US poised to take terror war to Colombia

But greater congressional scrutiny on human rights is likely following Uribe's win Sunday.

Reflecting a growing focus of the international war on terrorism, the Bush administration is asking Congress to allow military aid to Colombia to be used not just against drug trafficking, but against Colombia's guerrilla groups as well.

Using a similar argument that sent military trainers and assistance to places like the Philippines, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Sri Lanka, the US now says Colombia's rebels – once just "Marxist insurgents" – are "narco-terrorists" funded largely by the illegal cocaine trade.

But at the same time, some members of Congress have a different focus. They have a few questions first about Colombia's human rights progress – or lack thereof.

Drugs, trade, human rights, big aid bucks, and that recent arrival, terrorism – all figure prominently in the roller-coaster relations the US has developed with Colombia: from the rise of the country's notorious cocaine cartels two decades ago, to Colombia becoming the third-largest recipient of US aid during the Clinton administration. With Sunday's election of hard-liner Alvaro Uribe Vélez as president, those relations are likely to become even more complex.

Some in the US will welcome Mr. Uribe's promise to double the Army and take a tougher stand with the country's web of rebels and other illegal armed groups. Others, particularly in Congress and among human rights advocates, are already raising questions about Uribe's past and rumored links to burgeoning paramilitary groups.

And with Uribe pledging to seek more US military assistance and American help in restructuring a staggering national debt, President Bush should not count on Colombia leaving him alone to pursue the war on terrorism elsewhere.

If anything, Uribe can hope for some special attention from the US precisely because Colombia fits in the evolving antiterrorism fight. The Bush administration – in addition to the proposed change to allow counternarcotics assistance to be used to fight rebel groups – is proposing $35 million in short-term aid and more than $500 million in long-term assistance for Colombia's fight against the insurgents.

Beyond those requests, however, most analysts here see any additional major ratcheting up of aid as unlikely.

"The US is looking to a growing number of places and conflicts as it pursues international terrorism, so in that sense much more aid for Colombia looks difficult," says Diego Cardona, an international relations specialist at Rosario University in Bogotá. "With those new obligations and despite the drug problem, I don't sense the US sees Colombia as an immediate threat, like Al Qaeda or Iraq."

In fact some officials say that the facts suggest little effort from the US to work seriously with Colombia to solve its problems. "How much support Uribe will really get from the US remains a question," says one Colombian official. He points to trade preference renewal – critical to a number of Colombian industries – which has languished in Congress since last year.

Human rights are likely to remain a sticking point in relations, the official says, even though the State Department this year gave the Colombian military a passing grade on the subject in its annual report card to Congress.

The kind of close scrutiny Congress has given the topic for over a decade is likely to sharpen under Uribe, whose experience as governor of the violence-riven province of Antioquia has drawn questions. While governor, Uribe formed citizen patrol groups, a number of which "turned bad," critics say, joining violent paramilitary groups.

They also note that, if anything, Antioquia, a center of the drug trade and part of a key corridor of the arms-for-drugs trade, was more torn by violence when Uribe left office than when he came in.

Some analysts say Colombia should welcome the emphasis on human rights as a sign the US is taking a long-term interest in Colombia and the region. At the same time, some of what Uribe advocates should be played up by the US, Mr. Cardona says – like his emphasis on building up Colombia's institutions.

"The risk if the state is not strengthened is a privatization of the war, with the guerrillas and paramilitaries increasingly fighting each other for key territory and trade routes," says Cardona.

With Uribe planning to meet with US officials before taking office Aug. 7, some Colombians say he should follow the example of President Andrés Pastrana and "play the terrorism card" to get more US attention for Colombia.

"The US focus on international terrorism plays into Colombia's hand," says Sergio Uribe Ramírez, a Bogotá political analyst. "Uribe should remember that as he tries to get more out of Washington."

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