Powell Urges Military Restraint in Colombia

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday he wants to strengthen Colombia's ability to fight drug dealers and terrorists but added that continued rights abuses by the Colombian military must stop.

Powell, who arrived here for talks with President Alvaro Uribe, reaffirmed that U.S. military and nonmilitary assistance is expected to increase to $500 million from $300 million.

He said 72 U.S. helicopters have been delivered to Colombian security forces this year, part of a huge increase in security assistance since 2000.

But Powell said he planned to tell Uribe during a meeting Wednesday that human rights must be a Colombian priority as it combats the country's endemic lawlessness.

"There will be a big expectation that that, as the Colombian armed forces and the Colombian police are strengthened to deal with this problem, there can be no tolerance for abuse of human rights of the kind that has been seen in the past," Powell said.

Powell arrived at a military airport in Bogota amid heavy security. Two military helicopters circled over the city, while more than 50 motorcycle police officers and hundreds of soldiers were deployed to guard the route to his hotel.

In a predeparture interview with a Colombian newspaper, Powell said he sees the visit as a show of support for Uribe in his efforts to fight "those terrorist elements within Colombian society who are trying to destroy the dream of the Colombian people to have a democracy that gives them a society that is safe."

Besides drug trafficking, Uribe faces a host of problems, including a long-running civil war, but American officials say the country appears to be headed in the right direction. In contrast, the situation is worsening in Latin America's other troubled countries.

Powell said there has been a significant expansion in coca eradication efforts in Colombia this year but he added that the country has not reached the point where eradication is outstripping coca plantings.

Other officials said Uribe, who has been in office a little over 100 days, has fewer inhibitions about eradicating fields of coca, the raw material of cocaine, than did his predecessor, Andres Pastrana. Colombia is the source of 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the heroin consumed in the United States.

The current spraying campaign is far more extensive than previous efforts, leaving officials hopeful that coca farmers, particularly in southwestern Putumayo Province, will become discouraged and try their hand at legal crops. One problem with the program is that spraying does not discriminate; it wipes out legal as well as illicit crops.

If farmers can be turned away from cocaine, it would reduce revenues of the country's major guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and make it more amenable to a negotiated settlement, officials hope.

A peace process begun by Pastrana was broken off last February after several fruitless years.

The United States has provided well over $1 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000, mostly in military goods. The aid had been restricted to counternarcotic work, but the administration has freed the Colombians now to use it against insurgents.

Last September, the State Department drew protests from U.S. rights groups after certifying that Colombia's armed forces had met human rights standards imposed by Congress in three areas. The action cleared the way for the release of $41 million in military assistance.

After the September decision, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America said the Colombian military had failed to meet the law in all three areas.

After meetings Wednesday morning with Uribe and other officials, Powell will tour counternarcotics facilities and then confer with local human rights groups.

Perhaps the worst abuser of human rights in Colombia, the rightist AUC paramilitary, announced a unilateral cease-fire last week. Like the leftist rebels, the AUC also traffics in cocaine.

Powell said it remains to be seen whether the AUC, listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, will renounce its "extralegal, unconstitutional actions."

Even though the AUC is trying to project a new image, Powell said the administration will continue to seek the extradition of the group's leader, Carlos Castano.

Castano was indicted in September for allegedly exporting 17 tons of cocaine into the United States and Europe since 1997.