- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

MIAMI — A senior member of the Colombian military says two recent scandals involving the arrests of U.S. Army soldiers in suspected arms and cocaine smuggling plots are having no negative effect on joint U.S.-Colombian drug war efforts.

Mauricio Soto Gomez, comandante-general of the Colombian navy, said he believes the arrests of six soldiers — whom U.S. military officials say have been returned to the United States, but not yet charged with any crimes — are not indicative of a systematic problem.

“There are about 600 U.S. military people in Colombia. Two or three people don’t represent the whole U.S. Army or U.S. Navy,” the comandante said in a telephone interview. The incidents haven’t affected ?our relations with the U.S. military,? he said.

Four U.S. soldiers were arrested in April on suspicion of trying to smuggle hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine from Colombia to the United States on a military aircraft.

Two other soldiers were arrested this month on suspicion of trying to sell ammunition to anti-government paramilitary forces that the United States is training Colombian troops to fight against. The two men were reportedly found in possession of more than 30,000 rounds of ammunition in a Bogota apartment.

The incidents have drawn criticism from Colombian lawmakers seeking a congressional investigation. They also come at a sensitive time for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose cooperation with the United States has been critical in the drug war.

The United States has contributed more than $3 billion to Colombia in addition to a group of Special Forces soldiers to help train Colombian troops. Mr. Uribe, who also faces an upcoming re-election campaign, has supported the U.S. involvement, as well as American efforts to ship Colombian drug lords to the United States for trial. More than 200 have been extradited since Colombia began allowing the process in 1997.

Top U.S. counternarcotics officials in Miami also downplay the scandals involving the U.S. soldiers. But the Defense Department has taken aggressive public steps to prevent any possible fallout with Colombia. Solid relations are essential to intelligence contributing to the increased cocaine seizures in recent years.

The Miami-based U.S. Southern Command oversees the military side of the war on Colombian cocaine. The command’s head, Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who traveled to Colombia two weeks ago, said investigations into the incidents will be ?thorough and complete? and that the military is reviewing its procedures in Colombia to prevent any future incidents.

A spokesman for Southern Command declined to provide any further comment on the scandals this week, beyond saying that the six soldiers are now back at their home bases in the United States.

DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Coast Guard statistics show a steady increase over the past three years in the amount of cocaine being seized from illegal-drug smugglers in waters off the coasts of Colombia and Central America. The Coast Guard alone seized more than 240,000 pounds, worth upwards of $1.6 billion in street value last year.

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