Bush touts U.S.-backed anti-drug efforts
Associated Press Writer
SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – President Bush aims to highlight American drug-fighting aid in Colombia and boost a conservative Latin American leader with a stop in the Andean nation where thousands of security forces are deployed to safeguard his brief stay.
Bush’s four-hour stay Monday in the seaside city of Cartagena to see Colombian President Alvaro Uribe marks the final stop of a three-day Latin American trip. Bush says the United States will stand with the Colombian government to oppose the drug trade because it destroys lives and threatens the stability of the hemisphere.
Uribe told Colombian radio on Monday that he intended to discuss continued U.S. aid to fight rebels and drug trafficking under Plan Colombia, which expires next year.
“It is very important that we are clear that we can’t leave this task halfway completed,” Uribe said. “It must be brought to a happy conclusion for the Colombian nation.”
That very drug trade – and the deadly Marxist insurgent groups that control it – led to extraordinary security measures for Bush’s visit.
About 15,000 Colombian security forces, backed by combat helicopters, radars on the lookout for hostile planes or missiles, and submarines and battle ships prowling the waters, were deployed to protect the American president.
U.S. Navy commandoes, armed with assault rifles and peering through binoculars, patrolled the Caribbean waters in rubber boats off Cartagena, where Monday’s meeting was to take place. Colombian Navy Capt. Nelson Fernandez said the United States would take control of security at the meeting site.
Despite the relative peace of the former Spanish fort compared with other parts of the country, Bush and Uribe weren’t going into the walled city; they were meeting at a colonial estate on an island just off the coast. Officials even banned the sale of alcoholic drinks for 24 hours and gave workers the day off.
Washington has given billions in U.S. military aid for Colombia to combat cocaine production and the leftist rebels that finance themselves through drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. White House aides hinted in advance of the trip that, as Uribe hopes, more money could be in the cards after the $3.3 billion, five-year package expires in 2005.
Under that Plan Colombia program, the United States gives Colombian forces training, equipment and intelligence to root out drug traffickers and destroy coca crops.
As part of a broader effort to improve the U.S. image in Latin America, Bush was expected to highlight the progress the American generosity has helped purchase. The trip was also meant as a high-profile statement by Bush of his commitment not to neglect the region as he wages a global campaign against terrorists, officials said.
Indeed, in the two years since Uribe came to power, some measure of stability has been restored. The White House sees the reduced crime rates and kidnappings that have given many Colombians new hope as at least in part an American success story.
However, though Plan Colombia has helped reduce the coca crop and jail scores of traffickers, it has failed to visibly reduce cocaine production or keep cocaine off U.S. streets.
And the 40-year-old insurgency by rebel groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, and the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN – continues to claim an estimated 3,500 lives every year. Rebels hold dozens of hostages, including Colombian politicians, government soldiers and three American military contractors seized in early 2003 after their plane crashed in a southern rebel stronghold.
There was also an economic component to the Bush-Uribe meetings. Both were interested in advancing negotiations on an Andean free-trade pact with Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.
Bush was arriving in Colombia from a weekend summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Santiago, Chile. While there, he met with other allies including Mexican President Vicente Fox and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos in an effort to mend relations damaged by the Iraq war.
Also in Cartagena, Bush planned a public appearance with major league baseball players from Colombia. He was to end the day in Texas, where he was spending the rest of the week and the Thanksgiving holiday at his ranch.