CARTAGENA, Colombia -- President Clinton swooped into this troubled country Wednesday to showcase American determination to face down leftist rebels and drug traffickers. But he pledged that aiding Colombia will not embroil the United States in a military escalation echoing the Vietnam War.
"I reject the idea that we must choose between supporting peace and fighting drugs. We can do both; indeed, to succeed, we must do both," Clinton said at a ceremony to tout $1.3 billion in U.S. military and social assistance to bolster President Andres Pastrana's government against powerful guerrilla forces intertwined with drug traffickers.
The aid, approved by Congress in June, is the centerpiece of a broader, $7.5 billion Colombian plan to fight the drug scourge, help refugees and strengthen government institutions.
"A condition of this aid is that we are not going to get into a shooting war, that it is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee imperialism," Clinton said.
Colombia produces an estimated 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States. The guerrilla forces are linked to much of the trade.
Thousands of people lined the streets of this suddenly spiffed up colonial city to catch a glimpse of Clinton during his nine-hour visit, the first by a U.S. president to Colombia in a decade.
On the outskirts of the city were thousands more who missed the fanfare. Refugees from the bitter war that has escalated since rebels began to piggyback on the drug trade during the 1990s, they live in squalor in tent camps -- a testament to the chaos that has all but ripped this country apart.
Clinton was accompanied by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and 10 other senior members of Congress from both major parties, all eager to demonstrate their commitment to the fight against drugs.
Attorney General Janet Reno, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and federal drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey were also on the trip, which included a private meeting between Clinton and Pastrana.
The Colombian leader, looking delighted at finally having the long-promised aid in hand, thanked Clinton and congressional leaders for its passage.
The visit is meant to emphasize a close new relationship between the United States and Pastrana's government, which has pledged to attack drug trafficking at its roots. Until Pastrana took office just over a year ago, relations between the two countries had cooled as evidence emerged that Colombian government figures had ties to the country's then-leading drug cartels.
But in recent months, the United States has thrown its weight behind Pastrana's efforts. Congress approved the aid package by a bipartisan majority. Last week, Clinton waived several human rights conditions put on the aid by Congress, declaring Colombia a national security priority.
The aid -- much of which is for military assistance, including 60 attack helicopters and 500 U.S. Army and intelligence instructors -- has been controversial. It is more money than the United States has invested in a Latin American military effort since the Central American conflicts of the 1980s, when Washington and the Soviet Union vied for influence in the region.
The Clinton administration argues that the aid is essential to stem the rise in drug exports that fund leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. Critics fear the aid will only increase the level of violence.
Human rights groups charge that the effort is ill-advised and short on social assistance. They brandish ample evidence that Colombia's military and police forces have committed abuses. Conservatives say the aid package, delayed by the administration for more than six months while top Republicans in Congress sounded the alarm about drug trafficking, comes too late.
On Wednesday, though, the politicians mounted a united front.
"What we need to do is be able to stop the drug business and help the Colombians (to) stop it themselves," Hastert told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., an early critic of the aid package, said he was now behind it. But he warned Pastrana that the United States expects a commitment to protect human rights.
"We're in it for the long haul, as long as you are able to demonstrate, as you have in the past to my countrymen, that human rights is very high on your agenda," he said.
The United States has steadily increased its anti-narcotics assistance to Colombia during Clinton's second term, to $300 million this year from $65 million in 1996. Still, coca production in the country has surged during that time.
Hoping for greater success from the coming infusion of money, Clinton pressed Pastrana on Wednesday to complement the new military anti-narcotics offensive with civilian aid programs to avoid a refugee crisis that could spill into neighboring countries and add fighters to guerrilla ranks.
In his meeting with Clinton, aides said Pastrana made a case for broad new trade privileges from the United States that he hopes would boost the country's economy. He also asked the United States to play a more active role in spurring peace talks between the guerrilla forces and the government.
The Colombian economy was dealt a blow this year when the United States signed a trade agreement with Caribbean nations. Clinton said he and Hastert support legislation that would allot some of the same trade preferences to Colombia.
The fact that the two leaders met here, rather that in Bogota, the besieged capital about 400 miles southeast of here, is a measure of the breakdown in public order. Crime is in a death spiral. Someone is taken hostage every 3 1/2 hours, and a murder is committed every 20 minutes on average, police statistics show.
As the economy and government falter, the country's oldest and most powerful guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is on the ascendance. The group controls a swath of the country as large as Switzerland, and is believed to have made more than $2 billion in the past eight years from links to the drug trade.
Peace talks with the guerrillas are stalled, and the group -- along with rebels of the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN -- have pledged to launch more attacks in the face of the U.S. aid.
The United States has committed over the next 18 months to train and equip the Colombian army and police forces battling drug traffickers and guerrillas. But the U.S. package also includes $238 million for development programs, drug crop substitution, judicial reform and human rights programs. While that is a small percentage of the total, it is a tenfold increase in the money being spent by the United States on such programs in Colombia now.
Carmen Elisa Nunez presented the president with a medal for valor that her husband, army Capt. Wilson Quintero Martinez, had won.
"I will put this up in the White House," the president said.
Later, Nunez said of Clinton, "He is with us. This fight is for all of us, Americans and Colombians."
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