U.S. Resumes Drug Surveillance Flights Over Colombia

The White House made the announcement while U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid an official visit to Bogota, intended to show support for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s ongoing battle against narcotics traffickers and guerrillas.

Rumsfeld, speaking at a joint news conference with Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez, said the flights would resume within days following the implementation of new safety procedures to prevent future mistakes.

Ramirez, who has urged the United States to resume the aerial surveillance program, said she expected the flights would begin within three days.

“Every time someone suspects there is an aircraft that could be carrying drugs, authorities must immediately demand that [the pilots] identify themselves, or ask them to land,” Ramirez said. “We can now effectively begin this interdiction.”

The interdiction flights were suspended in April 2001 after a Peruvian jet fighter — guided by intelligence from a CIA surveillance plane — fired on a missionary plane, killing Veronica Bowers and her daughter, Charity.

Rumsfeld said he had discussed the issue with President Bush and concluded the aerial interdiction flights would significantly bolster Colombia’s counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency efforts.

“Needless to say, aerial interdiction is not a single country’s issue, it is a regional issue. It involves drugs as well as weapons. It is not a problem for Colombia alone,” Rumsfeld said.

The United States was “always anxious to try to find ways that we can be helpful” to Colombia’s struggle against narcoterrorists and insurgents, Rumsfeld said.

President Bush, in a memo to Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, said he had determined that the surveillance flights were critical to Colombia’s counter-terror strategy, and could be conducted without inordinate risks to civilian air traffic in Colombia.

“Interdiction of aircraft reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking in that country’s airspace is necessary because of the extraordinary threat posed by illicit drug trafficking to the national security of that country,” Mr. Bush wrote.

In Bogota, Rumsfeld praised the Colombian government’s tough security tactics aimed at ending the country’s decades-old battle against drug traffickers and armed rebel groups.

“All of the people from the United States involved with the Colombian government have been deeply impressed by the conviction, passion, and determination [President Uribe] and his team demonstrated,” Rumsfeld said, after a lunch meeting with Uribe on Tuesday.

“We are committed to helping, to the extent we are able, in seeing that this war — and it is a war — is won,” the defense secretary said.

Rumsfeld likened the U.S. war on terrorism with Colombia’s struggle against so-called narcoterrorists, who help fund the country’s violent Marxist rebel groups and right-wing paramilitaries.

“It is a global war,” the secretary said, adding the United States was “proud to be partners with Colombia in addressing the global war on terrorism.”

The defense secretary said Washington was considering expanding assistance to Colombia’s counter-drug and counterinsurgency programs, but said he did not expect an increase in the number of U.S. troops in Colombia.

Rumsfeld’s visit to Bogota follows Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers’ trip to Colombia, where he held meetings with senior military and government officials.

Myers, like Rumsfeld, lauded Uribe’s progress in fighting against narcoterrorism and emphasized the U.S. commitment to assist Bogota’s counter-narcotics efforts.

“We’re committed to that. It’s important to the region and the Western Hemisphere. Success here is very important for the United States and we’ll be a full partner,” Myers said at a press conference Aug. 12. Myers noted that the U.S. could help the Colombian government with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance matters.

Since 2001, the United States has given more attention to the connection between drug trafficking and terrorism. The State Department has warned that Colombia’s narcoterrorist organizations, fueled by billions from the drug trade, could align themselves with other terrorist groups, including al-Qaida.

In a speech last March, U.S. Army Gen. James Hill, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said, “Colombia’s narcoterrorists supply almost all of the cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States” and that “direct drug sales” and money-laundering activities in Latin American countries “fund worldwide terrorist operations.” Hill called cocaine and heroin “weapons of mass destruction,” saying that more than 19,000 Americans died from drug abuse in 2001.

Colombia ranks as the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel and Egypt. The Colombia Plan provides the South American nation with $2.5 billion in assistance, along with U.S. training for special anti-narcotics and counter-insurgency brigades and military equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters.