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Media Availability with Colombian Defense Minister Following Bilateral Meeting

Presenters: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda
December 01, 1998

Minister Lloreda: We would like in this press conference to report to international public opinion as well as public opinion in Colombia and the United States that we have signed a very simple agreement whereby we have created a bilateral working group in order to handle issues of military cooperation between the United States and Colombia. What this document does is to formalize a decades old relationship between the United States and Colombia, but we think that it's important at this time to strengthen our cooperation. Just like other bilateral commissions have been created between our two countries to deal with issues of trade, financial matters and other areas of cooperation, we thought that this area was very important for us to work on. This instrument will yield the creation of an agenda and this agenda among other things includes issues such as human rights, and cooperation in areas such as training and assistance which is very important in drug control. We will develop a project, although it is not mentioned in this document, to create a special army unit which will support the police of Colombia in counter-narcotics operations. So, the document provides for assistance in this particular field but there are other areas of cooperation of course to be contemplated. We are highly pleased with one of the results of the visit of President Pastrana to Washington last month-in October-which is the signing of this agreement. Secretary Cohen was not in Washington when President Pastrana visited President Clinton and so we wanted to wait until he came to Colombia to sign this agreement. Therefore we reaffirm the will to cooperate, to enhance the security of the hemisphere, and to strengthen even more our bilateral relations.

Secretary Cohen: Mr. Minister, you have covered everything I had on this paper so let me say that it has truly been a pleasure for me to be here at this conference and once again to express my deep appreciation for the gracious hospitality on the part of the Colombian people. The Minister has been most generous with his time in chairing these meetings, dedicating every moment of the past one-and-a- half days, it will be almost two-and-a- half days to the completion of this ministerial and I want to express my sincere appreciation for your commitment not only to the ministerial but your commitment to the goals that have been outlined in brief terms in the establishment of this new bilateral working group. It does in fact reaffirm our strong relationship. We will build upon it to make it stronger in the future. And I look forward to working with you and President Pastrana in this effort.

Emcee: We now have time for seven questions, two questions by members of the international press corps, a question by the official U.S. press that came with you on the plane, and there are two questions by reporters from Bogota and two from Cartagena. First we will begin with the reporter of the Spanish news agency EFE and then we will have the reporter from Agence France Presse.

Q: If, god forbid, the peace process were to fail in Colombia, would Colombia request military assistance and up to what point would the United States provide military assistance to help?

A: (Lloreda): We hope that the peace process will not fail, that's first. But secondly, Colombia has always considered this an internal conflict within our borders, and therefore, we need to address it with our own resources. The assistance we have requested of the United States has been geared to help in our efforts to combat drug trafficking. The help we will receive now is geared to helping the national police of Colombia and the special army units that will be created to fight hand in hand with the police of Colombia in counter- narcotics efforts, that is to fight against drug traffickers and to eradicate illicit crops.

A: (Cohen): I concur exactly with what the Minister has said.

Q: This question is addressed to Secretary Cohen. The United States and other developed countries have demanded that Colombia and other drug producing countries deploy major efforts to counter the production and shipment of drugs to markets in developed countries. Chemical precursors from the United States and industrialized nations are used for the manufacturing of drugs, while hundreds, thousands of people are killed with weapons that come from industrialized countries in Europe and the United States. Don't you think that it is high time that the United States take action to control trafficking of weapons and illegal precursor chemicals?

A: (Cohen): Well, first of all, with respect to precursor chemicals, one of the difficulties in identifying these chemicals is that they are usually for dual use purposes. They can be used for peaceful purposes as well as making dangerous drugs or chemical types of weapons is an issue which has been raised during the course of our discussions. Chemical precursors that only feed the illegal drug industry in the region we will try to work with all countries in the hemisphere to see if we can have a better regime of control. And to be sure that whatever chemicals come into the country are used for proper legal purposes only. Dealing with illegal weapons coming into the country is something that the OAS is serious about trying to deal (with). We think that all countries are concerned about the shipment of illegal weapons coming into their countries. Indeed, the United States has concerns as well with various types of assault weaponry that comes into our country illegally. So I think all countries have to be concerned about the illegal shipment of weapons that are going into the hands of drug cartels. We are going to work with our neighbors to see if we can have better means of controlling that.

Q: This is a question for both Minister Lloreda and Secretary Cohen. I think that its clear that the Colombian military is in a very serious situation. I don't know if it's critical, but it's a very serious situation with respect to the armed conflict. General Wilhelm this morning talked to us about that, and he said he saw that there were some improvements of late. But then he ticked off a long list of deficiencies which he has mentioned before which really need to be addressed in order to fight the rebels. Given the context in Colombia, in a way it seems to me that the agreement that's being reached today is very modest. It's a step to be sure but it seems very modest and I wonder if both Secretary Cohen and defense Minister Lloreda could comment, on the one hand, whether Colombia is interested in getting more from the U.S., given the challenge it faces, and whether on the U.S. (side) there is an interest in trying to do more, and if so why is it not possible to start to do more?

A: (Lloreda): The armed forces of Colombia are involved in the process of modernization and restructuring its institution, the results of which have not been completed. This effort has begun with this administration. We're focusing on three areas: technical, intelligence and improving our operations by increasing the professionalism of our combat units in problem areas and also increasing mobility. We hope to be able to improve the technical efforts by increasing the professionalism of our combat units in problem areas and also increasing mobility. We hope to able to improve the technical efforts by increasing the number of personnel by 15,ooo soldiers who will be sent to conflict areas. We also will have 126 new companies, and we will strengthen our battalions. We also aim to increase our mobility by helicopters. The U.S. cooperation is in the area of counter-narcotics, and to the extent that this cooperation increases, the army will be more effective in helping the police in efforts of eradication, crop substitution, and in going after the small cartels that we have in Colombia. So to the extent that we are effective in dealing with the drug traffickers we will be effective in dealing with the insurgents because they derive support from drug traffickers. So, although the United States is not directly supporting Colombia in this effort, one of its (the aid's ) secondary effects is that insurgency in Colombia will be undermined. Now in the framework of all of this we are of course dealing with the insurgency by a peace process. We have not signed a cease fire as of yet, and therefore we must act to protect the civilian population of Colombia.

A: (Cohen): One of the reasons I yielded to the Minister to answer first was because he usually gives a very comprehensive and complete answer, making comments from me almost unnecessary. But let me indicate that the bilateral working group is an important step forward. It will in fact allow us to engage in military exchanges. It will allow us to set up conferences whereby we can help in promoting the modernization of the Colombian military to restructure it as the Minister has said, to focus upon its mobility, its sustainability, its intelligence capabilities, its command and control, that is all part of the educational exchanges that can and will occur through this bilateral working group. We have the expanded IMET program which will be available. We will continue to stress the need for respect for human rights as the military goes through its modernizing process. All of this I think is going to be very helpful to the overall benefit of the Colombian people. You also have the center for hemispheric studies which was set up as the result of the defense ministerials and has been in operation for about two years now. As a result of that center's activities, we have seen roughly 150 leaders from the hemisphere graduate from the center, helping all of the region to look into the 21st century. There's some hope for optimism. While the bilateral working group document's terms of reference may be characterized as being modest, they are nonetheless a very positive step and movement forward.

Q: What specific areas of assistance does the agreement cover for the armed forces of Colombia in terms of equipment and training programs and how will this be useful in Colombia?

A: (Cohen): The agreement does not spell out specifically what is included. The purpose of the bilateral working group is to identify what needs have to be met, what requirements the Colombian military units that are dedicated to dealing with narcotrafficking are going to be requesting. So the agreement is a general statement of purpose and the function of the steering group is to meet twice year and to have meetings in Washington and in Bogota or another site in Colombia, to flesh out the details of what requirements the Colombian military will have in this respect. But it would again involve equipment, technical assistance and the type of informational intelligence that in fact (can) be shared in order to combat the illegal trafficking of drugs.

A: (Lloreda): I think that this time the Secretary has beat me and has given a very informative answer and I fully support what he has just said.

A: (Cohen): Are you sure that there only seven questions?

Translator: This will be number five.

Q: Good afternoon, Secretary Cohen. This question is for you. What assessment does the United States have of the area of Colombia that is called the zone of withdrawal (despeje) where the government has begun a dialogue with the farc group? Does the United States still consider this group in particular and other guerrilla groups as terrorists, and do they still pose a threat to the hemisphere as a whole?

A: (Cohen): Let me say that we applaud the initiatives of President Pastrana. We think that he is providing Colombia the type of leadership that it needs. We applaud his efforts to try to resolve conflict. We look upon this effort on his part as a very bold move, and he will make a judgment at the end of a period of time as to whether or not his initiative is going to be responded to in a positive fashion. At that point he will make a determination whether such dialogue has been fruitful and productive, or whether or not it is simply going to go unresponded to. With respect to the peace process, that's something that's internal to Colombia, so we pass no judgment upon it. But I think we share very strongly in the commitment of the president to eliminate the trafficking of drugs which are undermining and contribute to the undermining of the social fabric of any country where it is allowed to prevail. It is our hope that this particular area covered by the peace agreement as such or process will not be used as a haven for promoting greater trafficking in illegal narcotics.

Q: This question is addressed first to Secretary Cohen. Good afternoon. We understand that the United States has begun to monitor the southern part of Colombia affected by this peace initiative. What are the results so far of that monitoring. And the question addressed to Minister Lloreda-we understand that you said that the army is creating a special unit to help the police in combating drug trafficking. How many members will this unit have? When will it become operational? What areas will it be operational in?

A: (Cohen): My understanding is that as far as the intelligence process underway is (concerned), it is consistent with what we normally do. There has been no exceptional acceleration or intensification at this point of the intelligence gathering. It's something that we do in the normal course of events in our cooperation with the Colombian government.

A: (Lloreda): With respect to the special army counter-narcotics battalion working side by side with the national police, we hope that it will have 1,000 men and that it will be operational during the first half of 1999.

Q: This question is addressed to Secretary Cohen. We understand that in the agenda of this defense ministerial there's an item on human rights. Many generals in this country have been trained in the school of the Americas of the United States in counter-insurgency strategy and tactics while some of these generals are now being investigated for human rights violations. Is the United States contemplating a change in the curriculum Or content of these programs?

A: (Cohen): If I could make it as clear as I can with respect to the school of the Americas. The purpose of the training is not to enhance the abuse of human rights. The purpose of the training with our military officials is to ingrain in those students our respect for human rights. We cannot guarantee whether those who graduate from the school or have the benefit of being associated with the American military leaders and training with them and receiving instruction are never going to commit any abuse. But, if they do commit abuses we would expect the governments of the countries that they serve to punish them accordingly. We believe the exchange of military officials between our countries is very positive, constructive, and overall very beneficial. And so the school of the Americas will continue not only to help to train military personnel in terms of their professional capabilities, but also for a deep respect for human rights.

  • A: (Lloreda): I'd like to add that the commitment of the armed forces in terms of full respect for human rights is total-that international organizations have recognized the progress we have achieved internally and that all cases of human rights violations will be prosecuted either by military courts or by civilian courts. Our concern is that when we are trying to make progress, and while we make progress in terms of compliance with human rights, paramilitary groups, groups who act outside of the law, including the guerrillas, are blatantly violating human rights. To wit, a massacre where a self-defense group was responsible for blowing up a petroleum line where 80 people died and 80 people were hurt. This incident and other incidents clearly show that they are violating human rights. So there is this contrast between the efforts that the police and armed forces of Colombia are employing to improve the human rights situation and that of the guerrillas and paramilitaries who are not. We hope that there will not be any problems and that this situation will be entirely corrected. There is this contrast between the action of groups that act outside the law in violating human rights and (inaudible). But the commitment of the armed forces and the police of Colombia is total in the area of respect for human rights. As far as the school of the Americas is concerned, I'd like to stay that officers that have been trained in the school of the Americas have been trained within the same philosophy of respect for human rights. If there have been cases of human rights violations in the past committed by any of these officers, those cases have been isolated instances, just like a university will not be responsible for the crimes committed by one of its graduates, neither is the school of the Americas or anybody responsible.
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