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U.S. aid to help Colombia battle drug lords debated

WASHINGTON (BP)–A $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia that includes military assistance has received praise from some evangelical groups who liken the South American drug problem to a full-scale war.

White House drug control chief Barry McCaffrey said in mid-February the aid package is essential after CIA estimates showed a sharp increase in Colombian cocaine production — 20 percent over 1998 and 50 percent over 1995. McCaffrey delivered his information at a hearing of a House subcommittee on drug policy, according to the Associated Press.

In prepared testimony, McCaffrey said the new data illustrates “the urgency for congressional action in support of the administration’s $1.6 billion aid package to Colombia. Without additional U.S. assistance, Colombia is unlikely to experience the dramatic progress in the drug fight experienced by its Andean neighbors.”

Barrett Duke, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s vice president of research, voiced support for the Clinton administration’s plan. “I applaud Gen. McAffrey’s proposal to provide the people of Colombia with the means to fight their war against the drug barons in their country,” Duke said.

“If something is not done soon to stop the growing power and influence of these drug barons, Colombia may find itself unable to prevent its complete domination by powerful, immensely wealthy criminals,” Duke added.

According to CIA figures, cocaine production reached 520 metric tons last year, up from 435 tons in 1998 and 230 tons in 1995, with some members of Congress blaming the Clinton administration for the increase.

“Despite years of congressional pleas for counter-drug assistance to Colombia, countless hearings and intense congressional efforts, resources approved by Congress have failed to be provided to Colombia,” the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. John L. Mica, told the Associated Press.

Duke noted, “Obviously, reducing the supply of drugs is only one part of the solution. I agree with those who say that a large part of the drug problem in our country is caused by demand. We must find ways to reduce demand in our country, but it is wrong to think that supply isn’t part of the problem.

“If drugs were less available, demand couldn’t be met. I am especially troubled by those legislators who would limit the availability of guns in our country in order to reduce violent crime and yet reject the idea of reducing our country’s drug problem by reducing the availability of drugs,” Duke said.

Democrats who criticized the $1.6 billion aid plan cited the inclusion of 63 helicopters that would be a key component of the drug war. Rep. Janice Schakowsy of Illinois suggested the administration abandon the “militaristic approach” to the issue and concentrate instead on drug treatment programs. She said these programs are “times more effective than drug interdiction schemes,” the AP reported.

The Clinton administration reiterated its position of no hands-on military involvement in Colombia. “The United States has no intention of sending troops to Colombia to fight,” an envoy said after meeting with Colombian President Andres Pastrana.

U.S.-trained Colombian army battalions will provide ground and air support while crop-dusting planes spray deadly herbicides on the crops, the AP reported.
Armed resistance is expected from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the 15,000-member rebel group that dominates a region of Colombia estimated to be about the size of the state of Pennsylvania, or more than one-tenth of the country.

Duke said the United States has a “moral obligation” to provide help. “It is right for the United States to assist any country in its struggle against evil,” he said. “Our failure to assist Colombia in their war against the drug barons that threaten the stability of their country would be the moral equivalent of witnessing a murder and doing nothing to prevent it.”

Robert Maginnis, the Family Research Council’s senior director for national security and drug policy, agreed.

“If we want to keep drugs away from our backyards, we first need to keep drugs away from our borders,” Maginnis said. “Stopping the Colombian drug flow is vital to safeguarding American kids from the dangers of drugs.”

Maginnis, a charter member of the national Parents Advisory Council on Drug Abuse, said 80 percent of the cocaine and 75 percent of the heroin seized in the United States comes from Colombia.

“The alarming surge of narco-guerrilla violence in Colombia constitutes a crisis that demands American response,” Maginnis said. “Colombian guerrillas and drug cartels are working together to produce purer, less-expensive drugs that are becoming easier and easier for American kids to obtain.

“In the ever-ranging war against drugs, we all have a part to play, Maginnis said. “When parents and teachers talk to kids about the dangers of drugs, they can help curb the demand. And the government can help curb the supply of drugs by cracking down on international drug cartels. In terms of drug production and trafficking, Colombia has become ground zero.”

Not all evangelicals, however, regard military aid to Colombia as a viable help in the drug war.

“Basically, I can’t see where pouring $1.6 billion is going to help solve any problems,” said Deann Alford, Latin American bureau chief for Compass Direct, a news service operated by the Open Doors ministry of Brother Andrew.

“This whole thing reeks of Vietnam. The war cannot be won. It’s been going on since the 1940’s,” Alford said.

“If you give that much money to a country with no accountability, there’s nothing to stop the guerrillas, paramilitary groups or thugs from getting a cut of the pie” — which she said spells more trouble for evangelicals.

“There have been horrible human rights violations against Christians in Colombia,” Alford said. “If the Army finds a Christian living in a town with a lot of FARCs, they will kill you, and paramilitary groups don’t even ask questions. They just start killing people.”

Inside the FARC zone, pastors are routinely censored. Alford said their sermons must be pre-approved by FARC leaders. “And if they aren’t,” she said, “the pastors could face incarceration or even worse.”

One man was killed because FARC leaders thought he was the pastor who organized a prayer campaign against drug efforts, Alford said.

That “man” was Sisinio Bernal, a U.S.-based pastor who was developing plans to hold a crusade in Medellin, Colombia. Bernal was shot in the face and killed instantly on Dec. 15 in front of a church.

“Anyone who lives down there and is perceived to be against any group is targeted,” Alford added. “It’s such a violent, anarchic free for all, it’s hard to say if there’s a covert effort to simply go after Christians. Everyone is a target.”

The list of violence against Christians in Colombia is staggering. The danger is so great that many missionary organizations will not even release the number of workers they have in Colombia.

Wycliffe Bible Translators recently closed one of its field offices in Colombia and centralized their efforts in Bogotá for safety concerns.

In February 1999, Compass Direct reported on a pastor in the rural province of Boyaca who was asked to join a guerrilla movement. The pastor refused and was killed during a meeting with the guerrillas. Then they called the pastor’s wife to collect his body.

Another pastor, working in a guerrilla-controlled zone in the rural Meta province, began evangelizing in a nearby Colombian army camp. The pastor’s shoes were worn, so the soldiers in gratitude gave him a pair of boots. Later, guerrillas kidnapped the pastor, saw him wearing the boots, suspected he was a military sympathizer and killed him. Then the guerrillas closed the church.

“There is no safe place anywhere in Colombia,” one former pastor told Compass Direct. “Not in their houses, cars or streets.” Recalling the kidnapping of an entire Catholic congregation attending mass in Cali — some 140 people — he told Compass Direct, “And of course, not in a church.”

In addition, satanic groups also have reportedly attacked churches and Christians, especially in Cali. Alford said some churches have suffered repeated attacks. In late June, a pastor in the city of Armenia was wounded and his brother was killed by suspected Satanists.

And now, Alford said, there is a new custom facing churches — tossing grenades into churches during worship services. Some believe the narco-traffickers are responsible for this latest act of violence against Colombian believers.

“That’s why I don’t believe throwing money down here is going to do any good,” Alford said. “The only thing that is going to change this situation is to change hearts through Jesus Christ.”

Now, the violence is edging closer to American borders. According to Reuters News Service, drug traffickers have offered a $200,000 bounty for the murder of U.S. federal agents along the Mexican border.

“Our own law enforcement personnel are targeted for death by these criminals,” Duke said. “We must respond in any way we can to protect our borders and our citizens. Colombia still has the will to fight this war. We must join them in their battle or we will all suffer the consequences.”

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  • Todd Starnes