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Crash Points to Military Role of U.S. in Colombia

July 28, 1999|JUANITA DARLING and RUTH MORRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TOLEMAIDA MILITARY BASE, Colombia — In one of the more visible signs of the growing U.S. military role in Colombia's battle against guerrillas linked to drug trafficking, about a dozen American soldiers are training a new anti-narcotics battalion here.

They are among the 160 service men and women and 30 civilian Department of Defense employees assigned to Colombia. Their missions range from eradicating drug crops to installing and using sophisticated spying equipment to operating reconnaissance planes like the one that crashed Friday, apparently killing five U.S. Army aviators and two Colombians on board.

A Colombian team lowered by ropes from helicopters on Tuesday reached wreckage thought to be that of the plane, a Colombian official said.

Air force commander Gen. Fabio Velasco said the 24-member team would spend the night on the mountainside. This morning, they were to try to find the bodies of the crew, who are all believed to have died in the crash.

The accident has focused attention on the dangers facing U.S. military personnel tapped to aid Colombia in its fight against drugs, many of which make their way to U.S. streets. The use of the sophisticated spy plane, with the capacity to intercept radio transmissions, also raised questions about whether U.S. anti-narcotics aid is being used to gather information about the insurgents.

The U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in Latin America, confirmed Tuesday that the De Havilland RC-7 could eavesdrop on radio communications. However, a spokesman would not confirm whether it was being used to intercept conversations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, this nation's oldest and largest rebel group, which operates in the area near the Ecuadorean border where the plane crashed.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States provides counter-narcotics training to the Colombian military but not counterinsurgency training. He acknowledged that it is a difficult balancing act when the insurgents are part of the drug trade.

The U.S. military presence in Colombia became noticeable in 1993 when humanitarian missions were sent to build roads and help with other infrastructure and health projects. Today, the Defense Department has from 175 to 200 people in Colombia at any given time, a spokesman said.

Last year, that included seven special joint training projects of 30 to 40 people each, who traveled to Colombia with the understanding that the Americans are supposed to benefit from the training as much as their Colombian counterparts, according to the U.S. Southern Command.

When Colombia received certification from the United States in March, for the first time in three years, that it was a full, cooperating partner in the war on drugs, many restrictions on monetary and military aid were eased.

The U.S. presence has grown as the fight against drugs becomes increasingly intertwined with the fight against rebel armies that have battled the Colombian government for 35 years. FARC has repeatedly stated that "U.S. military advisors will be considered military targets."

Insurgents charge crop growers an estimated $600 million a year for guarding heroin poppies and cocaine plants in areas under their control. "Even if the drugs are confiscated later, they have already received their cut," said Gen. Fernando Tapias, commander of the Colombian armed forces. "The guerrillas never lose."

The rebels' drug wealth puts the Colombian military at a tremendous disadvantage, he said. "We need U.S. help in intelligence techniques and logistics," he said, defining logistics as mainly helicopters and fast, sophisticated boats. To use that new equipment, Colombians need training.

Most U.S. service members in Colombia are here on training missions, like the mortar and map-reading experts assigned to this base 120 miles southeast of Bogota, the capital, according to the Defense Department.

Colombians insist that the U.S. role is vital. "They can show us techniques that we are not familiar with, such as in using mortars," said Col. Heinz Sanabria, a 22-year army veteran who commands the new, 1,000-man anti-drug brigade scheduled to take to the field in mid-December.

U.S. trainers are also teaching first-aid techniques and providing human rights instruction--for treatment of both civilians and enemy troops--Sanabria said. All but two of the army's active battalions are restricted from receiving U.S. funding because of those units' abysmal rights records.

Tapias, the armed forces commander, said U.S. training helps counterbalance the explosives instruction that guerrilla deserters have told the army that rebels receive from Nicaraguans, Iranians and Argentines.

Besides support for the new anti-narcotics brigade, U.S. trainers are also helping to prepare a Colombian marine unit that starting next month will patrol the rivers that are the highways of Colombia's Amazon basin, taking its drugs--and its conflict--into neighboring countries, Tapias said.

But after the training is completed, the Americans who are working with the new brigade will leave, he said.

"There will not be a single U.S. soldier fighting at the side of the Colombian army," Tapias said.

Darling is a Times staff writer and Morris is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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