U.S. Help May Hurt Colombia

Associated Press
By Frank Bajak
14 September 1999

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BOGOTA -- In an attempt to undercut the guerrillas who profit from the drug trade, Colombia on Tuesday activated a new anti-narcotics battalion, trained and equipped by the United States.

Analysts say the new army unit, which was inaugurated by President Andres Pastrana, signals that the military is taking a more aggressive stance toward the guerrillas -- and could propel the nearly 40-year-old conflict into a more violent phase.

Heavily armed leftist rebels control vast tracts of the jungle where drug crops are cultivated and earn tens of millions of dollars annually in protection money from narcotics producers in this country that exports the bulk of the world's cocaine.

Washington's sponsorship of this 950-man battalion demonstrates its growing commitment to help Colombia's besieged government take the offensive against the drug-financed guerrillas.

``With the actions of this new contingent we will save the lives of human beings around the world,'' Pastrana declared at the inauguration ceremony at the Tolemaida military base just south of Bogota.

The United States is giving Colombia $289 million in anti-drug aid this year -- making it the No. 3 foreign military aid recipient -- and is working to put together an additional emergency package based on Bogota's request for $500 million more.

Washington is equipping the battalion with everything from 18 UH-1N helicopters to night-vision goggles and uniforms.

U.S. Ambassador Curtis W. Kamman looked on during Tuesday's ceremony as six army helicopters hovered above the parade ground as 15 Colombian soldiers climbed up ropes into the choppers and simulated an assault on a drug lab.

Until this year, U.S. anti-narcotics aid to Colombia went exclusively to the police, an effective investment until the country's big drug cartels were dismantled and guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups increased their role in the industry.

Since 1996, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have consolidated their control over some 40 percent of the countryside, making it perilous for helicopter-borne police alone to destroy drug crops and laboratories.

Over the past two years, coca cultivation increased by 170 percent in two southern Colombian states, according to Col. Leonardo Gallego, the anti-narcotics police commander.

The new battalion will be based in the heart of that zone at Tres Esquinas, a base where the military is creating a Joint Intelligence Command with U.S. guidance. It is expected to be up and running by October.

While there is scant evidence the rebel groups have evolved into drug trafficking organizations, there is no doubt the drug trade has made them stronger, officials say.

In accordance with U.S. law on military aid to Colombia, only soldiers with clean human rights records were permitted into the battalion, officials said. Colombia's military has a history of supporting paramilitary death squads, although Pastrana this year fired three generals accused of such links.

©1999 The Associated Press