The Clinton administration and Congress, fearing the growing power of Marxist-led guerrillas financed by the drug trade, are near agreement on a three-year military aid package for Colombia that will total more than $1 billion, according to officials.
Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine and about two-thirds of the heroin consumed in the United States. In recent years, both the guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary bands have engaged in the drug trade, earning tens of millions of dollars and gaining control of more than half of the country's territory.
Colombian and U.S. officials stressed that the U.S. aid would be aimed at fighting drug trafficking, not at "counterinsurgency" operations against the guerrillas. But officials acknowledge that, in many areas of Colombia, the distinction is so blurred as to be meaningless.
Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, who is coordinating the administration's policy toward Colombia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that aid is essential because "Colombia's national sovereignty is increasingly threatened by well-armed and ruthless guerrillas, paramilitaries and narco-trafficking interests, which are inextricably linked."
A Colombian delegation led by Defense Minister Luis Ramirez has spent the past three days lobbying the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon for more aid.
Gen. Fernando Tapias, commander of the Colombian military, told reporters yesterday that he is requesting an upgraded helicopter fleet to transport counterdrug battalions being trained by U.S. Special Forces; intelligence training and equipment; improved communications technology; and money to upgrade the Colombian air force's aging fleet of A-37 jets so it can pursue a new strategy of shooting down airplanes suspected of carrying drugs and that defy orders to land.
Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug control policy director, told the Foreign Relations Committee that the president's final proposal would "range between a billion and two billion plus" dollars.
Republican leaders, who have often accused the administration of ignoring Colombia, struck a conciliatory note and presented their own plan for $1.5 billion in aid. The Republican plan was written by Sens. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).
Both sides said they would have final bills to present to Congress before adjournment this year.
"There is obviously common ground upon which we can work with the administration," Coverdell said.
All of the figures being proposed would represent a sharp increase in U.S. military aid to Colombia, which totaled $289 million in fiscal 1999, making Bogota the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.
Human rights groups warned against deepening U.S. ties to a military that is linked to human rights abuses and violent paramilitary organizations. "An aid package that does not meaningfully address the paramilitary question is a failed package," said Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International USA.
The GOP and administration proposals would sharply upgrade the Colombian military's firepower and involvement in the counterdrug effort. Among the points of agreement are U.S. training and equipment for three elite, 1,000-man army battalions, which will try to retake vast areas of the country under guerrilla control, where the cultivation of coca--the raw material for cocaine--is rising rapidly. The first battalion would be operational by the end of the year, and two more would be trained next year.
The first battalion is to receive 18 aging UH-1N helicopters, and the Republican plan would provide funds to upgrade the fleet with 15 Blackhawk helicopters. Both plans would provide assistance in intelligence gathering and would boost aid to the Colombian air force as it pursues its shoot-down policy.
"This crisis is not overstated," Coverdell said. "The situation in Colombia is indeed dismal and is reaching emergency proportions. I firmly believe U.S. assistance is needed, and needed now, to address the situation."