THE WASHINGTON POST
Saturday, 28 March 1998
U.S. May Boost Military Aid to Colombia's Anti-Drug Effort
By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Alarmed by recent setbacks to the Colombian military in its decades-
old war against rebel armies, Clinton administration officials are
considering increasing U.S. military assistance to the government
within the framework of cooperation between the two countries to
The administration is debating whether to supply sophisticated
intelligence support and training to the military in the southern half
of Colombia, where thousands of guerrillas are protecting drug
traffickers and may be engaged in production themselves, according
to officials from the National Security Council and State and Defense
Officials are also weighing a Colombian request to buy 12 Cobra
attack helicopters, which would make Colombia the first South
American country to receive sophisticated U.S. weapons since
President Clinton lifted a ban on such sales last year. Regional U.S.
military commanders support the request "because they need it,"
said one officer.
U.S. officials say that military aid would be aimed at helping
Colombian forces fight drug traffickers who have made the country
the world's largest producer of coca leaves and cocaine, accounting
for an estimated 80 percent of cocaine sold in the United States. But
as ties between the Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers have
grown tighter in the last year, national security officials acknowledge
that the line between fighting drug traffickers and fighting rebels
has become blurry.
"We continue to have a counternarcotics focus but are sensitive to
the fact there's a connection" between drug traffickers and
insurgents, a senior national security official said. "But we are still
not ready to join the military side . . . in a way that is unconnected to
Nevertheless, 726 Colombian troops received training -- most of it
not designated as counternarcotics courses -- from the Defense
Department's Special Operations Command in fiscal 1996, according
to Pentagon documents. The instruction -- including small unit river
and coastal operations and light infantry techniques -- was
conducted by Army special operations forces and Navy SEALS,
according to the documents. The training, which continues this year,
was exempted from restrictions at the time of U.S. military aid to
The efforts to help the Colombian armed forces reflect changing U.S.
attitudes about the gravity of the threat to the government posed by
drug-financed rebels. U.S. aid to Colombia's military has been
virtually nonexistent since the late 1980s because the Colombian
army, as well as the right-wing paramilitary groups tsanctions on
national security grounds.
Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. counternarcotics aid in South
America, including 200 U.S. troops stationed mostly at radar sites
that monitor suspected drug-carrying aircraft.
U.S. assistance to the military and to the Colombian National Police --
which, unlike the military, was not barred from receiving aid --
tripled from $28.5 million in 1995 to nearly $100 million in 1997,
much of it transfers, repairs or upgrades of helicopters needed in the
jungle as well as field gear and counternarcotics training, according
to State Department figures.
The Defense Department also is sending Colombia $30 million worth
of equipment, including three Boston Whaler-type boats, 20 UH-1H
helicopter hulks for spare parts, 15 utility vehicles and 1.1 million
rounds of ammunition for weapons recently mounted on helicopters.
Starting next year, up to $20 million a year is earmarked for riverine
training by Navy SEALS.
The Defense Department also is set to send the Colombian military
$2.5 million in used radio equipment, 1,000 M-16A1 rifles and 500
M-60 machine guns. This and other equipment, however, have been
held up because Colombia has failed to move quickly to screen
members of its army brigades for human rights abuses, the
stipulation the Clinton administration attached to military aid last
While this conditional aid has gone to the Colombian navy and air
force, only one
brigade-size unit of the 125,000-troop Colombian army has been
cleared to receive help, U.S. officials said. U.S. officials are waiting for
transfers of two alleged human rights violators before authorizing
equipment for a second brigade.
Some U.S. officials say they feel a sense of urgency to assist the
military after a startling defeat of government troops this month in
the southern province of Caqueta. On March 1 a company of troops
from the 52nd Battalion encountered dozens of guerrillas while
looking for drug labs and attempted to pursue them. As a second
army company moved in to support the troops, 400 to 600 rebels
surrounded both companies, killing 62 soldiers and taking 30
The rebels were from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC), the largest of Colombia's insurgent groups, with about 11,000
members. Along with the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has
7,000 adherents, the rebel armies control an estimated 40 percent of
the country. Army-backed paramilitaries, who are often aligned with
drug traffickers, are believed to control up to 15 percent. With drug
profits, the guerrillas are self-sustaining and do not receive outside
assistance, U.S. defense analysts said.
But officials at the State Department, which has been more cautious
about increasing U.S. involvement in one of the world's most violent
countries, are more skeptical and recently opposed the transfer of
three Black Hawk helicopters to the Colombian National Police. "We
are really not interested in getting sucked into this," said State
Human rights activists here and in Colombia are fighting the transfer
of more helicopters and equipment because of reports that troops
have strafed towns in areas after guerrilla advances, said Colletta
Youngers, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
They also are concerned that the United States will become
embroiled in a counterinsurgency reminiscent of the divisive U.S.
support of the government of El Salvador in the 1980s.
But defense officials and some Republicans in Congress say those
concerns are overblown and that Colombia is on the verge of losing
the war altogether, which they say could result in a narcotics-
"Is anyone interested in an El Salvador, Vietnam-style ramp-up? No,"
said one defense official involved in the discussions. "But we are
dissatisfied with the shackles we're putting on ourselves . . . the
training is so little it borders on irrelevant."
(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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