of the diversion, which comes amid rising skepticism on Capitol Hill about U.S. involvement in Colombia's battle with narcotics traffickers and armed insurgent groups.
"This funding is a very, very small part of our overall assistance to Colombia and has not directly affected our counter-narcotics programs, including the aerial eradication program," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
U.S. Embassy officials in Bogota discovered the funding discrepancy two months ago. The account provides $4 million annually to the police unit.
Mr. Boucher said U.S. support for the Colombian counter-narcotics police "remains strong."
"We're confident of the professionalism and the dedication of the vast majority of its members," he added.
Mr. Boucher also said the United States backed Gen. Jorge Enrique Linares, named yesterday to replace Gen. Socha.
Gen. Socha at first insisted he would stay in his post, saying the missing money resulted not from graft but from procedural errors. National Police Chief Gen. Ernesto Gilibert reassigned Gen. Socha to a unit that provides security for public officials and hinted he could be given his anti-drug post back after the investigation concludes.
Bogota press accounts said as many as 20 officers could have been involved in the scandal and that the money had apparently been paid to fake companies for goods including fuel, water, gasoline and vehicles.
Gen. Gilibert suggested that the money had not been stolen but might have been inappropriately directed to government programs not dealing with drugs.
The U.S. freeze affects only the money earmarked for the police account and does not affect hundreds of millions of dollars in aid approved by both the Clinton and Bush administrations to the government of President Andres Pastrana.
The U.S. government's "Plan Colombia" restricts U.S. aid to helping Colombia control the drug trade, by far the U.S. market's largest source of cocaine.
But much of the profits from the illicit-drug trade have gone to finance the operations of massive leftist guerrilla forces battling the government, as well as a right-wing paramilitary force. The three largest anti-government groups are on the State Department's official list of terrorist organizations.
Colombian officials have been pressing the United States to provide more direct military aid to help in the fight against the guerrillas. The Bush administration has supported expanding U.S. aid to include training and equipment to protect Colombian infrastructure sites such as oil pipelines from saboteurs, but has been reluctant to approve direct aid in Colombia's 38-year civil war.

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