CARTAGENA, Colombia — Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star U.S. Army general who has led Washington's war on drugs for the past five years, is facing one of his toughest battles yet.
He is overseeing a controversial $1.3 billion U.S. aid package to Colombia that includes combat helicopters, weapons and training by the elite U.S. Special Forces — all part of an effort to stanch the flow of drugs out of a country riven by war, death squads and drug lords.
Despite the scale of the task before him, McCaffrey remains optimistic.
"There's a widespread belief on the part of a lot of very smart people that confronting drug production in Colombia is obviously impossible and therefore why should you start," McCaffrey said in an interview this week in Colombia. "But the situation here is not hopeless."
McCaffrey and U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering met Thursday with Colombian President Andres Pastrana to work out the final details of the aid package. Most of the money will go to supply the nation with about 100 U.S. military advisers, 60 combat helicopters, weapons, and miscellaneous hardware for its war on drug producers.
But the plan, approved by Congress and signed by President Clinton last month, also includes more than $400 million for nonmilitary programs, such as encouraging farmers to plant alternative crops. Specific use of those funds has yet to be worked out, U.S. officials said.
"This is a process that we will need to develop as we go along," Pickering said, adding that both countries have sought advice on how to best use the money from Colombian non-governmental organizations.
McCaffrey calls the aid — military and not — the first step toward Colombia's national recovery.
"No one is saying it will be easy, the hard work now begins. But we need Colombia to know that they are not in this fight alone (and) isolated. We need them to know we will win it," said McCaffrey, who was a commander during the Persian Gulf War and chief of U.S. forces in Latin America.
As director of the White House National Drug Control Policy Office, McCaffrey has often enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington, as well as foes for his tough stand against the use of medical marijuana. During his five years, anti-drug spending has grown to almost $6 billion, funds for drug-prevention programs have increased 54 percent and the budget for drug-addiction treatment has grown 32 percent.
But helping Colombia step back from the brink is another challenge altogether.
Here, Pastrana, who has an approval rating of barely 30 percent, is trying to gain the upper hand in a 36-year war against more than 26,000 leftist guerrillas who reportedly earn at least $370 million a year from their drug-protection racket.
Adding to the violence, right-wing paramilitary units kill guerrillas and civilians suspected of being leftist sympathizers.
Armed groups across the spectrum, as well as common criminals, kidnap some 3,000 people a year for ransom.
And — despite Washington's efforts over the years — Colombian drug production has increased. The country supplies the vast majority of the world's cocaine. It also supplies most of the heroin sold on the East Coast of the United States and now ranks fourth in the world in overall production, U.S. officials say.
Bogota has stepped up its cooperation with Washington on the drug front. On Thursday, Pastrana signed an order to extradite one of his country's most powerful and ruthless drug traffickers to the United States for trial.
Alberto Orlandez Gamboa is wanted by U.S. prosecutors for importing thousands of pounds of cocaine to the United States. His lawyer said he will keep fighting the extradition.
And as McCaffrey helps coordinate the unfolding of Washington's costly assistance to Colombia, human rights groups worry that the U.S. military is getting too friendly with an army that may ignore or even encourage attacks on civilians by right-wing death squads.
Other critics say they see the early stages of Vietnam all over again. Still others are concerned that aerial spraying of pesticides on crops of coca and poppy could harm Colombia's environment — and the health of its citizens.
While McCaffrey rejected those points, he conceded that U.S. aid initiative is not perfect. But he said he believes it is necessary.
"This is a huge, beautiful country with 40 million people whom we admire ... and who are sick of the drugs and the violence here," he said.