Pubdate: Sun, 10 Dec 2000
Source: Plain Dealer, The (OH)
Copyright: 2000 The Plain Dealer
Contact:  1801 Superior Ave., Cleveland, OH 44114
Author: Jared Kotler, Associated Press


LARANDIA ARMY BASE, Colombia - Helicopters thunder past a reviewing
stand and out over a river snaking through the world's cocaine
heartland. Rows of grim-faced troops trained by U.S. Green Berets snap
to attention.

Martial music plays, diplomas are presented, and a Roman Catholic
priest sprinkles holy water on the soldiers, the vanguard of a
U.S-backed military push to wipe out cocaine.

Graduation day in the war on drugs.

The soldiers honored Friday at this sprawling army base in Colombia's
rolling southern plains - a 620-man battalion prepared by U.S. special
forces troops based at Fort Bragg, N.C. - have their work cut out for

Under the offensive backed by a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package, the
battalion will venture out any day now into jungles and Amazonian
tributaries teeming with heavily armed guerrillas. Major operations
are expected to get under way by January at the latest.

The 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is
deeply involved in the cocaine trade, yielding the rebels mounds of
cash - and making them a key target for U.S. and Colombian efforts to
stamp out the narcotics industry.

The elite, U.S.-trained battalions, coordinating with police and
prosecutors, aim to seize and destroy coca fields and laboratories,
arrest suspects who give themselves up, and attack anyone who fights
back, whether they are insurgents or common criminals.

"The bottom line is this," said the commander of U.S. military
operations in Latin America, Gen. Peter Pace, who attended the
ceremony at Larandia, about 235 miles southwest of Bogota. "If that
person, male or female, is trafficking in drugs, regardless of what
ideology they have, they are drug traffickers."

The battalion christened Friday is the second of three Colombian army
units to be prepared and ferried into battle on dozens of U.S.-donated
combat helicopters.

A third battalion should be ready by the middle of next year,
completing training of nearly 3,000 troops and service personnel under
President Andres Pastrana's so-called Plan Colombia.

The specialized army battalions involve the Colombian military as
never before in counter-drug operations. The U.S. training program
brings the American military into a close partnership with Colombian
forces long accused of human rights abuses against civilians in
fighting the rebels.

But officials are promising a clean operation, and no direct U.S.
troop involvement in the fighting.

In addition to general soldiering skills such as marksmanship, Green
Beret trainers said they are teaching the troops police-style tactics
such as handcuffing suspects and bagging evidence that could be used
in trials.

Human rights instruction and "target discrimination" are also being
emphasized, to prevent unarmed civilians from getting killed in raids
on drug laboratories or coca fields.

In Putumayo province, the first state to be targeted in the offensive,
tens of thousands of farmers and coca harvesters live among the
rebels, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary units try ing to
muscle in on the =46ARC's drug profits.

"We've learned that within the drug labs you'll have family members,
you'll have wives, you'll have children, you'll have livestock," the
senior American instructor at Larandia said, speaking to reporters on
condition of anonymity.
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