Pubdate: Fri, 11 Aug 2000
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 2000 Associated Press
Author: Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer


CARTAGENA, Colombia (AP) -- Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star U.S. Army
general who has led Washington's war on drugs for the past five years, is
facing one of his toughest battles yet.

He is overseeing a controversial $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Colombia
that includes combat helicopters, weapons and training by the elite U.S.
Special Forces -- all part of an effort to stanch the flow of drugs out of a
country riven by war, death squads and drug lords.

Despite the scale of the task before him, McCaffrey remains optimistic.

``There's a widespread belief on the part of a lot of very smart people that
confronting drug production in Colombia is obviously impossible and
therefore why should you start,'' McCaffrey said in an interview this week
in Colombia. ``But the situation here is not hopeless.''

McCaffrey and U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering met Thursday
with Colombian President Andres Pastrana to work out the final details of
the aid package. Most of the money will go to supply this Andean nation with
about 100 U.S. military advisers, 60 combat helicopters, weapons, and
miscellaneous hardware for its war on drug producers.

But the plan, approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton last
month, also includes more than $400 million for nonmilitary programs, such
as encouraging farmers to plant alternative crops. Specific use of those
funds has yet to be worked out, U.S. officials said.

``This is a process that we will need to develop as we go along,'' Pickering
said, adding that both countries have sought advice on how to best use the
money from Colombian non-governmental organizations.

McCaffrey calls the aid -- military and not -- the first step toward
Colombia's national recovery.

``No one is saying it will be easy, the hard work now begins. But we need
Colombia to know that they are not in this fight alone (and) isolated. We
need them to know we will win it,'' said McCaffrey, who was a commander
during the Persian Gulf War and chief of U.S. forces in Latin America.

As director of the White House National Drug Control Policy Office,
McCaffrey has often enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington, as well as
foes for his tough stand against the use of medical marijuana. During his
five years, anti-drug spending has grown to almost $6 billion, funds for
drug-prevention programs have increased 54 percent and the budget for
drug-addiction treatment has grown 32 percent.

But helping Colombia step back from the brink is another challenge

Here, Pastrana, who has an approval rating of barely 30 percent, is trying
to gain the upper hand in a 36-year war against more than 26,000 leftist
guerrillas who reportedly earn at least $370 million a year from their
drug-protection racket.

Adding to the violence, right-wing paramilitary units kill guerrillas and
civilians suspected of being leftist sympathizers.

Armed groups across the spectrum, as well as common criminals, kidnap some
3,000 people a year for ransom.

And -- despite Washington's efforts over the years -- Colombian drug
production has increased. The country supplies the vast majority of the
world's cocaine. It also supplies most of the heroin sold on the East Coast
of the United States and now ranks fourth in the world in overall
production, U.S. officials say.

Bogota has stepped up its cooperation with Washington on the drug front. On
Thursday, Pastrana signed an order to extradite one of his country's most
powerful and ruthless drug traffickers to the United States for trial.

Alberto Orlandez Gamboa is wanted by U.S. prosecutors for importing
thousands of pounds of cocaine to the United States. His lawyer said he will
keep fighting the extradition.

And as McCaffrey helps coordinate the unfolding of Washington's costly
assistance to Colombia, human rights groups worry that the U.S. military is
getting too friendly with an army that may ignore or even encourage attacks
on civilians by right-wing death squads.

Other critics say they see the early stages of Vietnam all over again. Still
others are concerned that aerial spraying of pesticides on crops of coca and
poppy could harm Colombia's environment -- and the health of its citizens.

While McCaffrey rejected those points, he conceded that U.S. aid initiative
is not perfect. But he said he believes it is necessary.

``This is a huge, beautiful country with 40 million people whom we admire
... and who are sick of the drugs and the violence here,'' he said.
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