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Backing for Colombia Drug War Criticized

Associated Press, May 8, 2005

by Andrew Selsky

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Resilient rebels. Rebounding drug crops. Rogue American soldiers, snared in plots to smuggle cocaine and funnel stolen ammunition to paramilitary death squads. The bad news has been piling up fast, almost five years after the United States began spending $3 billion under its Plan Colombia aid program to wipe out cocaine and heroin production and crush a long-running leftist insurgency.

The setbacks show U.S. efforts to help restore peace and the rule of law to this Andean nation still face huge challenges. But Washington's top diplomat here is unfazed, saying the mission to grind down the rebels and deprive them of their finances from drug-trafficking will continue.

In a conversation at his guarded residence, U.S. Ambassador William Wood said the efforts must persist if Colombia's rebels, who have been at war in Colombia for 40 years, are ever to be defeated.

"In Colombia, terrorism without narcotics is a much more vulnerable target," Wood told reporters from The Associated Press and another news agency. "If you take away drugs, you reduce incentive, the power to corrupt, the ability to buy weapons."

But criticism of the costly effort is mounting.

In an editorial this week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said Colombia "has turned into a sinkhole of money and military resources over the past five years."

"The Congress should scrap Plan Colombia now, rather than throw more good money after bad," the newspaper said, pointing out that availability of Colombian cocaine and heroin on U.S. streets appears undiminished.

John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said recently that "the drug war is failing to achieve its most basic objectives."

Among recent events that have cast a shadow on U.S. efforts in Colombia:

- On Wednesday, Colombian police announced the arrest of two U.S. Army soldiers for allegedly attempting to sell thousands of rounds of stolen U.S. ammunition to right-wing paramilitary death squads. They are in custody of U.S. officials and face court-martial in the United States.

- In April, rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, launched an offensive in the Andes Mountains of southwest Colombia. It followed a string of rebel attacks across Colombia that killed dozens of Colombian troops. "The intensity of the attacks are clearly a concern," Wood said.

- In March, five American soldiers in Colombia were accused of smuggling cocaine to the United States aboard a U.S. military plane. They were whisked off to the United States, where they were arrested. Some Colombian lawmakers called for their extradition to Colombia.

- The White House reported in March that, despite a massive aerial fumigation offensive against cocaine-producing plantations in 2004, coca cultivation increased slightly to 281,323 acres as farmers quickly replanted.

One foreign drug agent recently stationed here said he personally believed the solution was to legalize drugs, so trafficking would not be so hugely profitable. The FARC and their paramilitary foes control much of the drug trade in Colombia, which produces most of the world's cocaine and much of its heroin.

"We should recognize that by criminalizing drugs, we are allowing outlawed groups in Colombia to earn a vast amount of money," said the agent, who did not want to be further identified.

The Monitor, a daily in McAllen, Texas, said in a recent editorial that the drug war is "a demonstrated failure," and argued for legalization.

But, other than for medicinal use, legalizing drugs is not being seriously debated by world policy makers.

The Bush administration is seeking more than $700 million from Congress in counterinsurgency and counternarcotics aid for Colombia for fiscal year 2006.

"There is no sign that in FY 2006 that we're going to take a cut," Wood said, relaxing near a crackling fire in the mansion that serves as his official residence.

U.S. diplomats have been embarrassed by the allegations of wrongdoing by a few U.S. soldiers, but point out that thousands have served in Colombia honorably, providing training and logistics and intelligence support to Colombian forces.

Last year, the United States doubled the maximum number of U.S. troops allowed in Colombia to 800. Up to 600 U.S. contractors are also allowed.

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