Pubdate: 28 July 1999
Source: Independent, The (UK)
Copyright: 1999 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Contact:  1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL
Author: Jan McGirk, Mexico City
Related: more articles about Columbia are at 


COCAINE cartels have doubled their production in three years and used
profits to triple the number of automatic weapons arming Colombia's leftist
guerillas, the US anti-drugs co-ordinator, Barry McCaffrey, warned after a
three-day visit to Bogota.

The Clinton administration's top official in the fight against drugs said
that an estimated 20,000 Marxist rebels now outgun the combined Colombian
army and police force, and pledged to recommend that congress increases
assistance. The renewed committment is fuelling speculation about the
possibility of direct US intervention in Colombia. A recent poll by a
Bogota magazine showed a majority would support US intervention

Mr McCaffrey noted that the output of the world's cocaine capital has
witnessed a "dramatic" rise, despite efforts to root out the drug trade,
and pointed out how guerrillas frequently guard cocaine plantations, help
transport and distribute the product and in some cases assist in
production. Heroin distribution in the region grew by an alarming 20 per cent.

From their neutral zone in the southern jungles which President Andres
Pastrana signed over to them last November, rebels regularly launch attacks
on civilians and police stations. Recently, fighting has broken out in the
capital, Bogota, and kidnaps have increased threefold. "There is also
massive contact between criminal organizations and right-wing paramilitary
forces and drug traffic," Mr McCaffrey said.

Marxist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc)
routinely fire on crop-dusting planes used by the US and Colombian
authorities to eradicate coca and poppy plantations. When an anti-narcotics
surveillance plane, with five US serviceman and two Colombians on board,
went missing last Friday just prior to Mr McCaffrey's visit, there were
fears that Farc had shot it down and added the crew to the 350 Colombian
military hostages it is holding hostage in secret jungle camps.

A Farc spokesman, Raul Reyes, maintained that his guerrillas had no
connection with the plane crash, despite repeated threats on rebel websites
that Americans in the region will be attacked because the US is planning to
intervene directly in their 40-year uprising. Earlier this year, three
American civilians working with an indigenous tribe in the north-east were
murdered. "Colombia is not Kosovo," Farc declared in a statement on Monday.
The rebel website claimed that the billion dollars of annual US aid
earmarked to combat narcotics in South America is a pretext for Washington
to meddle in counter- insurgency.

After an intensive search throughout the week-end, the US Air Force located
the four-engine Dash-7 aircraft about 300 miles south of Bogota in rugged
highlands controlled by the rebels. Officials said that the military plane
collided with a mountainside in a zone notorious for the wide cultivation
of coca, probably due to navigation errors in heavy weather. Thick jungle
prevented the recovery of any bodies.

President Pastrana will attempt to revive his stalled peace talks for a
settlement with the Marxist guerillas next week. Elected a year ago on a
promise to resolve the disruptive civil war, he has yet to begin
negotiations in earnest and Colombian refugees are streaming out of the
country to escape escalating violence and economic collapse.

Following a government counter-offensive that left more than 300 dead, the
Colombian Defence Minister asked Washington for $500m (pounds 300m) worth
of military assistance earlier this month. 
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