|Robert S. Gelbard
Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement
Statement to the House Committee on International Relations
Washington, DC, September 11, 1996
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the committee: I am pleased to have the opportunity today to discuss with you U.S. Counternarcotics policy toward Colombia. I understand that the committee has some specific questions about the levels and types of counterdrug assistance we should be providing to elements of the Colombian Government in light of the President's March 1 decision to deny Colombia certification. Before I address the issue of specific types of support, however, I'd like to explain our strategy and the results we hope to achieve.
Our relationship with Colombia, and questions about the best way to deal with the enormous threat Colombian drug mafias pose to this country, present us with an incredibly difficult and complex challenge. After years of cooperation, President Clinton denied certification to Colombia on March 1 because the efforts of Colombia's police, military, prosecutors and honest government officials were being undermined by corruption at the highest levels of the Colombian Government and Congress. The toughest question we faced then, was the one many of you have asked: how do we deny credibility to a president and some members of his administration we believe to be corrupt without turning our backs on honest Colombians and thereby handing some of the world's leading criminals a victory by default?
Our approach is designed to maintain support for essential counternarcotics programs and institutions in Colombia, while pressing the Government to take specific policy and legislative actions that would enhance the capabilities of the law enforcement and judicial sectors. We have proposed not only to continue, but to augment U.S. assistance to Colombian National Police, the military and elements of the justice sector which are actively confronting the drug threat and the corruption it has engendered. There can be no room for doubt about the U.S. Government's commitment to stamping out drug production, trafficking, and consumption. The traffickers are intent on making Colombia a drug safehaven and they have demonstrated their power to do so by successfully corrupting a president. The only appropriate response is the redoubling of our efforts and our support of those in Colombia struggling to deny these criminals the freedom and resources to make their goal a reality.
We have outlined for the Colombian Government a set of specific realistic objectives and actions we expect it to pursue, and upon which we will evaluate its cooperation. These include the enactment of tough asset forfeiture and sentencing laws; the strengthening of Colombia's inadequate 1995 money laundering statute; effective eradication of coca and opium poppy fields; reconsideration of Colombia's policy of not extraditing its nationals; support for investigations and prosecutions targeting corrupt public officials; and the signing of a bilateral maritime interdiction agreement.
President Ernesto Samper has promised specific action on the legislative front since before he took office. Last month he presented the Colombian Congress with a legislative package which, if approved, should bring Colombia in line with international standards on many of these issues. We have noted Samper's promises and intend to hold him to those promises. We continue to engage those members of his Administration who are prepared to cooperate with us. We will evaluate his government's cooperation, however, on the basis of concrete achievements.
We also are seeking continued law enforcement and judicial action against traffickers; their prosecution, conviction, and sentencing to prison terms commensurate with their crimes; the dismantling of their organizations; and the forfeiture of their front companies and ill-gotten proceeds.
We continue to work closely with the Colombian National Police, units of the military, and the Prosecutor General's Office in pursuit of these goals. We likewise support the Colombian Police's aerial eradication program, and the air, maritime and riverine interdiction operations conducted by the police and military. At our urging, the military has increased its support for police counternarcotics operations, another key objective of our support.
The military and police have been cooperating closely in the coca-growing regions of southeastern Colombia in "Operation Conquest." This combined operation includes aerial eradication of coca fields by the police, while army and police units conduct ground-based interdiction operations targeting cocaine processing laboratories. The army also is restricting the importation of cement and gasoline--key elements used in refining cocaine base--into coca growing areas. Since the operation began in April, many soldiers and police have died at the hands of the narcotraffickers and their guerrilla allies.
The cooperation from the working level on these fronts remains good. Law enforcement organizations and the judicial sector can only be fully successful, however, if they are given the tools to carry out the job and they have the clear backing of their government. We are pressing the Colombian government to provide that support. More importantly, our continued support of the police, soldiers, prosecutors and judges on the front lines of this effort is sustaining the segments of Colombian society which ultimately must be able to confront and defeat the threat posed by rampant corruption. Corruption threatens not only Colombian democratic tradition and institutions; it diminishes our ability to stem the flow of drugs and crime into the United States from Colombia.
Colombian drug trafficking organizations, and the products they distribute in the U.S., continue to pose a tremendous threat to the United States. An estimated 80% of the cocaine available in the U.S. still is produced in Colombia, and the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that more than 60% of heroin being seized in the U.S. can now be traced to South America--that means Colombia.
Many of Colombia's top traffickers are in jail. The last Cali kingpin on Colombia's most-wanted list--Helmer "Pacho" Herrera--turned himself in to Colombian authorities September 1. Unfortunately, however, he surrendered knowing that he, like his jailed colleagues, will be able to run his empire from prison. By surrendering now, he will have the advantage of weak laws--laws in part drafted at the direction of the traffickers themselves--designed to ensure that top kingpins serve negligible prison terms and are able to retain millions of dollars' worth of assets and criminally-derived proceeds.
Meanwhile, a younger, hungry group of traffickers apparently is launching an effort to take control of the massive Colombian production, trafficking and distribution networks established by the jailed and now-deceased Medellin and Cali kingpins. Internal struggles have begun among second and third-tier traffickers. They are killing off competitors in an effort to consolidate power bases from which to threaten the old guard. This is a recipe for the type of violence which prevailed in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drug mafia warfare spilled onto America's streets as competing Colombian syndicates fought to establish control over parts of the U.S. market.
Add to this volatile mix Colombia's far-flung, entrenched guerrilla movements, elements of which have become increasingly involved in organized crime, including drug trafficking. While some segments of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) continue to pursue a political agenda, sectors of these organizations are directly engaged in coca cultivation and processing, and in extorting money for the "protection" of fields, laboratories and markets. They are benefiting substantially from the cocaine trade. The profits generated by this and other criminal enterprises pay for impressive arsenals and supplies.
The interest of the guerrillas in the cocaine trade as a source of revenue is well illustrated by the recent effort to instigate massive peasant protests in the southeastern, coca-growing region of Colombia. The Colombian National Police and army have been facing tens of thousands of coca growers--men, women, and children--protesting the U.S.-supported aerial eradication program. The protests are led by guerrillas-turned-narco-security corps who believe that they can gain public sympathy, and ultimately stop eradication, if they can force authorities into a violent confrontation with the peasants. Their tactics--in many cases they forced peasants to participate actively in the marches by holding family members hostage--leave little doubt that their primary motivation is profit, rather than the hearts and minds of the local campesinos. To its credit, the Government of Colombia has stood firm in its resolve to continue eradicating illicit crops.
Neither the Colombian National Police nor the armed forces is equipped to take on all aspects of this threat without the benefit of U.S. assistance. Even given the improved cooperation we have seen among the services in terms of eradication and interdiction operations, they lack the basic capability to move personnel safely into an area to conduct operations or simply to establish some form of government control. Colombian National Police pilots consequently take enormous risks in conducting eradication operations in areas dominated by heavily-armed guerrillas and traffickers because army troops are unable to get to those areas to secure them. The police, likewise, are short of helicopters for air support, search and rescue and medevac operations.
The shortage of helicopter support with greater range, lift capacity and survivability than that afforded by the UH-1H "Huey," for both the Colombian National Police and the military has begun to limit the scope and effectiveness of eradication and interdiction operations. We are working to identify ways consistent with the certification legislation by which we can provide key Colombian Police and military units with much-needed resources. The Department of State sent six additional UH-1Hs to Colombia to support the police eradication and interdiction programs in early June. Our 1997 budget plan, if approved by Congress at the full request level, will include an increase in funding for the police.
The Colombian Army, meanwhile, has decided to take the matter of air mobility into its own hands. We consistently have pressed the Colombian Army and Air Force to provide greater support to Police counternarcotics operations. The Colombian Government finally has budgeted over $100 million for the purchase of high-performance, utility helicopters which will enable them to provide such support. To deny them the ability to purchase U.S. helicopters--we are aware that the Army strongly prefers a U.S.-manufactured helicopter--would limit our own credibility as we argue for greater army involvement in the counterdrug effort.
The Colombians have told us they are prepared to move forward with a purchase before year end. We support this sale for a number of obvious reasons. It is a straight cash sale--there is no U.S. financing of any kind involved--and as such, it does not conflict with the President's decision to deny certification to Colombia. The Colombian Army needs utility helicopters to provide logistical support for a variety of missions, including counterinsurgency and counternarcotics operations; they are not seeking attack helicopters. The Colombian National Police has made clear that the success of many of their missions hinges on support from the army, and General Serrano, Commander of the Police, supports this purchase. Finally, if the Colombian Government cannot buy U.S.-made helicopters, it will simply shop elsewhere.
Despite our difficulties with President Samper, we must continue to work with Colombia to curtail the drug flow. Colombian cooperation remains the key to our ability to eliminate most of the cocaine and much of the heroin that threaten our youth. We also must bear in mind that thousands of Colombian police, military, judges and officials already have sacrificed their lives in the effort to bring down the Colombian drug trade. These forces have been our allies in a common struggle and, in spite of corruption in critical segments of their government, they remain our principal hope for destroying the drug mafias.
I understand that some in President Samper's Administration believe that Colombia's decertification was tied to U.S. election-year politics and that, come January 1997, it will be business as usual for his government. This may account for his apparent blind determination to block extradition and key legislative changes, even in the face of what Vice President Humberto de la Calle described as Colombia's deepening crisis of leadership when he called last week for Samper to step down. President Samper's assessment of U.S. resolve, however, could not be more wrong.
I think that we all agree that destroying the drug trade is one of our foremost national priorities. Our unanimous decisions to deny Colombia certification, and to revoke President Samper's tourist visa reflect this shared conviction. Similarly, our commitment to support the drug traffickers' most steadfast opponents in Colombia, while demanding real cooperation in the drug fight from the government, is undiminished. Sending any other signal to Colombia would be tantamount to granting Colombia's drug traffickers and their corrupt supporters their ultimate victory.
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