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After a background report, Senators Dodd and Hagel discuss what they found on their visit to Colombia.
When Colombian President Andres Pastrana came to Washington this week, he asked for more help in his battle against Colombia's drug lords and also in his country's four-decade civil war. He got some promises of help at the White House Tuesday when President Bush pledged to increase legitimate commerce with Colombia, and fight drug abuse at home.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:
I explained to the president that we're fully aware of the narcotics that are manufactured in his country. But I also told him that many of them wouldn't be manufactured if our nation didn't use them. And we've got to work together, not only to help Colombia, but to help our own country.
But the U.S. declined an invitation to observe next week's peace talks between Colombia's government and the country's chief Marxist guerrilla group, known by its Spanish acronym — FARC. The U.S. government has refused official contact with the FARC since the group killed three U.S. aid workers in 1999. Colombia produces two-thirds of the cocaine sold around the world and two-thirds of the heroin used in the U.S. Last year, Congress pledged $1.3 billion to help fund what's known as Plan Colombia, Pastrana's program to choke off the drug economy. Washington is contributing late model combat helicopters to spray and kill coca crops, though the new installment has yet to be delivered, and training for new anti-narcotics battalions. But President Pastrana says Plan Colombia, which includes a large amount of domestic funding, is much more than military hardware.
PRESIDENT ANDRES PASTRANA (Translated ):
More than 80 percent of plan Colombia, that is to say $7.5 billion, is going into social investment. 20 percent is going into the fight against drug trafficking, so I would call it a plan for peace.
So far, government forces have busted a number of drug rings, taken control of several drug plantations, and destroyed drug processing plants and up to a quarter of the country's coca crops. The remaining drug growers have powerful alliances with the guerrillas, who control and protect much of their land, and then charge a fee that funds the insurgency. Guerrilla leaders have assailed the United States for taking sides in Colombia's civil war. That conflict claims 70 lives per day and has four main combatants. On one side are the FARC and a rebel group known as the ELN. Both were founded in the 1960s by leftist leaders, and in the 1970s joined forces with the new drug traffickers. The guerrillas have battled the Colombian military and the right-wing paramilitary groups that protect landowners from the rebels.
Earlier this week, the State Department's annual human rights report said the Colombian government's record "remains poor" and that "paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police." As for the guerrilla groups, the report says, "the FARC and the ELN regularly attacked civilian populations, committed massacres, and summary executions, and killed medical and religious personnel." The war has spread beyond Colombia, forcing a million refugees to neighboring countries. One neighbor, Ecuador, has become a haven for FARC guerrillas. That topic arose at Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's confirmation hearing in January.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY:
How are we going to deal with these reports that we've read recently about the spillover in the area and in the region? And how are we really going to be able to determine the difference between the counterinsurgency and the counter narcotics?
If the demand persists, it's going to find ways to get what it wants, and if it isn't from Colombia, it will be from somebody else. And if I were the neighboring countries, I'd be concerned about spillover as well.
Two weeks ago, the on-and-off peace talks resumed after President Pastrana met FARC leaders on their turf. The next round of talks begins Thursday. While the U.S. won't be at the peace table, a group of American representatives and senators last week flew to an isolated Colombian jungle base to assess Plan Colombia.
We talk with two of those senators, Democrat Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Both are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chuck Hagel, let me start with you. What did you see down in Colombia, and what did you make of it?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL:
Well, we saw some rather disturbing events, activities, not surprising. We have a regional problem on our hands. It's a problem that affects the United States domestically, economically and geo-politically. This problem here is part of the western hemisphere problem. It's in our backyard. And the United States is going to have to continue to work with Andean nations and the nations of Latin America to deal with this. I came away with some hope, however. I think President Pastrana is making some progress with his government, reforming that government, reforming the military. Yes, there's still problems, yes, there's still abuses, imperfect. But with our help and with new assets, I think they can win this. We must win this. It's in the best interest of the United States to help the Colombians and all of Latin America regain their sovereignty. And literally it is a fight over sovereignty, so yes, we've got a long way to go, but I think progress is being made.
Chris Dodd, what did you see, and what should Americans know about what you saw?
SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD:
Well, I think Senator Hagel has captured it pretty well. This is a very… Americans don't, I think, appreciate enough what the nation of Colombia has been through over the last two decades. They've… just to put it in perspective for you, as a result of the drug wars, the narco-trafficking that goes on in Colombia, they've lost four presidential candidates, some 150 journalists, 300,000 people have lost their lives. Just in the municipal elections a few months ago in Colombia, 36 municipal candidates for mayor were assassinated, and 50 were kidnapped. So when you put this in perspective… 200 justices of the courts have been assassinated. 2,000 police officers and prosecutors have been executed by narco traffickers. This is all in the space of 20 years. This country is being shredded. A million people are displaced in Colombia. Well over 100,000 a year try to leave. In fact, our embassy tells us that almost 1,500 people a day line up to apply for an exit visa to get out of Colombia. Almost 70 percent of the people in a recent survey in Colombia said they would leave tomorrow if they could get out of the country.
That's how bad this is. There's a real danger that these narco traffickers are about to gain sovereignty of the nation. And of course, given that 16,000 people a year die in the streets of the United States in drug- related deaths, that this is a massive consumption here in this country, we're contributing very directly with U.S. dollars, if you will, going back down to finance and subsidize, to support this effort. Colombia is in real trouble. It's spreading to Ecuador, it was in Bolivia, it's still in Peru to some extent, Brazilians are worried about it, the Venezuelans are worried about it. Transit points in Costa Rica and Panama and the Dominican Republic and other nations; this is a spreading cancer. And if we don't take it on aggressively, more aggressively, here at home and abroad, it can get a lot worse.
Senator Hagel, people staying at home in the United States could follow some of the bad news from Colombia in the newspapers. What are the kinds of things that you made sure you saw when you were down there to give you a feel for what's going on in the country?
Ray, we met with President Pastrana and his cabinet, his top military leaders. Then we got out into the country. We went down into a region of Colombia that the government has not controlled for many, many years, the Putumayo area. This is where the coca fields are everywhere. The eradication effort that we have made… are making down there is being somewhat successful, a long way to go, but at least I think we're making some progress. So we went down there and looked at our base where we have a joint task force with the Colombians. We have United States army special forces training a special anti-narcotics Colombian army brigade down there.
I was impressed with what I saw. It appears to me that they're developing not only a very confident military, but tactical, strategical elements of that military to deal with this problem. We went even further down into that area of Colombia, a place called Tres Esquinas, and there is an area that is very remote. You get there only through air or boat, and, again, more operations, more eradication efforts, very dangerous. My friend Senator Dodd talked about Ecuador. We went over to Ecuador and spent a day and a half there, met with President Noboa and his cabinet. I think there's progress there. They are very vulnerable in Ecuador. It's a small country, small resources, small army. We went on the Pacific side of Ecuador to look at our base there, Manta, where we are developing a strong base of operation for surveillance, the P-3s flying out of there. So we were able to really get out into the countryside and take a good look at what's going on.
Well, last year the Congress voted for a transfer of funds as part of Plan Colombia down to the country. Do you come back to the United States feeling secure that the money's being well spent, that the program is being well administered?
Generally, I do. These kinds of programs always have problems. There are always concerns, there are always questions, but generally I am satisfied that we made the right decision. We have appropriated the right amount of money for that effort, and we have a ways to go. We've got to get yet some Black Hawk helicopters down there and some other things that we need to do better. But overall, I think they are using the money wisely, and it is an investment for our future as well as the future of Latin America.
Senator Dodd, both you and your colleague have told a pretty depressing story. He says he's an optimist. Are you?
Yeah, I am. I think that Chuck has got it right. I think overall there's no question in my view that President Pastrana is committed, both to resolving the civil war… There are two problems in Colombia. There's a civil war and the narco war, and they spill over in various areas. I think he's committed to trying to resolve that 40-year civil conflict with these guerrilla groups… two guerrilla groups– one large, one called the FARC; a smaller one, the ELN. There's progress there, although there's been some setbacks, but he's moving in the right direction. And on the narco front, clearly the equipment we're providing is making it possible for the eradication efforts to do a lot better job than they were in the past. But there's some problem areas, and they're worth pointing out to you I think, and one is we need to have better cooperation between the police and the military in Colombia. They've been at loggerheads with each other, and they've got to start working more closely together, and they've got to start working with their counterparts in neighboring countries.
Number two, you've got problems… a growing problem with the paramilitaries. Their numbers have now been growing to about 8,000 people in their ranks. Many have been involved directly in the narco business, the narco trafficking. And if they end up becoming a major source of difficulty, it's going to be hard for us to sustain the kind of support financially. And lastly, we need more cooperation on this issue. Chuck mentioned this in the outset of his remarks, and I couldn't agree with him more. This is a regional problem. It's not just a U.S./Colombian problem. And the Europeans have got to live up to their commitments as well as other nations in the hemisphere so that this is not just U.S. And Colombia. And lastly, economic assistance; the Andean trade agreement, which expires this year, should be reauthorized. You need to revive alternative economic hope for these people. If you're telling them not to grow the coca leaves and not to be involved in drug trafficking, you better have an alternative for them or you're never going to convince the local population to support your efforts, and we need to do more of that as well.
Senator Hagel, some members of the House and Senate are starting to openly question the United States commitment down there, and Americans themselves looking at more money, and now American personnel and American citizens heading down there might be a little skittish as well. What do you tell them?
Well, partly we tell them what Senator Dodd and I have been discussing here the last few minutes. You tell them the truth. There's where you start. This is complicated. There are many factors, as Chris pointed out a minute ago. On starting with guerrillas and the paramilitaries, and narco traffickers, corruption, human rights, all that's mixed into this witch's brew that is dangerous and complicated. But we don't have any choice here. We can't turn our backs. We must continue to work with the people down there, the leadership down there. It doesn't mean we fight their war for them; we're not talking about that. But surely we can continue to do the things that we are doing. They can get better; they need to get better.
But I think explaining the facts to the American public and to our colleagues — encouraging our colleagues to go down and see for themselves — but be honest, tell the truth, inform, and give as much information as we can to the people of this country. I understand their frustration. We're frustrated, we're all frustrated. But it is not a matter of either this or not doing anything. We're going to have to help them see this thing through. And one last point I'd make, and Chris alluded to it, if we didn't have the demand in this country, we wouldn't have the problem. So we're going to have to understand that this problem is a direct result of our demand.
Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Gentlemen, thank you both.
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