The Miami Herald
March 1, 1999
U.S. worry No. 1: Colombia

             WASHINGTON -- The first thing that caught my eye when I entered the office
             of Peter Romero, the State Department's chief of Latin American affairs, was
             the stack of big cardboard maps leaning against the wall next to his desk.

             I would have thought that the first map in Romero's pile would be that of Mexico,
             undoubtedly the most important U.S. bilateral relation in the region. Or Brazil,
             whose recent financial crisis is still threatening the economies of its neighbors.

             But the first map on Romero's stack was of Colombia.

             ``I'm spending more time on Colombia than on any other single country,'' Romero
             said when I pointed at his maps. It has been like that for several months now, he
             said. And it's not just because of last week's annual U.S. certification of countries'
             cooperation in the war on drugs.

             The State Department's current focus on Colombia may be partly due to the fact
             that the Treasury Department has taken over most U.S. issues tied to Mexico and
             Brazil. But it is also due to U.S. projections that Colombia's coca production will
             grow substantially in the near future, and that Colombia's guerrillas could pose
             serious trouble throughout Latin America.

             In Congress, Republican hard-liners are talking about the ``Balkanization'' of
             Colombia, warning that the 16,000 Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed
             Forces of Colombia (FARC) are in control of much of southern Colombia, while
             the government retains the center and right-wing paramilitary groups dominate the

             Elsewhere in Latin America, diplomats privately express fears that Colombia's war
             could spill over to Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama. Many are nervous about a
             possible escalation of U.S. military involvement in the region if one of the 200 U.S.
             military anti-narcotics trainers in Colombia is kidnapped or hurt by the FARC

             Romero has a more immediate concern -- that Colombia's coca production, which
             according to U.S. estimates grew by 26 percent last year, will soar over the next
             two years.

             Coca growers have been moving out of Bolivia and Peru, and have begun planting
             coca in Colombia's southern states of Caqueta and Putamayo, where they enjoy
             protection from FARC guerrillas, he said. In two years, these plants will have
             grown, as will the screams of U.S. anti-drug agencies.

             The expected rise in Colombia's coca production will also complicate Latin
             American efforts to get the United States to drop its annual certification process,
             whereby the White House grades each country's anti-drug efforts. Latin
             Americans see this as an act of arrogance by the world's largest drug consumer.

             Romero conceded that there should be ``some adjustments'' to the U.S.
             certification process. ``At some point, we will have to agree to some revisions,'' he

             Another U.S. official told me that, among the ideas being tossed around within the
             Clinton administration for possible submission to Congress, is scaling back the
             annual certification process to once every two or three years.

             A second proposal would call for evaluating countries' anti-narcotics performance
             by issues -- such as drug eradication efforts or drug lord extraditions -- rather than
             passing grades on nations as a whole.

             Will this be done, I asked. Romero looked at his watch, and rose his hands. Half
             an hour had gone by, and he had to rush to another meeting. On Colombia, I

             You can e-mail Andres Oppenheimer at
             and read his columns on HeraldLink:

                               Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald