Cocaine by radar

TRES ESQUINAS MILITARY BASE, Colombia -- Protruding above the jungle like a giant white golf ball on a tee, Washington's latest investment in the war on drugs scans the horizon for small planes ferrying cocaine over the Amazon.

The $13 million radar station was just inaugurated by President Andres Pastrana and the U.S. ambassador to Colombia and even given a blessing by a Roman Catholic priest. While skepticism about the drug war grows among some critics, so does this jungle outpost where the campaign is anchored.

Tres Esquinas sprawls alongside a roiling brown river in southern Colombia within striking distance of drug labs and plantations that are guarded and taxed by leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

Built in the 1930s, the base was long a sleepy outpost to defend Colombia's from attack by Peru. Now, its runways are paved and expanded, long enough to handle jet fighters and Hercules transport planes.

A large dock is being completed for U.S.-donated patrol boats that prowl the rivers that are the highways for rebels and drug smugglers in this roadless region. Banks of computers watched by U.S. and Colombian intelligence officers in a hangar-like building compile data from satellites and reconnaissance planes.

Adding firepower

During Thursday's inauguration ceremonies, U.S. and Colombian officials gave an upbeat assessment of the war on drugs. They were also treated to a loud demonstration of the kind of firepower Washington is providing under a $1.3 billion aid package approved last year.

Patrol boats bristling with machine guns and grenade launchers zipped in formations along the muddy Orteguaza River, blasting away at the jungle on the opposite bank. Helicopters and warplanes shredded the jungle with bombs, rockets and machine guns while soldiers lobbed mortar rounds from gun pits.

But Washington's growing involvement is also prompting concerns.

Human rights activists fear the U.S. support will embolden the military to abuse people's rights, or lead to direct U.S. troop involvement in this South American country's 37-year-old civil war.

Other critics say the world's drug supply won't ever be reduced until demand for narcotics is curtailed in consumer nations like the United States.

With American lawmakers echoing those concerns, the U.S. Congress appears ready to slash about $100 million from the Bush administration's $731 million follow-up request to last year's aid plan.

At Tres Esquinas, Brig. Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia's southern forces, brushes aside the criticism.

"We are winning this war," he said over a lunch of catfish at an officer's club overlooking the Orteguaza.

Montoya said his men have destroyed more than 600 cocaine labs and intercepted thousands of gallons of drug-processing chemicals, helping push up the price of semi-processed cocaine here by 30 percent. U.S. officials, however, have not reported changes in the price or availability of cocaine in the United States.