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Colombia Abuzz With Talk of Intervention

By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 23, 1999; Page A13

BOGOTA, Colombia Emblazoned across a recent cover of the weekly magazine Cambio was the headline "Intervention." Its red, white and blue letters were set against the background of a large photograph showing a U.S. fighter pilot in his cockpit and at the ready.

"Never has there been so much talk about a United States military intervention in Colombia," a note on the cover read. "How close is this possibility?"

From newsrooms in Bogota and other regional capitals to towns and rebel camps in the Colombian jungle, speculation is rife about the possibility of a direct U.S. military role in Colombia's escalating conflict with leftist insurgents. The conjecture has flared up recently despite a series of statements from the Clinton administration and Colombian President Andres Pastrana that the United States plans nothing beyond its long-standing and growing anti-narcotics assistance.

"It is totally false, totally crazy, totally in my view irrelevant to the situation," Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said during a recent visit to Bogota. "What we are able to do is provide training and equipment so that Colombia is able to confront its own problems."

Nevertheless, recent polls show that a majority of Colombians surveyed would favor involvement of U.S. forces in the 36-year civil war, which has killed at least 35,000 people and displaced several million others from their homes and livelihoods. The feeling is that people are willing to try anything to end the bloodshed. And although such involvement seems out of the question now, Colombians remember U.S. intervention in Panama, Haiti and Grenada, as well as Washington's role in the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran civil wars.

Speculation also has been encouraged over the last month by a burst of reports concerning the U.S. military presence already here. An American De Havilland RC-7 military reconnaissance plane crashed in southern Colombia on July 23, killing the crew of five Americans and two Colombians, and the United States began training Colombia's first special anti-narcotics battalion.

Then came the back-to-back visits here by Pickering, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Colombia in nearly a decade, and Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug policy director. Both arrived as the media were reporting that Washington was losing patience with Colombia's faltering peace process.

Colombia, which produces about 80 percent of the word's cocaine, receives $289 million in annual U.S. assistance to fight the drug trade, making it the third-largest recipient of American security aid after Israel and Egypt. The United States has about 240 military personnel in Colombia at any one time, none engaged in combat, according to U.S. officials.

"That help is concentrated only on drug trafficking," Pastrana recently said. "As long as I am president of Colombia, there will be no foreign intervention in this country."

Questions among Colombians about a possible intervention have arisen with particular intensity in recent months, because the line has faded between Colombia's thriving narcotics trade and the nation's largest rebel group, the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which earns tens of millions of dollars protecting illicit crops. Faced with what in effect has become a single war, American military authorities fighting cocaine smuggling have started sharing intelligence about the rebels with Colombia's armed forces even if the information is not directly related to narcotics.

"The fundamental question is how do you beat drugs without beating the guerrillas and vice versa," said Sergio Uribe, a political analyst and drug consultant.

In that light, the Clarin newspaper in Argentina and ABC in Spain published stories last month about a supposed plan by the United States to launch a large-scale military campaign against the rebels, with participation of troops and equipment from neighboring Peru and Ecuador. The governments of Peru and Ecuador denied the reports, while McCaffrey and Pickering went out of their way to dispel ideas that an intervention of any sort was planned.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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