US Troops 'tried to smuggle cocaine'
Four US soldiers serving on anti-narcotics missions in Colombia are being held on charges of drug trafficking after the discovery of 35lb (15kg) of cocaine on a military aircraft.
The four, who have not been identified, were arrested at the end of March when their plane landed in Texas after taking off from southern Colombia. A fifth man was released.
Colombian authorities are investigating to see if other members of the US or Colombian military were involved.
William Wood, the US ambassador in Bogotá, said the four would not be extradited even if it was proved they had committed crimes on Colombian soil. He said a three-decade old agreement gave immunity to US soldiers serving in Colombia, but stressed: "We do not tolerate corruption."
The news that the soldiers can not be extradited to Colombia, which has sent over 200 nationals to stand trial in the US in the past three years, provoked uproar in congress.
"This agreement must be changed," said Senator Jairo Clopatofsky, of the foreign relations committee. "It's completely unjust that we are sending Colombians abroad to stand trial and we can't request anyone be sent here."
With its four-decade civil war and huge drugs industry, Washington views Colombia as the southern front in the "war on terror" and the battlefield for the "war on drugs".
Colombia plants an estimated 70% of the world's coca. The US, the single largest consumer of cocaine, has provided more than $3bn (£1.6bn) in aid since 2000.
President Alvaro Uribe remains the darling of Washington with his hard line against the Marxist guerrillas and the drugs industry.
While some Colombians see harsh US prisons as the only way to stop drug lords running their businesses from their jail cells, many see extradition as an affront and insist that crimes committed in Colombia must be judged and paid for in the same country.
The arrests are the second setback on the frontline of the war on drugs in as many weeks. Last month it was revealed that in spite of record fumigations across Colombia in 2004 the estimated land given over to planting coca remained unchanged at 114,000 hectares.
Aerial fumigations, the principal weapon in disrupting coca growing, remain controversial. While the US and Colombian governments insist fumigations are safe, peasants living in heavily fumigated zones complain of a host of problems ranging from the destruction of legal crops to skin rashes and birth defects.
The four soldiers are among about 1,000 US military and private contractors working in Colombia, providing training, supplying intelligence and helping run fumigation missions.
The case of the four soldiers has shown once again how cocaine and its billions of dollars can corrupt.
During the 1980s and 1990s drug traffickers were able to reach the highest echelons in society with the succinct offer of "silver or lead".
In 2001 Colombian police found traces of heroin in a package that was presumed to have been sent by an employee of Dyncorp, a company which continues to work in Colombia providing contractors to help fight the drugs industry.
Two years earlier the wife of a colonel in the US embassy in Bogota was sentenced to five years after having been convicted of sending cocaine abroad.
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