US concerned over rebel threat at Colombian borders

Republicans proposed a $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia on

In Washington, debate over the narco-guerrilla menace in Colombia and the threat to its neighbors is swirling through Congress. In its $1.3 billion three-year proposed aid package for this Andean nation unveiled on Wednesday, the Republicans called the countries bordering Colombia "front-line states."

"Rebels have infiltrated South American border countries and even southern Panama - a mere 250 miles from the United States border," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio.

But Colombian officials do not view the rebels as a dangerous regional threat. And experts say the effect of the guerrilla presence on the border has been the same for decades.

"I don't think the situation has fundamentally changed" in 30 years, says Marc Chernick, a Colombian expert at Georgetown University in Washington.

Nevertheless, Colombia seems to have caught US officials' attention with the growth of its insurgency movement and its connection to drug trafficking. Left-wing guerrillas number over 20,000, double what they were 15 years ago, and earn at least $100 million per year from taxing coca growers and traffickers. A recent US-based General Accounting Report said cocaine production in Colombia has increased by 50 percent since 1996, making it the No. 1 cocaine producer in the world.

Border skirmishes

Border areas like the northeast state of Norte de Santander, where guerrillas protect 20,000 acres of coca, are hotbeds of paramilitary activity. A right-wing offensive there forced some 3,000 Colombians to seek refuge in Venezuela. Just south of the southern department of Putumayo, Colombia's No. 1 coca producing state, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia allegedly kidnapped 12 foreigners in Ecuador. Colombian guerrillas regularly trade drugs for guns on the Panamanian border. But the nature of border conflict is changing.

Panamanian officials report less contact between guerrillas and national guardsmen than in the past. For the first time, the FARC pledged to respect the sovereignty of Colombia's neighbors.

"What we are seeing is more of a diplomatic spillover than a military one," says Colombian analyst Alfredo Rangel. "Each country is trying to use Colombia for its own purposes."

Analysts say that the US is using the Colombian war to restructure its drug interdiction scheme. Since closing Howard Air Force base in Panama in July, the US has used three smaller bases known as Forward Operating Locations (FOL) in the Caribbean and Ecuador to launch its 15,000 annual drug-detection flights. But US officials worry that the loss of Howard will severely limit its drug interdiction capabilities in the near future.

"I personally think we are behind the ball. I don't want to precisely lay out our vulnerabilities, but as I look at it we have a huge problem," US drug czar Barry McCaffrey said in Caracas, Venezuela, during a whirlwind tour of the region in August.

Within the region, the only leader hyping the Colombian threat is Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who is also facing reelections. Peru also fits into the recent Republican proposal for aid in the region and may stand to receive more than $100 million to fight drugs.

A closer look

"We need to be careful to interpret some of the actions they [the neighboring countries] carry out not in terms strictly of US policy and US pressure toward them, but also in terms of the dynamics of their own domestic politics and what is convenient or not convenient for them," Mr. Hartlyn says.

Other countries are using the Colombian conflict to divert attention away from their economic woes, according to Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. With contracting economies and rising inflation, both Ecuador and Venezuela are struggling through a difficult economic period, and their administrations are pushing the agenda away from sensitive topics such as unemployment.

For his part, Colombian President Andres Pastrana is trying to push the international agenda away from the border conflict and military aid, and more toward economic assistance.

Colombian Defense Minister Luís Ramírez and the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Fernando Tapias, were in Washington this month, following Pastrana's example a week earlier, pleading for $1.5 billion in aid. Both leaders have reiterated the need to focus on economic aspects of the drug problem, and away from the border issues.

But Washington seems to be heading for a reprise of last year's aid package, heavily aimed at antidrug programs. According to Mr. Tate, only $10 million of the $289 million Colombia received in 1999 went to economic programs, the rest toward antinarcotics operations, and very little toward the border issue.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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