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Wider View of Colombia's Crisis

March 04, 2001

Colombian President Andres Pastrana was among the first foreign dignitaries to visit Washington under the new administration, spending four days late last month discussing his nation's seemingly intractable drug and guerrilla troubles with President Bush and members of Congress. What Pastrana sought was assurance that the so-called Plan Colombia endorsed by the Clinton administration and backed with $1.3 billion in U.S. assistance will be supported. What Washington most wanted from Colombia was assurance that U.S. military aid would not drag American soldiers into an Andean war. Bush himself said he does not want U.S. troops to go beyond their current role of training the Colombian armed forces.

The depth of Colombia's woes is daunting. Without the military support that the United States brings to the drug/guerrilla war, neither the Colombian police nor the armed forces would stand much chance. Modernization of the government's arsenal is the only possible counter to the sophisticated weaponry the drug gangs can buy.

But adding a few more helicopters to the anti-narcotics fight in Colombia will not squelch the cartels or their ideologically driven guerrilla allies. The drug dealers can move to a nearby country, a prospect raising serious concern across the region--in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil. The best response from Washington would be a regional strategy that, as a start, invites neighboring nations to discuss how to prevent drug cartels from moving in under pressure from U.S. military assistance in Colombia.

The announcement that the Bush administration will push for lowering trade barriers by renewing the Andean Trade Preference Act, which otherwise would expire in December, is good news for the region. The U.S. should also bring the European Union into regional discussions. An expected EU contribution to Colombia's efforts fell far short because the Europeans did not like the U.S. approach but also because they were not properly consulted.

A group of mostly Latin American nations has been working with the Colombian government and the guerrillas to come up with a peace plan. Instead of rejecting participation out of hand, as Bush initially did, the U.S. should seriously consider the invitation of the Colombian government to join at some level in March 8 peace talks between the FARC guerrillas and the government, alongside Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela and a representative of the European Union. It might even begin the process of drawing the guerrillas away from their criminal allies.

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