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Last Updated:6/29/01
Statement of Rep. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), June 28, 2001
Rep. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
Statement for the Hearing for the Andean Initiative
Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, House International Relations Committee
June 28, 2001

Introduction

Mr. Chairman, thank you. It is appropriate that our first hearing for the 107th Congress of this subcommitee is on the Andean Regional Initiative. We might consider that this hearing is as much about Plan Colombia and its implementation, of which the Andean initiative is but a continuation. This is a vitally important topic regarding the hemisphere's most troubled region. What we do here together with our Andean friends will affect the region for years to come.

Plan Colombia, the Andean Regional Initiative and US interests

With the Plan Colombia, as it appears with this initiative, the United States continues to try to address two problems of significant magnitude and importance to US national interests. First, tackling the US domestic problem of illicit drug consumption; and, second, a fashioning an effective US response to a domestic Colombian problem that affects both the US and Colombia's neighbors.

I doubt that there are many people knowledgeable about the region who would argue that there is not a crisis in Colombia. That crisis, were it to go unchecked, may threaten the viability of the Colombian State. And that most definitely would affect US interests. The question is what Colombia, its neighbors and the United States have done and are going to do about that crisis.

Some wonder how it is that this crisis developed so suddenly, practically without notice. There was that sense last year when we debated the supplemental bill to fund US assistance for Plan Colombia to the tune of $1.3 billion. There are those who claim that there is no crisis-this was election-year get-tough-on-drugs politicking. I respectfully disagree.

A couple of things happened to bring Colombia to where it is today.

First, a largely rural revolutionary insurgency that is close to 40 years old and had never really threatened the viability of the Colombian State, has changed dramatically in character over the last decade due to a single and very distinctive transformation: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has essentially become a major, dangerous and highly profitable drug trafficking operation. Let us have no illusion: the battles that the guerillas are now waging in southwestern Colombia are not for winning the heart and soul of Colombia. They are for gaining control of drug supply routes.

Second, coca cultivation in Colombia, particularly in Southern Colombia, increased dramatically, and thus did its impact on the US. It seemed that practically overnight, Colombia had moved radically from shipping and refining Coca to growing and refining Coca to the point where it supplies 80 percent of the US market - to its great detriment and danger.

Last year, the Clinton Administration presented to Congress an emergency supplemental bill designed as a response to what it said was an emergency on the ground in Colombia. The programs funded in that supplemental were devised to address the crisis or emergency that was almost entirely narcotics-formulated.

Mr. Chairman, in policymaking we are confronted with choices and must make decisions. Last year, the United States had a choice: either do something or do nothing to help one of our closest and historically best friends at a time of dire need. Last year, the Clinton Administration decided it was appropriate to do something. The US contribution to Plan Colombia was the US response.

Has it worked six months into implementation? And where do we go from here? I believe that is the crux of the issue before us today. There is much history particular to Colombia that I will not touch upon here that factors into this equation, such the la violencia period of the 1940s and 50s, which nonetheless is quite relevant.

So much is said and written about the Plan Colombia that one can lose focus. So let me try to frame the discussion a bit if I may, Mr. Chairman. Let me suggest to my colleagues that there are specific and measurable components of Plan Colombia that we can take stock of. In general, based on what I have reviewed, I cannot say that overall things have gone badly. Let me address some of the key points that I believe we must focus on in terms of oversight of this the Plan Colombia and in assessing the new Andean Initiative:

Eradication

I understand that Colombia is on track toward meeting its objective of a 30 percent reduction of drug production in two years and a 50 percent reduction over the five-year course of Plan Colombia. Over 43,000 hectares have been eradicated by air in Colombia of a total 136,500 of coca cultivation. Despite these evident successes, I do have reservations about aerial eradication because it is only a short-term fix, it is subject to errors, and I worry about the possibility that this coca can be replanted. Perhaps our witnesses can address these concerns and discuss whether manual eradication is a viable alternative. Is it too cumbersome and dangerous given conditions in southwestern Colombia? Finally, there are those who claim that aerial eradication should not occur unless and until alternative development takes greater hold. I'd be interested in our witnesses' views on this and whether or not they believe eradication provides an incentive for coca growers to accept alternative development packages.

Alternative Development

Alternative Development takes much longer to get off the ground and is difficult because people need to be persuaded or compelled by circumstances-such as eradicated coca crops or interdiction-to cooperate. I understand there has been some success by Colombia in signing up over 17,000 families to voluntarily pull up coca plants over a year's time, and in return the government will give them cash, seeds, small farm animals, and also help build roads, schools and health clinics. Despite these successes, I remain skeptical about anyone's ability to essentially substitute the alluring cash incentive of growing coca with far less lucrative crops and look forward to hearing testimony on this matter.

Counter-Drug Battalions

The often-debated US military assistance provided under Plan Colombia was geared to training and equipping these counterdrug troops. There are now between 2,200 and 2,300 such troops and by all accounts they have performed quite well. They mainly are involved in ground and airborne operations that take down cocaine labs, whether in the centros de acopio or collection areas where finished coca base or the big coca processing labs. The battalions unquestionably have achieved success, having knocked out 180 counterdrug targets in Putumayo and Caquetá including nine big HCl or finished cocaine labs, over 100 of small base labs and numerous transshipment and storage sites. Just as importantly, there have been no accusations against them of human rights abuses and I commend the Colombian Government for that.

Colombian Military Performance and Respect for Human Rights

I believe we have to give credit where credit is due. The Colombian military continues to make progress in improving its respect for human rights. The number of violations continues to go down. Five to six years ago, half of all human rights accusations were attributed to members of the security forces. In the last couple of years, these numbers have shrunk to just 2 percent. They also have made progress in dismissing poor performers and paramilitary collaborators. But they still have improvements to make. Although there is no evidence I am aware of institutional collaboration with the paramilitaries-an important point- tactical collaboration does exist, and I urge the Colombian Government to address this in the most forceful terms. I would appreciate the State Department commenting on this.

Andean Regional Initiative

In the process of consulting on the Plan Colombia it became apparent that many of us in Congress and elsewhere expressed concern that the problem was broader than Colombia and involved more than a security and law enforcement issue. Whether or not it the Andean Regional Initiative is in response to those concerns, it expands Plan Colombia, as it were, to neighboring countries that are affected by crisis in Colombia, and to other areas such as democratic institution-building, justice-sector reform and social welfare issues that must be addressed because in a very real sense they are the heart of the matter. There is a fundamental interconnectedness among these issues that our hemispheric friends and we ignore at our own peril. Once again we are faced with a policy choice with consequences for years to come.

Let me close, Mr. Chairman, by stating that I remain dubious that our efforts on the supply side of the narcotics trade can eliminate the cash incentive from the drug trade over the long term. It appears that Plan Colombia has gotten off to a good start. This jury will deliberate for quite some time. Thank you.

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