Colombia: Mr. Wellstone Goes to Barrancabermeja 12/8/00

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Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) visited Colombia last week to inspect preparations for the government's US-sponsored Plan Colombia and to show support for human rights workers in that country. And what a trip it was.

Wellstone is a leading congressional critic of Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion (so far) US effort to simultaneously defeat both long-lived guerrillas and a flourishing coca and cocaine industry. He offered unsuccessful amendments in the Senate to divert the funds into domestic drug treatment programs. His was also one of the few voices in Congress to challenge President Clinton's decision to waive certification that Colombia was complying with US human rights standards.

He got a very spooky reception from his Colombian hosts. First, there was the bomb scare. As Wellstone's party, including US Ambassador Anne Patterson, prepared to land in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining city of 200,000 where nearly 500 people have been killed in political murders this year, a Colombian police colonel announced that a possible assassination attempt had been thwarted.

Two bombs had been found along a possible route and a man identified by police as a leftist guerrilla was arrested. The colonel did not explain to reporters why leftist guerrillas would wish to kill an opponent of US military aid to Colombia.

The US Embassy in Bogota later doubted the bombs were intended for Wellstone: "Such explosive devices are frequently found in the area of Barrancabermeja, an area of extensive activity by illegally armed groups in Colombia," it noted dryly.

Then there was the coca-eradication exhibition. As Wellstone, his party, and assorted Colombian police officials stood on a mountain-side overlooking a coca field, and just after the US Embassy passed out materials noting the "precise geographical coordinates" used to spray coca fields, the entire entourage was enveloped in a mist of the herbicide glyphosate dumped from a helicopter 200 feet overhead.

Oops. So much for the program's "precise flight lines with a 170-foot width, leaving little room for error." Police said it was a mistake, and blamed the wind.

"We did not spray on the people or on the senator," Gen. Gustavo Socha, anti-narcotics director for the Colombian National Police, first told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. But when the paper's reporter told him he had been there, Socha said: "What hit him was because of the wind, not because they had the intention."

Whether accident, coincidence, or subtle effort at intimidation, the incidents have not altered Wellstone's positions. At a post-trip news conference, he told reporters he thought his Colombian hosts created the bomb story to dissuade him from traveling to other dangerous regions. But he deflected attention from himself to the larger issues.

"I don't know whether I was targeted, but I certainly know that the human rights activists are targeted," Wellstone said. "It's a small story that tells the larger story of what's happening in Colombia. It's so tragic."

At the Minneapolis news conference, Wellstone told reporters the US strategy in Colombia is "bound to fail" unless the US cuts its demand for cocaine and poor Colombians have an economically viable alternative to the drug. "We're too lopsided on the military part and not enough on the economic development part," he said.

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Issue #163, 12/8/00 Now He Has Something To Say? Clinton Supports Marijuana Decrim, Sentencing Reform in Rolling Stone Interview | More New Jersey Racial Profiling Fallout, Appeals Court Says Convicted Drug Offenders Can Appeal Based on Practice | In the Wake of the Initiatives: Asset Forfeiture Reform Comes to Oregon and Utah | Doors Manager/Best-Selling Author Danny Sugerman Comments on Addiction, Hollywood and Drug Policy | Missouri Sheriff Overrules Supreme Court on Roadblocks | Canadian Marijuana Party Gets Some Votes, More Attention | Newsbrief: Nevada Panel Recommends Marijuana Misdemeanors -- Again | Governor Johnson Makes Drug Policy Reform Pitch in Playboy Interview | Colombia: Mr. Wellstone Goes to Barrancabermeja | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Should We Laugh, or Cry?
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