- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to Colombia last week was preceded by visits made earlier this month by Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard B. Myersand U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. There are a number of reasons why the Bush administration may be assigning this level of importance to Colombia, but Jim Garamone, writing for the American Forces Press Service, put it most succinctly: “The narcoterrorists already have a smuggling pipeline into the United States, and it is no stretch to imagine other terror groups allying themselves with the narcoterrorists, said U.S. Embassy officials.”

U.S. officials have rarely described such a direct potential threat from Colombia. In general, Colombia is identified, by no fault of its current government, as a potential exporter of terror and instability in Latin America and a supplier of drugs. The possibility that Colombian smuggling networks could be used by enemies of America introduces a new dimension to the threat.

U.S. support of Colombia’s determined president, Alvaro Uribe, has delivered successes, but achievements highlight the enormity of the problem. More than 370,000 acres of coca have been destroyed, but harvests in other Andean countries have grown, and poppy acreage in Colombia is on the rise. About 1,400 Colombians have deserted terrorist militias in the past year, and more than 5,700 footsoldiers were captured between August 2002 and May 2003, compared with 2,790 during the same period last year. Rebels still control more than 40 percent of the country.

Also, links between paramilitary groups — which are involved in drug trafficking and on the U.S. terror list — and the Colombian military remain problematic, as Colombian officials acknowledged during a conference in London this summer. Some of these groups are in peace talks with the government, but others refuse to decommission (they like the money). America must press Mr. Uribe to more forcefully crack down on those groups.

U.S. policy toward mitigating the Colombian threat largely reflects the recent high-level U.S. visits — military support predominates, but economic development is a high priority. Over the past three years, America has spent about $2.5 million in Colombia and U.S. Special Forces have trained 15 regular Colombian battalions and a specialized battalion. Although the Bush administration had said it would not be negotiating bilateral trade deals with Latin American countries — given ongoing efforts to establish an Americas-wide free-trade zone — it has wisely made an exception for Colombia.

The Bush administration is correct in intensifying its engagement in Colombia. The extent to which foreign terror groups are using Colombia’s smuggling network into America is unclear, but the potential danger is evident.

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