US praises Colombian government for drug crackdown. Two presidents meet in Washington; officials note `impressive' progress

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The United States and Colombia have reaffirmed a commitment to work together to stem the flow of narcotics from the jungles of Latin America to US city streets and playgrounds. US officials are praising Colombian President Belisario Betancur's efforts in breaking up cocaine processing facilities and destroying thousands of acres of marijuana plants as part of what Mr. Betancur calls his ``war without quarter on drug trafficking.''

``No Colombian government has undertaken the type of effort that has been undertaken by the Betancur government,'' a State Department official said in a background briefing for reporters Wednesday. ``Not enough credit is being given to what the Colombians are doing.''

``The president of Colombia and his people within the court system, the legislature, and the police force really deserve a lot of praise,'' says an official with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

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Betancur was in Washington this week for talks with US officials, including meetings Thursday with President Reagan and US Attorney General Edwin Meese III. The talks dealt with Central America, trade and finance, as well as ways to expand cooperation in combating narcotics trafficking.

``One reason for this visit . . . is that we wanted to honor Colombia on narcotics, and we wanted to see the two presidents stand together on this issue,'' the State Department official said.

According to the DEA official, who has worked in Colombia, the country achieved a string of ``impressive'' successes last year in its drug battle. Colombian officials destroyed more than 50 percent of that country's entire marijuana crop, through seizures and a stepped-up herbicide eradication program, according to the DEA. The Colombians did it in part with the help of helicopters supplied by the US government.

In addition, Colombian officials seized some 60 metric tons of cocaine base -- more than was seized in the entireUS last year. They have also continued to destroy major cocaine production facilities.

Probably a better measure of the success of drug enforcement efforts, US officials say, is that the wholesale price of a pound of marijuana in Colombia increased from $8 in 1983 to $12 in 1984, demonstrating that enforcement efforts were making it harder for growers and traffickers. In addition, the wholesale price of cocaine in Colombia has almost doubled, officials say, from roughly $5,000 a kilogram to $9,000 a kilogram. In Miami, the price of that same kilogram of cocaine has jumped from $17,000 in early 1984 to roughly $36,000 today.

Nonetheless, Colombia is said to still be the world's largest exporter of marijuana to the US, supplying roughly half of all the foreign marijuana consumed in the US in 1984, according to a State Department report. In addition, Colombia is reported to be the largest manufacturer of refined cocaine.

The US-Colombian reaffirmation will almost certainly come as bad news to large-volume Colombian drug traffickers, who earlier this year were reported to have sent ``hit squads'' to several US cities allegedly to gun down and intimidate American narcotics investigators. The Colombian ``hit squads'' were said to have been sent in retaliation for the Colombian and US crackdowns.

``We have not located any hit squads or seen any actions by so-called hit squads'' in the US, a DEA spokesman says. He and other officials add, nonetheless, that the threats are being taken seriously.

Betancur has himself received threats in Colombia, officials say.

``A whole bunch of Colombian senior officials have been threatened by the drug traffickers, and he [Betancur] is at the top of their list,'' says a State Department official.

``Several dozen'' Colombian narcotics agents and police officers have been killed or wounded in the last few years, the DEA official says. He adds, ``They have taken their lumps, but they have stayed right in there.''

Until recently, US efforts to trigger a more active Colombian campaign against illicit drug operations had yielded mixed results. In 1982, the US and Colombia agreed to an extradition treaty that for the first time allowed Colombian nationals to be returned to the US to stand trial on narcotics charges. Although the Colombian supreme court approved several US extradition requests under the terms of the treaty, Betancur, concerned about possible domestic repercussions, balked at allowing the extraditions.

Betancur's position on extraditions changed markedly in April 1984, when, in the midst of a major crackdown, narcotics traffickers assassinated Betancur's justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Since then, according to a recent Justice Department report, the US has requested the extradition of 65 Colombians on drug charges. As of Jan. 1, Colombia had approved the extradition of nine people. But to date, only four Colombians have actually been extradicted to the United States.

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