U.S. Anti-Drug Czar To Visit Colombia

U.S. anti-drug aid will help Colombian forces establish security, but American forces will steer clear of direct involvement in the fight against drug cartels and rebels, U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey said today.

McCaffrey, on his way to Cartagena for a meeting with President Andres Pastrana on implementing Colombia’s $7.5 billion drug war, reiterated the U.S. commitment to support Colombia’s drug fight.

The United States in July pledged a record $1.3 billion to help Colombia. The package includes 60 helicopters — 18 sophisticated Black Hawks and 42 Hueys — to deploy U.S.-trained army battalions against traffickers and rebels protecting drug plantations in southern Colombia.

“I think we’re giving the police and the armed forces the ability to establish security on the ground,” he told reporters at a news conference in Miami.

“There is zero probability of the U.S. armed forces being drawn into the internal conflict in Colombia,” he added.

Clinton to Visit

McCaffrey, accompanied by U.S. Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering and Gen. Charles Wilhelm, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, will spend about a day in Colombia.

To underscore Washington’s commitment to the drug war, President Bill Clinton is scheduled to visit Colombia later this month. Due to security concerns about spending a night in Colombia, he will fly back to Washington the same day, Aug. 30.

Colombia’s powerful Marxist rebels, some 26,000 strong, control up to 50 percent of the country. They have condemned the Washington package as counterinsurgency aid disguised as anti-drug aid. Critics have said the aid will take Washington deeper into a Vietnam-style expeditionary war.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest rebel army, accused the United States of providing Colombia with resources for war and called on Clinton to respect Colombia’s national sovereignty.

‘Emergency Situation’

McCaffrey said Colombia was in an “emergency situation” and must not be isolated as it battles rebels who hold half the country and earn up to $500 million a year from the drug trade.

“These criminal organizations have moved into areas where the government has lost control,” he said. “We are going to stand behind the [Colombian] government.”

Congress put a limit of 500 troops and 300 civilian contractors in Colombia at any time. But the law contains a clause allowing the president to waive the cap for 90 days in the event of an “imminent involvement” of U.S. forces in hostilities.

McCaffrey, who calls South American cocaine and heroin traffic a major threat to U.S. national security, said 90 percent of the cocaine turning up in the United States originates in or passes through Colombia.

He lauded the anti-drug efforts of both Pastrana’s government and the Colombian people in the face of powerful rebels who act with “impunity” and are more heavily armed than the Colombian military and police.

“The Colombian people haven’t given up,” he said. “They want democracy, not a narco-insurgency.”