BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- In an effort to wean farmers of their dependence
on illicit drug crops, Colombia plans to spend tens of millions of dollars in U.S.
aid to try to persuade them to raise cattle, coffee and cotton instead, President
Andres Pastrana says.
Though the bulk of the proposed $1.6 billion U.S. aid plan to fight drugs
in Colombia will be used for destroying coca crops and battling the leftist
rebels who protect them, Colombia will spend a fifth of it on alternative
development and other social programs, Pastrana told The Associated
Press in an interview on Thursday.
Despite his embrace of the U.S. aid package, currently awaiting U.S.
congressional approval, Pastrana insisted he would not allow American troops
to become directly involved in Colombia's nearly four-decade-old civil conflict.
More than 100 U.S. military personnel are in Colombia at any one time,
five were killed in the July crash of an Army RC-7 spy plane, apparently due
to pilot error. Green Berets and Navy Seals periodically train troops and the
Pentagon has helped Colombia's military improve its intelligence-gathering
and combat ability.
"We will never accept the presence of foreign troops in combat," he said.
The U.S. money will underwrite a push by a U.S.-trained counternarcotics
battalion into the guerrilla-dominated southern state of Putumayo.
Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez said last week that he expects
violent protests by coca growers in Putumayo, where coca cultivation has
exploded by some 300 percent in the past two years and now makes up
one-third of the country's crop.
Pastrana wants U.S. taxpayers to help fund alternative development for
peasant farmers displaced by the eradication campaign.
"There's a very grave social problem and for that reason we've said we
look at the problem only as one of fumigation and eradication," Pastrana said.
"We've got to give these people a hand."
Aggravating a civil conflict that claims 3,000 lives a year and the pervasively
corrupting influence of drug trafficking, Colombia is in the throes of its worst
recession since the 1930s.
Guerrilla attacks occur almost daily. This week, a rebel blockade kept
highway that links Bogota with the country's second-largest city, Medellin,
closed for four days.
Pastrana nevertheless held out an olive branch to the country's largest
group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with which
he is engaged in peace talks.
He said he would not extradite to the United States a regional commander
accused of murdering three U.S. activists last March.
"This is a crime that will be tried in Colombia," Pastrana stressed during
45-minute interview in his office in the presidential palace before heading off
for provincial cities where he has proposed tax-free enterprise zones.
The killing of the activists, kidnapped while visiting an indigenous group,
prompted U.S. diplomats to break off exploratory contacts with the FARC
to discuss possible guerrilla cooperation in weaning farmers off drug crops.
Colombian prosecutors have filed murder charges against the guerrilla
commander, German Briceno, who remains at large. On Thursday,
prosecutors subpoened Briceno's brother, Jorge, the FARC's No. 2 leader
and also a fugitive, to testify in the case.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.