Pubdate: Fri, 17 Nov 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Christopher Marquis with Juan Forero
Bookmark: Reports from Colombia:


WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 -- Representative Benjamin A. Gilman, chairman of the
House International Relations Committee, has abruptly withdrawn his support
from the decision to funnel $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to
Colombia, arguing that the United States is on the brink of a "major

Mr. Gilman, Republican of New York, sent a letter this week to the White
House drug policy coordinator, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, contending that the
American plan to increase the role of the Colombian military in the drug
fight will end disastrously, because the military has undermined its
political support after a history of corruption and human rights abuses.
That position echoes other critics of the plan.

Mr. Gilman called on the Clinton administration to redirect its assistance,
including at least 40 Black Hawk helicopters, from the military to the
national police in Colombia. Mr. Gilman has long admired the police, which
he views as more effective and less tainted by human rights violations.

"If we fail early on with Plan Colombia, as I fear, we could lose the
support of the American people for our efforts to fight illicit narcotics
abroad," Mr. Gilman said. "If we lose public support, we will regret we did
not make the mid-course corrections for Colombia that I have outlined

Last summer, Mr. Gilman voted to support Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion
strategy drafted jointly by American and Colombian officials and passed by
Congress. In addition to the military spending, the program allocates money
to promote alternative crops, economic renewal and human rights. The plan
seeks to halve drug production over five years in Colombia, reportedly the
source of most of the cocaine and heroin that enters the United States.

Congressional sources said Mr. Gilman was troubled by recent military
failures in rural areas where rebel forces operate.

It is unclear what effects, if any, Mr. Gilman's shift will have. A Senate
Republican aide who follows Colombia closely said it was "far too early" to
criticize the plan. Mr. Gilman is expected to relinquish his chairmanship
next year because of term limits.

Critics of the plan have argued that the military aid would merely
intensify the conflict in which two rebel groups have joined forces with
narcotics traffickers against the government, a conflict that could
eventually draw the United States directly into fighting the rebels.

Leaders of Colombia's neighbors also have expressed fears that the fighting
will spill into their countries.

Washington counters that Colombia's increasingly jumbled battle lines make
it necessary to equip and deploy the military in the fight against drugs.
The American plan calls for training three counternarcotics battalions,
with a total of up to 3,000 troops.

The administration also has promised to watch over the military's record on
human rights. A spokesman for General McCaffrey, Robert Weiner, said today
that denying aid to the military on the basis of its past performance would
ensure defeat.

"Granted they're not a superpower," Mr. Weiner said. "One of the major
purposes of the Plan Colombia is to provide the military with the resources
they need. This actually scares the cartels to death."

In southern Putumayo Province, where half of the coca in Colombia is grown,
rebels have sealed off roads, arguing that the military has to rein in
right-wing gunmen who are associated with the armed forces.

A botched operation in a northern town, Dabeiba, resulted last month in the
downing of one of the army's seven American-made Black Hawks and the deaths
of 22 troops.

The helicopter had been carrying reinforcements to assist soldiers locked
in a firefight with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
But sloppy communications led the pilot to land in a rebel-controlled area,
an American official said.

The rebels "were waiting for them," the official said. "What kind of
intelligence is that? They were dug in like the Ho Chi Minh Trail."

A high-ranking official in President Andres Pastrana's government defended
the military involvement on the grounds that the drug war has fundamentally
changed in the last five years.

"It used to be an urban drug war, which the police were very capable of
handling," the official said. "It has now become a drug war fought in the
jungles, and you can't do that without military support."

Another official said, "The fact that there are voices that are against
these tactics doesn't mean that the strategy is going to change."
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