Published on Sunday, August 6, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
U.S. Training Colombia's 2nd Drug Battalion
by Juanita Darling
FLORENCIA, Colombia - U.S. Special Forces trainers quietly arrived in Colombia last week and have begun preparing this country's second anti-narcotics military battalion, a key element of a new $1.3-billion American anti-drug aid package, U.S. and Colombian sources confirmed.

Colombian soldiers with rifles drawn surrounded both the trainers and the U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane that brought them into this southern town about two hours by highway from guerrilla-held territory. The 83 trainers were then transported to Larandia, a military base 40 miles from here, according to a Colombian armed forces spokeswoman.

The base, opened in 1962, has never been attacked and is considered secure despite its proximity to rebel-dominated areas. The 16-square-mile training facility is built on the type of terrain that the battalion is expected to confront in its anti-drug operations.

The battalion is scheduled to be ready for action by Christmas, said a U.S. Embassy official in the capital, Bogota. A 12-man brigade headquarters command to oversee the military anti-narcotics activity will begin training in September, he said.

The 780 soldiers in the new battalion will join the first U.S.-trained anti-drug battalion, which began functioning Dec. 15, 1999, to provide support for police anti-narcotics operations. Police are responsible for drug enforcement in Colombia, which produces about three-fourths of the world's cocaine and an increasing share of the heroin consumed in the United States.

However, police have increasingly come under attack from armed groups guarding drug crops. Colombian and U.S. narcotics and national security experts have said that those guards often are guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary units, which the army is responsible for fighting.

For that reason, the army is scheduled to receive $521 million in U.S. aid for training and equipment, including 46 helicopters, for the anti-narcotics battalions. President Clinton signed the final directive to release the aid Friday, when he also announced that he will visit Colombia for the first time Aug. 30.

"The cornerstone of our Colombia Initiative, this supplemental [appropriation] includes a tenfold increase in U.S. funds to promote good government, judicial reform, human rights protection and economic development in Colombia," Clinton said in a statement released in Washington. "It will help Colombia strengthen its democracy while helping the government staunch the flow of drugs to our shores.

"This directive, along with the sharp increase in funding from Congress, will intensify our efforts to help the Colombian government implement its comprehensive national strategy," he said.

About two-thirds of the new $1.3-billion aid package will go directly to Colombia, with the rest used for anti-drug support programs in the region, such as improvements to landing areas used by anti-narcotics spy planes and to law enforcement programs in neighboring countries.

The U.S. aid is extremely important for the morale of the Colombian army, said a national security expert in Bogota. After years of U.S. support for the police instead of the armed forces, with the new aid package, he said, "they feel like they have their dad back."

Like all of those interviewed, this analyst spoke only on the condition that he not be identified. Analysts who have spoken out on security issues have been attacked by hit men on university campuses, and some have been killed or seriously injured.

The insurgents have a long-standing policy of considering U.S. Embassy officials involved in military training efforts here "military targets," or enemies to be shot on sight. Such threats have intensified with the training of the military anti-narcotics battalions.

Prospective members of a third battalion are having their records reviewed by the Colombian Defense Ministry for possible human rights violations, the U.S. Embassy official said. Those who are approved by the Colombians will then be scrutinized by the U.S. State Department for evidence of either human rights or narcotics offenses.

U.S. law prohibits giving aid to any foreign military group whose members face credible accusations of human rights offenses. While the Colombian military record on respect for human rights has improved markedly in recent years, many soldiers still in uniform joined the army when it had a well-deserved reputation for terrorizing civilians.

Scrutiny for evidence of narcotics offenses is not required but was considered prudent. The screening has been so thorough, the U.S. Embassy official said, that when the records of six candidates showed that they had been cleared of accusations of drug crimes, the State Department reviewed the entire case file related to the accusations.

"Every single man on that training range can undergo the closest scrutiny for respecting human rights and pass," the embassy official said.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times