By Sinikka Tarvainen (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – Forty-eight soldiers from an elite US army unit have arrived in Colombia, amid growing controversy over their role, daily El Tiempo reported on Tuesday.
Defence Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said on Monday that there would be a total of 52 soldiers and that they would advise and train the Colombian army in the fight against drug trafficking, without participating in military operations.
However, the move has sparked a political storm, and Trujillo has been summoned to appear before the Senate to explain why he did not consult Congress.
El Tiempo said 48 troops landed on Monday, while Trujillo gave Tuesday as the arrival date.
The soldiers will first spend two weeks in a Covid-19 quarantine, the minister said in a television interview.
During their four months in Colombia, some of the troops are due to stay in Bogota, while others will be deployed in restless locations in the south, north-east and centre.
The government says the presence of the troops is a normal part of Colombia’s military cooperation with the United States.
But Admiral Craig Faller, commander of US Southern Command, said their mission was an opportunity to demonstrate “support for regional peace” in addition to a commitment against drug trafficking – a statement that sparked concern in Colombia.
Critics say Washington could eventually use Colombian territory to launch attacks against Venezuela.
US President Donald Trump’s administration accuses Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro of cocaine trafficking, and sent warships to the Caribbean in “counter-narcotics operations” earlier this year.
Colombian President Ivan Duque’s government has also been accused of unjustified military action against small-scale farmers who cultivate coca – the plant cocaine is made from – because they have no other source of income.
Now, “foreign troops are being brought to coca-growing areas to attack peasants,” leftist Senator Ivan Cepeda tweeted on Tuesday.
Decades of battling drug cartels and billions of dollars in US aid have done little to stop coca farming in Colombia.
The Andean country had 212,000 hectares under coca cultivation last year, up from 208,000 hectares in 2018, according to US government data.
A large part of the cocaine is smuggled to the US, where the rate of drug overdose deaths involving cocaine more than tripled – from 1.4 to 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people – from 2012 through 2018, according to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.