U.S. Delays Some Aid for Colombia
Move Comes After Funds for Counter-Drug Force Vanish
BOGOTA, Colombia, May 9 -- The United States has suspended a portion
of its aid for Colombia's war on drugs after a
"significant amount of money" earmarked for the counter-narcotics police disappeared, a U.S. Embassy official said today.
Gen. Gustavo Socha, chief of the counter-narcotics police force, confirmed
that an investigation was underway and said he had
fired six officers. Socha said he did not know how much money was missing but denied news reports that it was $2 million.
The funds were taken from an account to help offset administrative expenses
of the police. The United States has frozen only
the aid that would normally enter this account -- a relatively small proportion of the hundreds of millions of dollars the United
States contributes to Colombia for fighting drugs. Colombia is the world's biggest cocaine producer.
"We discovered about two months ago a diversion of U.S. government funds
from an account used by the Colombian
counter-narcotics police," the embassy official said. "We are confident that action will be taken against the individuals involved.
When this has happened, we anticipate resuming full support for [counter-narcotics police] activities."
The scandal comes as the U.S. Congress is considering an expansion of
aid beyond the drug war to help Colombia's
government fight the oldest and largest leftist rebel force in Latin America, the 18,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC. The conflict is increasingly fueled by the drug trade and claims about 3,500 lives a year.
The line between the drug war and the guerrilla conflict has blurred
over the past year. In March the United States indicted
three FARC leaders on charges of trafficking cocaine. Washington has already spent $1 billion on Plan Colombia, the anti-drug
offensive, but has yet to see any impact on cocaine output or prices on U.S. streets.
At a news conference, Socha played down the possibility that the missing
money had been stolen, saying the funds might have
been misdirected to legitimate government programs that are not directly linked to the drug fight.
"It is possible that the purchase of something like drinking water in
remote, jungle zones, where there is no running water . . .
well, it could have been prioritized as a necessity and it might not have been budgeted," Socha said.
The U.S. Embassy denied reports that the scandal had prompted the United States to freeze funds for 33 UH1N helicopters.
Instead, the embassy said that some funding for the Colombian military
had been delayed as a routine procedure pending U.S.
certification of the armed forces' respect for human rights.