A Bush administration decision to divert money for Colombian drug interdiction and eradication programs to the war on terrorism has opened up the southern U.S. border to a new flood of heroin and cocaine, say senior congressional and Colombian officials.
Some members of Congress, angry that appeals by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for help in rebuilding his depleted and aging fleet of surveillance and interdiction aircraft have been ignored, plan to bypass the White House by dipping into a $72.4 billion supplemental appropriation for the war on terrorism to fund $99.4 million in military and police aid to Colombia.
An amendment to the pending emergency supplemental bill likely will be offered by Republican Reps. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, and Dan Burton of Indiana, a member of the House Government Reform Committee. It would pay for three DC-3 marine patrol aircraft for the Colombian navy and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and 10 Huey II helicopters for the Colombian national police.
Colombia is the source for about 90 percent of the cocaine that ends up each year in the U.S., along with a majority of the heroin.
“After seven years of work on anti-narcotics efforts in the Andean region, we are now seeing the fruits of our labors in the drug war in Colombia and making great progress with our Colombian security partners in preventing drugs from reaching the United States,” Mr. Hyde said in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Colombian President Alvaro Uribe often finds himself standing alone with us in our common goals of a democratic, secure and drug-and-terrorism-free Andean region. We must continue our support for him,” he said. “We cannot assume we need do no more in order to continue the success we have been seeing.”
Colombian officials said escalating violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, called “overwhelming” last week by Texas sheriffs during a Senate hearing, was being fueled by the increase in drugs from Colombia and the illicit profits they generate.
“These smugglers have the latest equipment, most expensive weapons and they are more willing to shoot it out with us and our U.S. counterparts,” one Colombian official said. “We’re asking the U.S. for help, and by helping us, you help yourself.”
The officials said that because of aircraft and equipment shortages, if Colombian smugglers can get their product to the coast — either the Pacific Ocean on the south or the Caribbean in the north — there is a 65 percent probability it will find its way through Mexico and into the U.S.
Using airplanes, cruise vessels, freighters, and fishing and patrol boats, they said, the smugglers elude a rapidly thinning line of Colombian ships and aircraft, handing off their drugs to Mexican dealers for shipment into this country.
In the past three years, said a senior congressional aide, homeland security demands in the United States have resulted in a 70 percent reduction in the aircraft available to the Colombian and U.S. navies for interdiction efforts. Many of the surveillance planes were grounded because of wing-structure problems and another 22 aircraft, including spray planes and helicopters, were either shot down by smugglers or crashed.
In November, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) questioned the government’s ability to sustain interdiction operations in the transit zone, saying the availability of aircraft and other key assets was declining. A report said interdiction flight hours in the transit zone declined from 6,860 in 2000 to 6,500 in 2002, but dropped more rapidly to 2,940 hours in 2005.
For two years, Mr. Uribe has asked the administration for funds to replace spray planes and for assistance in rebuilding his military and police in the war against narcoterrorists, which last year claimed more than 250 Colombian police officers. His requests were not included in the 2006 foreign aid funding bill and do not appear in the administration’s 2007 aid request.