Pubdate: Fri, 22 Dec 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Karen DeYoung, Washington Post Staff Writer


When a Colombian army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed in October, the 
government in Bogota blamed pilot error. But according to a Pentagon review 
of the incident, the loss was a guerrilla kill, pure and simple.

The army, carrying reinforcements to the besieged northwest Colombian town 
of Dabeiba, flew straight into an ambush by the Revolutionary Armed Forces 
of Colombia, or FARC, a senior Pentagon official said. As the first of two 
Black Hawks hovered at about 15 feet to check the landing zone, waiting 
rebels opened fire, pumping at least 25 rounds into the pilot, he said. 
When the aircraft, with 22 soldiers on board, slammed to the ground, all 
who were still alive were shot and killed.

"The military hadn't done adequate reconnaissance, and the guerrillas 
kicked their [rear end]," said the official, who asked not to be 
identified. "If you let the FARC sit there for a couple of months and plan 
an ambush, and you're dumb enough to walk into it, you're going to get 
whacked. And that's what's been happening in Colombia."

Within the next several weeks, the United States will begin to find out 
whether months of U.S.-provided training, new equipment and better 
intelligence tools can reverse that years-long pattern. Two U.S.-trained 
Colombian battalions are gearing up to launch their initial offensive 
against cocaine production in the southern part of the country, where 
leftist guerrillas and a right-wing paramilitary army guard vast coca 
fields, clandestine drug laboratories and export routes.

"We're approaching crunch time," said the Pentagon official. "We'll find 
out in January" whether the military's southern offensive will demonstrate, 
for the first time in Colombia's protracted guerrilla war, that it can 
seize and hold the initiative.

This crucial moment comes as the Clinton administration prepares to turn 
the problem of Colombia policy over to new White House stewardship. Senior 
officials at the Pentagon and State Department, and within the White House, 
have been working on a transition document spelling out the complicated 
state of play in Colombia, what is supposed to happen next and what could 
go wrong.

Virtually all U.S. officials closely involved in the policy have either 
announced their intention to leave government -- including Undersecretary 
of State Thomas R. Pickering and the White House drug policy chief, Barry 
R. McCaffrey -- or are political appointees eligible for replacement by the 
new administration.

President-elect Bush said during the campaign that he generally supports 
President Clinton's $1.6 billion Colombia initiative. The plan received 
bipartisan support in Congress last summer. But none of Bush's senior 
advisers -- including newly designated secretary of state Colin L. Powell 
and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- has experience in Latin 
America or international drug policy.

Bush's one campaign speech on Latin America, delivered in Miami in August, 
dealt primarily with trade issues. Remarks at the Council on Foreign 
Relations by Bush foreign policy adviser Robert B. Zoellick in October, 
released in summary form, led some to conclude a Bush administration was 
prepared for an even bigger commitment to Colombia.

"We cannot continue to make a false distinction between counterinsurgency 
and counternarcotics efforts," the summary quoted Zoellick as saying. If 
Colombian leaders have the political will to "take their country back from 
killers and drug lords . . . then the U.S. should offer serious, sustained 
and timely financial, material and intelligence support."

Although McCaffrey estimates it will take the U.S.-backed strategy in 
Colombia five years to begin stemming the growth of cocaine and heroin 
exports, funding for the program runs out at the end of this fiscal year. 
New budget figures being drawn up by Clinton officials for proposal to Bush 
contemplate maintenance for the Colombia program and, according to 
Pickering, major new expenditures and increased U.S. involvement in 
surrounding countries.

The plan envisions significant new anti-drug funding for Peru, where 
previous military successes against traffickers may have played out and 
there are indications that peasant farmers are once again growing coca, 
said a senior State Department official who asked not to be named. In 
Bolivia, farmers have rebelled against government efforts to force them 
into crop substitution, and President Hugo Banzer wants more money to 
support the effort.

Ecuador is a major staging point for U.S. drug reconnaissance flights in 
the region and is facing a growing threat of incursions by guerrillas, 
displaced peasants and drug crops over its border with Colombia. The 
planning also envisions participation by Panama and Venezuela, both of 
which have vulnerable borders, although neither has indicated it wants to 
be part of a comprehensive U.S. plan.

The extent to which the new administration may alter the Clinton program is 
likely to be influenced by a group of powerful House Republicans -- 
including International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman 
(R-N.Y.) -- who voted for it despite deep disagreements over the way the 
Colombia money was distributed and who have complained ever since.

At the same time, there have been significant changes in Colombia since the 
U.S. aid program was drawn up nearly a year ago. They will make any 
U.S.-Colombian strategy more difficult.

Current policy has been lubricated by the close relationship between the 
Clinton administration and the government of Colombian President Andres 
Pastrana. But with violence against civilians escalating and the economy 
still troubled, Pastrana is barely afloat politically.

One of the few available tools to boost his standing -- Clinton-supported 
legislation, introduced by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), that would have eased 
U.S. duty on imported Colombian textiles -- died an unremarked death at the 
messy end of the 106th Congress this month.

Government peace negotiations with the FARC, begun by Pastrana last year, 
have come to a standstill, even as guerrillas and paramilitaries have 
increased their numbers and firepower. The negotiations -- never popular 
with the Americans -- have been based in part on the semi-fiction that the 
guerrillas are fighting a political battle in which drug trafficking is 
only tangentially involved. But they are likely to become more complicated 
with recent allegations, supported by Mexican and U.S. intelligence, of 
direct dealings between the FARC and Mexico's ruthless Tijuana cartel.

Pastrana cannot run again for president, and no viable candidate has 
emerged from his Conservative Party. Among the three opposition figures who 
have already staked a claim on the job, growing attention is being paid to 
Alvaro Uribe Velez from the Liberal Party's conservative wing. A recent 
cover story in the newsweekly Semana noted Uribe's rising poll numbers, 
while still barely in the double digits, and described his image of 
right-wing toughness as increasingly "fashionable" in the climate of 
escalating violence.

Uribe has been tied in the Colombian media to the paramilitaries. Founded 
in the 1980s as "self-defense" militias to aid in the fight against the 
powerful drug cartels of the day, the once-disparate right-wing groups have 
coalesced into an 8,000-strong clandestine fighting force whose main 
targets are the FARC and the smaller Marxist National Liberation Army 
(ELN). According to U.S. and Colombian officials, the paramilitaries now 
derive the bulk of their income from drugs and extortion; many of their 
battles with the guerrillas are over control of coca territory and 
lucrative mining and ranching regions.

But an increasing number of middle- and upper-class Colombians have started 
to look at paramilitaries and their leader, Carlos Castano, as the only 
force capable of defending them. Such popularity is dangerous for Pastrana, 
who must demonstrate to U.S. human rights activists and their congressional 
supporters that the Colombian military is fighting the illegal 
paramilitaries as hard as it is fighting the guerrillas.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has alleged that senior officials in many 
Colombian army divisions have ties to the right-wing forces. Last summer, 
congressional opponents of the aid succeeded in making it conditional on 
Pastrana's efforts to sever those alleged links and punish human rights 
violators within the military. By fall, progress was so slight that Clinton 
was forced to waive the conditions to release money to the military.

Additional certification is due before the next aid payment can be 
released, and administration officials expect it will be among their last 
Colombia-related acts before the change of power in Washington. Seeking to 
avoid the need for another waiver, Pastrana's Defense Ministry this month 
put out a 31-page report attesting to its low opinion of Castano's troops 
and its successes in combating them.

Despite their smaller size, compared to the estimated 22,000 members of the 
combined guerrilla forces, the paramilitaries have been responsible for the 
majority of large-scale massacres and forced displacements of civilians in 
Colombia in recent years, the report says. It says military forces have 
killed 150 paramilitary members and captured 934 since 1997 -- a better 
proportional record than military efforts against the guerrillas.

The military is likely to have an opportunity to directly confront both the 
paramilitaries and the guerrillas in the southern state of Putumayo, where 
the anti-drug offensive will begin. Designed as one part of a three-pronged 
government effort to retake the province, it is supposed to coincide with 
massive aerial spraying of plantation-size coca fields and a program to 
encourage smaller farmers to switch to non-drug crops.

The three are "all related to one another," said the State Department 
official. "All have to move in roughly the same time."

So far, alternative development has gotten off to a slow start as the FARC 
continues to block roads in Putumayo and threaten peasants who agree to 
participate. And the timing for the launch of the spraying "is not 
determined yet," the official said.

The Pentagon official insisted that "the Colombians must begin the . . . 
spraying on time, in late December or early January in Putumayo. There's no 
question about that in our mind. What [the Colombian military] is trying to 
do is hit [the traffickers and their protectors] from all sides as hard as 
they can." When the spraying starts, he said, "the battalions can hit the 
large labs and disrupt air, river and ground movement."

But other U.S. officials acknowledge that while the anti-drug battalions 
can begin selective hits, they will not be ready for large-scale 
engagements because they will lack reinforcement capability for most of the 
coming year. The first of 16 new Black Hawks and up to 30 Bell Huey II 
helicopters that make up the bulk of the army's U.S. aid package will begin 
arriving next summer, but no pilots will be available to fly them until 
months later, officials said. In the meantime, the two counternarcotics 
battalions, and a third that begins training next month, will have to 
depend on a fleet of 33 smaller, UH-1N helicopters with limited lift and range.

"If [battalion forces] would get into a major encounter," one official 
said, the existing fleet "would not be enough that a military commander 
would feel comfortable that he could move in a significant reinforcement 
force. . . . The last thing anybody wants is for the counternarcotics force 
to run into a real ambush situation and be defeated at the onset of this 
kind of activity."
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