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Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, under secretary of state for political affairs, and Peter Romero, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, briefing, August 16, 1999

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE Office of the Spokesman

August 16, 1999

ON-THE-RECORD BRIEFING UNDER SECRETARY FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS THOMAS PICKERING AND ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS PETER ROMERO ON THEIR TRIP TO COLOMBIA AND VENEZUELA

Washington, D.C.

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I have a few opening remarks that I'd like to use with you, and then we can go right to questions.

As Jamie had said, the Secretary asked me to take an inter-agency delegation to Colombia and Venezuela last week, where we had a very successful visit. I had the opportunity to meet with President Pastrana in Bogota, and President Chavez in Caracas, to share ideas with them on strengthening and defending democracy, counter-narcotics cooperation, and a number of economic issues, including foreign investment and socioeconomic development.

As you all know, the US has a powerful incentive to assist Colombia in fighting the scourge of narcotics production and trafficking. Colombia produces the bulk of the cocaine that comes to the United States, and a large and growing percentage of heroin entering this country. An essential element of our counter-narcotics strategy is stopping narcotics production and trafficking at the source. I am pleased to note that we have strong congressional support for our various counter-narcotics programs in Colombia.

Colombia's multiple problems are inter-related. One reason for the guerrillas' military strength is their close connection to drug cultivation and their ability to draw funds from the trafficking and cultivation of narcotics, through taxation and perhaps participation. Guerrilla activities and the social conflict that they engender take a heavy toll on the economy, lead to violations of human rights, and to the displacement of populations.

I've come back from my trip sobered, but certainly not panicked, by the challenges both presidents face. President Pastrana is showing real toughness, by refusing to resume peace talks with the FARC guerrillas as long as they continue to renege on their May promise to him to allow international monitoring of the demilitarized zone. I share his disgust with the brutal murders they have committed of civilians in and out of the zone, including, unfortunately, some Americans.

Colombia faces serious challenges and multiple crises. But it is not in danger of being taken over by the guerrillas. It is important to stress this, because various accounts in Latin America have alleged some kind of unilateral or multilateral US military intervention to save Colombia is under consideration. What I stressed in both countries was these stories are totally crazy and utterly without foundation. I am pleased that my remarks were widely reported in Colombia, and I now hope that we can move on to the real issues in Colombia: How can we help the Colombians help themselves to cope with the multiple crises?

I believe that Colombia's multiple problems, as I said a minute ago, are inter-related. One reason, of course, is drug cultivation is the foundation of guerrilla activities. As a result, we have discussed with the Colombian Government the need to develop a comprehensive national strategy of their own to deal with these inter-related issues. President Pastrana has told me that he intends to undertake such an effort, and to do so with dispatch.

As we work through this, I would like to highlight that whatever we do in close coordination with the Colombian Government, in my conversations with Pastrana, was that we would relying upon the Colombians to take the lead. I appreciated having his personal commitment to seek a negotiated solution to the end of the longest-running civil conflict in the hemisphere, while continuing to combat the guerrilla effort at narcotics and narcotics trafficking.

In Caracas, I spoke with President Chavez, several of his cabinet members and the president of the Constituent Assembly, along with the chief judge of the Supreme Court. I left those meetings impressed with the Venezuelan Government's commitment to fight corruption, and to undertake needed reforms of its public institutions.

President Chavez made clear to me his determination that these changes and reforms must remain within a democratic and pluralistic framework that incorporates a role for minority voices. We also held good discussions on the need for the Chavez Government to define an economic plan to continue to attract foreign investment, and to continue its work to combat narco-trafficking.

Now I'm open for your questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the Secretary's op-ed piece -- I believe it was a week ago -- she suggested the possibility of a regional solution to Colombia's problems. She, I believe, mentioned the spill-over effect, and suggested -- albeit indirectly -- that perhaps the neighbors -- Venezuela and Ecuador and other countries -- might get together to devise some sort of regional solution to Colombia's problems. Do you have any thoughts on that?

UNDER SESCRETARY PICKERING: Yes. I found an interest in the region, in the two states that I went to, in further strengthened regional cooperation to deal with the problems. It is normal and natural, because as problems in one country have been reduced -- Peru -- they have unfortunately moved toward Colombia. As the Venezuelans have seen the Colombian problem increase, they too have seen an increase in the use, illegally, of their airspace to increase the amount of narcotics trafficking. So there is a common set of interests which I found on the part of the two presidents I talked to, and a common effort to move ahead.

The United States is willing to help in the region, and to help to be a catalyst for bringing the region together, as I told them both. But the United States -- and I want to emphasize this -- has no regional plan of its own to impose upon the region; it has a very strong interest in working within the region as they themselves work out what contributions each can make, and how each can participate with the other in dealing with the central problem of narcotics trafficking and some of the allied issues that I've discussed here.

Q: Mr. Pickering, if I could follow on your comments about the reports of possible need of US troops, et cetera. General McCaffrey, I believe just last week, declared Colombia to be in a state of emergency. I would ask, do you agree with that assessment by Mr. McCaffrey? And secondly, how do you compare Colombia now with El Salvador in the day that you were at the embassy there?

UNDER SESCRETARY PICKERING: First, let me say General McCaffrey and I have been in the closest touch on his mission and my mission, and we've been fully coordinated.

Secondly, as I said, both of us believe the situation in Colombia -- a year after President Pastrana had begun his term in office with such high hopes -- has serious difficulties attached to it. There's been a lag in the peace process; the guerrillas have not kept the commitments they made to President Pastrana, to permit an international verification group to enter into the so-called demilitarized zone, to assure that they were complying with the rules of the peace process. Neither he nor I have made any statements to put the situation of Colombia in a position where, in any way, you could interpret that they United States was about to launch the 82nd toward Colombia. That is not our policy; it is a crazy idea; it isn't necessary.

What we are concerned about, and what the emergency is all about is, obviously, the need for the Colombians to take greater efforts on their own. We have been, over the last year and even before, assisting the Colombian National Police through training. We've begun, within recent months, to help to build a specially vetted -- that is, every man carefully looked at for human rights abuse -- Colombian military counter-narcotics battalion of 950 individuals, which is receiving American training and equipment support to join in this particular effort; and more may be necessary after that.

The strategy that President Pastrana will prepare will, I hope, set out a clear way ahead in economics; in drug fighting; in negotiations; in human rights observance in Colombia, that we can support and do these kinds of things. That's where I believe the situation is, and that's where the work needs to go ahead.

Finally, on your second question, there are, in my view, few -- if any -- really logical, easy comparisons to make between El Salvador ten years ago and Colombia now. The fight went on over different issues; narcotics were not a big problem then -- even a small problem. We could sit down and go through many of the distinguishing characteristics that made El Salvador in the 1980s different from Colombia at the end of the 1990s. I hope that you would accept that message and take it home.

Q: Thanks.

UNDER SESCRETARY PICKERING: I'm sorry -- Jamie, am I selecting or -- because I felt that my job description didn't extend to selecting who of you is going to speak, but let me go ahead.

Q: While there are considerable narcotics problems in Colombia, there's also some problems in the American Embassy in Colombia regarding narcotics. Did you address that issue at all?

UNDER SESCRETARY PICKERING: Certainly. There is, as you know -- as far as I know -- a single issue that involved a military dependent. I cannot go -- because it is in investigation -- into further details, but I can refer you to the Department of Defense, which is investigating this. I am happy to say that the stories over the weekend of the involvement of further individuals, in my view, do not bear any truth insofar as I know anything about the situation, and are just not valid.

There have been other investigations of the embassy -- one of the counter-narcotics program -- which produced a single recommendation that draw-downs under the defense draw-down authority ought to be handled with more dispatch, and we accepted that. Another report by the General Accounting Office, looked into the program and carried a description of what was going on in Colombia very much parallel to what I found when I was down there, but carried no recommendations and no criticisms of the State Department. The first report is being followed up at the request of the congressional progenitor of that report, and we will cooperate fully with that and make sure that all the questions are answered.

So I think that, in fact, what you saw over the weekend, with all respect, was a little bit overblown in terms of where it is, as I understand the situation now.

I should finally say that with respect to the embassy, I found them hardworking, engaged, and deeply involved in the issues at hand. The Secretary, I know, has the greatest respect for Ambassador Kirk Kamman, and for his work and accomplishments, and I certainly share that as I know this building does widely.

Q: Mr. Pickering, there are many proposals floating around for a very substantial increase in US aid to Colombia. After your visit do you feel that a large increase would be merited; and how would you recommend that this extra money be spent?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: First, I should say that for some months, we and Barry McCaffrey and his people, and the rest of the inter-agency forums have been hard at work, looking at Colombia.

One of the elements of a review of the situation in Colombia is precisely to take a look at what might be required. As we looked at that, and as we came to grips with this problem, and as I spoke with President Pastrana, I came to feel that President Pastrana's own commitment, in fact, to review clearly and bring together the multiple strategies in the area of economics and peace negotiations and in fighting drugs that he has developed over the year into a single strategy would be key to how and in what way we should recommend to the Secretary, to the President -- and I hope, eventually, to the Congress, if they agree -- additional support for Colombia.

So I think that there is a logical progression of events here; and that logical progression is: the next step is President Pastrana's strategy. The steps after that are American decisions about what we ought to do.

Now, much of what has been discussed and publicized represents, I think, important original thinking in this US Government about the need to continue to find ways to assist Colombia. If the Colombians are prepared, as President Pastrana kept assuring me, to put their own efforts behind his strategy, then to find ways to increase that assistance in the area of training and equipment, particularly to fight narcotics trafficking. We are in this in the narcotics trafficking area; we are not in this in the counter-insurgency area. It's extremely important to distinguish between those, and it's extremely important for the American public to know that. It's extremely important that if we increase our efforts, they be efforts that fully back up and support a Colombian strategy to deal with these issues, with Colombians at work on the ground to make that happen.

Q: Mr. Secretary, with the problem at the embassy, do you think the United States still has the credibility to continue doing the certification process every year to other countries? Do you think the American Government has a right to do this certification annually?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I would say two or three things. First, the problem at the embassy is apparently one dependent, who has unfortunately succumbed in a particular instance. I can't comment further; that's under investigation.

Secondly, certification is the law of the land. The State Department, like any other part of the government, will faithfully and loyally carry out the law of the land.

Thirdly, the State Department and Peter Romero here on my left, and others who work at the State Department who deal with the narcotics problem also believe -- as many congressmen have told me they believe -- that there should be a multilateral effort on issues of certification. We have, of course, earnestly taken a look at that, and are continuing to work with Latin American countries also, to see whether an appropriate move in that direction might make more sense than the present unilateral policy -- the present unilateral legislation.

How and in what way that can be moved ahead remains to be seen. But we have found at least some sympathy and interest in the hemisphere in moving in a multilateral direction, rather than a purely US certification effort. If that can produce better results in the hemisphere, in terms of states taking more responsibility and more vigorous actions, as countries such as Peru and Bolivia recently have done, and as Colombia wants to do and as Venezuela told me they want to do, then I would certainly hope that we could support an effort that had a good chance of doing a better job in this particular direction.

Q: Mr. Pickering, Colombia has announced that it is going to talk to the guerrillas directly. Did you address this issue with Venezuela's Mr. Chavez? Did I say Colombia? Sorry. President Chavez has announced that he's going to talk directly with the Colombian guerrillas. Did you address this issue with him; and what does the United States think about those?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I spent a good deal of my time with President Chavez talking about the broad problems of Colombia and Colombia-Venezuela. I told him that I thought that anything Venezuela did, in an effort to be helpful to Colombia and to President Pastrana, ought to be done in the closest possible coordination with President Pastrana. That was not an American issue, but it was an issue in which America could urge two friends to work closely together, to try to deal with this particular set of problems.

Obviously, President Pastrana expressed to me concerns that, in the peace process that he was organizing, since he had to take the risks for peace inside Colombia, he was the best person to organize in view of that. So the logical view on the part of the United States, and the correct view, in my view, on the part of the United States was to urge the two of them to work in the closest possible conjunction, to achieve a common objective of a full peace in Colombia that respects, obviously, the rights and roles of minority in a democratic future for Colombia.

Q: Sir, on Venezuela, if the constituent assembly closes down congress, how will the United States react? Will you continue supporting President Chavez?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: We have, of course -- and I told this to President Chavez -- will judge President Chavez's actions and steps to the degree to which he is able and willing, not only in his rhetoric but in his actions, to support the democratic future in all of its various aspects that he has made clear he favors for the future of Venezuela.

This includes, obviously, very, very significantly respecting the civil and human rights of his own people, to which he says he is deeply committed, and which I believe, from my conversations with him, that he is ready to do so. So it is against that benchmark, and against President Chavez's own declared goals, that we will judge President Chavez's actions.

We understand President Chavez has undertaken a difficult course. He is now in the process of dealing with a constituent assembly that has been elected with overwhelming support for his candidates to rewrite the constitution. We have made it clear, as he has made it clear, that he intends to have a constitution that has full respect for democracy, human and civil rights and so on -- all of the things that I think we would hope that any country in the hemisphere and beyond would undertake as immediate and very significant governmental goals.

Q: Ambassador, regarding the time constraints, I understand you feel if you want to present some package to Congress you might have to do it sometime next month; which would seem to me that you need to hear from Pastrana very soon. Did he give you any time frame at all of when he -

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Yes, we spoke to him precisely about the constraints that you see. We spoke to him precisely about the hope that we could see work begin very, very soon; and that we were ready to begin our work in support and in collaboration and cooperation with him at the earliest possible days. We will clearly be in touch with him in the coming two or three days further to see the time scale. But he understood very clearly the time scale that we had in mind.

Q: Ambassador Pickering, two questions. The first one is, you talk about waiting for Pastrana to give a strategy to then see how the United States can help out President Pastrana. Isn't that strange that after one year of his being in power, they're still talking about strategies and not results? And the second question is about the decision of President Chavez to not permit space surveillance to the narco-trafficking fight. Already Barry McCaffrey is saying that this is creating a gap and a hole in the equation. So I would like to hear your comments on both of those questions.

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Let me say this -- President Pastrana, as I emphasized, has evolved very clear ideas of strategies in a series of inter-related areas: strategy for the peace process; strategy for the fight against narcotics, including the role and use of both the police and the military; the strategy in the area of economic progress for Colombia, which is very important; the strategy in the area of social and human development, with a special reference to human rights; a strategy for regional diplomacy.

We felt that he was moving on the right track. We encouraged him, as he said he was going to do to me, to integrate these strategies into an overall effort, so that we could see how all of the pieces fit together. He understood that; he himself made it clear that that was a useful intention on his part, and that he would move ahead.

With respect to Venezuela, we and the Venezuelans have been in discussion about how we can best cooperate in the efforts against narcotics. I myself indicated to you a minute ago that in part as a result of success in some areas, narco-trafficking moves to other areas. It is clear to us that Venezuela wishes to achieve a more significant domestic capability in its air force and in its other institutions dedicated to fighting narcotics to surveill and to deal with aerial traffic in its own airspace. This has been a primary objective of President Chavez in his administration. So we are working with him in that particular effort, to see what can be done in that area.

In the meantime, in our conversations in Venezuela, we had, I believe, a significant agreement on things like providing US training and support for that effort and, at the same time, a significant agreement not to permit holes -- if I could put it this way -- to develop in aerial surveillance capabilities in Venezuela. We will continue working closely with and talking with the Venezuelans about how we can achieve that common objective.

We can take one more.

Q: Mr. Pickering, thank you very much. According to Asia Today magazine, the world's largest democracy still stands tall, and India and Pakistan have celebrated 52 years of independence yesterday and also 52 years of enmity. So what message do you have for these two countries?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Sure -- 52 years of amity.

Q: Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: We have Assistant Secretary Romero if you want to continue with questions on the Latin American trip last week. So I'll turn it over to you. Are there additional questions regarding --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: I don't do India, so thank you for getting rid of that.

Q: So is or is not Venezuela permitting US surveillance flights to overfly their airspace for counter-narcotics?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: I think that the key issue here is Venezuelan concern about the regional nature of our counter-narcotics policy; wanting to improve their role in the regional nature of that, particularly as it relates to training and equipment needs that they have -- as Tom just characterized -- to fill the hole, if you will, in terms of counter-narcotics overflights.

We will be talking, we continue to talk to the Venezuelans. We're making good progress on training and equipment needs and overflight issues. We are confident that we can work out whatever remaining issues there are over the next couple of weeks.

Q: Sir, two questions. Under Secretary Pickering ruled out US unilateral intervention in Colombia. Was there any discussion of multilateral presence there, military presence?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: There was no discussion of a multilateral military presence at all. It was our very strong feeling, after about six hours of talks with Colombians, to include President Pastrana, that they feel that this is a Colombian problem that needs to be, in the final analysis, resolved by Colombians themselves.

As Tom mentioned, many of the things that will go into an overarching strategy we've helped with, with respect to counter-narcotics overflights, interdiction, eradication, to include human rights and civil action-type programs, alternative development, et cetera. We'll continue to provide that kind of assistance.

What really is necessary is that the Colombian Government, over the next couple of weeks, weave all of these together into a comprehensive strategy. I think that it is totally appropriate that after a year, the Colombian Government take stock of where they are on the number-one issue in Colombia, which is achieving peace, and that they think about how, perhaps, better to confront the narco-threat with an overarching strategy, which is what they're doing.

We discussed no interventions outside of the Colombians and their strategy.

Q: On that same subject, could you discuss a little bit about this training with 1,000 Colombian soldiers you're undertaking? Mr. Pickering said it may be necessary to train more after that. Just the nuts and bolts: Where are they being trained; what kind of training; does the training include weapons; are they being trained in this country; are they being vetted ahead of time so that the bad apples are weeded out? How will you determine whether you need more than 1,000 American-trained special forces or whatever you call them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: Much to the chagrin of the gentleman who stands there on a daily basis, I was quoted as having said that there will be thousands of Colombians trained over the next couple of years. What I should have said is that there have been thousands trained and we will continue to train.

The scope of that training -- the numbers, what they're trained on, and the depth of that training -- will ultimately be determined by not only the Colombian strategy, but their commitments to advance this particular strategy, and where we can help.

I can't characterize the kind of training in a premature way that will come about from this new strategy and our support to it. We are currently training, among other things, a 950-man battalion, which should be ready, I'm told, by December for deployment. It's a counter-narcotics battalion. It will have helicopter lift and the members of that battalion, as Tom Pickering mentioned, are fully vetted before they enter into the training. That's the value of human rights vetting, particularly for the officers who will lead this battalion.

As I said, it's a little premature for me to say what training might exist, whether it be here in the United States or down in Colombia. Certainly, the Colombian Government evinces a willingness to look at the training and equipment needs in the future, and I think they're committed to professionalization of their forces, to include human rights vetting.

One note an as aside, though -- all groups, both in Colombia and here in the United States and Europe, particularly those NGOs that are concerned with human rights and human rights performance, have all agreed that the performance of the Colombian army -- military in general -- over the last year has improved markedly as it relates to human rights. That's not to give anybody a clean bill of health. Human rights vetting and training is still very important; but there has been marked improvement in Colombia.

Q: Same general subject. There are links between the Colombian military and these paramilitary units about which so much has been written. What did Pastrana say about those links?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: We continue to press the Colombians to follow up and investigate apparent links between Colombian military -- particularly army officers and paramilitaries. There has been some significant improvement on that, to include the arrest of a couple of general officers and a couple of colonels with respect to links to paramilitaries. We will continue to press on that.

There have been excellent moves on the part of the Colombian armed forces to instill human rights training at the most basic level of training in the army and, of course, in the police. We will continue to push on that.

Q: I just wanted to ask -- we hear every day the rebels, the FARC, is getting richer from the proceeds of drug sales, and they're becoming much better armed with those riches. Can you quantify that threat to the Colombian military?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: The numbers of FARC are estimated to be about 20,000. Those numbers have remained fairly static over the last couple of years. I think that it is no one's secret that the FARC takes advantage of a very limited government presence in the oriente -- in the eastern part of Colombia -- east of the Andes; that they have operated there over the last several years; and their operations have become much more bold over the last several months. That's not to say that they are increasing in power or in popular support in the eastern part of the country, but it is indicative of the fact that they are increasingly better organized. I think with respect to equipment, there is absolutely no mistake that they do -- notwithstanding their denials -- benefit from the narco-trafficking. In fact, when you look at Colombian Government efforts, particularly the air eradication effort, you find that while the Colombians have successfully sprayed thousands of hectares of coca crop in the Guaviare Province, you see an explosion of cultivation in the southern part of Colombia, particularly the provinces of the Putumayo and Caqueta areas. These are precisely the areas that -- that the guerrillas operate in.

They claim that they do not cultivate; that they simply impose a tax, if you will, on the production of coca in the areas under their control. I think that it would be naïve to think that they are not involved in production; we believe that they are involved, in some cases, in production. But by and large they reap profits from trafficking, whether they're involved in cultivation or actually trafficking into the United States. They are deeply involved in the whole enterprise.

Q: I have two questions. First, in these discussions with the Venezuelan and the Colombian Governments, did you talk about the intention of the United States -- still an intention -- to establish an anti-narcotics multilateral center in Latin America, especially in Colombia? And also, the second question is you are in discussions on strategies with the Pastrana Government. Do you think that the $500 million that the Pastrana Government requests in addition to the United States' aid will be fair for these strategies you are planning to present to Congress?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESIGNATE ROMERO: I'm not -- on the second question -- $500 million that the Colombian Government has requested?

Q: Yes. A couple of weeks ago the defense minister of Colombia, in his visit to the State Department and the White House or Congress, requested $500 million in addition to the regular anti-drug help that is received from the United States.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESIGNATE ROMERO: On the first question, the counter-narcotics center: The US Government has no plans to re-engage Panama or anybody else in establishing a counter-narcotics center in the region. We were engaged in negotiations, as many of you know, with the Panamanian Government over the establishment of such a center in Panama, particularly Howard Air Force Base, before we drew down. We got to a point where we got very close to agreement on it, only to see the Panamanian Government walk away from commitments that they had already made. I guess the deal-breaker for us was essentially that the Panamanian Government was only willing to give us a three-year guarantee of usage. Our analysis was that it would've cost several million dollars to bring Howard back up to speed again and then to operate it on a yearly basis. With only a guarantee of maximum three years to operate, it just wasn't cost effective. It would've provided a unique opportunity in an existing facility to be able to essentially move right in and use; and that wasn't possible. But since then we have engaged no governments, nor do we have any plans to reinvigorate the whole idea of a counter-narcotics center.

What we have done, in the alternative, is to establish with governments -- now on a temporary basis and hopefully on a more permanent basis within the next couple of weeks -- what we call FOLs -- forward operating locations. That will permit our crews essentially to go in, have crew rest, refuel and take off again and have a much longer time on station over targets set up primarily in Colombia. We've gotten temporary status to use forward operating locations in Curacao, Aruba and in Manta, Ecuador. We are engaged with those countries now in terms of more permanent agreements that will facilitate overflights.

Q: Can you comment on the assassination of Jaime Garzon, whom President Pastrana had appointed to be member of the peace process?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESIGNATE ROMERO: This was a barbaric act. It is not a rare occurrence, unfortunately, that when you have a country that is engaged in this kind of civil conflict that Colombia is engaged in, that extremists of both right and left try to eliminate spokespersons in the center that are preaching a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

We regret very much what happened; our condolences to the family and to the Colombian people writ large. Mr. Garzon was an eloquent spokesman for peace in that country, and our sincerest hope is that the message continue.

Q: Peter, McCaffrey came out with this $1 billion proposal and half of it going to Colombia, but it seems as though the rest of the Administration hasn't really signed off on it. He wrote it in a letter to Secretary Albright and then proposed it. Is this an Administration proposal, or is this something floated by General McCaffrey as his idea of how to go about it; or what is this billion dollar proposal out there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESIGNATE ROMERO: There is the needs request expressed by the minister of defense from Colombia in his visit up here. The drug czar has expressed his view that perhaps it might take a billion dollars. I think that any kind of discussion right now about putting a price tag behind our assistance to Colombia over the next couple of years would be really premature.

There needs to be a very deep, introspective look on the part of Colombians to develop a strategy. Many of the pieces, as I've mentioned before, are already in place or can be moved in place very easily. That needs to be woven together into a strategy. It is wholly appropriate that after a year, with the expectations in Colombia having been that the peace process would be further along than it is, that the government sit down -- that President Pastrana sit down with his cabinet -- and reassess where they're going and develop this kind of overarching strategy. We will be involved in discussions with them as they develop this strategy, and we'll try to assist where we can. But quite frankly, the first steps and the commitments need to be made by Colombians themselves.

Q: Mr. Romero, two questions. When you talked to Mr. Chavez about the decision they have made to talk directly to the Colombian guerrillas, did you expressly say not to do so, or what can you comment on that? And the second question is, have there been any developments on the assassination of three Americans and the decision that FARC would send them to do justice?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESIGNATE ROMERO: On the first question, we discussed Colombia with President Chavez. As you would expect, he is concerned about the spill-over of what's happening in Colombia into Venezuela, and increased lawlessness at the border. We also discussed a possible role that President Chavez might play in subsequent negotiations. But President Chavez has made it clear that he will not engage in discussions with Colombian guerrillas as it relates to negotiations in Colombia, without the express permission and green light given by President Pastrana. He offered that; we accept it on face value. I do believe that he is concerned about the border and the spill-over. As we saw last week, there was the taking of a Venezuelan aircraft by FARC guerrillas into Colombia. I think it would be naïve to think that a country that's engaged in the depth and scope of the conflict in Colombia, that that conflict would stay in Colombia. And the second question?

Q: Has there been any development on the investigation about the three Americans?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY DESIGNATE ROMERO: I wish I could say that there had been or that there was developments on the murders of three Americans in Colombia that were brought to the border and murdered -- actually murdered in Venezuela. We have used every occasion -- both from this podium and publicly -- to express our deep concern about this and certainly our condolences to the families, but an underlying conviction that justice needs to be done. Guerrillas talk about social justice and yet they murder people -- innocent civilians, who had nothing to do in any way with the conflict in Colombia. The United States Government expects the proper accounting from the FARC guerrillas on this.

Q: Thank you very much.

(End transcript)

As of March 13, 2000, this document is also available at http://www.usia.gov/regional/ar/colombia/pick16.htm

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