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Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
US commits to Colombia
An anti-US demonstration
Human rights groups have condemned the US aid
By Richard Lister in Washington

President Clinton spent just nine hours in Colombia, but flying the world's most powerful leader into South America's most dangerous country was not something the White House undertook lightly, and it spoke volumes about the new level of Washington's commitment to the region.

Colombia is one of four countries that the Clinton administration has singled out as demanding special attention - Ukraine, Indonesia and Nigeria are the others - and not only because Colombia is the source of 90% of the cocaine, and much of the heroin flooding into the United States.

After more than a decade of considerable progress towards democracy in Latin America, the US is concerned that the alliance of drug lords and rebel paramilitary groups in Colombia puts the stability of the entire region in jeopardy.

The impact of crime

The narco-traffickers are estimated to make between $500 and $600 million dollars annually and have set up what some US officials describe as a mini narco-state in the southern part of the country.
A bomb damaged a building only days before President Clinton's visit
Crime takes a daily toll on Colombians

The narco-state is fuelled by drug money and guarded by the paramilitary groups who have been waging civil war on the authorities in Colombia for almost four decades.

The impact on Colombian society of this lawlessness is profound. One person is murdered every 20 minutes, and about seven people are kidnapped every day.

'Plan Colombia'

The US approach to this problem is through support for President Pastrana's "Plan Colombia", a $7.5 billion programme developed with the US, to combat the traffickers, destroy their coca crop, and implement social and economic development schemes.

Colombia is paying the bulk of the cost and Washington has committed $1.3 billion to the plan, on top of a $300 million assistance package already allocated. Only Israel and Egypt get more aid money from the United States.
A guerrilla sits in front of harvested coca
Guerrillas and coca growing are deeply intertwined

But US support for Plan Colombia has set some alarm bells ringing both in the US and in Latin America.

A large majority, roughly 80%, of the US support will come in the form of some 60 helicopters to help the Colombian military hunt down the traffickers.

The administration says those helicopters can only be used for drug interdiction efforts, and not as part of the campaign against the guerrillas.

But with the two groups now so closely intertwined, that distinction has become somewhat muddied, and some in the US Congress shudder at the thought of being sucked into the kind of proxy wars that Washington fought in Latin America off and on for most of the last century.

Colombia's neighbours like Peru and Venezuela, have similar concerns, and have openly complained that the new US assistance could intensify the civil war and see it spill across their borders.

Even reliable US partners like Brazil have been distinctly muted in their support for Washington's approach.

Human rights outcry

Some of the judicial groups, and social development organisations in Colombia who will to receive a share of the $238 million the US has allocated in non-military assistance have said they want nothing to do with the money, as it could make them targets for the guerrillas.

If the US sends aid without conditions, it risks becoming complicit in ongoing [human rights] violations

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch

In addition, pressure groups, such as Human Rights Watch in Washington, have condemned President Clinton's decision to release the money quickly, by waiving some the of the key human rights requirements set out by the US Congress.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights watch said, "if the US sends aid without conditions, it risks becoming complicit in ongoing [human rights] violations".

For its part the US says President Pastrana has taken some steps towards combating human rights abuses by the Colombian army, and is clearly committed to reform.

The administration argues that the Colombian authorities have not yet had time to fulfil all of Congress's requirements, and that delaying the aid package would ultimately not be in America's best interests.

Out of control?

Amid this whirl of controversy, President Clinton's trip to Colombia was designed to show that he is committed to President Pastrana and Plan Colombia.
Colombian President Pastrana
Only a fraction of Colombians believe the president is in control

But President Pastrana has seen his once impressive support whittled away over recent month.

An opinion poll by Colombia's National Polling Centre, asked participants who had the most power in the country: 46% said Manuel Marulanda, the leader of the FARC guerrilla group, 31% said the United States had the most power, and just 10% said President Pastrana was in control.

President Clinton may have given him something of a boost among Colombians, but there will be a new US President in the White House in five months time.

It may also be clearer by then, just how much of a gamble US support for Plan Colombia really is.

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