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U.S. May Be Left Holding Purse Strings on Colombia

Aid: $7.5-billion anti- drug plan hinges on money from Europe and Bogota, but both are balking.

October 11, 2000|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The massive U.S.-backed anti-drug offensive in Colombia is hitting major funding roadblocks, with European countries refusing to ante up more than $2 billion, and the Colombians themselves unsure they have the means to put up an additional $4 billion.

The reluctance of international donors, and the seeming inability of the Colombians, to fund the $7.5-billion aid effort "leaves the Americans stepping up to the plate and everybody else walking away from it," said a senior Clinton administration official who requested anonymity for fear of endangering sensitive diplomatic relationships.

If the Colombians and others don't come up with the money soon, the ambitious program could be limited to $1.3 billion in largely military assistance from the U.S., which administration officials say cannot put more than a dent in the country's powerful drug trade.

The U.S. aid, approved by Congress in June, is the centerpiece of a broader plan to fight the drug scourge in a country that is the source of 90% of the cocaine sold on U.S. streets. It is more money than the U.S. has invested in a Latin American military effort since the Central American conflicts of the 1980s.

But the effort, dubbed "Plan Colombia" by Colombian President Andres Pastrana, also would rely heavily on European and Colombian money to fund much of what a Clinton administration official calls its "soft side"--programs to help refugees, bolster the administration of justice and human rights, and find ways for peasants to make a living without joining guerrilla forces or planting illicit crops. The U.S. contribution includes $238 million for that effort, a small percentage of the total U.S. package but a tenfold increase in the money now being spent by the U.S. on such programs in Colombia.

Many of the intended recipients of the money--among them the International Committee of the Red Cross, World Vision and 36 other aid groups with programs in Colombia--have balked at accepting it. They say they have doubts that the plan can work and are concerned that their employees in Colombia will be targeted by rebels and drug traffickers if they are associated with it.

Officials of the Red Cross and other aid groups brought those concerns to a meeting in Geneva in late September with Julia Taft, head of the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said Daniel Augstburger, deputy head of the Red Cross operation in North America.

"The groups are mainly concerned about the direction of the plan, also about the security of their people." said Robin Kirk, Colombia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "People see it as a cosmetic maneuver that the U.S. has made to convert an essentially military operation into something that's more palatable."

It has been unclear from the plan's inception how Colombia would come up with the $4 billion Pastrana pledged to the effort. The Colombian economy is in shambles, with unemployment topping 20%.

To date, the Colombian congress has voted to allocate just $15 million to the plan. While more is said to be in the pipeline, the congress is now largely out of Pastrana's control, and more than half the nation's territory is in the hands of insurgents and drug traffickers. It appears increasingly unlikely that Colombia's portion of the funding will approach Pastrana's promise.

As for the proposed European contributions, they have never been certain. Neither the Colombians nor the Clinton administration has gotten assurances of money from individual European countries or the European Union. Many European leaders have openly expressed skepticism about a plan they complain relies too heavily on military means, and on cooperation with Colombian security forces with questionable human rights records.

Nevertheless, Clinton administration officials had been confident that once the U.S. committed itself, the Europeans would follow suit. More than a third of the cocaine produced in Colombia goes to Europe.

But only Spain, with $100 million, Norway, with $20 million, and Japan, with $70 million in loans, have pledged funds. The European Union has made no commitment to the plan at all. The United Nations has pledged $131 million, and international financial institutions say they will grant loans of up to $300 million.

"The attitude of the Europeans on this is really discouraging," the senior administration official said. "The way this thing was designed, the U.S. money was to fund the military component, and the Europeans were going to come up with more of the economic and social support funds. That's an important component, because you need to give people legitimate alternatives to drug trafficking to make them think twice before joining up with the guerrillas or the traffickers."

The Colombian government is inviting European representatives to a meeting in Bogota, the capital, on Oct. 24 at which Pastrana's government will make another pitch.

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