Published on Wednesday, August 23, 2000 in the Washington Post
Clinton Clears Aid Package For Colombia
by Ellen Nakashima and Matthew Vita
President Clinton last night signed a waiver authorizing distribution of a $1.3 billion aid package to help the Colombian government fight drug traffickers even though it has not met all the human rights conditions set by Congress, administration officials said.
The decision comes one week before Clinton is to make a one-day visit to Colombia to demonstrate his support for President Andres Pastrana's efforts to combat the country's drug trade, which is responsible for 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. Clinton's signing of the waiver is the final step in a year-long debate over how best to assist the Pastrana government.
Bowing to concerns that the money would reward the Colombian military despite its poor human rights record and ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, Congress conditioned the package on the Colombian government curbing rights abuses by the armed forces.
Among the conditions was a requirement that Pastrana issue a written statement that military personnel accused of human rights abuses will be brought to justice in the country's civilian courts. Pastrana issued that statement Aug. 16.
"This is an important step," National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "It's saying military courts cannot be used to shield human rights abusers from accountability."
Congressional critics of Colombia's human rights policies expressed disappointment that the president would release the aid package, even though his decision was widely anticipated. Some said they wished the administration had pressed harder for human rights improvements.
"These conditions are nothing more than what the Colombian government said they were prepared to do, and it is not too much to ask, given the risks involved and the amount they are asking us to provide," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). "We need to see a consistent good-faith effort [to curb human rights abuses], and we don't even see that."
The Pastrana directive satisfied one of seven human rights criteria that Congress said had to be met before the money could be released.
State Department officials said they expect two other criteria to be met within the next several weeks. One would require the Colombian army commander to suspend personnel alleged to have committed "gross violations of human rights." The other would require the military to develop a judge advocate general corps to investigate military misconduct. Other provisions include demanding that the government prosecute leaders of paramilitary groups.
The State Department recommended Friday that Clinton waive the criteria that could not be met on national security grounds--to free up the money as soon as possible. "We think it's necessary to get the money out now," a senior State Department official said. "We've already seen the difficulty down there with the program because of delays."
The fact is, administration officials say, that the Colombian government has not had sufficient time to meet all the conditions laid out by Congress.
Perhaps the toughest demand to meet is one calling for the elimination of all coca and opium poppy by 2005, a requirement that conflicts with Colombia's own plan calling for reducing coca production by half in the same time period. That could be why, officials say, Republican supporters of the aid package inserted the national security waiver provision.
Nonetheless, they said Pastrana, who was elected two years ago, has made progress in fighting the drug trade, where his predecessors had not. He has, for example, extradited three major narcotics traffickers--one last week--to the United States to face prosecution here, senior administration officials said.
And though administration officials said "serious" progress still needs to be made in halting human rights abuses, they said Pastrana seems to be heading in the right direction. He has already dismissed several generals who allegedly have been involved in some of the worst atrocities. One of them was reportedly involved in a series of massacres in the state of Norte de Santander in which more than 200 people were killed in a three-month span.
Amid a backdrop of economic disarray, Pastrana is battling a long-running internal conflict featuring powerful drug traffickers, right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas.
Clinton will visit Colombia on Aug. 30 to help bolster Pastrana's efforts. He will be accompanied by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and a large bipartisan congressional delegation headed by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a leading proponent of aiding Colombia's efforts to curb drug trafficking.
Human rights organizations, which have held a series of meetings with administration officials to discuss Colombia policy, warned that the presidential waiver would reinforce the belief among elements of the country's military that they can act with impunity.
"It's an extremely dangerous policy given the record of the Colombian armed forces and its close ties to paramilitary groups," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "It's not in the best interest of the U.S. government to do business with the Colombian military without real supervision of human rights."
Leahy warned that the Colombian government will face a "tougher standard" next year when Congress is asked to approve the final part of the two-year, $1.3 billion aid package.
"We're going to be monitoring it very closely," said Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.). "We'll be watching Colombia. They can't screw it up. The usage of this money will determine whether they get any more."
Leahy, among others, called attention to last week's attack by army troops on a school hiking trip in northwestern Colombia that left six children ages 8 to 10 dead as an example of Colombia's inability to rein in its armed forces.
After initially blaming guerrillas for the deaths, the government announced Saturday that it was investigating 25 soldiers and officers of the army's Fourth Division in connection with the shootings. The army said the attack occurred while army units were chasing insurgent rebels in the region.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company