Bad news piles up in Colombia but US unfazed

Resilient rebels. Rebounding drug crops. Rogue American soldiers snared in plots to smuggle cocaine and funnel stolen ammunition toparamilitary death squads.

The bad news has been piling up fast, almost five years after the United States began doling out $3-billion under its Plan Colombia aid programme to wipe out cocaine and heroin production and crush a long-running leftist insurgency.

The setbacks show US efforts to help restore peace and the rule of law to this Andean nation face huge challenges.
But Washington’s top diplomat here is unfazed, saying the mission to grind down the rebels and deprive them of their finances from drug-trafficking will proceed.

In a conversation at his guarded residence, US Ambassador William Wood said the efforts must persist if Colombia’s rebels, who have been at war in Colombia for 40 years, are ever to be defeated.

“In Colombia, terrorism without narcotics is a much more vulnerable target,” Wood told reporters. Rebels control a large share of the drug trade in Colombia, which produces most of the world’s cocaine and much of its heroin.

“If you take away drugs, you reduce incentive, the power to corrupt, the ability to buy weapons,” Wood said.

But criticism of the costly effort is mounting.

In an editorial this week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said Colombia “has turned into a sinkhole of money and military resources over the past five years.”

“The Congress should scrap Plan Colombia now, rather than throw more good money after bad,” the newspaper said, pointing out that availability of Colombian cocaine and heroin on US streets appears undiminished.

Among recent events that have cast a shadow on US efforts in Colombia:

  • On Wednesday, Colombian police announced the arrest of two US Army soldiers for allegedly attempting to sell thousands of rounds of stolen US ammunition to right-wing paramilitary death squads. They are in custody of US officials and face court-martial in the United States.

  • In April, rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), launched an offensive in the Andes Mountains of south-west Colombia. It followed a string of rebel attacks across Colombia that killed dozens of Colombian troops. “The intensity of the attacks are clearly a concern,” Wood said.

  • In March, five American soldiers in Colombia were accused of smuggling cocaine to the United States aboard a US military plane. They were whisked off to the United States, where they were arrested. Some Colombian lawmakers called for their extradition to Colombia.

  • The White House reported in March that, despite a massive aerial fumigation offensive against cocaine-producing plantations in 2004, coca cultivation increased slightly to 281 323 acres as farmers quickly replanted. Critics said the report showed the United States was losing the war on drugs.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is seeking more than $700-million from Congress in counterinsurgency and counternarcotics aid for Colombia for fiscal year 2006. “There is no sign that in the financial year of 2006 that we’re going to take a cut,” Wood said, relaxing near a crackling fire in the mansion that serves as his official residence.

US diplomats have been embarrassed by the allegations of wrongdoing by a few US soldiers, but point out that thousands have served in Colombia honorably, providing training and logistics and intelligence support to Colombian forces.

Last year, the United States doubled the maximum number of US troops allowed in Colombia to 800. Up to 600 US contractors are also allowed.

US officials also insist the aerial fumigation of coca has produced results, with the younger replanted coca crops producing smaller amounts of cocaine. The crop dusters are on track to fumigate a record number of acres this year.

“We’re substantially ahead this year over last year and the year before that, helped by good weather,” Wood said.—Sapa-AP

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