Clinton visit puts drugs war on a new footing

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The Independent US

President Bill Clinton will visit the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena for eight hours today with the ink barely dry on his $1.3bn Bill to fund the war against the country's cocaine and heroin traffickers. Bogota, the crime-ridden capital, is considered too risky even for such a short day-trip.

President Bill Clinton will visit the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena for eight hours today with the ink barely dry on his $1.3bn Bill to fund the war against the country's cocaine and heroin traffickers. Bogota, the crime-ridden capital, is considered too risky even for such a short day-trip.

Andres Pastrana, the Colombian President, who was elected to negotiate an end to a 36-year civil war funded largely by illegal drugs sales and extortion, is depending on Mr Clinton to toughen his image and shore up popular support for his faltering peace talks with the rebels. Authorities have whisked away all the street beggars - mostly hungry refugees who fled warring guerrilla factions in the interior - and spruced up the Caribbean port to honour the American President.

About one-tenth of the new US aid will go to alternative development programmes, but most will finance the use of hundreds of Green Berets to train Colombian anti-narcotics battalions. Sixty new Blackhawk and Huey combat helicopters will lead search-and-destroy missions over extensive coca and poppy crops in the south.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained that the new military hardware is taking precedence over human rights, and urged that Colombian security forces be held accountable for civil war atrocities. Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil - which all share borders with Colombia - fear that the US military presence will extend the conflict and send refugees and narcotics traffickers pouring over the frontiers. Environmentalists worry that defoliants sprayed on coca fields will blight the Amazon rainforest. The prospect of US interference in a long-standing jungle insurgency alarm many American legislators, who warn of another Vietnam.

Thomas Pickering, the US under-secretary of state, said: "The United States has an interest not only in stopping the flow of narcotics from Colombia but also in ensuring the stability of one of the hemisphere's oldest and most accomplished democracies." Colombia supplies almost 90 per cent of the US cocaine habit, and most of the heroin on the East Coast.

Commander Alfonso Cano, of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said: "The United States needs an excuse to continue to play the role of the world's policeman, and now that excuse is drug trafficking." From the safety of San Vicente del Caguan, where the 16,000-strong guerrilla force has its own enclave, the veteran rebel leader derided the new offensive as a disguised counterinsurgency effort and a symbol of Mr Pastrana's subservience to Washington.

Mr Pastrana's peace initiatives are running into trouble. Mayor Eliseo Galeano opposes handing over his town, Yondo, to rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) in accord with the President's offer to cede an experimental safe zone north of Bogota to Colombia's second rebel army.

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