President Bush is planning to escalate the US war against drugs from South America with new legislation that its critics say will allow him to deploy a 'private army' of former US servicemen across the region.
The disclosure comes amid mounting evidence that the controversial $1.3 billion Plan Colombia, a military support program initiated by the Clinton administration to sever the supply of Colombian cocaine, has had a negligible impact on supplies to US cities.
Experts say coca production has been switched to neighboring Bolivia, Venezuela and Peru.
The claim that Bush is seeking permission to deploy his own private army - unanswerable to congressional oversight - comes as Congress prepares to vote on proposals to inject cash into Plan Colombia by lifting a cap on the number of privatized military personnel allowed to be deployed there.
The cap, which was introduced following fears that the US could be dragged into a new Vietnam war, limited the total to 500, in a purely training role.
Congress also insisted that no more than 300 non-military personnel, largely working for private companies such as Dyncorp as coca- spraying pilots, could be in Colombia at any one time.
However, a new $676 million program - the Andean Counterdrug Initiative - would allow the Bush administration to deploy as many former servicemen as it wanted.
Questions about American counter-narcotics efforts in the Andean region have risen sharply since April, when Peruvian jets shot down a US missionary aircraft over the Amazon river, believing it was laden with drugs. The Peruvian fighter was guided in for the attack by a radar plane operated by a CIA contractor.
Bush's personal involvement in lifting the cap was made clear by an official who told the Miami Herald on Friday that 'the President requested this'.
There are 171 American civilian contractors in Colombia now, involved in activities ranging from aerial fumigation and military training to administering judicial reform programs and helping internal refugees.
Concern has also been raised by a provision in the Andean Counterdrug Initiative legislation exempting State Department contractors from a section of the Foreign Assistance Act that specifically bans them from buying weapons and ammunition with federal funds.
The new legislation would allow the companies to purchase weapons and ammunition for use in the Andean region for 'defensive purposes', a definition, say critics, open to widespread abuse.
Underlying the concern over the escalation of Plan Colombia is a suspicion that the entire nature of the war on drugs there is threatening to take a dangerous turn in favor of overt military assistance for the Colombian military against left-wing guerrilla groups who, some US analysts claim, benefit most from cocaine production.
That suspicion has been fueled by a report commissioned by the US Air Force from the Rand Corporation think-tank, which says 'drugs and insurgency are intertwined in complicated and changing ways, but the former cannot be addressed without the latter'.
It concludes that efforts to reduce the drug supply in Colombia have been ineffective because America has focused more on 'counter-narcotics' than 'counter-insurgency' aid.
'We are worried that this new legislation would give the President sole control over a private army in the Andean region without any accountability to Congress,' Nadeam Elshami, a staffer with Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, told The Observer last week.
Schakowsky has tabled an amendment seeking to keep the cap on civilian military contractors in the new legislation.
'It's a backdoor way of escalating our involvement in the Andean region and providing additional money to private military contractors who have not been effective.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001