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Clinton Vows to Fight Drug War, Rules Out Escalation

By Esther Schrader
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- CARTAGENA, Colombia

President Clinton swooped into this troubled country Wednesday to showcase American determination to face down leftist rebels and drug traffickers. But he pledged that aiding Colombia will not embroil the United States in a military escalation echoing the Vietnam War.

“I reject the idea that we must choose between supporting peace and fighting drugs. We can do both; indeed, to succeed, we must do both,” Clinton said at a ceremony to tout $1.3 billion in U.S. military and social assistance to bolster President Andres Pastrana’s government against powerful guerrilla forces intertwined with drug traffickers.

The aid, approved by Congress in June, is the centerpiece of a broader, $7.5 billion Colombian plan to fight the drug scourge, help refugees and strengthen government institutions.

“A condition of this aid is that we are not going to get into a shooting war, that it is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee imperialism,” Clinton said.

Colombia produces an estimated 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. The guerrilla forces are linked to much of the trade.

Thousands of people lined the streets of this suddenly spiffed up colonial city to catch a glimpse of Clinton during his nine-hour visit, the first by a U.S. president to Colombia in a decade.

On the outskirts of the city were thousands more who missed the fanfare. Refugees from the bitter war that has escalated since rebels began to piggyback on the drug trade during the 1990s, they live in squalor in tent camps -- a testament to the chaos that has all but ripped this country apart.

Clinton was accompanied by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and 10 other senior members of Congress from both major parties, all eager to demonstrate their commitment to the fight against drugs.

Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and federal drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey were also on the trip, which included a private meeting between Clinton and Pastrana.

The Colombian leader, looking delighted at finally having the long-promised aid in hand, thanked Clinton and congressional leaders for its passage.

The visit is meant to emphasize a close new relationship between the United States and Pastrana’s government, which has pledged to attack drug trafficking at its roots. Until Pastrana took office just over a year ago, relations between the two countries had cooled as evidence emerged that Colombian government figures had ties to the country’s then-leading drug cartels.

But in recent months, the United States has thrown its weight behind Pastrana’s efforts. Congress approved the aid package by a bipartisan majority. Last week, Clinton waived several human rights conditions put on the aid by Congress, declaring Colombia a national security priority.

The aid -- much of which is for military assistance, including 60 attack helicopters and 500 U.S. Army and intelligence instructors -- has been controversial. It is more money than the United States has invested in a Latin American military effort since the Central American conflicts of the 1980s, when Washington and the Soviet Union vied for influence in the region.

The Clinton administration argues that the aid is essential to stem the rise in drug exports that fund leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. Critics fear the aid will only increase the level of violence.

Human rights groups charge that the effort is ill-advised and short on social assistance. They brandish ample evidence that Colombia’s military and police forces have committed abuses. Conservatives say the aid package, delayed by the administration for more than six months while top Republicans in Congress sounded the alarm about drug trafficking, comes too late.

The United States has steadily increased its anti-narcotics assistance to Colombia during Clinton’s second term, to $300 million this year from $65 million in 1996. Still, coca production in the country has surged during that time.

Hoping for greater success from the coming infusion of money, Clinton pressed Pastrana on Wednesday to complement the new military anti-narcotics offensive with civilian aid programs to avoid a refugee crisis that could spill into neighboring countries and add fighters to guerrilla ranks.

In his meeting with Clinton, aides said Pastrana made a case for broad new trade privileges from the United States that he hopes would boost the country’s economy. He also asked the United States to play a more active role in spurring peace talks between the guerrilla forces and the government.

The Colombian economy was dealt a blow this year when the United States signed a trade agreement with Caribbean nations. Clinton said he and Hastert support legislation that would allot some of the same trade preferences to Colombia.