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Clinton Defends $1.3 Billion In New Funds for Colombian Anti-Drug War

By Esther Schrader
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

President Clinton on Wednesday defended his decision to release $1.3 billion in anti-drug aid to Colombia as administration officials sought to shift attention away from military assistance and toward efforts to build civil institutions and wean peasants from drug production.

Clinton said Colombia’s ambitious program to combat the drug traffickers and guerrilla groups that have destabilized the country needs “to have a chance to succeed,” despite concerns about the government’s dismal human rights record.

A broad bipartisan majority in Congress approved the landmark aid package in late June. Lawmakers imposed conditions intended to push Colombia to improve its human rights record, but they authorized Clinton to waive the conditions in the interests of national security.

On Friday, the State Department recommended that Clinton exercise his waiver authority, saying the long-delayed funds are desperately needed to bolster the government of Colombian President Andres Pastrana. Clinton signed the waiver late Tuesday.

Clinton said Pastrana has promised to meet several of the criteria set by Congress in coming weeks. Other conditions, such as a promise to eliminate opium and coca production by 2005, could be impossible to meet, he said.

Pastrana “has submitted legislation to the Colombian parliament, for example, for civil trials for allegations of military abuses of human rights,” Clinton told reporters before leaving on a trip to New Jersey. “And we also have a system in place for specific case-by-case investigations of serious allegations.”

The aid package contains more than $1 billion to train and equip Colombian army and police forces engaged in the drug war. But it also includes $120.5 million for non-military development programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development. That may be a small percentage of the total package, agency officials say, but it represents a tenfold increase in U.S. spending on such programs.

On Wednesday, Clinton will travel to Colombia to demonstrate his support for Pastrana’s efforts to combat the country’s drug trade, which accounts for 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

The administration’s efforts to call attention to the non-military elements of U.S. assistance are reflected in Clinton’s itinerary. He is making no stops at military installations but will visit a legal aid program supported by the anti-drug package.

Senior USAID officials said they hope the funds are just the beginning. They plan to ask Congress for more than $400 million to continue the programs over the next four years.