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Colombia Requests Increased Aid From U. S. to Fight Drugs

By Scott Wilson

President Andres Pastrana said Thursday he plans to seek a fresh infusion of U.S. financial assistance this month during his first meeting with President Bush, to help spur economic development in regions where U.S.-trained troops are destroying drug crops.

In an interview, Pastrana said the newly revived peace process with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group depends on an increase in such economic assistance, perhaps as much as $500 million annually from the United States alone. The money would be used to address high unemployment and other economic obstacles that prompt Colombians to join the drug trade or illegal armed groups for their livelihood, he said.

Pastrana said his trip to Washington is a way to introduce himself and his country to the new administration at an important moment for his anti-drug plan and the peace negotiations. The Bush administration has inherited a three-year, $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia that is designed to reduce Colombia’s role as the world’s largest cocaine production center and deprive a decades-old leftist insurgency of its chief revenue source.

Pastrana’s words seemed calculated to refocus Washington’s attention on Colombia, now in the thick of its U.S.-backed anti-drug strategy, as a new administration takes over facing a host of foreign policy questions. Pastrana underlined his hope for a new financial commitment to boost a development strategy he has often declared key to the drug war’s long-term success.

Pastrana said he also plans to make the case that the United States must do more to help ensure that the drug trade, if it can be diminished, does not resurge. Much of Colombia’s success so far has been the result of aerial fumigation, which has killed an estimated 65,000 acres of coca crops in the southern province of Putumayo, the country’s principal coca-producing region.

But Pastrana said more resources must be committed to social-development programs that encourage farmers to uproot lucrative drug crops for legal ones, a strategy that accounts for only 25 percent of the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid. Increasing resources for small farmers, Pastrana said, was a key topic during his summit conference last week, marking revived peace talks with rebel leader Manuel Marulanda .

“We are a poor country,” Pastrana said in a 45-minute interview in his office. “But we are spending $1 billion a year of our money to keep drugs off the streets of Washington and New York. We need more help. This is a long-term plan, maybe 15 to 20 years.”

The United States is the largest market for Colombia’s drug trade. President Clinton, whom Pastrana remembered Thursday as a staunch ally, pushed through a package last year that includes more than 50 transport helicopters, military trainers and funds for development programs.