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Last Updated:1/28/03
Excerpt from State Department daily briefing, January 14, 2003

Daily Press Briefing
Richard Boucher, Spokesman
Washington, DC
January 14, 2003

QUESTION: Colombia. The de-certification of the first Air Combat Command unit -- can you tell us whether this unit has been receiving any US assistance in recent years, months? You'd say what?

MR. BOUCHER: Well, the answer is, I don't know for sure.


MR. BOUCHER: The implication is yes, but I'd better double-check on the answer because we talked about suspending the assistance, so there must be some assistance to suspend, but what, exactly, it was, I don't know.

We talked about this when we were down in Colombia. The question of this -- it's a question of this unit's involvement in the events that took place on December 19th, 1998, in Santo Domingo in the Department of Antiochia, Colombia.

We discussed this, the Secretary discussed this when he was down in Colombia in December -- made clear that this was a definite possibility. And on January 3rd, 2003, our Embassy in Bogotá informed the Colombian Government that the US had decided to suspend assistance to the Colombian Air Force's Combat Command due to lack of effective, transparent investigation into the incident of 1998.

The Santo Domingo tragedy occurred over four years ago. The prolonged investigation has raised questions about the Colombian Air Force's commitment to determine the facts, and we think it damages the reputation of Colombia's Air Force.

We have not prejudiced the criminal responsibility of the Colombian Air Force members currently under investigation in this case. We support due process and we expect a just ruling based on objective facts.

Well, the unit is not currently receiving US assistance --


MR. BOUCHER: -- it says, as Phil points out to me.

QUESTION: So what --

MR. BOUCHER: It may impact the unit's future involvement in counternarcotics activities.

Let's go over here.

QUESTION: Well, Richard, then, given the fact that it's not getting any money now and the suspension would seem to be nothing, and also given the fact that you're saying that this, that this one unit's sins raise questions about the entire Air Force's commitment to this investigation and damages the credibility of the Air Force, itself, and you weren't limiting it to just this unit, why are you suspending -- why aren't you decertifying the entire Air Force?

MR. BOUCHER: I think that the point is that this is the unit that was involved in this incident and that, therefore, we want to make sure that we're not providing any kind of assistance now or until these things are rectified.

To this particular unit, that doesn't mean that counternarcotics is any less important in terms of our cooperation with the Colombian authorities. But I think it's clear to take a stand and I don't think it will be seen as a light measure when it's looked at down in Colombia, frankly.

QUESTION: Well, how can it not be seen as a light measure if there's nothing affected by it?

MR. BOUCHER: I would gauge that based on the reaction we've seen in Colombia to our discussion of these issues.

QUESTION: Richard, on the level of assistance. It's kind of obvious that it's not currently receiving US assistance because you took this decision last month on suspending any assistance. Can you take a question on how much assistance it has received in the whole of, say, 2002?

MR. BOUCHER: Yeah. I will look back a little bit and get the details there.

QUESTION: Does the US support individual units in Colombia? Or does it support, I mean, I'm just curious as to how that would work. Because wouldn't the Colombian Government just transfer money that it would have spent anyway just to this unit?

MR. BOUCHER: No. The US assistance to Colombia has been because of the various aspects of the law, and counternarcotics has been directed at specific units.


MR. BOUCHER: And that's been the way it's worked in the past.

Okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: Presumably it's much more of a symbolic move because there's not much money, you know, it's not receiving. So what message --

MR. BOUCHER: Well, it's a serious move. I mean, the message is that we want to see these issues investigated and resolved, that we think that a professional military in Colombia needs to be transparent, open and just.

We had a very detailed discussion of these issues when the Secretary was down in Colombia talking to the minister of defense and the senior commanders. And I think they understood as well as the Secretary did in his discussion that -- one of them used the phrase that, "We need an army that's supported by the people." And that the question of whether these kinds of incidents were going to be investigated and resolved was one that affected their relations with the people of Colombia and affected their ability to do their jobs.

So the US being unwilling to provide this kind of support to a particular unit, I think, sends a very clear message that the United States expects these issues to be resolved, resolved in a transparent manner, and resolved in a way that we think, by resolving it can benefit the Colombian Armed Forces and the Colombian people.

QUESTION: But Minister of Defense Martha Lucia Ramirez said that it's not correct that the State Department took this decision when the investigation goes on.

MR. BOUCHER: Well, I didn't see her exact statement. I would have to say that one of the reasons we took this decision is because the investigation has dragged on, and we believe it's time to reach a resolution of these issues, but to do so in a way that's transparent and open that brings to light all the facts and then clears the air about what happened in 1998.

QUESTION: The Secretary also in Bogotá announced an increase in the amount of military aid for Colombia, presumably. Any decision on this doesn't affect that contention and --

MR. BOUCHER: No, we can spend it elsewhere. As we pointed out, remember the US assistance to Colombia has been directed at specific units, often units that were vetted and trained and designed to do particular functions in the fight against narcotics. Now with a legal authority we'll be supporting units that do particular things against the fight against terrorism. Remember, security for the pipeline has been one of the issues that we were most concerned about. But because of ongoing concerns about human rights conditions, about the status of the military, about the status of rebel groups and paramilitaries and their contacts with people, we have been very specific in our assistance to Colombia to make sure it went to the places and the units and the functions that we, in the United States, the government and the Congress, to go to those points that we thought were most appropriate.

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