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Published on Sunday, February 13, 2000 in the New York Times
Dangerous Plans for Colombia

Colombia is Latin America's most complex and troubled country. Its two overwhelming problems -- a booming trade in cocaine and heroin, and a vicious, nearly 40-year-old civil war -- are intertwined and getting worse. Increasingly they threaten not just Colombia, but neighboring countries as well, including Venezuela, one of the largest suppliers of oil to the United States.

Now the Clinton administration has unveiled a $1.3 billion plan to help Colombia, including $955 million in security assistance. Colombia is already the largest recipient of American security aid after Israel and Egypt. The plan reflects neither a realistic strategy to fight illegal drugs nor an effective long-term approach to establish peace and stability. Instead it risks dragging the United States into a costly counterinsurgency war.

Both the drug trade and Colombia's stability are legitimate American concerns. The administration and supporters of the plan in Congress have concluded that the most effective American response is to increase military assistance and forge a close alliance with Colombia's armed forces. Washington should have learned long ago that partnership with an abusive and ineffective Latin American military rarely produces positive results and often undermines democracy in the region.

Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine and about two-thirds of the heroin consumed in the United States. Administration officials insist that the security assistance would be aimed primarily at fighting drug trafficking and not at counterinsurgency operations against leftist guerrilla groups. But in many areas of Colombia the distinction is meaningless. In recent years both the guerrillas and murderous right-wing paramilitary squads associated with the army have earned millions of dollars from the drug trade.

President Andrés Pastrana is well intentioned and deserves American support. But this plan is overwhelmingly skewed toward a military approach to problems that for years have stubbornly resisted military solutions. Washington should be devoting a far greater share of its support to the Pastrana government's own admirable efforts to strengthen civil institutions and address social and economic inequities that fuel the war and the drug economy. They include reorganizing and strengthening the judiciary, as well as alternative development strategies that would help farmers grow conventional crops, like coffee and cotton, and subsidize the construction of roads and schools. Colombia's security problems cannot be ignored, and there may be ways for the United States to work with the Pastrana government to strengthen the Colombian military. But this should be done with stricter conditions and an emphasis on reforming the armed forces rather than on equipping them to fight a protracted civil war in which civilians are the main casualties.

Peace talks aimed at a negotiated settlement represent the best solution to both the drug problem and the war. The Clinton administration has provided intermittent support for Mr. Pastrana's early efforts to talk peace with guerrilla leaders. He has had little success thus far. But in recent days key rebel leaders have signaled a new interest in negotiations, agreeing to meet with government representatives in Sweden. Washington should redouble its support for these talks. Throwing its weight behind Colombia's military at this stage will only escalate a war that neither side can win.


Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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