Fred Ayres, once an unlikely linchpin for U.S. policy in Colombia, has now become a perfect symbol of Washington's failures there. The owner of a foundering Georgia-based aviation firm, Ayres had just filed for protection under bankruptcy laws last year when the State Department awarded him a $22 million contract to supply nine Turbo-Thrush airplanes badly needed for counternarcotics missions. Ayres's armor-plated planes were supposed to be used to spray chemical herbicides over Colombia's burgeoning coca and opium crops. But they won't be getting off the ground any time soon--if ever. A few weeks ago, just when the first planes were to be delivered, Ayres's chief creditor foreclosed. Now, says Ayres, his half-built planes "are just sitting there on the assembly line" gathering dust. "I feel terrible about this."
Not as bad as some U.S. drug warriors. Many of them fear that Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion program to combat drug traffic from the Andean nation, may be as bankrupt as Ayres's company. The plane snafu, in fact, is among the lesser setbacks--compared with, say, the unending war with leftist guerrillas or the growing role of right-wing paramilitaries in the Colombian drug trade. The plan's shortcomings will give Secretary of State Colin Powell plenty to talk about this week on his first visit to the disintegrating nation. A State Department official told reporters Powell wants a "frank" talk with President Andres Pastrana about "what has worked and what hasn't." The answer, many U.S. officials fear, is that precious little has. Says one congressional staffer: "What's happening down there is a catastrophe."
Plan Colombia was overwhelmingly approved as an "emergency" response by Congress more than a year ago and vigorously pushed by President Clinton. Bush-administration officials, pursuing the new president's keen interest in developing hemispheric ties, signed off on the program in their first weeks in office and even endorsed an $880 million "Andean regional initiative" that expanded key elements to neighboring countries. But the United States has been spraying chemical herbicides in Colombia for years--to virtually no effect. …