Czar: Colombia Suffering Ignored Print
from the Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia -- White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, in the world's
leading cocaine-producing nation to promote a huge U.S. aid package, said
Wednesday that Colombia's suffering has been ignored for too long.

"The attention of the world has been carefully fixed on Kosovo and Bosnia,"
he told a news conference after meeting with President Andres Pastrana.
"Here we are three hours flight from Miami."

McCaffrey's visit to the South American country comes as Congress debates
the Clinton administration's proposed $1.6 billion counternarcotics package
for Colombia and its Andean neighbors.

While dropping in Bolivia and Peru in recent years, cocaine and heroin
production have soared in Colombia as leftist rebels and right-wing
paramilitary groups protect the trade in return for huge payoffs from drug
traffickers.

"Poor Colombia is facing as many as 25,000 heavily armed (members of)
narco-terrorist organizations," McCaffrey said, using the combined figure
for rebel and paramilitary fighters. "This is a special challenge."

New CIA estimates show a 20 percent increase in cocaine production and a 23
percent rise in heroin production in Colombia last year. U.S. officials say
the South American country now supplies 90 percent of the world's cocaine
and the majority of the heroin sold in the United States.

More than half of funds in the proposed U.S. aid package would finance a
Colombian military push into southern regions where drug crops are expanding
most rapidly under guerrilla protection.

Human rights groups and some liberal lawmakers say stepped up U.S. military
aid and training could undermine peace talks with leftist rebels and draw
the United States into decades-old conflict that has claimed more than
35,000 lives, most of them civilians.

In a report issued Wednesday, the U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch
presented new charges of army links to the paramilitary groups who routinely
kill villagers they suspect to be rebel collaborators.

Citing still-confidential investigations by prosecutors, the rights group
charged the army set up a new paramilitary squad last year and that three
major brigades have ongoing ties to right-wing death squads.

McCaffrey, a retired general and highly decorated Vietnam war hero, said
complaints against the military have "dwindled to near zero." He said the
police and army have a better image in Colombia than the Catholic Church -
something surveys in major cities have suggested.

Colombian military leaders called the new accusations unfounded and
Pastrana, addressing the nation's governors, vowed stronger military efforts
against paramilitary "barbarism, cruelty and cowardice."

Before returning to Washington on Thursday, McCaffrey plans to tour a
southern anti-narcotics base where a new, 950-man U.S.-trained army
battalion is based - the first of three anti-drug units that would be
created with the aid package.

The post at Tres Esquinas is on the border between Caqueta and Putumayo
states, an area McCaffrey labeled a "giant drug producing region" where 20
percent of the land mass is devoted to cultivating coca, the raw material
for cocaine.

McCaffrey said the military component of the U.S. aid package was necessary
to clear a path through the rebels so that police can fumigate illegal drug
crops.

But he stressed that one-fifth of the funds support human rights and justice
reforms, as well as providing loans to help poor peasants grow legal crops
instead of coca or opium poppies.

Responding to critics who fear an expanding American military involvement,
McCaffrey said he did not foresee a large U.S. "footprint" in Colombia. U.S.
officials say there are 150-200 servicemen in the country on any given day
and they are prohibited from accompanying Colombians into combat.

Although U.S. officials have repeatedly insisted its new military assistance
is only for battling drugs, McCaffrey said the United States was also trying
to send a message to the guerrillas that "it's more effective to talk rather
than fight."

(c) Copyright 2000 The Associated Press