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Colombian Cocaine Conundrum

On Capitol Hill Thursday, the House approved a $13 billion dollar spending bill. Most of the money is for the Pentagon, to help it replenish military coffers tapped by Kosovo peacekeeping and offering relief to victims of last year's hurricanes and floods. The measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has complained about the "bloated" House bill.

Over $1.5 billion of the funds are to help Colombia's military forces fight leftist rebels who deal drugs to bankroll their cause. But government forces may be part of the problem, as CBS News Anchor Dan Rather reports:

Colombia is on the verge of collapse. Almost every aspect of its society is disfigured by the violent drug trade, corrupted by the staggering $37 billion a year that Americans spend on cocaine.

"Poor Colombia has already put up with years of extortion, bank robbery, murder, kidnappings, a violence that’s almost unimaginable to Americans," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey of the Office Of National Drug Control Policy.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana has turned to the Clinton Administration for help, and lots of it. He hopes $1.6 billion will solve his problems.

McCaffrey hopes that much will solve ours. "Our primary motivation is to reduce the 52,000 dead a year in the United States from drug production and the $100 billion a year in damages it does to us," he says.

Eighty percent of the cocaine on America’s streets comes from, or through, Colombia. The drug trade is controlled in part by leftist rebels, 15,000 strong, who’ve been at war with the Colombian government for 40 years. They are known in Spanish as the FARC.

"There are seven FARC fronts down there, they’re heavily armed," says McCaffrey. "Helicopters, aircraft, wiretap equipment."

Most of the U.S. aid would go to help Colombia fight the FARC. The U.S. would send advisers to train a total of three army battalions, and would also give 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters to the army and national police.

Quickly, dramatically, America would partner up with Colombia’s military—an institution some insist is corrupt, because of its long-standing ties to a right-wing terror group, the notorious paramilitaries.

"We just published a report that shows that half of Colombia's 18 army brigades continue to have a relationship with paramilitary groups, the paramilitary groups that are responsible for most of the political violence in Colombia," says Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch.

Acts of kidnapping, torture, and murder are routine for the paramilitaries, groups first formed to protect landowners from the rebels.

According to Kirk, the U.S. plan fails to address the real enemy behind Colombia’s drug trade.

" We can’t go in there with billions of dollars in military aid, only seeing half the problem," she says. "The paramilitaries are a serious thret, and they’re also seriously involved in drug trafficking. So why aren’t they a target of our drug war? Why aren’t they considered as dangerous as the guerillas?"

What's more, "This is a war that cannot be won," says Robert White, who has served as ambassador to two Latin American countries and is now president of the Center for International Policy.
White insists this new U.S. initiative is a waste of money. What will we get for our investment, he asks. "We will not have diminished the cocaine traffic through this effort, nor will we have rolled back the guerillas. So it’s truly throwing money down a rat hole."

Like it or not, Colombia’s war is in many ways America’s war. Our cocaine dollars pay for the rebels' fresh uniforms and the paramilitaries' new guns. We have funded this war. The question now is, can we now fund peace?

McCaffrey insists it’s worth the risk. "Colombia’s in an emergency. They’re a democracy. They’re a three-hour flight from Miami. We need to stand behind the democratic government and we need to eliminate the drug production."

The latest indication of what the United States is up against in Colombia arrived Thursday with a bang.

FARC rebels are being blamed for a powerful truck bomb in a tourist town outside Bogota. At least four people were killed, 14 others wounded. The town square and local offices were heavily damaged. It was the second deadly bombing in the area in less than a week.