December 3, 1998

U.S. wields carrot and stick in Colombia

Mixed signals surround push for peace


                  CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) -- The United States is heaping praise
                  on Colombia's fledgling peace process, even as it signals a readiness to take
                  the leading role in its fight against Marxist rebels.

                  Those mixed signals to a nation whipsawed between talk about peace and
                  growing fears of all-out war were voiced by senior U.S. officials on a visit
                  this week to the historic Caribbean port city of Cartagena.

                  The officials, led by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Marine
                  Gen. Charles Wilhelm -- commander of U.S. military operations throughout
                  Latin America and the Caribbean -- were in Cartagena for a three-day
                  meeting of defense ministers from across the Americas. The meeting ended

                  Colombia's role as host country -- a nation corroded at the highest levels by
                  corruption, drug trafficking and a three-pronged war pitting Marxist rebels
                  against the armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups -- cast a
                  spotlight on one of the hemisphere's undisputed trouble spots. But there was
                  U.S. praise for efforts to end the violence.

                  "This is a time when the government of Colombia is showing its good will in
                  leaning forward and trying to create the conditions for a good negotiation,"
                  Cohen told a news conference.

                  "Clearly we will see how the guerrillas, over the next 90 days or so, how
                  they react to what we think has been a very positive step by President
                  (Andres) Pastrana," said Cohen, adding that Washington warmly applauded
                  Pastrana's peace efforts.

                  'Announcements of war'

                  Pastrana, who succeeded Colombia's scandal-plagued former leader
                  Ernesto Samper four months ago, campaigned on a promise to seek a
                  negotiated settlement of an internal conflict that has taken more than 35,000
                  lives over the last decade.

                  But Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda, speaking on the
                  sidelines of the three-day Cartagena meeting, said that Pastrana's peace
                  overtures had only been met with rebel "announcements of war," and
                  patience is clearly wearing thin.

                  Some analysts think South America's second most populous country, which
                  supplies about 80 percent of the world's cocaine, is headed toward
                  full-scale war.

                  Cohen did not elaborate on Washington's likely response if peace talks with
                  the rebels should fail.

                 Calling the shots

                  But an agreement establishing a so-called "defense bilateral working group"
                  was signed at the Cartagena meeting, giving Washington broader powers to
                  call the shots on key military issues between the United States and

                  Wilhelm said the agreement highlighted the already close ties between the
                  U.S. and Colombian militaries, and stressed in remarks to reporters that
                  there were no real restrictions on U.S. military aid to Colombia.

                  The bulk of U.S. aid -- of which Colombia recently became the world's third
                  largest recipient after Egypt and Israel -- goes toward counternarcotics

                  But Wilhelm said it also could be used to fight guerrillas -- since
                  they work in what he called a close alliance with criminal drug
                  gangs and are a self-sustaining  "narco-insurgency."

                  Wilhelm, who served as a U.S. adviser in Vietnam, denied that
                  the United States was getting sucked into another unwinnable
                  conflict against a deeply entrenched rebel movement, which
                  now controls about 40 percent of Colombian territory.

                  But a senior U.S. official stressed the U.S. commitment to combating
                  insurgents in Colombia -- where Wilhelm conceded that the military lost the
                  momentum in the guerrilla war long ago.

                  "We have an interest in helping a democratically elected government protect
                  itself," said the official, who asked not to be identified by name. "Obviously,
                  if Colombia is destabilized, over the longer term it has implications for its
                  neighbors and for the region," he said.


                  Pastrana ordered the pullout of some 2,000 troops early last month from an
                  area the size of Switzerland in a bid to jump-start peace talks with the
                  Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the hemisphere's largest
                  and oldest rebel force.

                  But formal talks have yet to begin, due to FARC demands for the pullout of
                  about 100 soldiers still stationed in the largest town in the demilitarized area.

                  And FARC's chief military strategist, Jorge Briceno, shocked government
                  officials this week by demanding that troops abandon an additional seven
                  municipalities just outside the demilitarized zone, saying civilian residents of
                  the towns would suffer the consequences unless control was effectively
                  ceded to rebel troops.

                  "All this talk about peace is going nowhere," one Colombian defense official
                  said. "It's like that play by Shakespeare, 'Much Ado About Nothing.'"

                  Copyright 1998   Reuters.