LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
BOLIVIA'S 60,000 coca producers, the Roman Catholic Church, and all opposition parties are stepping up protests against 117 United States Army instructors being sent, for the first time, to train two Bolivian infantry battalions to enter the drug war. In an operation known as White Spear, 44 instructors from Fort Bragg, N.C., will arrive next week to start training the Rangers battalion in a US-built camp 35 miles north of the eastern city of Santa Cruz. Twelve instructors are already in the country.
US officials in La Paz say they want the Army in the drug fight to act as logistical support to the 1,000-strong special police force known as the Leopards.
Coca growers and opposition deputies fiercely criticize the need for the Army's participation. They argue the emphasis should be on finding alternative crops to coca and not on ``militarizing'' or ``Colombianizing'' the drug fight.
Many opposition deputies are particularly afraid the Army would be corrupted.
After a 10-week course, the 450-strong Army battalion is due to start antinarcotics operations in July. Another contingent of 56 US advisers will arrive in September to train a second battalion.
NONE of the US Army personnel will take part in antidrug operations, and they will leave once the training courses are completed.
President Jaime Paz Zamora's acceptance of the trainers stems from an agreement signed last May with President Bush. The US government offered $33 million in aid to the Bolivian military, if Mr. Paz Zamora would accept a role for the Army in the drug fight. Until now, the war on cocaine has been almost exclusively up to the Leopards.
Most of the aid package has been released for the Navy and the Air Force, which already have a support role in antinarcotics operations. Two Hercules C-130 cargo airplanes, four helicopters, and new patrol boats have been sent since the May agreement. But more than $14 million for the Army had been held up pending the presidential decision.