Pubdate: Wed, 30 Aug 2000
Source: Independent (UK)
Website: http://www.independent.co.uk/
Address: 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
Contact:  2000 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Jan McGirk, in Bogota

CLINTON VISIT PUTS DRUGS WAR ON A NEW FOOTING

President Bill Clinton will visit the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena
for eight hours today with the ink barely dry on his $1.3bn Bill to fund the
war against the country's cocaine and heroin traffickers. Bogota, the
crime-ridden capital, is considered too risky even for such a short
day-trip.

Andres Pastrana, the Colombian President, who was elected to negotiate an
end to a 36-year civil war funded largely by illegal drugs sales and
extortion, is depending on Mr Clinton to toughen his image and shore up
popular support for his faltering peace talks with the rebels. Authorities
have whisked away all the street beggars  mostly hungry refugees who fled
warring guerrilla factions in the interior  and spruced up the Caribbean
port to honour the American President.

About one-tenth of the new US aid will go to alternative development
programmes, but most will finance the use of hundreds of Green Berets to
train Colombian anti-narcotics battalions. Sixty new Blackhawk and Huey
combat helicopters will lead search-and-destroy missions over extensive coca
and poppy crops in the south.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained that the new
military hardware is taking precedence over human rights, and urged that
Colombian security forces be held accountable for civil war atrocities.
Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil  which all share borders with
Colombia  fear that the US military presence will extend the conflict and
send refugees and narcotics traffickers pouring over the frontiers.
Environmentalists worry that defoliants sprayed on coca fields will blight
the Amazon rainforest. The prospect of US interference in a long-standing
jungle insurgency alarm many American legislators, who warn of another
Vietnam.

Thomas Pickering, the US under-secretary of state, said: "The United States
has an interest not only in stopping the flow of narcotics from Colombia but
also in ensuring the stability of one of the hemisphere's oldest and most
accomplished democracies." Colombia supplies almost 90 per cent of the US
cocaine habit, and most of the heroin on the East Coast.

Commander Alfonso Cano, of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said:
"The United States needs an excuse to continue to play the role of the
world's policeman, and now that excuse is drug trafficking." From the safety
of San Vicente del Caguan, where the 16,000-strong guerrilla force has its
own enclave, the veteran rebel leader derided the new offensive as a
disguised counterinsurgency effort and a symbol of Mr Pastrana's
subservience to Washington.

Mr Pastrana's peace initiatives are running into trouble. Mayor Eliseo
Galeano opposes handing over his town, Yondo, to rebels from the National
Liberation Army (ELN) in accord with the President's offer to cede an
experimental safe zone north of Bogota to Colombia's second rebel army.
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