Bush touts anti-drug aid in Colombia visit

President Bush watches as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe addresses a news conference Monday at the Naval Academy in Cartagena, Colombia. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Under a security web of warplanes, battleships and 15,000 troops, President Bush praised Colombia’s battle against drugs and Marxist guerrillas Monday and pledged to keep U.S. aid flowing so “this courageous nation can win its war against narcoterrorists.”

In a country that is the world’s largest producer of cocaine and a major supplier of heroin, Bush said President Alvaro Uribe is achieving results with a massive aerial fumigation program against coca — the main ingredient in cocaine — and an aggressive military buildup against insurgents, who fund themselves through drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.

“The number of acres under cultivation are down significantly,” Bush said, standing with Uribe in shirt sleeves at seaside lecterns. “The number of arrests are up. The number of murders is down. In other words, this man’s plan is working.”

Uribe said Colombia is winning the fight, but has not yet won.  “We have made progress but the serpent is still alive,” Uribe said.

Commitment to Plan Colombia
Bush’s pledge reaffirms U.S. commitments to a $3.3 billion, five-year military aid program known as Plan Colombia. Bush said the plan launched in August 2000 enjoys widespread support in Congress and that he would work with lawmakers to keep it funded. Without mentioning a specific figure, Bush said he would seek enough funds to make the plan effective.

Bush left Cartagena for his Texas ranch to spend the Thanksgiving holiday, arriving in early evening. At Uribe’s urging, he stopped off in this Caribbean seaport city after attending a weekend summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in 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.

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 in advance of the trip.

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 here to strengthen relations in Latin America, but he also responded to , which claimed it had frozen all uranium enrichment activities. The United States believes Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Sounding skeptical about Iran’s claim, Bush said, “Well, let’s say I hope it’s true.”

But unwilling to take Iran’s word, Bush said, Iran must allow for verification of its claims. “I think the definition of truth is the willingness for the Iranian regime to allow for verification,” the president said.

Security was tight. U.S. Navy commandos, toting assault rifles and peering through binoculars, patrolled the Caribbean in rubber boats where submarines and battleships already plied the waters. Warplanes and helicopters provided air cover while 15,000 Colombian security forces were deployed around the city for Bush’s brief stay.

Crops down, production up
Since Uribe came to power two years ago, Plan Colombia has helped jail scores of traffickers and reduce the coca crop by 20 percent for two years in a row, according to the White House.

And the battle against rebel groups — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, and the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN — is being expanded from the capital of Bogota to more rural areas. Still, the efforts have still failed to visibly reduce cocaine production or keep it off U.S. streets. And the 40-year-old insurgency continues to claim an estimated 3,500 lives every year.

Bush said the outcome of the battle was critical to security in both nations.

“The drug traffickers who practice violence and intimidation in this country send their addictive and deadly products to the United States,” Bush said. “Defeating them is vital to the safety of our peoples and to the stability of this hemisphere.”

While in Cartagena, Bush met with Orlando Cabrera, a Colombian native who plays for the world champion Boston Red Sox, and shook hands with more than a dozen elementary school-aged baseball players.

One of the youngsters presented Bush with jersey emblazoned with Cabrera’s No. 44.

“He just missed it by one number,” joked Bush, the 43rd president of the United States.