Act Now to Aid Colombia

President Clinton has acted rightly in proposing $1.28 billion in emergency aid to Colombia, whose coca and poppy growers are at one end of a narcotics pipeline that empties onto US city streets.

Colombia's democratic system is teetering under multiple pressures: economic chaos, drug traffickers, and guerrilla insurgencies. To ignore its woes is to invite even deeper drug problems and political chaos in a key region of Latin America - and possibly more costly US involvement down the road. But what should the aid do?

The administration's plan follows a request by Colombian President Andrs Pastrana: equal aid for economic development and the training and arming of the military and police, even as Mr. Pastrana tries to keep peace talks alive with the guerrillas.

Republicans in Congress want the aid concentrated on antinarcotics offensives. But many Democrats view Colombia's security forces, especially the Army, as human-rights abusers that should get no aid.

There's plenty of room to sort out these differences without scuttling the plan. A strong emphasis on security aid is needed, including training for police, prosecutors, and judges. And the US should continue its backing for new Colombian units specially trained to battle the narco-forces - both the guerrillas that protect and tax the drug trade and the traffickers themselves. US-backed training must include sensitivity to human rights and efforts to screen out people with past records of abuse.

Pastrana pleads that peasants forced to stop growing coca need help to develop alternatives. True. But first the insurgencies and the drug industry that demand the raw materials for cocaine and heroin must be weakened. Stronger, more professional security forces will also nudge the guerrillas toward the peace table.

We hope Congress acts soon to strengthen Colombia's institutions, from the Army to the judiciary, before the US presidential race absorbs all of Washington's energies.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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