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President Bush had many important foreign policy issues to discuss when he went to Lima, Peru, last weekend, but you wouldn't have known it from watching NBC's weekend "Today" show on Sunday.

Because while Bush was talking about narcotics trafficking, trade and international terrorism with Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, "Today" and other Sunday news shows led with the case of convicted American terrorist Lori Berenson.

American media coverage of President Bush's trip to Mexico, Peru and Central America revealed how our media establishment views Latin America. Basically, our journalistic agenda-setters in New York and Washington ignore our neighbors to the south unless something -- like a civil war, a volcano or the Berenson story -- erupts. Perhaps they're still operating on the old theory that the American public will do anything for Latin America except read about it.

Ms. Berenson's case is instructive. An idealistic but nave (at that time) 32-year-old New Yorker, she went to El Salvador in the mid-1990s to "save" Central America and moved in with a guerrilla leader who was trying to overthrow the central government of that impoverished nation. There wasn't enough action for her in El Salvador, however, so she relocated to Lima in an effort to "save" Peru from democracy and capitalism.

Again, she moved in with the guerrillas, this time members of the violent Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), the folks who machine-gunned our embassy when I served in Lima during the mid 1980s. MRTA has killed hundreds of Peruvian peasants in the name of its misguided "revolution."

In effect, Ms. Berenson became the guerrillas' den mother. In 1996, a military tribunal sentenced her to life in prison for her involvement in an MRTA plot to seize the Peruvian Congress. According to Peruvian authorities, Ms. Berenson posed as a journalist to enter Congress several times in 1995 to gather information for a terrorist attack. When she was arrested at the home she shared with the guerrillas, police discovered 8,000 rounds of ammunition and a large quantity of dynamite in her backyard. She described herself as a "social activist" caught up in events beyond her control.

At that point, Ms. Berenson's wealthy parents mobilized the New York-based media in support of their daughter, claiming that her human rights had been violated and that the U.S. Embassy in Lima had refused to help an innocent young girl. Of course it wasn't the embassy's job to get Ms. Berenson out of jail but, rather, to assure that she was treated just like everyone else who is jailed in Peru under the laws of that country.

In other words, to the consternation of liberal activists, U.S. embassies don't issue "get out of jail free" cards, nor should they. Americans traveling abroad are expected to comply with local laws and their U.S. constitutional rights don't apply.

After an intensive, four-year media campaign, Peru granted a new, civilian trial to Ms. Berenson and in June 2000, she was again convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Which brings us to President Bush's visit to Lima last weekend. Bush briefly raised the Berenson case with President Toledo, asking for fair and humane treatment for the jailed American woman.

"It is certainly the case that any time U.S. citizens are held overseas ... we always make representations to the host country that we expect our citizens to be treated well and humanely," said White House spokesman Sean McCormack. Fair enough.

But that didn't satisfy the Berensons, who sought clemency or a presidential pardon for their daughter.

"Lori is not a terrorist," Rhoda Berenson told CNN before Bush met with Toledo. "She's innocent. She has repeatedly said that she's innocent, and I think that a fight against terrorism still has room for justice." Ms. Berenson is about as "innocent" as O.J. Simpson and, after Sept. 11, it makes no sense for President Bush to seek clemency for convicted terrorists. So in my opinion, this American terrorist is right where she belongs -- in a Peruvian prison.

This is no time to be soft on terrorists. Fighting the drug trade and the terrorists who profit from it was a major topic of discussion when President Bush met Andean leaders in Lima last weekend. U.S. government data shows that cultivation of coca leaf -- the plant from which cocaine is derived -- is exploding in Colombia, already the world's leading cocaine producer, and that in Peru, the world's No. 2 cocaine producer, new coca plants are being sown as fast as the old ones are ripped out.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is pouring more than $1 billion into Plan Colombia, designed to wipe out cocaine production in that country. Federal law permits U.S. military aid to be directed against leftist guerrillas -- seen by Bogota and Washington as terrorists -- who profit from the drug trade. "What happens if Plan Colombia works?" asked Peruvian Drug Czar Ricardo Vega Llona. "This coca leaf will be sown in another valley in the world ... in Peru."

My concern about Plan Colombia is that American military personnel will eventually be caught up in a bloody civil war that has already lasted for more than 30 years.

In mid-March, two American citizens were shot to death in Cali, Colombia, but U.S. officials there failed to notify their superiors in Washington, according to nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak.

"This fits a pattern established during the Clinton administration and continued by the Bush administration," Novak wrote. "Since 1990, 73 American citizens have been taken hostage in Colombia ... (and) 12 have been murdered. These atrocities go unmentioned as the U.S. minimizes the tragedy of a Western Hemisphere neighbor left prostrate by terrorists."

This is yet another reason why President Bush and his Latin American colleagues should resist calls for clemency for terrorists, even if they're wealthy New Yorkers.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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