Han Speckens on 21 Nov 2000 18:14:34 -0000

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.S. Sees 'Giant Increase' in Colombian Cocaine

Mon Nov 20 17:13:09 2000 GMT

BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) - The lead soldier in the U.S. war on drugs, departing White House drug policy coordinator Gen. Barry McCaffrey, says Marxist rebels are behind "a giant increase" in Colombia's cocaine production and are now a dominant force in the narcotics trade.

"I am absolutely unabashed in telling you that the principal organizing entity of cocaine production in the world is the FARC," said McCaffrey, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

McCaffrey, who has served as President Clinton's director of national drug control policy since March 1996, spoke to foreign journalists on his arrival in Colombia late Sunday for a two-day fact-finding visit.

The trip was expected to be the retired general's last to the world's leading cocaine-producing nation, before his planned resignation in early January.

McCaffrey was a leading architect of the congressionally approved $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid for Colombia to help thwart the country's booming drug trade and the guerrilla groups that protect and profit from it.

In his remarks he staunchly defended the aid package, which aims to halve drug production over five years in Colombia.

But McCaffrey -- who critics accuse of opening the door to direct U.S. military involvement in Colombia's increasingly brutal internal conflict -- conceded there was "some unknown terrain" in front of the United States as it seeks to shore up Colombia's fragile democracy and "establish sovereign law" in rebel-dominated areas of the country's south.

"With the front-end of the process there are great risks and great uncertainties," McCaffrey said of the Colombian Army's U.S.-backed push into regions of the south that are prime growing areas for coca, the raw material for cocaine.

The anti-drug offensive, in the jungle-covered provinces of Caqueta and Putumayo, is tentatively scheduled to get under way next month.

"They've got thousands of people with automatic weapons down there and it's going to be tough going," McCaffrey said.

President Andres Pastrana has made slow-moving peace talks with the 17,000-strong FARC, Latin America's largest and oldest guerrilla group, the centerpiece of his administration since he took office in August 1998.

But McCaffrey, in what were thought to be his most critical comments on the subject yet, said there was little incentive for the FARC to lay down its arms as long as it was reaping what he estimated at between $500 million and $1 billion a year in profits from production and trafficking in cocaine.


"The peace process won't move ahead if there's a giant reward -- drugs and the money it brings," said McCaffrey.

Pastrana has declared a Switzerland-sized area of Colombia's southern jungle and savanna off-limits to state security forces since November 1998, to create a safe haven where FARC rebel commanders would feel at ease as they engaged in talks to end a conflict that has claimed 35,000 lives since 1990. But McCaffrey called the creation of the 16,000-square-mile demilitarized zone, known as the "despeje," a naive mistake on the part of the government.

"I think what's happened has been predictable. It turned into an armed bastion of the FARC," said McCaffrey, alleging that the rebel army has used the area as a staging ground for drugs and arms smuggling deals and hit-and-run attacks across the country.

"It absolutely blows my mind," said McCaffrey, adding that U.S. spy satellites showed the FARC was also using the demilitarized zone to bolster Colombia's output of cocaine.

That output has mushroomed 140 percent in the last four years and totaled a record 520 metric tons in 1999. But McCaffrey said Colombia's cocaine production figures for 2000, due to be released by the CIA in February, would be even more explosive thanks to what he described as the FARC's role as "the dominant integrating factor" in the underground trade.

"I think you're going to see a giant increase in production," he said.

"We have vital national security interests at stake in Colombia," McCaffrey added, when asked about future U.S. support for the country. "We've got no option, we've got to operate against drug production in Colombia."