March 14, 2001

Colombian defense chief: U.S. civilian pilots run risks in drug war

                  BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- U.S. civilian pilots are carrying out "risky" missions
                  in Colombia's drug war, flying fumigation planes low sometimes through
                  guerrilla fire, the country's defense minister says. But he insists U.S. troops here
                  face minimal danger.

                  Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez -- who recently accompanied President
                  Andres Pastrana to meet with President Bush in Washington -- said in an
                  interview he expects long-term support in the drug war.

                  U.S. Army Special Forces are already in this South American nation, training Colombian
                  counternarcotics battalions as part of a $1.3 billion U.S. aid package. The package also will
                  send dozens of combat helicopters to Colombia during the second half of this year and into 2002.

                  During his February 27 meeting with Pastrana, Bush pledged to bolster anti-drug efforts in
                  Colombia and said he would take up lowering trade barriers to Colombian goods.

                  Ramirez, a youthful former labor minister who wears conservative business suits and
                  wire-rimmed glasses, is plainspoken about his country's drug problem.

                  Interviewed Monday at Bogota's sprawling defense ministry complex, Ramirez said Colombia
                  will need more military assistance, especially to modernize aging airplanes, including 35-year-old
                  A-37s used to intercept clandestine drug flights.

                  "Since drug traffickers are multinational outfits with huge budgets, we will
                  require ... more modern aircraft whose maintenance is not so costly and which
                  are not so risky for the crews," Ramirez told The Associated Press.

                  But efforts in Colombia will be of little use unless the United States curbs drug
                  consumption, estimated at 300 tons of cocaine a year, Ramirez said.

                  Colombia produces at least 80 percent of the world's cocaine and a rising share
                  of heroin. Leftist rebels and rival right-wing paramilitaries "tax" the drug
                  industry, using millions of dollars in revenues to buy arms, recruit combatants
                  and fuel the country's 37-year civil war.

                  "As long as the United States keeps consuming cocaine there will be violence in
                  Colombia," Ramirez said

                  Moreover, Ramirez criticized the United States for "very poor" results in
                  combatting drug money laundering.

                  A kilogram of cocaine in Putumayo -- Colombia's major drug-producing region
                  -- sells for about $2,000, while in Miami that same kilogram costs $30,000,
                  Ramirez said.

                  "The $28,000 difference between the value in Putumayo and Miami stays in the
                  United States, in U.S. or European banks," Ramirez said.

                  Ramirez acknowledged that the work done by American civilians contracted by
                  the U.S. State Department to pilot planes that fumigate drug crops is inherently

                  The crop dusters swoop close to the earth and are frequently hit by rebel
                  gunfire. Just last month, U.S. civilian pilots flew into a firefight to rescue the
                  crew of a downed Colombian police helicopter. The workers are employed by
                  Dyncorp, of Reston, Va.

                  "There is not only the risk they'll be shot at, but the risk that such a plane will
                  crash is very high," Ramirez said, pointing out that Colombia's mountains make
                  for tricky flying.

                  Some critics say the contractors are being used for dangerous jobs to avoid the
                  scandal that would erupt if U.S. soldiers began returning from Colombia in body

                  It's unclear how many U.S. civilian contractors are working in Colombia,
                  although 300 is the maximum allowed, according to limits set by the U.S.
                  Congress; a maximum of 500 U.S. troops is permitted.

                  "What I can say is that we have concentrated the American soldiers in bases and
                  have made a great effort to protect these bases," Ramirez said. "I would say that
                  the risks ... have been minimized as best we can."

                  The American soldiers, furthermore, are barred from accompanying Colombian
                  troops into combat.

                  "Fundamentally, it is the Colombian soldiers and police who will do the fighting,"
                  Ramirez said.

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.