WASHINGTON, July 8 (UPI) -- The United States says it is winning the war on terrorism, but few officials argue it is winning the war on drugs.
Several government reports and experts on Capitol Hill say Plan Colombia, the U.S.-backed war on drugs in the South American nation, is failing, and some critics say the State Department is mismanaging the operation.
The reports and experts argue bureaucrats and contractors have mismanaged the multibillion dollar program, which is administered through the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, in a manner that leaves U.S. government employees and contractors at risk.
A report issued in June by the General Accounting Office found that despite getting $2.5 billion in U.S. aid specifically to fight narco-traffickers, Colombia is still the world's largest producer of coca, the precursor to cocaine, and has expanded its production of opium poppy to become the largest supplier of heroin to the United States.
But other Capitol Hill sources and experts familiar with the situation describe the situation as much worse than reported by the GAO, the investigative wing of Congress. They say no fewer than 38 U.S. government-owned aircraft and helicopters have gone down since 1998 due to gunfire, pilot error or poor maintenance by the Colombians or U.S. government contractors.
And considering the thousands of Colombians killed each year in fighting among various narco-traffickers, the Colombian police, Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, Plan Colombia's failure to offer effective aid threatens South America's oldest democracy, say experts.
"Colombia is going to get worse, before it gets worse," said Andy Messing, head of the National Defense Council Foundation, a think tank that studies defense and foreign affairs issues.
Messing, who is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, has traveled extensively in Colombia and in 1997 co-authored a report that predicted many of the current problems.
In 2003 alone, five Americans have been killed flying missions over Colombia and three workers on contract to a U.S. intelligence agency are presumed held by Marxist insurgents after their plane was shot down in February.
The GAO report found Plan Colombia needs to include clear goal and performance objectives for private contractors who perform much of the work. Several other sources said this should include more effective oversight by Congress and the White House.
While the current system allows congressional appropriators to make general decisions on spending, much of the decision-making and policy development occurs in the Embassy in Bogota. Critics say this has led to the inefficient use of the funds and poor performance by the Colombian police, the country's military, the U.S. State Department and its contractors.
In particular, they say the programs to train Colombian mechanics and pilots to operate U.S.-supplied planes and helicopters have serious deficiencies that make much of the already-supplied aid inefficient or useless.
Former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who spent time examining the situation in Colombia during his tenure in Congress, says the program is in much worse shape than the GAO report indicates because the State Department is managing what he considers a military operation.
"I support Plan Colombia," he told United Press International. "But it's a very complex situation and Congress has been content to pass the plan and let State run it.
"This can't be done, it needs to be looked at like a military operation."
Barr led several congressional fact-finding missions to Colombia during his tenure on the House Government Reform Committee and one of his last acts as a member was to send a critical report to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., in January 2003.
"The (Bogota Country Team), particularly the Narcotics Assistance Section at the U.S. Embassy, lacks the tactical acumen, technical knowledge, professional experience and continuity in country to administer effectively the law enforcement and military assistance under Plan Colombia," the report concludes.
A State Department official with experience in Bogota would not address the specific allegation, but pointed to the aerial-eradication program's success in reducing the hectares of land cultivated for drugs.
Both the GAO and Barr found problems with Plan Colombia's air campaign element.
From 2000 to 2003, the United States supplied the Colombian Army with 72 helicopters, not including State Department's air wing that uses private contractors for aerial crop-eradication spraying missions to reduce the hectares of coca plants being cultivated.
The joint operation, between the United States and Colombia, is administered through a contract with DynCorp, a Virginia-based company that is a subsidiary of Computer Sciences Corp.
A number of other aircraft are also used by U.S. intelligence agencies to fly support missions for the Colombian military in their fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The Marxist insurgent group funds its activities primarily through kidnapping for ransom, and taxation of the narco-traffickers.
The GAO says the problems with the air program include delayed or incomplete training for Colombian pilots. This, it says, requires U.S. pilots from either the State Department or DynCorp to fly combat missions.
Another problem, the report says, is the questionable funding and practices for maintaining the aircraft. The GAO report says at least 25 U.S. aircraft have been lost in Colombia since 1998, but through interviews with current and former military advisers, Capitol Hill staff and State Department employees, UPI was able to determine the number of U.S.-titled aircraft lost in that period to be at least 38.
The State Department confirmed that 26 aircraft assigned to the air wing had been lost during that time, but did not dispute that 38 could have been lost if other U.S. agencies were taken into account.
"This is more than the combined losses of aircraft it took to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan," said one former military adviser to the Colombians. "Part of the problem is inexperienced Colombian pilots, but a big reason is DynCorp's poor performance in maintaining and operating the aircraft."
"The last time I was down there," he continued, "I had three DynCorp employees come up to me and tell us they were scared. They said there was no adult supervision of the program and that the planes and helicopters were not safe.
"They'd said they were forced to cannibalize one plane for spare parts just to be able to fly others, which would be illegal in the United States. They said the first chance they got to leave, they would not renew their contracts."
"DynCorp's safety record speaks for itself," said the State Department official, who would not release any specific safety information about the performance of the State Department air wing in Colombia.
The official did note that flying aircraft on military missions in a war zone such as Colombia was dangerous.
"Even this year, we have already had 255 confirmed hits on our aircraft from ground fire," he said. "It's just a dangerous place to fly planes."
The GAO report does not address the role of contractor performance in flying the planes and helicopters, but does note the program has failed to adequately train the Colombians in flying and maintaining the machines.
"Although all the U.S.-provided helicopters are in Colombia, a number of unanticipated problems were encountered in training the Colombian Army pilots and mechanics to operate and maintain the helicopters," the GAO found. "Some of these problems continue to limit the Colombian Army's ability to operate and maintain the helicopters.
"Primarily the Colombian Army will have to continue to rely on contractor support because it will not have enough trained pilots-in-command and senior mechanics in the foreseeable future."
Barr and congressional investigators, who visited Colombia in September 2003, determined the situation was worse. Their report found broad problems in maintaining the aircraft linked to the number of different helicopters used by the Colombian army and supplied by the United States.
"During the (delegation's) inspection of U.S.-supplied helicopters at various sites, serious shortfalls in aircraft logistics management, operations and maintenance were noted," the Barr report says. "There is no reliable computer-assisted system to track, organize and identify the dynamic supply needs of these many different aircraft."
The aerial spraying program, administered by the State Department and conducted by DynCorp, has met with significant success in the past year. The hectares of active coca cultivation were reduced by between 25 percent and 35 percent, figures that have not been disputed even by the critics of the overall plan interviewed by UPI. But studies by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration report no drop in cocaine imports to the United States and no increase in the street prices of the drug.
Some experts point to the movement of coca fields to other, neighboring, countries, while others speculate the narco-traffickers intentionally overgrow coca to offset losses by the spray program.
Regardless of the success in the spraying itself, the delegation led by Barr and other investigators found that the spray program also has security and maintenance problems that seem to put its employees and contract employees at what they consider excessive risk.
"The much-praised State Department aerial eradication program is constructed around three different types of spray aircraft," the Barr report says. "It is a maintenance nightmare, with three separated logistical sources of spare parts and many different electronic components that are not standardized for a fleet of aircraft."
In terms of security, there have been problems procuring the proper weapons systems for aircraft flown by both Colombians and the U.S. pilots. In one case, which investigators say is typical, the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters flown by U.S. pilots on combat missions were supplied by the U.S. Embassy with ammunition for its .50-caliber machine guns that was 50 years old. The surplus World War II ammunition misfired and frequently jammed leaving the helicopters defenseless on combat missions flown in support of both the Colombians and the spray program, according to interviews with the pilots conducted by the congressional delegation.
The risks for U.S. military, law enforcement and civilian contract employees have been considerable, with at least 17 killed directly by the war on drugs in Colombia since 1998. At least five of these deaths occurred in a three-month span from February to April 2003.
On Feb. 13, an American and a Colombian were executed after their plane, which was conducting an intelligence mission tracking the FARC leadership, went down in a rebel-held area. Three other passengers are believed to be hostages. Although the men operated out of the State Department's Western Hemispheric Affairs office, their mission was considered part of the Department of Defense.
The official reason for the downing of the plane was mechanical trouble.
In March, three California Microwave Systems employees were killed when their plane crashed in the same region while on an intelligence mission to track the first three hostages and their captors. A source who examined that plane's wreckage says it was impossible to determine what caused it to crash.
In April, a DynCorp pilot flying an aerial eradication-spraying mission was killed when his plane went down.
In repeated phone calls DynCorp failed to provide detailed responses to the allegations.
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