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June 3, 2003

Regarding U.S. Narcotics Policy in Colombia


The Honorable Marshall Billingslea
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
U.S. Department of Defense


Chairman Grassley, Senator Biden, distinguished members of the Caucus, I am here today to discuss Department of Defense programs and policy that assist Colombia in its battle against narcoterrorism.

Over 75 percent of the world's coca is grown in Colombia, primarily in remote areas where there is little government control. In turn, nearly all of the cocaine consumed in the United States is produced and shipped from Colombia. Much of that revenue ultimately finds its way into the coffers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a terrorist group bent on the violent overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Colombia. Indeed, Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America, and is locked in a struggle with one of the strongest narcoterrorist organizations in the world. The FARC fields several thousand operatives, and is organized into several regional blocs. The FARC also is multinational in character, with financiers in Europe, and support infrastructure throughout Latin America. However, as the United States and our European allies have steadily clamped down on FARC fundraising efforts, the terrorist group is increasingly dependent upon drug running from Colombia to finance its operations.

The United States has been working closely with the Administration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. In keeping with an overall administration strategy to support President Uribe's efforts, the Department of Defense has increased assistance to the Colombian counternarcoterrorist effort. Recognizing the linkages between drug trafficking and terrorism - linkages that exist elsewhere in the world, I might add, when one considers the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines and al'Qaida revenues from Afghanistan -- Congress provided expanded authority to support Colombia's efforts.

Colombia is at a critical juncture in its history. President Uribe's government currently enjoys a seemingly unprecedented level of public support. No longer is the FARC romanticized as an egalitarian resistance movement. Rather, the FARC is now widely understood to be a group of vicious drug lords who conscript children at gunpoint and who plant car bombs and launch mortar attacks for the express purpose of killing innocent civilians. Under President Uribe's strong and determined leadership, the government is gradually regaining control of areas controlled and terrorized for decades by the narcoterrorists.

Colombia's military is making great strides, bolstered by a renewed sense of the possibility for success amongst the Colombian people. The Colombian government and its people are committed now more than ever before to save their country from the FARC, the ELN, and other armed groups. Over the past several months, the COLMIL has proven that it can more than hold its own against the FARC while operating in the field. A number of courageous, and daring operations have been mounted against the FARC by the Colombian Military; they have succeeded in capturing or killing a number of terrorist operatives, including some very senior level commanders. The effectiveness of the COLMIL efforts is steadily improving, and they have accumulated a great deal of experience - particularly as a result of the massive combined arms operation that was directed against the FARC unit that is currently holding 3 DoD Contractors hostage. All of this has been happening while other key elements of the Colombian government have been moving against the FARC's coca fields in an eradication effort, and with an increasingly successful amnesty program that is inducing key FARC leaders and operatives to lay down their arms.

DoD is supporting the Colombian Military (COLMIL) effort in a number of ways. We are doing this, I note, under a Congressionally-imposed "cap" that limits the United States to having no more than 400 DoD personnel, and no more than 400 contractors in Colombia. To my knowledge, nowhere else in the world do we work under such a legislated restriction. That said, we have been able to provide a great deal of assistance to the Colombian government while working within this cap.

For instance, we are providing U.S. military assistance teams to help the Colombian Military (COLMIL) fuse their intelligence and operations. It is one thing to have "intelligence" about a terrorist group. It is quite another to be able to take that intelligence, and put it to good use operationally to thwart planned terrorist attacks. We are helping with the complexities inherent in that effort. Other DoD programs which support the COLMIL include intelligence, training, logistics, maintenance support, construction, radar support, and equipment.

We also have some joint programs that are focused on the development, equipping, and training of specially trained units within the Colombian military. These units include the Colombian Counternarcotics Brigade, Special Forces Commando Battalion, LANCERO Battalion (Rangers), and a Special Operations Command headquarters staff. I note, for the record, that each of these units is carefully vetted through the Department of State in accordance with U.S. law relating to human rights. The Colombian members of these units are highly professional, dedicated specialists, and they have demonstrated their respect for Colombia's civilian population, as well as their special operations prowess, in a number of recent combat actions.

U.S. funded infrastructure will allow the LANCEROS to deploy forward and put the training and equipment to use. Moreover, in order to best support these new forces, we are assisting both the Colombian Army and Air Force with mobility, including aviation training and C-130 logistics and maintenance support.

By upgrading C-26 aircraft and providing logistics and maintenance support to the Colombian Air Force Schweizer program, we are increasing their ability to detect, monitor, and intercept illicit air traffic. Our plans include increased support to the Colombian Navy, such as infrastructure, interceptor boats, fuel, and command and control systems.

Again, I reiterate that there is no meaningful distinction between drug traffickers and terrorists in Colombia. They are one and the same. Expanded authority is crucial to leverage our resources against both of these evils at the same time. This authority has increased the effectiveness of our support to Colombia during 2003, and is fundamental to the effectiveness of the Administration's policy. Securing expanded authority at least through Fiscal Year 2005 would be enormously helpful, and we appreciate the efforts of the Authorization Committees to support this authority.


Conclusion

I am extremely optimistic about potential results in Colombia. Though much remains to be done, I believe we are on the right path. Our continued support to President Uribe during this window of opportunity is critical. We are at a point where the progress in eliminating drug trafficking and narcoterrorism ensures the future of Colombian democracy. This is of paramount importance to the Administration, though I do note that success in destroying the FARC will have an effect on the cocaine flow into the United States. However, if we do not keep up the pressure and momentum, we will lose the progress that has already been made. Obviously, there are many pressing concerns in other regions of the world. We are no less intent on working to stop poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and methamphetamine trafficking by North Korea, but we do keep in mind that Colombia is a close ally within this hemisphere. Our support to Colombia's continued progress is important to our national security.

The Department appreciates Congress' continued support of our initiatives, most recently evidenced in the emergency supplemental, which included $34M for Colombia programs. This will go a long way to assisting Colombia in their fight against narcoterrorists. I would like to thank you, Chairman Grassley, Senator Biden and the Members of the Caucus for the support you have provided. I look forward to answering your questions.