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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 / August 30, 2000



CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA

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.

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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.

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.