- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia — The Bush administration is signaling support for Colombia’s war on drugs and terrorism with a series of top-level visits, including a two-day stop by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that ended yesterday.

Other officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, are expected in days ahead, sojourns that coincide with the third anniversary of the U.S.-backed drug and antiterrorism program dubbed “Plan Colombia.”

Gen. Myers met with President Alvaro Uribe, who is credited with cracking down on leftist rebels during his first year in office, Minister of Defense Marta Lucia Ramirez and the top brass in the Colombian military.

In a press conference prior to his departure, Gen. Myers said the United States would continue to be an integral part of the Colombian struggle against the terrorist groups, funded largely by drug money, that have ravaged this nation for nearly four decades.

“Clearly, we’ve been full partners with the Colombian government going back a long way … to their support in the war on terrorism and our continuing support down here to help Colombia rid this country of narco-terrorists, drugs and terrorism,” Gen. Myers said.

“We’re committed to that. This is important not just for Colombia, but it’s important for the region and the Western Hemisphere. So success here is very important for the U.S., and we’ll be a full partner,” he said.

Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid behind Israel and Egypt. But until last year, that support was restricted to helping Colombia battle illegal drugs, not its insurgencies.

Yet the two are intertwined in this country, and the U.S. Congress recently lifted the constraint.

Right now, U.S. Green Berets are helping train Colombian troops in how to prevent guerrillas from blowing up an important oil pipeline.

“We’ll be very involved in training Colombian military,” Gen. Myers said. “We may train in more specialties, as we look at this maybe just slightly differently than we did at the first of the year.”

Next week, Mr. Rumsfeld will make his first trip to Colombia as defense secretary. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez will follow him.

Gen. Myers’ visit came on the heels of a trip to Bogota by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who left promising to explore negotiations on a bilateral free-trade agreement between the United States and Colombia.

U.S. drug policy chief John Walters also dropped in late last month, along with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman and Gen. James Hill, head of the U.S. Southern Command.

One U.S. official characterized the series of visits as a “good example of how much support the Bush administration is showing for Uribe.”

The United States has invested about $2.5 billion in Plan Colombia.

Mr. Uribe, in office for one year, is widely viewed as the Bush administration’s firmest ally in Latin America.

He not only strongly supported Mr. Bush on the war against Iraq, but pleased U.S. officials by allowing them to fumigate coca crops.

That has led to a 30 percent drop in coca cultivation in 2002, according to estimates by the United Nations.

The United States and Colombia are expected to announce the resurrection of the aerial drug-interdiction program designed to ground planes carrying illegal drugs.

The program has been on hold for two years since an American missionary and her daughter were mistakenly shot down in Peru.

Mr. Uribe won the presidency promising to crack down on the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and is trying to put that struggle on the global map of the war against terror.

Mr. Zoellick’s recent visit was considered a major coup for Colombia, which has suffered a lack of foreign investment because of security concerns.

After the trip, Colombian Ambassador to the United States Luis Alberto Moreno, who has been instrumental in gathering bipartisan support for the accord in Washington, said he hopes a trade agreement can be reached before 2005.

U.S. officials were hesitant to disclose the agenda of Mr. Rumsfeld’s upcoming trip. But one speculated that the stream of high-level visitors showed the Bush administration reconnecting with Latin America after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think that Bush had every intention of focusing on Latin America,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think now he’s getting to do what he wanted to do in the first place.”

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