Pubdate: Sun, 02 Dec 2001
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2001 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Jared Kotler


TRES ESQUINAS MILITARY BASE, Colombia - Protruding above the jungle 
like a giant white golf ball on a tee, Washington's latest investment 
in the war on drugs scans the horizon for small planes ferrying 
cocaine over the Amazon.

The $13 million radar station was just inaugurated by President 
Andres Pastrana and the U.S. ambassador to Colombia and even given a 
blessing by a Roman Catholic priest. While skepticism about the drug 
war grows among some critics, so does this jungle outpost where the 
campaign is anchored.

Tres Esquinas sprawls alongside a roiling brown river in southern 
Colombia within striking distance of drug labs and plantations that 
are guarded and taxed by leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

Built in the 1930s, the base was long a sleepy outpost to defend 
Colombia from attack by Peru. Now, its runways are paved and 
expanded, long enough to handle jet fighters and Hercules transport 

A large dock is being completed for U.S.-donated patrol boats that 
prowl the rivers that are the highways for rebels and drug smugglers 
in this roadless region. Banks of computers watched by U.S. and 
Colombian intelligence officers compile data from satellites and 
reconnaissance planes.

During Thursday's inauguration ceremonies, U.S. and Colombian 
officials gave an upbeat assessment of the war on drugs. They also 
witnessed the kind of firepower Washington is providing under a $1.3 
billion aid package approved last year.

Patrol boats bristling with machine guns and grenade launchers zipped 
in formations along the muddy Orteguaza River, blasting away at the 
jungle on the opposite bank. Helicopters and warplanes shredded the 
jungle with bombs, rockets and machine guns while soldiers lobbed 
mortar rounds from gun pits.

The added firepower and U.S. Green Beret training of Colombian troops 
is providing security for raids on drug labs and aerial fumigation 
runs over illegal plots of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

For some, the drug war is a dud.

Human-rights activists fear the U.S. support will embolden the 
military to abuse people's rights, or lead to direct U.S.-troop 
involvement in this South American country's 37-year-old civil war.

Environmentalists worry about safety risks from the herbicides 
blasting coca fields.

Still other critics say the world's drug supply won't ever be reduced 
until demand for narcotics is curtailed in consumer nations like the 
United States.

With American lawmakers echoing those concerns, the U.S. Congress 
appears ready to slash about $100 million from the Bush 
administration's $731 million follow-up request to last year's aid 

At Tres Esquinas, Brig. Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of 
Colombia's southern forces, brushes aside the criticism.

"We are winning this war," he said, rattling off statistics he said 
showed progress, including the destruction of hundreds of thousands 
of acres of coca and the combat deaths at the hands of the 
U.S.-trained troops of 166 "drug traffickers."

U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson insisted progress is "accelerating," 
and she said the U.S.-trained troops "have not had a single 
human-rights complaint against them."
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