The United States last month approved a $1.3 billion aid package to Colombia. The military and social assistance is intended to help that country’s government fight leftist guerrillas who have become key players in the drug trade. President Bill Clinton pledged last week during a one-day visit to Colombia that the U.S. would not become involved in a Vietnam-style conflict, and that the aid did not signal a return to “Yankee imperialism.” It need not, but the assistance, while well-intended, does risk drawing the U.S. into a bloody conflict.

Quite simply, the situation in Colombia is bad. According to the country’s National Association of Financial Institutions, there was no economic growth last year for the first time in 70 years. Unemployment tops 20 percent. Remedies are hard to come by, since the legislature stubbornly opposes every initiative by President Andres Pastrana. National opinion polls show that the president enjoys support from less than 30 percent of the population. A legislative stalemate does nothing to boost his popularity.

Poverty has bred lawlessness. Colombia is the most crime-ridden nation in the world. According to government statistics, there is a murder every 20 minutes, a kidnapping every three and a half hours (seven a day or 3,000 each year), and six children are killed by violence every day. Mr. Clinton stopped in the city of Cartagena because his security teams considered Bogota, the capital, too dangerous to visit.

Then there is the country’s 36-year civil war. About 20,000 armed Marxist rebels are fighting the government. They have largely battled to a draw, but the army has withdrawn from a 42,000-sq.-km region in southern Colombia, an area roughly the size of Switzerland, leaving it to one guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Another rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, is demanding its own 4,000-sq.-km zone. Since the war began in 1964, more than 120,000 people have lost their lives and more than 2 million have been forced from their homes. The civil war only exacerbates the economic woes: In the last year, the ELN has blown up more than 300 electricity towers, causing blackouts across the country.

Mr. Pastrana’s willingness to negotiate with the guerrillas has upset rightwingers in his country. They have organized paramilitary organizations of their own, which has intensified the violence. Tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings are common. On occasion, the groups have resorted to acts designed to do nothing more than frustrate the government’s peace overtures.

Finally, there are the narcotics traffickers. Colombia is the world’s leading producer of cocaine. It exports 400 tons of the drug each year, and six tons of heroin. The rebels operate in the coca-growing regions of the country and there is little doubt that they are intimately involved in and profiting from the drug trade. Therein lies the danger for the U.S.

Washington says its assistance will be used against drug traffickers, not the rebels. The aid package contains $238 million to be used for crop substitution, judicial reform and protection of human rights. But 80 percent of the U.S. assistance is military, in the form of 60 attack helicopters and 500 army and intelligence instructors. If the rebels and drug traffickers are working together, no reasonable distinction can be made between the two and it will be impossible to avoid getting sucked into the civil war.

That fear prompted Mr. Clinton’s assurance last week that a condition of the aid is that the U.S. would not get drawn “into a shooting war, that it is not Vietnam.” It was also a source of concern for the dozen Latin American leaders who gathered in Brasilia last weekend for a regional summit. They worry that a civil war in Colombia will spill over into their countries: Either the guerrillas or the narcotics traffickers will flee to safer areas. Ecuador’s foreign minister, Mr. Heinz Moeller, voiced a common fear when he said that “the cancerous tumor being removed from Colombia [is] metastasizing in Ecuador. Ecuador does not have drug plantations, and we do not want them.”

No one does. Unfortunately, no one has the strength to eradicate them — yet. U.S. aid can help, but the lesson of Vietnam is that assistance is no substitute for political will in the nation concerned. Colombians must want to end the civil war. The politicians must end their squabbling and concentrate on the real threat to their country.

And if Americans want to end the drug trade, they should do something about the demand side of the equation. It is America’s hunger for illegal narcotics that sustains Colombia’s drug trade. Eliminating that will do more damage to the traffickers than any number of raids on Colombia’s coca plantations.

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