Pubdate: Tue, 11 Jul 2000
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.
Contact:  P.O. Box 2378, Boston, MA 02107-2378
Author: Kirk Semple, Globe Correspondent


TRES ESQUINAS, Colombia - On this military base deep in Colombia's muggy 
southern jungle, on the world's cocaine frontier, the air feels thicker 
than usual with tension and the fear of death.

It could also just be the imagination at work, because the fact is that 
nothing much is going on here these days: no helicopters clattering 
overhead with rebels in their sights, no heavily armed soldiers stomping in 
and out of transport planes with war smeared on their faces.

This will not be the case in as few as three months, military officials in 
the region predict, but for now, as they wait for President Clinton to sign 
the bill that will pour $1.3 billion in aid into Colombia to help fight 
illegal drug production, activity at the base appears to be at a standstill.

In the Colombian government's plan to attack and eliminate the 
narco-traffickers, the Tres Esquinas military base is at the vanguard of 
the so-called Push Into The South, the plan to wipe out the vast coca 
cultivations in the fecund southern reaches of the country.

The base sits on the border between the thinly populated states of Caqueta 
and Putumayo, where well over half of Colombia's coca crop grows and where 
rebel armies provide protection for plantations, laboratories, and trade 

According to the plan, the base will be the center of joint armed forces 
operations for southern Colombia and home to three US-trained 
counternarcotics battalions, each comprising about 950 troops, who will 
swoop into the drug-producing area using 18 US-supplied high-tech Blackhawk 
helicopters and 42 Huey choppers.

One of the battalions has been trained and ready since September. The 
battalion has gone on only nine missions, and most occurred during the 
training period last year, said Major Jose Parra, the force's second 
commanding officer.

According to Colombian and US officials, delays in the approval of the aid 
package now sitting on Clinton's desk forced a temporary scaling back in 
the counternarcotics effort. Hardest hit has been the battalion; it is 
waiting for the helicopters, which are indispensable to its mission.

"The helicopter provides the element of surprise, the element of mobility, 
and the element of mass," said Brigadier General Mario Montoya, chief of 
the Southern Joint Task Force, based at Tres Esquinas.

"We demanded a lot from the men in training and we prepared ourselves well, 
and then we got stuck like this," said Parra, who froze in the pose of a 
runner midstride. "It's like a parachutist ready to jump and he's stopped."

The National Police also have been forced to cut back on spraying 
herbicides in recent months because US money didn't arrive as expected, 
according to recent news reports. But a US Embassy official said Friday: 
"The spraying program has been slightly curtailed, but not to any great 

According to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Colombian 
and US officials were forced to make deep cuts in the helicopter program, 
laying off dozens of contracted personnel, to enable the spraying program 
to remain on schedule.

Last week at Tres Esquinas, the sprawling base seemed like a ghost town. 
Wilson Vargas, 26, a soldier, was standing guard at the runway as visiting 
journalists were flown in from Bogota.

He said the waiting was frustrating. The soldiers have been honing their 
skills, trying to maintain their enthusiasm, fighting the boredom, he said. 
The intramural soccer matches, he confided, were fiercely competitive.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D