Drug war escalates, neighbors wary

Clinton visits Colombia today to bolster a $7.5 billion antidrug offensive.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

President Bill Clinton's visit to this Caribbean city today marks the beginning of an unprecedented level of American financial - and military - commitment to this struggling nation.

Last month, the US Congress approved a whopping $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia - the world's biggest supplier of illicit drugs. That's more money spent over the next two years than the US spent on military aid to El Salvador throughout the 1980s.

The money - which includes the funding of 60 combat helicopters and up to 500 US military advisers - is the United States' contribution to "Plan Colombia," Bogot's $7.5 billion initiative to attack the lucrative drug trade that has rotted the country's democratic institutions yet allowed leftist guerrillas to prosper.

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But this major escalation in US involvement is being met with trepidation from South American countries. The prevailing attitude is like a neighborhood baseball team's uncertainty about inviting a local ruffian to play in their next tough game. They probably need the giant to win, but they still worry about the effect his dominance will have on their game.

Colombia's neighboring countries generally support Plan Colombia, because their primary concern is that continuing deterioration in Colombia could ultimately threaten regional stability. And they see the US, the biggest power in the hemisphere, sending an important signal with its involvement that it won't stand by as a strategic democracy sinks.

But those countries, and a growing chorus of nongovernmental critics, also fear the large US military involvement would only worsen the bloody civil war, create a flood of refugees, and push the drug trade to neighboring countries.

A large American military role "is a concern for us, of course, but it's a decision between the two countries," says a Brazilian diplomat in Brasilia. "Our main concern is seeing some kind of regularization achieved that can lead to a stronger democracy in Colombia."

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright swung through South American capitals earlier this month to drum up support for Plan Colombia, she heard in Brasilia what she generally heard elsewhere: "We can lend moral support to Plan Colombia, but nothing even resembling military involvement."

But since then, several neighboring governments have openly expressed reservations about the plan even while boosting army or police presence along their borders with Colombia. That action has followed statements by leaders of Colombia's largest guerrilla organization, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces or FARC, that the US participation in Plan Colombia - and Clinton's visit - will only fan the flames of the Colombian war.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori recently expressed his fear that Plan Colombia could cause the Colombian conflict to spread over borders.

Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Jos Vicente Rangel, angered Colombian officials by stating in an interview with Colombian media that Venezuela fears the heavy US antinarcotic assistance could force Colombian peasants to flee to neighboring countries.

Then, Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia appeared to hedge on the support for Plan Colombia he had expressed to Secretary Albright, citing Brazil's strong concern about the environmental impact an intense chemical defoliation of Colombia's coca fields could have on the Amazon ecosystem. Brazil also announced a fortification of crossing posts along its 1,700-kilometer border with Colombia.

"That's not a change in Brazil's position of support," says the Brazilian diplomat. "It's simply stating a concern about the impact on the rain forest if heavy chemical use were to occur." And as for the border reinforcement, he said, "That is actually a response to the Colombian government's request that neighbors step up border controls."

All of these pronouncements reflect an underlying concern about Plan Colombia's impact on the region. "There is substantial fear about spillover," says Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Latin American Faculty for Social Studies in Santiago, Chile. "Even in Chile there is concern about the impact this could have on narcotics networks here."

Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami, says the Putumayo and Cacet regions of Colombia, where the plan's anti-coca efforts are to be focused, are home to 250,000-300,000 peasants either directly or indirectly dependent on the growing and processing of coca, the raw material for cocaine.

"If only 10 percent of those peasants are driven over to the guerrillas, that's a substantial shift," he says. "If a similar number is driven to seek refuge across borders, that will wreak havoc with Colombia's neighbors."

Already Colombia counts nearly 2 million displaced citizens who have fled either the guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary groups that in some cases have been found to be working in cooperation with the Colombian Army.

With Plan Colombia attacking Colombia's coca production just as other countries like Peru and Bolivia have cut production to historic low levels, neighbors worry that coca eradication in Colombia will simply result in production elsewhere.

"There's this feeling this will be like chasing flies out of one room of the house but into another," says Enrique Obando, an international affairs analyst in Lima, Peru.

Mr. Obando says he takes lightly President Fujimori's expression of concern about a spillover of Colombia's conflict, because historically few Colombians have fled into Peru. "I think Ecuador and Venezuela have more to worry about in that respect," he says. It's more likely that Fujimori is using the heightened attention to Colombia because of Plan Colombia as a "smokescreen" to deflect regional attention from Peru's own political struggle over democratization, Obando says.

But he adds that Peru's political opposition, which had begun to trust that the US had traded in its big stick in favor of democracy in Latin America, is experiencing new doubts. First, because of what it perceives as lukewarm support for Peru's democratic forces, and then because of the heavy military focus of Plan Colombia.

Some of the US's $1.3 billion contribution is for strengthening Colombia's judicial system and alternative development, but over 70 percent is for military equipment and training. "The US is seen on the one side speaking forcefully for democracy, but that when things get tough, its tendency is still to push that aside and resort to military might," Obando says.

Colombia says it will fund $4 billion toward the $7.5 billion plan and is also asking European nations for contributions.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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