Bush Approach Seen by Many as Best by Default

WAR ON DRUGS: COLOMBIA

`TEN years from now,'' says Bruce Bagley, an expert on Colombia and drugs at the University of Miami (Florida), journalists will be ``calling me up and asking me about drug trafficking.'' The world has been living with drug trafficking for a long time, and given the depth and breadth of the problem, it is not likely to be defeated any time soon.

So it is more out of realism than cynicism when antidrug experts like Professor Bagley call the $65 million in emergency aid President Bush has pledged for Colombia's drug war a drop in the bucket.

But no one complains too hard about Bush's reaction to Colombia, because no one can suggest an alternative. Colombia's drug lords have been on a rampage, they say, and the United States, which is believed to get 80 percent of its cocaine from Colombia, had to respond.

Administration officials and their Colombian counterparts are still conferring here over exactly what Colombia needs and what the US can provide. Bush will reveal those plans Tuesday when he addresses the American people on overall drug policy. But the outlines of the president's emergency package for Colombia have already been made clear: It will be largely military related, with equipment for police and soldiers, including aircraft and helicopters, plus military advisers to help train in the use of the equipment.

Colombian Justice Minister Monica de Greiff has asked for an additional $19 million to buy armored cars, bullet-proof vests, metal detectors, and other security measures for judges. Congress has already earmarked $5 million over two years for that kind of aid, but the program has been slow in getting off the ground because of bureaucratic snags in both countries. Furthermore, until the latest crisis led President Virgilio Barco to revive Colombia's extradition agreement with the US, judges were not seen to be under a special threat.

On Capitol Hill, apart from the fact that Congress is in recess, there has been little public criticism of Bush's approach. After the president's speech Tuesday, Delaware's Sen. Joseph Biden will deliver the Democratic response, though Senator Biden has already tried to do a little headline making in advance of Bush's long-awaited unveiling.

On Wednesday, Biden proposed ``debt for drugs'' legislation that would offer debt relief to countries that provide farmers with economic incentives to grow crops other than those that become illicit drugs. Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, just back from a tour around Latin America, responded by supporting what is expected to be the thrust of Bush's plan: to focus attention on reducing consumption here rather than on production in Latin America. Coca production is so lucrative that legitimate farm activity simply cannot compete, he says.

One senior Democratic aide, while stressing that it was politically important for Bush to respond dramatically to Colombia's crisis, foresees several potential pitfalls to Bush's military-oriented approach.

First, the Colombian military has long been accused of human rights violations, and by presenting the military with an enormous new influx of hardware, the US could be unwittingly fueling more abuse.

Second, some elements of the Colombian military and paramilitaries are thought to be in league with the drug traffickers, so a certain percentage of any US military aid may well wind up in the traffickers' hands.

Third, and most fundamental, says the aide, is the possibility that beefing up Colombia's military could further weaken the state and throw the civilian military balance further out of line.

Beyond responding to the immediate crisis, antidrug experts say, the US and other donor nations must help Colombia address the roots of its drug problem, which are social and economic. Rensselaer Lee, one expert who just visited Colombia, says that in many parts of the country, peasants view the drug traffickers as Robin Hoods. The traffickers set up social-welfare programs, and so ``are perceived as being friends of the poor,'' says Dr. Lee, author of the just-published book, ``White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power.'' The US, he says, should respond in kind - ``to show them we care, not just the drug traffickers. Even if we can't spend as much, the message would be made.''

Lee also says that he found some sympathy in unofficial circles in Colombia for the notion of government negotiations with the drug lords in an attempt to co-opt them into joining legitimate society. The one thing that money and guns cannot bring these drug barons is acceptance, which they crave. They want to be a part of the elite. But as long as they are outlaws, and subject to possible extradition to the US, a normal existence is not possible, Lee says.

One idea for a deal - which was secretly discussed in 1984 between drug barons, then hiding in Panama, and a former Colombian government official - would have the traffickers give up their assets and promise to stop their drug activities in exchange for a promise of no extradition.

``It might be worthwhile to talk (again), of course in great secrecy, just to see what their bottom line is,'' Lee says. On Tuesday, the father of the Ochoa brothers, three of Colombia's top drug barons, revived a proposal for negotiations. Most US observers reject the offer as a public-relations ploy, especially since it was issued on the day when the drug rings claimed to have set off bombs around the drug capital of Medell'in.

``The idea is appalling,'' a US official says. ``Especially with the violence rising, the people of Colombia would be particularly unwilling to accept these elements as legitimate.''

Even if the top drug chiefs were willing to ``retire,'' the official adds, they would never give up the real control of the operations - or their income. ``In the history of organized crime,'' the official says, ``no one has ever walked away from a gold mine.''

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