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 
fight drug

The administration is debating whether to supply sophisticated 
communications equipment,
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 
Department official.

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-
dominanted state.

"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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