About Caucus







September 21, 1999

Colombia: Counterinsurgency vs. Counter-narcotics

The Honorable Brian Sheridan
Assistant Secretary Special Operations
and Low intensity Conflict
Department of Defense

Senator Grassley, as always it is an honor to appear before this caucus to discuss the Department of Defense’s role in United States counterdrug activities as well as how these activities support our national security interests. I particularly welcome the opportunity to address these issues in conjunction with General Wilhelm and Mr. Rand Beers from the State Department. I also want to thank the members of the caucus for their support and interest in the Department’s counterdrug program. Congressional support is critical to ensuring progress is made in our struggle against illicit narcotics, especially cocaine. Colombia continues to be the world’s leading producer and distributor of cocaine, and over the past two years has seen an explosive growth in cultivation. The importance of the connection between Colombia, cocaine, and the U.S. drug problem cannot be dismissed easily from our minds. The sad fact is that Americans spend thirty-eight billion dollars each year on cocaine. Yet, the threat posed by narco-traffickers in Colombia extends not only to American lives but also to the national security of the U.S. Congress recognized this threat when it passed legislation in 1989 directing the Department of Defense to aid in the war against drugs. In this light, the Department has actively pursued a strategy that not only addresses the on-going drug threat, but in fact has taken steps to address the changing drug trafficking patterns.

Evolution of the Threat

The drug trafficking threat from Colombia has changed significantly from the early 1990s to today. In the early 1990s, Colombian labs processed most of the world’s cocaine HCL. Peru on the other hand was the major coca cultivator. For example, in 1993, Peru produced approximately 450 metric tons, that is, more than sixty percent of the world’s coca. Since aircraft are the most efficient way to move tons of HCL, the coca base was moved from Peru to Colombia for processing by approximately 1,000 aircraft flights per year. After processing in southeast Colombia, the traffickers would then fly the cocaine from southeastern Colombia to Colombia’s north and west coasts for transshipment to the U.S.

Today the picture is different. Colombian labs continue to process most of the world’s cocaine HCL and the airbridge from the interior of the country to the northern and western coasts is still in use. However, thanks to Peru’s aggressive air-interdiction operations, combined with an efficient coca eradication program, coca cultivation in Peru has declined by fifty-six percent since 1995, to under 250 metric tons in FY98.

On the other hand, Colombian coca growth is surging. It is estimated that more than 200 metric tons will be produced in Colombia this year, doubling over the past few years. This recent explosion in coca production in Colombia can be attributed to the successful air-bridge interdiction efforts in Peru, which hampered the traffickers’ ability to move large quantities of coca base into Colombia. Consequently, Colombian cocaine producers spurred farmers to develop new fields, primarily in the southwestern region of Putumayo, and plant higher yield coca crops. Despite an aggressive U.S. / Colombia aerial coca eradication program, coca cultivation continues to increase.

The threat in Colombia is further amplified by the growing relationship between the narcotraffickers and guerilla / para-military units. These anti-government forces have leveraged their way into the illegal drug trade to finance their violent and inhuman actions which wreak havoc on the general population, hampering further democratic and economic development of the country as a whole. A strong Colombian counternarcotics effort, which significantly diminishes the financial base of the guerilla and para-military units, would help to provide the firm foundation for further democratic and economic growth throughout Colombia.

The government of Colombia, under the leadership of President Pastrana, is actively developing a comprehensive strategy to coordinate the conternarcotics activities of its combined forces. We applaud this independent initiative and look forward to playing a supporting role in order to assist further the Government of Colombia in reaching its strategic goals. However, it should be clearly understood, that Department assistance will maintain its sole focus on counterdrug support, and that any new initiatives will retain that focus. U.S. military personnel will continue to serve, as they have for many years, as trainers in Colombia. Under no circumstances will U.S. military personnel participate or accompany Colombian forces engaged in operations of any sort. This is very much a continuation of current Department policy…. there are no changes here. Furthermore, U.S. support will continue to be contingent upon the human rights vetting process overseen by the State Department -- an area on which the Colombian military has been placing greater emphasis and achieving significant results.

DoD’s Role in Counterdrug Activities in Colombia

For six years, counterdrug operations in the cocaine producing regions in South America have served as the focus of this administration’s supply reduction programs. The dramatic success of the Peru air interdiction program serves as an example of the merit of this approach. Consistent with this source zone focus, the Department of Defense developed a Colombian strategy designed to attack the Colombian portion of the cocaine threat. The Department’s integrated Colombian strategy consists of four strategic efforts. These efforts form a responsive, flexible and integrated interagency campaign that engages the narco-trafficker across the whole spectrum of the illegal narcotics trade. Let me briefly describe the Department’s integrated Colombian strategy, General Wilhelm will more fully develop the operational perspective.


The Department’s air interdiction effort recognizes that the air movement of cocaine within Colombia is key to the cocaine trade and is vulnerable. Consequently, the administration is focusing on means to deny air transportation from the production regions in the south and east to debarkation points along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. While there are several elements to developing a productive counterdrug aerial interdiction program, the Puerto Rico Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar (ROTHR) and the modernization of the Colombian Air Forces’ A-37 aircraft are key. The Puerto Rico ROTHR will provide the critical air surveillance and cueing necessary for the interception of illegal flights. The Department of Defense, along with the State Department, has embarked on a multi-year initiative to up-grade Colombian A-37s, which will enhance their air intercept capability and improve overall readiness. In FY99, the Department will spend slightly over five million dollars upgrading Colombian aerial platforms used for interdiction and an additional two million dollars on A-37 training for Colombian pilots.


The second strategic effort, riverine interdiction, resulted from the congressionally authorized program to acquire equipment needed to develop and support counterdrug riverine operations in Colombia, with a parallel initiative in Peru. This counterdrug program became necessary due to the concern that drug traffickers would react to the successful Peruvian air interdiction efforts by shifting to smuggling routes that utilized the vast Amazon River network. Furthermore, the rivers provide vital thoroughfares for the movement of essential processing chemicals. Colombia currently fields 18 counterdrug Riverine Combat Elements (RCEs) made up of four boats each. The eventual goal is to deploy a total of 45 RCEs. In FY99, the Department will spend almost five million dollars on boats and equipment for the counterdrug riverine program and an additional two and one-half million dollars for riverine infrastructure development. The Department will also provide riverine training to select units of the Colombian navy, at a cost of two million dollars in FY99.


U.S. Southern Command’s support of the formation of the Colombian counterdrug battalion constitutes the Department’s primary element in the ground interdiction effort. U.S. Southern Command is currently training and providing non-lethal equipment for the battalion, which will be stationed at Tres Esquinas. The training of professional Colombian soldiers began in April 1999 and field exercises are scheduled to be completed in December of this year. All of the select soldiers in the counterdrug battalion have been screened for human rights compliance, in accordance with section 8130 of the Department of Defense Appropriation Act for FY99. This battalion will participate in joint military/Colombian National Police (CNP) counterdrug interdiction and endgame operations in the drug producing regions of Colombia. Approximately seven million dollars will be expended in FY99 and FY00 in support of the counterdrug battalion.

To further enhance counterdrug interdiction operations, the Department is supporting an interagency effort to establish a Colombian Joint Intelligence Center (JIC) which will be collocated with the counterdrug battalion at Tres Esquinas. This center is ideally located in close proximity to one of the major coca growing regions in southern Colombia. The Colombian JIC personnel will be trained and all of the selected soldiers will be screened for human rights compliance, in accordance with section 8130 of the Department of Defense Appropriation Act for FY99. Information disseminated from the JIC will focus joint interdiction operations executed by the CNP and supporting elements of the Colombian military.


The fourth strategic effort, maritime interdiction, is designed to increase support to the Colombian maritime forces that combat traffickers who move their drugs via boats and fishing vessels through the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific transit zones. U.S. Navy ships and aircraft, in conjunction with U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service assets, patrol the region, passing valuable information to Colombian end-game forces positioned along the coast. These efforts are coordinated through the Joint Interagency Task Force in Key West, Florida.

Regional Systems and Programs

These four strategic efforts are supported by numerous Department systems and programs that provide cueing information for follow-on ground, aerial and maritime interdiction efforts in Colombia and throughout the source nation region. Critical counterdrug systems include ground based radar systems; Re-locatable Over The Horizon Radar (ROTHR) systems; P-3 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, including the Counter Drug Unit (CDU) variant; and airborne early warning aircraft such as AWACS and the E-2 that support the interagency’s air interdiction effort, fulfilling the Department’s Detection and Monitoring (D&M) mission. The U.S. Army’s Airborne Reconnaissance Low (ARL) aircraft and Tactical Analysis Teams programs play pivotal roles in the effort to collect, analyze, and distribute critical intelligence information to CNP and military units engaged in counterdrug operations in the field. These supporting systems and related programs are part of a total Department source nation effort of approximately two-hundred and forty seven million dollars in FY99, much of which has been directed towards the Colombian drug threat.

The final element that is instrumental to the success of the Department’s overall assistance program is the full establishment of the planned Forward Operating Locations (FOL). These FOLs support counterdrug operations that had previously staged out of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. The importance of the Department’s counterdrug support operations and the need for a forward-staged U.S. presence to sustain them led Southern Command to develop the current FOL concept. The FOL concept seeks to take advantage of existing airport facilities owned and operated by host nations that are made available under bilateral agreements. Indeed, the concept has already proven its value as U.S. aircraft have continued their detection and monitoring missions on an interim basis from the newly established FOLs in Curacao/Aruba and from Ecuador. The value of U.S. military presence options afforded by FOLs for this mission, specifically the additional location at Manta, Ecuador which is geographically ideal to support D&M missions in southern Colombia, cannot be overstated. We need your support to develop these FOLs fully in order to execute the Department’s congressionally directed D&M mission in the Southern Hemisphere.

DoD’s Role in non-Operational Activities in Colombia

The first U.S.-Colombia Defense Bilateral Working Group (BWG) meeting took place in March of this year in Bogota, Colombia. This BWG proved to be an important milestone in our bilateral relationship as we broadened our discussion to include several topics, including human rights, military justice reform, and military institutional reform as well as counternarcotics issues. The Colombians were pleased with their interaction with the broad range of Department representatives at the BWG. Both the General Policy and Modernization/Proliferation sub-working groups addressed such areas as military justice reform and disaster relief, on which we will work cooperatively over the next few months. The Counternarcotics Working Group also identified several areas for further exploration. Finally, the Defense Ministry, recognizing that its military may not be optimally structured to address the current threat, is studying far-reaching reforms that would streamline the military command structure and improve inter-service coordination.

With respect to human rights, there have been measurable Colombian improvements across the board. According to the State Department’s Human Rights Reports for the last several years, military involvement in human rights violations has dropped dramatically, from half the total in 1993 to less than three percent last year. The Colombian Army has begun to take steps to discipline officers accused of links to the paramilitary groups. These paramilitary groups are credited with the largest percentage of human rights violations in Colombia. The Colombian Congress has also passed a military justice reform bill. This new law will require military personnel accused of human rights violations to stand trial in civilian courts, and it is expected to be signed into law by President Pastrana shortly.


We face a difficult challenge in Colombia. As in the past, the Department will continue to focus on supporting a coordinated interdiction capability that impacts the entire drug cultivation, production and transportation process. The establishment of the Colombian Joint Intelligence Center and the fielding of the Counterdrug battalion will allow engagement of the critical Putumayo coca growing area and cocaine producing laboratories. The riverine program will furnish Colombia with the capability to engage river smuggling activity effectively. Further, U.S. programs are in place for effective air interdiction. Support of north coast maritime operations will ensure that go-fast boats used for drug smuggling are impeded in their routes. Lastly, the newly formed military bilateral exchange provides a mechanism for potent U.S.-Colombian cooperation and program development. Even with these initiatives, there is, however, no near-term solution. Success will be achieved as a result of the coordinated, flexible and sustained strategic efforts directed against all facets of the drug trade in Colombia -- cultivation, production, and transit. With congressional support, I am confident that the Department will continue to play an appropriate supporting role in the U.S. counterdrug effort in Colombia.