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Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for Political Affairs, and Peter Romero, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, press briefing, May 10, 2000
Office of the Spokesman

May 10, 2000


Washington, D.C.

MR. REEKER: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome back to the State Department briefing room.

As advertised, we are very pleased to have Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, as well as Acting Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero, to brief you this afternoon on their upcoming trip to Colombia where they will be discussing Plan Colombia and meeting with Colombian officials, including President Pastrana. Both gentlemen have brief opening remarks, and then they will be happy to take your questions.

So let me go directly to Under Secretary Pickering.

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Thank you, Phil, very much.

Peter Romero and I leave tomorrow for Cartagena, Colombia, with an interagency group. This will be the third mission we've undertaken to Colombia in nine months, and it underscores our concern about the situation in that country. During the visit, we will be meeting with officials of the Colombian government, including President Pastrana, to discuss the details of Plan Colombia implementation.

While, as you know, Plan Colombia is a Colombian plan, we share with the people of Colombia the goals of eradicating illegal drugs, promoting alternative crops and economic development, fostering respect for human rights and the rule of law, and reaching a peace agreement in that troubled country.

The situation in Colombia is serious, and the United States has serious interests at stake. Ninety percent of the cocaine reaching the United States originates in Colombia, and Colombia also produces a very large share of the world's heroin. The pernicious effects of drugs hit our communities all over this country every day, and are putting great strains on the fabric of Colombian society.

Last year, as we have noted many times in the past, 52,000 Americans died -- in one way or another -- as a result of drug trade and drug trafficking, and over $110 billion were lost to our economy. Last week in his address to the Council of the Americas, President Clinton called on the Congress swiftly to approve funding for the United States aid package in support of Plan Colombia. He also said, and I quote, "We must not stand by and allow a democracy elected by its people, defended with great courage by people who have given their lives, be undermined and overwhelmed by those who literally are willing to tear it apart for their own agenda."

The delay in the Congress has hurt our efforts to help Colombia deal with its problems. There appear to be some members who lack understanding of the urgency of the situation and the costs of this delay. Already, we have had to curtail helicopter pilot training, and our spraying operations against coca and poppy cultivation are down 50 percent.

This will degrade our ability to support Colombia's counter-narcotic efforts, if our Congress is not able to act quickly to provide the adequate resources. We are grateful for the support of many members who voted for the supplemental in the House of Representatives, and particularly to Speaker Hastert for his leadership on this critical issue.

In contrast, the Senate's slow response to this crisis contrasts with the letter sent to the President last summer by the House and Senate leadership, urging speedy action to deal with the Colombian situation. Now is obviously the time for the Senate to take its own advice.

The bills, as marked up yesterday by the Senate, present a mixed record. Of the $1.3 billion of new resources requested in the President's supplemental, the Senate has provided $1.1 billion. We would, of course, prefer the full request, and we would prefer that the supplementals move as quickly as possible.

In addition, the Senate has introduced -- for the first time, I understand, quite possibly -- a point-of-order condition for the non-military portion of the bills that are related to the supplemental request, which now means that rather than requiring a 50 percent majority for passage, if a point of order is called on these portions of the bill, a small minority of 40 percent can block further action on that part of the funding -- something, obviously, that we believe is a serious mistake, and our hope is that it will not influence the outcome of this very important legislation.

While the focus of our session this afternoon is on Colombia and on the Andean region, I want to take this occasion, because my own responsibilities cover the broad range of the Department's interest, to note that we consider the lack of funding for assistance programs in Kosovo, UN peacekeeping operations, and State Department security in diplomatic activities to be serious omissions from yesterday's bills marked up in the Senate.

I would now like to turn the podium over to Ambassador Peter Romero, who will speak to you about the regional context of our support for Colombia, and after that both of us are prepared to address your questions.

Thank you. Pete.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY ROMERO: Thank you, Tom. What I'd like to do is to give you a little bit of an overview as to the regional dimensions of Plan Colombia, but also what we have pulled from our experiences in the last couple of years and incorporated into the Plan Colombia.

What we have is unprecedented and historic reductions in coca cultivation, in both Peru and in Bolivia, over the last couple of years. In Peru, we have a reduction of about 66 percent of hectarage devoted to coca cultivation in the last three years and, over the last two years in Bolivia, approximately 52 percent.

But that's only a piece of the story. The story is that these governments -- with our collaboration -- have learned to do a better, more comprehensive, integrated job in getting to the root causes of coca cultivation and combating them, through programs designed for alternative development; micro-enterprise, the kinds of community-based benefits where you can use the community to police the others to ensure that there's no return to coca cultivation; local elections; in some, kind of bootstraps-type programs that have been highly successful in countries that have engaged in lots of coca cultivation, particularly Bolivia and Peru where the majority of coca was produced.

In conjunction with that, there has been significant efforts at law enforcement to cut the air bridge in Peru, but also to engage in filling the vacuums of government presence and law enforcement presence in these areas. And I think, if I can leave you with anything today, that is the key. Because in the upper Huallaga, in Peru, and the Chapare in Bolivia, the key to success has been filling the vacuums of an absence of government presence that existed before with government programs and law enforcement. Finally, interdiction has been very, very important, particularly as it relates to Peru.

All of those lessons learned are what we are attempting to do and what we are asking the Senate to do now in its action to fully support Plan Colombia. There is a good regional component to what the President has submitted and what the House marked up and what the Senate passed out of committee yesterday. But the key ingredient is to be able to reach this area, called the Putumayo in Colombia, which is currently outside of government reach. And it is there where it is no coincidence that "cocalleros," or coca growers, have essentially located themselves where there is a high guerrilla presence and where the government does not enjoy control, particularly out of the provincial capitals.

Q: I would like to ask Mr. Pickering a question. Plan Colombia was announced, as I recall, by President Pastrana last September. Could you give us your assessment as to what has transpired in those seven or eight months vis-à-vis that Plan?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Yes, I think it is useful to do that. Plan Colombia was announced in September. By early December, we had put together a very large package of support for two years, 2000 and 2001: $1.6 billion, 1.3 billion in new money. Of this particular package, slightly less than $300 million was essentially for some of the critical questions that Pete just mentioned, which played a large role in the success in Bolivia and Peru: alternative development; democratic governance and its spread into the countryside; human rights and the protection of human rights workers; judicial reform; rule of law -- the essential underpinnings of making a society work successfully.

The bulk of our effort -- and that has to be fitted into a $7.5-billion program over multiple years supported by the Colombians at the level of about $4 billion -- is to provide in many ways the critical military equipment required to deal with the special facets of the problem in Colombia. In the Putumayo and Caqueta Departments, for example, the drug trade is currently protected by both the left-wing FARC guerrilla organization, and now, increasingly, by the right wing extremist paramilitaries. Now both of them, in fact, are deriving enormous incomes from protecting and in fostering and, indeed, in becoming engaged themselves in the growing, in the laboratory treatment, in the transport and marketing, of these crops; particularly in those regions, coca.

The sense that we have is that the level of monetary gain that this represents for the guerrillas is now approaching between four and five hundred million dollars a year. It makes them, in fact, extremely rich and extremely able to re-equip, as they have, their troops with new equipment, some of the best in the world, and to continue to spread this malign practice.

And, therefore, just this point I think is important to make: You are seeing, in a sense, the hollowing out of government in critical regions of Latin America, and its replacement by individuals who are, in fact, introducing a narco-government, a narco-small empire, if you would like to say it that way, which in fact is increasingly threatening the local governments as well as the United States, through the drug trade and the military action that it supports.

And if they ever had political and economic objectives, they seem to have faded, maybe with the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of Marxism on the left, and probably with the very lucrative trade that this represents for the extremists on the right.

So how do we get at those particular issues, or how do we help -- better to say it -- the government of Colombia to get at those issues? In many cases, these people are so well armed and organized that it requires organized military activity on the part of the Colombian Government. And, here, the vetted battalions, those who have been examined so that we are not supporting anybody who is engaged in human rights violations, and special training, and the ability to move rapidly provides the central spearhead for the recovery of those areas that Peter talked about that was so important in Bolivia and in Peru.

Once recovered, obviously, the rest of the program can come into play. Police can engage in eradication if, in fact, they don't have to meet massive firepower on the other side to defend the fields and the coca crop or the laboratories.

Secondly, alternative development can kick in. Displaced persons can be moved to places where they can find an alternative living at a reasonable rate with government support. New crops can be grown in the regions, and we already have experience in the places that Peter talked about, where those individuals we know can make an honest living in carrying forward honest work with government help.

So this is the thesis of all of this, and this is why our aid is spread over these various arrangements.

Final point. A big share of the Colombian Government contribution is also not in the military area. Probably nearly a billion dollars already committed, especially to Plan Colombia targets by the international financial institutions, is all in the non-military area. And we are working closely with Colombia and European governments and Japan for a further contribution which will support, again, the non-military portion. But I wanted you to have the balance and the integrated relationship, and what our feeling is about the potential for this particular approach, based on the success already achieved in the region for producing a successful advance.

Q: I'm a little unclear as to exactly what you're going to be talking about when you get down there, because it seems to me this may be a little - this trip may be a bit premature. The Colombians already know how much you want to get to give them to help them, but you don't have it yet, and you're going down there with nothing. I mean, you're not going down there with a check in hand because you don't have it yet.

So why now?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I think it's an excellent question, and it's an important one. We are going down as part of a series of discussions we've had with the Colombians, building on ideas for a plan -- their putting together of the Plan -- which is an overall strategy, moving on to particularly working with them as to how this Plan can get operationalized. And particularly Pete's pointing out the Putumayo Department, the importance of an integrated effort by the United States in support of a fully integrated effort by Colombia to deal with that issue. And I've pointed out how it all has to work together is very significant

So we will be talking specifically to Colombians about this southern portion of the plan, about how to integrate, about how to strike the appropriate balance in areas. Are people going to have to move from the jungle because it can't support their agriculture, or is there good land where they can be resettled and protected by the government? A whole series of very intricate questions in this process come up.

Also, just as in our government, our military and civilians don't sit down every day across the board, including many of the agencies that will be engaged in supporting this Plan. So too in Colombia; civilians, police, and military have rarely sat down and worked together. And one of the things we will be able to do, we believe, as a result of our meeting in Cartagena, is to begin to get both sides used to the fact that if there is to be success particularly in this element of the Plan, and in others, there has to be a broad contribution; that we have to know and they have to know what it is their going to do with each facet, and the pieces all have to work together.

You can't have a finely functioning watch with only one gear, as we all know. So all the gears have to mesh, all the parts have to work together, all the plans have to be understood by each other, and there has to be a mutual contribution. If the police say they can't do "x," then we know that the alternative development can't do their piece, and that the military can't do their piece. On the other hand, if it can be fitted together appropriately, we know it can work, and we have seen it work in places like Bolivia and Peru.

So this is a very important next stage. You're right. It isn't easy to go to a country like Colombia and say, "We're sorry. The Congress isn't ready, yet." Despite the fact when they can read the letter in August that said the Administration is too slow, they haven't come forward. Now we have take a careful approach to a very difficult problem, but we're dealing with an emergency and we have speeded up our efforts to get this whole process moving and ready.

And that, unfortunately, each day and week of delay spells higher costs at the end of the day -- costs in human terms in our own country, costs in human terms in Colombia, additional costs for getting the process reversed, which we have to do, and off on the right track: a long, hard, and difficult process. So, obviously, our point today is planning, yes, and we will go ahead, even if, in fact, we're not ready with the funding. It's an appropriate time to do that. It will, in our view, provide a better basis for the use of the funding when it is available, which we hope will be very, very soon.

Q: Sir, what are the chances of Plan Colombia succeeding without the Blackhawks, which the Senators have knocked off the supplemental?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: First and foremost, I would say this: that I'm not here to lobby for any particular item of equipment. Our military have examined this; our experts have examined this, and made what they believe are the best judgments. We are grateful, obviously, for the fact that the House has gone ahead pretty much along the lines that we approached, and we knew that there were differences in the House. We hope that this difference over helicopters gets worked out in conference. There is always an opportunity.

I would like to point out, however, that one of the difficult questions -- and, indeed, one that I highlighted in my statement -- is pilot training. And when you calculate that a Blackhawk can carry two-and-a-half times the number of people as the improved Huey, then you recognize that our pilot training program is immensely complicated by the substitution of one aircraft for another. In addition, if you note that the Blackhawk is the choice aircraft of our own military because it provides better armor, faster speeds, longer range and a higher-altitude capability, which is particularly useful in getting at the heroin which grows at high altitudes, you will understand why the military experts told us that the Blackhawk, despite its cost, is a much better helicopter to deal with the problems we have.

Obviously, we hope that this is worked out. Obviously, we believe that the most efficient, the least costly to maintain and perhaps that which can provide the greatest amount of service, will be seen by the Congress overall as they look at this question as the right selection to make. We stand by our initial judgments that we provided the right mix of aircraft, and we hope that the Congress will take a careful look and a positive look at that.

Q: Ambassador, would you say then that perhaps a push into southern Colombia could really be weakened by a change in the Blackhawks to Huey II's?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I would say this: I don't make those military judgments, but I do believe that, in fact, both the delay in time and the inability -- if I could put it this way -- to optimize the equipment that is now available to the task, will represent a significant handicap for the forces that have to carry forward the effort.

Now, those forces, in my view, are very dedicated, and I believe that they are available to do the job. I would hope that our original judgments about what's the best required to do that, to protect their lives, to make the job more effective and more efficient, to allow the government forces, in fact, to have the advantage this equipment was supposed to provide them in dealing with the increasing firepower that is arrayed against them, will be the right choice. And I believe that our friends in the Congress will take a careful -- I hope, sympathetic and understanding -- view of this issue, once we have a chance further to explain to them the detailed reasons why we think this is the best choice.

Q: The Senate yesterday -- I mean the Committee of Appropriations not only cut the Blackhawks, but they also proposed limits on the amount -- the number of personnel down there, both in the military and civilian contractors. In this situation, do you think that the Colombians can eventually use the U.S. economic help to buy helicopters somewhere else, and hire contractors from some other country?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Basically, our help will be tied to whatever conditions the House and Senate agree in conference to put on them. We believe -- and we will work hard to defeat any conditions that we believe make the program unworkable.

With respect to the question you asked about the limitations on the numbers of Americans involved in this activity, we have from time to time, responding to congressional questions said, at any one time, there are between 80 and 250 American military present in Colombia on training missions. And we envisage, as we looked out over the future even in connection with this Plan, that we could do the training job, the advising job, the support job with that level.

So we would be, obviously, not interested in artificial limits, particularly if they really restrict what we can do. But we cannot argue against limits which comprehend our own predictions of what is necessary to carry forward the job. And that's the way we have generally looked at these kinds of questions in the legislation.

Q: How long do you think this is really going to drag on on the Hill, now that the Senate has tied the Colombian money --

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I thought you were going to say how long is the problem going to live in Colombia. I hope an awful lot shorter than it does in Colombia. Now, of course, there is a direct relationship between the two. My hope is --

Q: Excuse me. Now that the Senate is tying the Colombia monies to the Kosovo -- to new conditions on the Kosovo situation.

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: Well, the supplemental was always conceived of as a package. And I frankly would be happy that, at the end of the day, the conference will produce a result which will fund all of our needs -- Colombia, Kosovo, peacekeeping and embassy security -- because these are all, in our view, emergency requirements. One only has to read your writings every day to understand why those are emergencies in each case. And that if the Senate hasn't seen fit to put the money on, we hope that the friends in the House who have put the money on will fight hard for it in conference, and we will have a resulting bill that we can fully support and will indeed meet the kinds of needs that we have.

On Colombia, in fact, we are closer together on some of these questions because there is money for Colombia in both bills, not all that we want in the Senate bill. But we hope that, in fact, by hard work we can arrange to convince the senators that they should, in fact, accept the House version rather than vice versa.

Now, you said how long. I don't know, and I've learned that predicting what's going to happen on the Hill is a very difficult art. But my hope is, given their own sense of the emergency that they have written us about, that they will find a way to do that, at least this month. I would like to see it even earlier. I think any delay is costly.

Q: You spoke about the need to recover areas outside government control, as though this - by military means -- as though this was inevitable. What does this imply about the level of confidence and your expectations about the peace talks between the government and the FARC?

UNDER SECRETARY PICKERING: I think that, as I mentioned in my opening statement, a very important part of what is going on in Colombia is the fact that the government has opened a peace table, is pushing the FARC very hard to move ahead with the peace process, has now achieved an agenda of 12 items, four of which are being currently discussed. I believe that the "No Mas" group, its manifestations in Colombia show, with the ability to put five-to-ten million people in the streets in favor of a peace process, and in favor of moving that rapidly ahead, that this has gained a great deal of popularity among the people of Colombia, well above the 3-or-4 percent which the FARC normally enjoys. And this is the popularity of a peace process and a peaceful conclusion.

My own view is, after carefully examining the record of the peace process, that the commitment of our President to a very large program, and his commitment to work that through the Congress has helped to speed along the peace process rather than retard it, as some had predicted. And I think that, in fact, the closer that this process moves to turning the question around, that it is no longer a growth in cocaine, but those who support and defend it being under increasing pressure, both from their own people, which I think is very important, but also from the government that we can see further progress.

And I believe that, in fact, the history of these kinds of questions, particularly in the hemisphere, has been that when there is firmness, determination and a willingness to accomplish its objectives on the part of a government which is also determined on a fair peace negotiation, that that peace negotiation can prosper.

MR. REEKER: We have run out of time. Sorry, we've already kept Secretary Pickering beyond what we promised.

So thank you very much, gentlemen. Thank you all for coming.

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