Colombian defense chief: U.S. civilian pilots run risks in drug war
BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- U.S. civilian pilots are carrying out "risky"
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
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
Colombia and said he would take up lowering trade barriers to Colombian goods.
Ramirez, a youthful former labor minister who wears conservative business
wire-rimmed glasses, is plainspoken about his country's drug problem.
Interviewed Monday at Bogota's sprawling defense ministry complex, Ramirez
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
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
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
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
Colombia," Ramirez said
Moreover, Ramirez criticized the United States for "very poor" results
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,
"The $28,000 difference between the value in Putumayo and Miami stays in
United States, in U.S. or European banks," Ramirez said.
Ramirez acknowledged that the work done by American civilians contracted
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
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
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
Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.