Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Pubdate: 19 Sep 1998
Author: Tod Robberson, The Dallas Morning News


Measure would halt aid over creation of demilitarized zone

White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey said Wednesday that "this bill is not
the answer. I understand that elections are coming, but they should not
vote for this bill."

BOGOTA, Colombia - President Andres Pastrana's government says it fears
that a proposed $2.6 billion U.S. anti-drug bill threatens to torpedo
upcoming peace talks with the nation's two main guerrilla groups.

The regional anti-drug bill, which passed the U.S. House on a 384-39 vote
Wednesday, calls for suspending drug-fighting aid to Colombia if the
Pastrana government halts counternarcotics operations in a planned
demilitarized zone dominated by the guerrillas. The zone will be
established when peace talks are convened in November.

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the anti-drug measure soon, with
members of the Republican majority saying it has good chances passing
before November's elections. The Clinton administration opposes the bill,
characterizing it as election-year posturing.

If the bill becomes law, it could lead to suspension of several hundred
million dollars in covert and nonsecret U.S. anti-drug aid to Colombia.
Upon taking office last month, Mr. Pastrana identified peace talks with the
guerrillas as his top priority.

Colombian officials and guerrilla leaders say that establishing the
demilitarized zone is the most crucial factor in advancing the peace process.

Critics in Bogota and Washington say the zone, an area four times the size
of Connecticut in the heart of Colombia's cocaine-producing southern
region, would give the guerrillas free rein over drug production and export
without fear of government intervention.

The zone would cover nearly 17,000 square miles across five provinces. An
estimated 76 tons of coca are produced annually within the zone, which the
Colombian anti-narcotics police commander, Col. Leonardo Gallego, said
constitutes 12 percent of national production.

Pastrana government officials warn, however, that the threat to suspend aid
could scuttle the peace talks, because no anti-drug operations can occur in
the demilitarized zone without risking a direct military confrontation with
the guerrillas.

Foreign Minister Roberto Rojas said he plans to travel to Washington next
week in hopes of dissuading Senate members from passing the measure.

White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey said Wednesday that "this bill is not
the answer. I understand that elections are coming, but they should not
vote for this bill."

Clinton administration officials noted that the bill faces several major
hurdles before it can become law. Foremost among them is its potentially
budget-busting price tag for anti-drug operations across Latin America.

A State Department spokeswoman called the bill "an admirable effort to
bring the war on drugs to the forefront" but criticized aspects of it as an
attempt at "micromanagement."

But she took a cautious approach to the issue of Colombia's proposed
demilitarized zone.

"We are for the peace process, but not at the expense of counternarcotics
operations," the spokeswoman said.

Col. Gallego insisted that airborne coca-eradication operations in the
demilitarized zone would not be affected by the peace talks. But he and
other officials have avoided comment on the trickier issue of
military-style assaults on cocaine laboratories and clandestine airstrips
in the zone, which typically are protected by the guerrillas in exchange
for a "tax" payment.

In its main editorial Friday, the Bogota daily El Espectador lambasted the
congressional measure as "absurd and unacceptable."

Referring to the Clinton administration's current preoccupation with the
Monica Lewinsky affair, the editorial added: "This decision underscores the
ease with which the U.S. Congress takes decisions on matters of foreign
policy and the lack of maneuvering room that the executive branch has in
certain areas. . . . Without doubt, the measure is as inconvenient for the
Clinton government as it is for the government of Pastrana."

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., criticized the bill as bordering on
"interference in Colombian affairs" and a "threat to tie one arm behind . .
. [Mr. Pastrana's] back" in his negotiations with the guerrillas.

Carlos Salinas, who monitors Colombia for the human rights group Amnesty
International, said the bill seemed less an attempt at seriously addressing
the problem of drug trafficking than a show of "congressional
chest-thumping" during an election year.

"Definitely, this is a measure that these members of Congress can take back
to their constituents just before the elections and say, 'Look, I'm tough
on drugs,' " he said.

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Checked-by: Pat Dolan