Cocaine cartels have doubled their production in three years and used profits to triple the number of automatic weapons arming Colombia's leftist guerillas, the US anti-drugs co-ordinator, Barry McCaffrey, warned after a three-day visit to Bogota.
The Clinton administration's top official in the fight against drugs said that an estimated 20,000 Marxist rebels now outgun the combined Colombian army and police force, and pledged to recommend that Congress increases assistance. The renewed committment is fuelling speculation about the possibility of direct US intervention in Colombia. A recent poll by a Bogota magazine showed a majority would support US intervention
Mr McCaffrey noted that the output of the world's cocaine capital has witnessed a "dramatic" rise, despite efforts to root out the drug trade, and pointed out how guerrillas frequently guard cocaine plantations, help transport and distribute the product and in some cases assist in production. Heroin distribution in the region grew by an alarming 20 per cent.
From their neutral zone in the southern jungles which President Andres Pastrana signed over to them last November, rebels regularly launch attacks on civilians and police stations. Recently, fighting has broken out in the capital, Bogota, and kidnaps have increased threefold. "There is also massive contact between criminal organisations and right-wing paramilitary forces and drug traffic," Mr McCaffrey said.
Marxist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) routinely fire on crop-dusting planes used by the US and Colombian authorities to eradicate coca and poppy plantations. When an anti-narcotics surveillance plane, with five US serviceman and two Colombians on board, went missing last Friday just prior to Mr McCaffrey's visit, there were fears that Farc had shot it down and added the crew to the 350 Colombian military hostages it is holding hostage in secret jungle camps.
A Farc spokesman, Raul Reyes, maintained that his guerrillas had no connection with the plane crash, despite repeated threats on rebel websites that Americans in the region will be attacked because the US is planning to intervene directly in their 40-year uprising. Earlier this year, three American civilians working with an indigenous tribe in the north-east were murdered. "Colombia is not Kosovo," Farc declared in a statement on Monday. The rebel website claimed that the billion dollars of annual US aid earmarked to combat narcotics in South America is a pretext for Washington to meddle in counter- insurgency.
After an intensive search throughout the week-end, the US Air Force located the four-engine Dash-7 aircraft about 300 miles south of Bogota in rugged highlands controlled by the rebels. Officials said that the military plane collided with a mountainside in a zone notorious for the wide cultivation of coca, probably due to navigation errors in heavy weather. Thick jungle prevented the recovery of any bodies.
President Pastrana will attempt to revive his stalled peace talks for a settlement with the Marxist guerillas next week. Elected a year ago on a promise to resolve the disruptive civil war, he has yet to begin negotiations in earnest and Colombian refugees are streaming out of the country to escape escalating violence and economic collapse.
Following a government counter-offensive that left more than 300 dead, the Colombian Defence Minister asked Washington for $500m (pounds 300m) worth of military assistance earlier this month.