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U.S. Takes Aim at Drug Planes

Rumsfeld, in Colombia, announces the revival of a controversial shoot-down policy.

August 20, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — The White House announced on Tuesday the resumption of a controversial U.S.-backed program to shoot down suspected drug planes in Colombia.

The announcement came during a brief visit to Colombia by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, underscoring growing U.S. participation in Colombia's four-decade internal conflict that pits leftist rebels against the government and right-wing paramilitary groups.

"We're proud to be a partner with Colombia in addressing the global war on terror," Rumsfeld said at a news briefing in a hotel surrounded by rifle-toting Colombian soldiers. "We're committed to helping to the extent we're able in seeing that this war -- which is a war -- is won."

More than anything, Rumsfeld's visit was designed to signal the Bush administration's commitment to Colombia.

The U.S. has long been active in the battle against drugs in Colombia, but since the Sept. 11 attacks has quietly shifted from fighting narcotics to battling the rebels who seek to overthrow the Colombian government.

Rumsfeld's visit seemed designed to cement that shift and put a sharper focus on U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the region, which has been largely ignored during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was due to travel to Honduras today to sign an agreement for a new radar base to help track drug flights.

Rumsfeld made it clear that although U.S. direct participation was not expected to expand -- there's a congressionally mandated cap of 800 U.S. personnel in Colombia -- the U.S. would entertain Colombian requests for more military aid, which includes real-time intelligence on guerrilla movements and more troop training.

The U.S. has contributed nearly $2 billion to the Colombian military and police in the last few years, including money to train a Colombian army unit to protect Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum's oil operations in the northeast.

Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez, speaking alongside Rumsfeld, said she welcomed the resumption of the shoot-down policy. Under hard-line President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian government has repeatedly pushed for cooperation in stopping drug flights, which have surged in the past few years. Colombia is the source of 90% of the cocaine on U.S. streets.

"The Colombian government realizes that we have no alternative but to defeat the terrorists. In this, we know we can count on you," Ramirez said.

The U.S. has spent more than two years wrangling over legal details of the shoot-down program, which was suspended in Colombia and Peru after a Peruvian air force jet acting on U.S. intelligence shot down a plane carrying U.S. missionaries in 2001, killing Veronica Bowers and her daughter. Between 1995 and 1999, 123 planes were shot or forced down under the program.

U.S. officials said that appropriate safeguards are now in place to prevent a similar tragedy. Under the program, U.S. and Colombian radar sites pinpoint suspected drug flights, then relay that information to the Colombian air force, which has the authority to shoot down the planes. In the past, Colombian air force pilots rarely used weapons, preferring to pressure the planes to land.

One of the key sticking points has been a demand from U.S. contractors involved in directing the Colombian planes that they be free from any legal liability for mistakes.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher in Washington said the U.S. and Colombia had been working to train U.S. and Colombian pilots, crew and ground personnel in safety measures. Air traffic controller training was completed in May and pilot training in June, he said. Flights should resume within a few days.

U.S. officials said the program was far from resuming in Peru. "There's some serious legal problems there," one U.S. official said. "I don't expect anything soon there."

Critics said they doubted that enough safeguards could be built in to protect planes from being shot down in error. They noted that the program has always been controversial, with State Department officials expressing deep reservations about its legality when it was begun in the mid-1990s.

"You can't just shoot people out of the sky if they don't pose an imminent threat," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, a left-leaning think tank.

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