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Clinton visits Colombia to back fight on drugs

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WASHINGTON — President Clinton headed to Colombia on Wednesday with $1.3 billion in U.S. aid earmarked for propping up the South American nation's fight against drugs and insurgents.

His brief visit was confined to the scenic Caribbean port city of Cartagena, site of a major hemispheric drug summit 10 years ago and far from the violence and poppy and coca fields that yield much of the cocaine and heroin used in the United States.

Clinton's trip was aimed at boosting Colombian President Andres Pastrana's $7.5 billion initiative to ease the narco-traffickers' grip on his nation, make peace with insurgents financed by drug profits, rev up the economy and strengthen the justice system.

"Colombia's democracy is under attack," Clinton said in an address televised to Colombians on the eve of his visit. "Profits from the drug trade fund civil conflict. Powerful forces make their own law, and you face danger every day."

Clinton was spending all his time in Cartagena, a 467-year-old coastal city with churches, monasteries and shaded plazas. Situated on the northern tip of Colombia, Cartagena is 400 miles from the nation's capital, Bogota, and farther still from the southern sections of the country where guerillas and paramilitary groups rule.

His stay is short partly because of security concerns in a nation the State Department calls one of the most violent in the world. Ninety percent of the cocaine in the U.S. market and two-thirds of the heroin on the East Coast comes from Colombia.

Clinton's visit includes a tour of the Port of Cartagena where he will be briefed on drug-interdiction efforts, meet with Colombian National Police and talk with widows of police officers who have been killed in the line of duty.

Later, he will go to a low-income neighborhood to tour a Casa de Justicia, one of 20 centers funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that gives Colombia's poor greater access to the justice system. People can walk into these centers and see ombudsmen, social workers, public defenders, mediators and others who can help them resolve civil and criminal matters.

The idea is to bolster law and order in a country overrun by lawlessness.

Pastrana himself was kidnapped by the Medellin drug cartel in the late 1980s and freed in a dramatic rescue. But besides fighting drug traffickers, the one-time mayor of Bogota and former fellow at Harvard University is trying to nudge the nation out of recession.

Economic growth declined 3.5 percent in 1999, although it was up by 2.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. Unemployment reached 20 percent in mid-1999 but is on the decline.

Elected on a peace platform, Pastrana also is trying to negotiate an end to hostilities with Marxist guerillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. In conflict with the state for 36 years, both engage in kidnapping and other acts of violence against citizens, foreigners, the government and commercial installations, such as oil pipelines.

"This is a very tough place," said Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser. "I think we can either . . . help Colombia in its effort to deal with that problem, or stand back and let Colombian democracy collapse."

The U.S. part of Pastrana's "Plan Colombia" is aimed at helping the Colombian military take control of cocaine-producing regions held by the guerrillas and paramilitary groups. The U.S. assistance includes funds for 60 combat helicopters and training for the Colombian military, plus money for building schoolrooms, water systems and roads, judicial reform and protecting human rights.

Last week, Clinton waived conditions for the release of the U.S. aid that are aimed at overcoming military abuses and bringing human rights violators to justice. The decision prompted protests from human rights groups and some lawmakers, including Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "There will be tough questions when they come back to Congress this fall for the next installment," he said.

The United States is providing the Black Hawk and Huey helicopters and training to support a military push into southern jungles where guerillas and the militias take payoffs to protect peasant drug plots and traffickers' airstrips and labs.

U.S. officials insist that Washington is not being embroiled in a Vietnam-style civil conflict. They say, however, that U.S.-trained troops and equipment will be used against guerrillas who try to block efforts to eradicate drug crops and destroy labs.

Ivan Rios, a commander of the most powerful guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has vowed to resist what he calls "U.S. aggression."

On the Net: State Department: www.state.gov/www/regions/wha/index.html