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During the 1980s, Latin America was at the forefront of U.S. foreign and security policy. But as the Cold War ended and local conflicts subsided, the region slipped onto a strategic back burner. Washington's interest in it was sparked chiefly by financial opportunities or crises. Now Latin American battles are once again in the news as civil strife in Colombia becomes a serious security threat not only to the Andean region but to the broader hemisphere as well.
The Colombian conflict is deep-rooted and complex, involving two basic issues (drugs and control of the country) and three warring factions (the government, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries). What is more, it is now boiling over: in addition to battling the government, the guerrillas kidnap neighboring Venezuelans and Ecuadorians; the paramilitaries smuggle weapons from bases along the Panamanian border; and hundreds of citizens from dozens of foreign countries are taken hostage annually. Despite years of antidrug efforts and the destruction of the powerful Medellín and Cali cartels, Colombia remains the world's largest producer and exporter of cocaine and the second-largest supplier of heroin to the United States.
These problems cannot be solved by Colombians alone. The country needs international help, particularly American engagement. But foreign involvement will make a difference only if it comes in the proper form.
The Clinton administration has recently proposed a $1.7 billion aid package, the largest in Colombian history. Of this, $1 billion would go toward improving the Colombian military's capacity to suppress coca planting -- buying helicopters, spare parts, training, and intelligence equipment to help the army destroy coca crops and retake guerrilla-held areas. The other $700 million would finance coca substitution programs, public works in sensitive regions, and improvements in Colombia's judicial system and human rights protections. The U.S. aid would be part of a broader three-year, $7 billion "Plan Colombia" that includes multilateral loans and contributions from Europe. The plan is designed to strengthen Colombian institutions, sponsor regional development of the