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thirty years of america's drug war: a chronology

Late 1960sRecreational drug use rises in U.S.

In late 1960s recreational drug use becomes fashionable among young, white, middle class Americans. The social stigmatization previously associated with drugs lessens as their use becomes more mainstream. Drug use becomes representative of protest and social rebellion in the era's atmosphere of political unrest.

1968Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs is founded.

The Johnson administration consolidates several drug agencies into the Justice Dept.'s Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). The move is intended to diminish turf wars between the various agencies, but tensions between the BNDD and Customs continue.

1969Study links crime and heroin addiction.

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert DuPont conducts urinalysis of everyone entering the D.C. jail system in August of 1969. He finds 44% test positive for heroin. DuPont convinces the city's Mayor Walter Washington to allow him to provide methadone to heroin addicts.

(Sept. 21)
Operation Intercept essentially closes the Mexican border.

In an attempt to reduce marijuana smuggling from Mexico, the Customs Dept., under Commissioner Myles Ambrose, subjects every vehicle crossing the Mexican border to a three-minute inspection. The operation lasts two weeks and wreaks economic havoc on both sides of the border. Mexico agrees to more aggressively attack marijuana trade, but the operation didn't seriously impact the flow of marijuana into U.S.

1970NORML is founded.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is founded by Keith Stroup. The group lobbies for decriminalization of marijuana.

1970Narcotics Treatment Administration is founded.

The Nixon administration provides funds to allow Dr. Robert DuPont to expand his methadone program in Washington D.C. The program is controversial because some believe methadone to be nothing more than a substitute for heroin, and others feel there are racial undertones behind the effort. However, one year after the program begins, burglaries in D.C. decrease by 41%.

(October 27)
Congress passes the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act This law consolidates previous drug laws and reduces penalties for marijuana possession. It also strengthens law enforcement by allowing police to conduct "no-knock" searches. This act includes the Controlled Substances Act, which establishes five categories ("schedules") for regulating drugs based on their medicinal value and potential for addiction.
Soldiers in Vietnam develop heroin addiction. Congressmen Robert Steele (R-CT) and Morgan Murphy (D-IL) release an explosive report on the growing heroin epidemic among U.S. servicemen in Vietnam.
(June 17)
Nixon declares war on drugs.

At a press conference Nixon names drug abuse as "public enemy number one in the United States." He announces the creation of the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP), to be headed by Dr. Jerome Jaffe, a leading methadone treatment specialist. During the Nixon era, for the only time in the history of the war on drugs, the majority of funding goes towards treatment, rather than law enforcement.

Operation Golden Flow goes into effect in order to attack habits of U.S. servicemen.

In June 1971, the U.S. military announces they will begin urinalysis of all returning servicemen. The program goes into effect in September and the results are favorable: only 4.5% of the soldiers test positive for heroin.

The Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement is founded.

The Nixon Administration creates the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE) to establish joint federal/local task forces to fight the drug trade at the street level. Myles Ambrose is appointed director.

1972The French Connection is broken up.

U.S. and French law enforcement initiate a series of successful busts of the "French Connection," a Marseilles-based heroin industry controlled by Corsican gangsters and the U.S. Mafia. The results are soon evident in a heroin shortage on the U.S. East Coast.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is established.

President Nixon sets up this "super agency" to handle all aspects of the drug problem. The DEA consolidates agents from the BNDD, Customs, the CIA and ODALE. The administrator of the new agency is John R. Bartels.

(August 9)
President Nixon resigns.

The new Ford administration is preoccupied with inflation, jobs and an energy crisis. The DEA remains the legacy of Nixon's war on drugs.

Ford administration releases White Paper on Drug Abuse.

The Domestic Council Drug Abuse Task Force releases a report that recommends that "priority in Federal efforts in both supply and demand reduction be directed toward those drugs which inherently pose a greater risk to the individual and to society." The White Paper names marijuana a "low priority drug" in contrast to heroin, amphetamines and mixed barbiturates.

(November 22)
Large cocaine seizure indicates significant growth of cocaine trade.

Colombian police seize 600 kilos of cocaine from a small plane at the Cali airport--the largest cocaine seizure to date. In response, drug traffickers begin a vendetta--"Medellin Massacre." 40 people die in Medellin on one weekend. This event signals the new power of Colombia's cocaine industry, headquartered in Medellin.

1976Carter campaigns on the decriminalization of marijuana.

Noting that several states had already decriminalized marijuana, Jimmy Carter campaigns in favor of relinquishing federal criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. Carter's drug czar, Dr. Peter Bourne does not view marijuana, or even cocaine, as a serious public health threat.

Anti-drug parents' movement begins.

Troubled by the presence of marijuana at her 13-year old daughter's birthday party, Keith Schuchard and her neighbor Sue Rusche form Families in Action, the first parents' organization designed to fight teenage drug abuse. Schuchard writes a letter to Dr. Robert DuPont, then head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which leads DuPont to abandon his support for decriminalization.

1977Media glamorizes cocaine use.

A May 30, 1977 Newsweek story on cocaine is later accused to have glamorized the drug's affects and underestimated its dangers. The story reports that "Among hostesses in the smart sets of Los Angeles and New York, a little cocaine, like Dom Perignon and Beluga caviar, is now de rigueur at dinners. Some partygivers pass it around along with the canapes on silver trays... the user experiences a feeling of potency, of confidence, of energy."

1978Asset forfeiture introduced

The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act is amended. It now allows law enforcement to seize all money and/or "other things of value furnished or intended to be furnished by any person in exchange for a controlled substance [and] all proceeds traceable to such an exchange."

1979Carlos Lehder purchases property on Norman's Cay.

Carlos Lehder, a key member of the alliance that would become the Medellin cartel, revolutionizes the cocaine trade with his purchase of 165 acres on the Bahamian island of Norman's Cay. Lehder is the first to use small planes for transporting the drug. He uses the island as a hub for planes to refuel between Colombia and the U.S.

Drug traffickers George Jung and Carlos Toro describe life on Norman's Cay.

(July 11)
Cocaine trade becomes increasingly violent.

A deadly shootout between Colombian traffickers in broad daylight at Miami's Dadeland Mall brings the savagery of the Colombian cocaine lords to the attention of U.S. law enforcement.

1981-1982Rise of the Medellin cartel.

The alliance between the Ochoa family, Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha strengthens into what will become known as the "Medellin Cartel." The traffickers cooperate in the manufacturing, distribution and marketing of their cocaine. The kidnapping of Marta Ochoa by Colombian guerrillas consolidates the alliance. The traffickers form a group named MAS, a Spanish acronym for "Death to Kidnappers," announcing the imminent execution of any guerrilla kidnappers. Marta Ochoa is released without harm several months later.

1981U.S.-Colombia extradition treaty ratified.

The U.S. and Colombia ratify a bilateral extradition treaty, which they had previously approved in 1979. When Reagan assumes office and prioritizes the war on drugs, extradition becomes the greatest fear of the Colombian traffickers.

1982Downfall of Norman's Cay.

In response to U.S. pressure, the Bahamian government begins to crack down on Carlos Lehder's operation on Norman's Cay. Lehder moves his residence from the island in 1982, but operations continue for another year.

1982Deal between Escobar and Noriega allows cocaine transport through Panama.

Panamanian General Manuel Noriega and Pablo Escobar cut a deal which allows Escobar to ship cocaine through Panama for $100,000 per load. The two had met in 1981 when Noriega mediated negotiations for the release of Marta Ochoa.

(January 28)
South Florida Drug Task Force is formed.

Outraged by the drug trade's increasing violence in their city, Miami citizens lobby the federal government for help. Reagan responds by creating a cabinet-level task force, the Vice President's Task Force on South Florida. Headed by George Bush, it combines agents from the DEA, Customs, FBI, ATF, IRS, Army and Navy to mobilize against drug traffickers. Reagan later create s several other regional task forces throughout the U.S.

Pablo Escobar is elected to the Colombian Congress.

Escobar cultivates an image of "Robin Hood" by building low-income housing, handing out money in Medellin slums and appearing throughout the city accompanied by Catholic priests. Escobar is elected an alternate representative from Envigado, but he's driven out of Congress in 1983 by Colombia's crusading Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.

(March 9)
Largest cocaine seizure ever raises U.S. awareness of Medellin cartel.

The seizure of 3,906 pounds of cocaine, valued at over $100 million wholesale, from a Miami International Airport hangar permanently alters U.S. law enforcement's approach towards the drug trade. They realize Colombian traffickers must be working together because no single trafficker could be behind a shipment this large.

1984Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" Movement begins.

Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign becomes a centerpiece of the Reagan administration's anti-drug campaign. The movement focuses on white, middle class children and is funded by corporate and private donations.

(March 10)
Tranquilandia bust.

By tracking the illegal sale of massive amounts of ether to Colombia, the DEA and Colombian police discover Tranquilandia, a laboratory operation deep in the Colombian jungle. In the subsequent bust, law enforcement officials destroy 14 laboratory complexes, which contains 13.8 metric tons of cocaine, 7 airplanes, and 11,800 drums of chemicals, conservatively estimated at $1.2 billion. This bust confirms the consolidation of the Medellin cartel's manufacturing operation.

Retired DEA agent Bill Alden, Jorge Ochoa and Juan David Ochoa describe the effects of the Tranquilandia bust.

(April 30)
Assassination of the Colombian attorney general fuels the extradition controversy.

Colombian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who had crusaded against the Medellin cartel, is assassinated by a gang of motorcycle thugs. President Belisario Betancur who opposed extradiction, announces "We will extradite Colombians." Carlos Lehder is the first to be put on the list. The crackdown forces the Ochoas, Escobar and Rodriguez Gacha to flee to Panama for several months. A few months later, Escobar is indicted for Lara Bonilla's murder and names the Ochoas and Rodriguez Gacha as material witnesses.

Jorge and Juan David Ochoa speak about Lara Bonilla's assassination and the resulting controversy over extradition.

(July 17)
The Drug War and Cold War collide.

The Washington Times runs a story which details DEA informant Barry Seal's successful infiltration into the Medellin cartel's operations in Panama. The story was leaked by Oliver North show the Nicaraguan Sandanistas' involvement in the drug trade. Ten days later, Carlos Lehder, Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha are indicted by a Miami federal grand jury based on evidence obtained by Seal. In february 1986, Seal is assassinated in Baton Rouge by gunmen hired by the cartel.

Read the interview with Fernando Arenas, a pilot for Carlos Lehder, who claims the Ochoas had Barry Seal killed.

Cartel returns to Medellin.

Escobar, Gacha, Juan David and Fabio Ochoa are all spotted in Medellin, signaling the end of the government crackdown. The cartel begins to regain its command over the city.

(November 6)
"Bust of the Century" in Mexico.

The DEA and Mexican officials raid a large marijuana cultivation and processing complex in the Chihuahua desert owned by kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero. 7000 campesinos work at the complex, where between 5000-10,000 tons of high-grade marijuana worth $2.5 billion is found and destroyed. Time magazine calls this "the bust of the century" and it reveals the existence of Mexico's sophisticated marijuana smuggling industry.

(November 15)
Jorge Ochoa is arrested in Spain.

Spanish police arrest Jorge Ochoa on a U.S. warrant and both the U.S. and Colombia apply for his extradition. The Medellin cartel publicly threatens to murder 5 Americans for every Colombian extradition. The Spanish courts ultimately rule in favor of Colombia's request and Ochoa is deported. He serves a month in jail on charges of bull-smuggling before he is parolled.

(January 5)
Colombia extradites first traffickers to the U.S.

Colombia extradites four drug traffickers to Miami. Within days, the U.S. becomes aware of a Medellin cartel "hit list" which includes embassy members, their families, U.S. businessmen and journalists.

mid 1980sCocaine transport routes move into Mexico.

Because of the South Florida Drug Task Force's successful cracdown on drugs traffickers turn to Mexican marijuana smugglers to move cocaine across the 2000 mile U.S.-Mexican border. By the mid-1980s it becomes the major transportation route for cocaine into the U.S.

DEA agent Enrique Camerena is kidnapped and murdered in Mexico.

Camarena's disappearance spotlights the pervasive drug corruption in Mexican law enforcement. The Mexicans' lack of cooperation leads Commissioner of Customs William Von Raab to order a six-day Operation Intercept-style crackdown on the Mexican border. Camarena's body is found within a week of the border closing, but evidence of a coverup by Mexican officials is clear.

Former DEA Administrator Jack Lawn speaks about the Camarena affair.

(July 23)
Colombian Superior Court Judge is assassinated.

Bogota Superior Court Judge Tulio Manuel Castro Gil, who had indicted Escobar for the murder of Lara Bonilla, is assassinated as he climbs into a taxi. Throughout 1985 judicial harassment and intimidation becomes commonplace in Colombia.

(November 6)
Attack on Colombian Supreme Court.

Upping the ante in the battle against extradition, guerillas linked to the Medellin cartel attack the Colombian Palace of Justice. At least 95 people are killed in the 26-hour siege, including 11 Supreme Court justices. Many court documents, including all pending extradition requests, are destroyed by fire.

1985Crack explodes in New York

Crack, a potent form of smokeable cocaine developed in the early 1980s, begins to flourish in the New York region. A November 1985 New York Times cover story brings the drug to national attention. Crack is cheap and powerfully addictive and it devastates inner city neighborhoods.

Former DEA Agent Bob Stutman and former dealer "Paul" detail the impact of crack on New York.

(June 19)
Death of Len Bias.

The death of promising college basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose stuns the nation. Ensuing media reports highlight the health risks of cocaine; drugs become a hot political issue.

(October 27)
Reagan signs The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

Reagan signs an enormous omnibus drug bill, which appropriates $1.7 billion to fight the drug crisis. $97 million is allocated to build new prisons, $200 million for drug education and $241 million for treatment. The bill's most consequential action is the creation of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. Possession of at least one kilogram of heroin or five kilograms of cocaine is punishable by at least ten years in prison. In response to the crack epidemic, the sale of five grams of the drug leads to a mandatory five-year sentence. Mandatory minimums become increasingly criticized over the years for promoting significant racial disparities in the prison population, because of the differences in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine.

(November 18)
U.S. indicts the Medellin cartel leaders.

A U.S. federal grand jury in Miami releases the indictment of the Ochoas, Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha under the RICO statute. The indictment names the Medellin cartel as the largest cocaine smuggling organization in the world.

(December 17)
Murder of newspaperman outrages Colombian press.

Guillermo Cano Isaza, editor-in-chief of El Espectador is assassinated while driving home from work. Cano frequently wrote in favor of stiffer penalties for drug traffickers. His murder leads to a national outrage comparable to the assassination of Lara Bonilla, and a subsequent government crackdown on traffickers.

(February 3)
Carlos Lehder is captured and extradited.

Carlos Lehder is captured by the Colombian National Police at a safe house owned by Pablo Escobar in the mountains outside of Medellin. He is extradited to the U.S. the next day. On May 19, 1988 Lehder is convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus an additional 135 years.

(June 25)
Colombia annuls extradition treaty.

On May 28, the Colombian Supreme Court, having endured a barrage of personal threats from the traffickers, rules by a vote of 13-12 to annul the extradition treaty with the US.

(November 21)
Jorge Ochoa is arrested in Colombia.

Ochoa is held in prison on the bull-smuggling charge for which he was extradited from Spain. Twenty-four hours later a gang of thugs arrive at the house of Juan Gomez Martinez, the editor of Medellin's daily newspaper El Colombiano. They present Martinez with a communique signed by "The Extraditables," which threatens execution of Colombian political leaders if Ochoa is extradited. On December 30, Ochoa is released under dubious legal circumstances. In January 1988, the murder of Colombian Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos is claimed by the Extraditables.

1988Carlos Salinas de Gortari is elected president of Mexico.

At a 1988 meeting, President-elect Bush tells President-elect Salinas he must prove to the U.S. Congress that he is cooperating in the drug war--a process called certification. The U.S. pressures Mexico to arrest Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the drug lord believed to have been responsible for the murder of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena.

(February 5)
Noriega indicted in U.S.

A federal grand jury in Miami issues an indictment against Panamanian General Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking. Noriega had allowed the Medellin cartel to launder money and build cocaine laboratories in Panama.

Fernando Arenas, one of Carlos Lehder's pilots, describes Noriega's involvement with the cartel.

Office of National Drug Control Policy is created.

President Bush appoints William Bennett to lead the new Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). As drug 'czar' he campaigns to make drug abuse socially unacceptable, an approach he calls denormalization. Federal spending on treatment and law enforcement increase under Bennett's tenure, but treatment remains less than 1/3 of the total budget.

(July 2)
Murder of Mexican presidential election monitors.

On the eve of the Mexican presidential election between Carlos Salinas and Cuahtemoc Cardenas, two key Cardenas aides are found shot to death in Mexico City. The two had been responsible for ensuring that the elections would be clean and fair. It is widely believed that Cardenas actually won the election and that vote fraud by the PRI was responsible for Salinas' election.

(April 8)
Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo is arrested in Mexico.

Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni leads a team of federal agents who arrest the drug lord in a residential suburb of Guadalajara. Gallardo is imprisoned on charges relating to Enrique Camarena's kidnapping and murder. His nephews, the Arellano-Felix brothers inherit part of his drug-trafficking empire.

(April 14)
Kerry releases congressional report on Contra-drug connection.

A congressional subcommittee on Narcotics, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, chaired by Senator John Kerry (D-MA), finds that U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking were undermined by the Reagan administration's fear of jeopardizing its objectives in the Nicaraguan civil war. The report concludes that the administration ignored evidence of drug trafficking by the Contras and continued to provide them with aid.

(August 18)
Assassination of Colombian presidential candidate.

Luis Carlos Galan, a presidential candidate who spoke in favor of extradition, is assassinated at a campaign rally near Bogota. That evening, President Virgilio Barco Vargas issues an emergency decree reestablishing the policy of extradition. In response, the'Extraditables' declare all-out war against the Colombian government, and begin bombing/murder campaign that would last until January 1991.

(December 15)
Medellin cartel leader is killed.

Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha is killed by Colombian police in a raid on his ranch in Tolu.

(December 20)
U.S. invades Panama

For 22 days, General Manuel Noriega eludes capture by the U.S. Military. After seeking asylum in the Vatican embassy he eventually surrenders to the DEA on January 3, 1990 in Panama and is brought to Miami the next day. On July 10, 1992 Noriega is convicted on eight counts of drug rafficking, money laundering and racketeering, and sentenced to 40 years in federal prison.

(January 25)
Bush proposes 50% increase in military spending on war on drugs.

President Bush proposes to add an additional $1.2 billion to the budget for the war on drugs, including a 50% increase in military spending.

Ochoa brothers surrender.

Colombian President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo offers the traffickers reduced prison sentences to be served in Colombia, in order to entice them to surrender. All three Ochoa brothers surrender to the Colombian police by January 1991.

(June 19)
New Colombian Constitution bans extradition and Escobar surrenders.

In a secret vote, the Colombian assembly votes 51-13 to ban extradition in a new Constitution, to take effect July 5. The same day Pablo Escobar surrenders to Colombian police.

Massacre of Mexican Federal Police.

While attempting to stop an air shipment of Colombian cocaine, Mexican Federal Police are killed by Mexican army members, in the pay of the traffickers. Embarrassed, President Salinas orders an investigation, which results in the imprisonment of a Mexican General. He is quietly released several months later.

Retired Customs Service Special Agent John Hensley describes the attack on the police and the response by the Mexican government.

1992 Carlos Salinas imposes the first written regulations on DEA officers in Mexico.

The regulations limit the number of agents in Mexico, designate certain cities in which they must live, deny the officers diplomatic immunity, require all information to be turned over to Mexican authorities, and prohibit agents to carry weapons.

(May 24)
Cardinal assassinated by the Arellano-Felix Organization.

Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo, the archbishop of Guadalajara, is assassinated at the Guadalajara airport by San Diego gang members hired by the Arellano-Felix Organization to kill a rival trafficker.

(November 17)
NAFTA is passed and signed into law.

President Clinton signs the North American Free Trade Agreement, which results in an enormous increase in legitimate trade across the U.S.-Mexican border. The volume of trade makes it more difficult for U.S. Customs officials to find narcotics hidden within legitimate goods.

(December 2)
Pablo Escobar killed.

Pablo Escobar is finally hunted down by the Colombian police with the aid of U.S. technology. The technology could recognize Escobar's voice on a cell phone and give police an estimated location of where he is. They find his safe house and kill Escobar as he attempts to flee with one of his bodyguards.

US Sentencing Commission recommends revising mandatory minimums.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which administers federal sentencing guidelines, releases a report which notes the racial disparities in cocaine vs. crack sentencing. The commission proposes reducing the discrepancy, but for the first time in history, Congress overrides their recommendation.

Top Cali cartel members arrested.

In a series of arrests during the summer of 1995, five leaders of the Cali cartel are captured. The Cali cartel had become the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in Colombia after the dismantling of the Medellin cartel. By September 1996, all of the Cali kingpins are imprisoned.

Clinton names General Barry McCaffrey as drug czar.

In his State of the Union address, President Clinton nominates Army General Barry McCaffrey, a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, as director of ONDCP. Two days later, the appointment is confirmed by the Senate without debate.

1996Ochoas released from prison.

Juan David and Jorge Luis Ochoa are released after serving five-year prison sentences for drug trafficking in July. Later, their younger brother Fabio Ochoa is also released.

(September 24)
Ramon Arellano-Felix indicted.

A federal grand jury in San Diego indicts Ramon Arellano-Felix on charges of drug smuggling. The same day, he is added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List.

Operation Casablanca.

Operation Casablanca, the largest money-laundering probe in U.S. history, leads to the indictment of 3 Mexican and 4 Venezuelan banks, and 167 individual arrests. Mexico and Venezuela are furious over the undercover operation, which they consider a threat to their national sovereignty. John Hensley oversaw the operation for the U.S. Customs Service.

U.S. and Mexican Attorneys General sign Brownsville Agreement.

As a result of Mexico's anger about U.S. actions in Operation Casablanca, Attorneys General Janet Reno and Jorge Madrazo Cuellar draft the Brownsville Agreement. Both nations pledge to inform each other about sensitive cross-border law enforcement operations.

Retired Customs Service Special Agent describes the frustration some law enforcment personnel have with the restrictions imposed by the Brownsville Agreement.

(October 13)
Fabio Ochoa rearrested in Operation Millennium.

In a series of raids named "Operation Millennium," law enforcement in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador arrest 31 for drug trafficking, including Fabio Ochoa. Ochoa is indicted in a Ft. Lauderdale court for importing cocaine into the U.S. The U.S. requests his extradition in December 1999.

(May 11)
Indictments against Benjamin and Ramon Arellano-Felix are unsealed.

The Arellano-Felix brothers are charged with 10 counts of drug trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering and aiding and abetting violent crimes. The U.S. State Department offers a $2 million reward for information leading to their arrest and conviction.

Clinton delivers $1.3 billion in aid to help Colombia combat drug traffickers.

To assist Colombian President Andres Pastrana's $7.5 billion Plan Colombia, President Clinton delivers $1.3 billion in U.S. aid to fund 60 combat helicopters and training for the Colombian military, among other initiatives.

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