Pubdate: Sun, 11 Mar 2007
Source: Orange County Register, The (CA)
Copyright: 2007 The Orange County Register
Author: Tom Raum, The Associated Press
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Colombia was the third country on the president's five-nation tour of 
Latin America.

President Bush pledged continued support Sunday to this strong but 
drug and violence-plagued U.S. ally, on a visit marked by both warm 
official welcomes and rioting protesters.

"Your country has come through very difficult times and now there's a 
brighter day ahead," Bush said to President Alvaro Uribe after their 
meetings and lunch at the presidential palace. "We have been friends 
and we will remain friends."

Bush came to Colombia's capital for a show of confidence in Uribe and 
the country's battle against narcoterrorists. But the stop was 
clouded by a political scandal involving Uribe, and security jitters 
had Bush staying only about six hours.

Colombia was the third country on the president's five-nation tour of 
Latin America. He began his journey in Brazil, flew here from Uruguay 
and was headed later Sunday to Guatemala. Bush last stops in Mexico 
before returning to Washington on Wednesday.

Despite close ties between Uribe and Bush, the U.S. president's visit 
has generated considerable criticism and strong protests.

About a mile away from the presidential palace that was the site for 
all Bush's events, some 2,000 protesters chanted "Down with Bush" and 
burned American flags.

About 150 of them broke away, attacking riot police with rocks and 
metal barriers and ripping down lampposts. Some 200 helmeted police 
in full body armor responded with water cannons and tear gas to 
reclaim the street. The president's convoy passed about 200 yards 
away. There were reports of one police officer was injured and three 
dozen arrests.

Friday night, a concert by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters 
featured a big balloon of a pig that said "Patron Bush, Welcome to 
your Colombian Ranch."

It was Bogota's first visit from a sitting president since Ronald 
Reagan in 1982. Bush went in 2004 to coastal Cartagena, always deemed 
far safer than the capital of this country afflicted by civil 
conflict for half a century.

Bush received a red-carpet greeting by a military honor guard when 
his plane landed. Upon arrival in the palace courtyard, horses 
pranced and a large military band played the national anthems of both 
countries before the two presidents reviewed troops.

Some 20,000 police and heavily armed troops were mobilized to prevent 
any rebel attack.

Sharpshooters were positioned on rooftops, the city center was shut 
down to traffic and Bogotanos had to do without their beloved 
"ciclovia," in which major avenues are given over on Sundays to 
biking, skating and jogging.

Bush rode to the palace on a route lined with gun-toting police 
standing guard every few feet, and his motorcade included white 
pickup trucks with local security officers filling the beds. Manhole 
covers were spray-painted to alert security agents to tampering.

"The security measures are excessive," said 56-year-old Manuel 
Cifuentes, who runs a food stand on the Plaza de Bolivar and said he 
hasn't had much business in the last few days.

The president has indicated he will ask Congress to maintain current 
aid levels to Colombia at roughly $700 million annually to support 
the Latin American nation's fight against terrorism and drug 
trafficking. Colombia receives more U.S. aid than any country outside 
the Middle East and Afghanistan.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe noted Bush would meet with 
Colombians involved in various U.S programs "that help them reap the 
benefits of a democracy as well as demonstrate the compassion of the 
American people."

Ahead of Bush's visit, the Colombian law-and-order president urged 
for continued aid, crediting the U.S. assistance with helping to make 
his violence-tortured nation more peaceful and less corrupt. The U.S. 
has sent nearly $4 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia since 
Uribe took office in 2002.

"We haven't yet won but we are winning. And we will persist," Uribe 
said in an interview last week with The Associated Press.

But Democrats who now control the U.S. Congress have been asking 
tough questions about that aid.

Eight close Uribe allies in Colombia's Congress, as well as his 
hand-picked former domestic intelligence chief, have been jailed for 
allegedly colluding with right-wing militias in a reign of terror 
that nearly subverted Colombian democracy.

The scandal prompted Uribe's foreign minister to resign last month 
when her senator brother and father, a regional power broker, were 
implicated for alleged participation in the kidnapping of a political rival.

Many Democrats in the U.S. are expressing concern about Colombia's 
human rights record. They also want greater emphasis on social 
programs - more than 3 million have been displaced by the decades of 
fighting - and on bolstering an overtaxed justice system.

Colombia remains the source of more than 90 percent of the world's 
cocaine despite record aerial fumigation of coca crops. And the 
leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has neither 
been defeated nor had any members of its leadership captured.

The paramilitaries, which gained control of the entire Caribbean 
coast during the past decade, demobilized two years ago under a peace 
pact with Uribe's government. The paramilitaries arose in response to 
kidnappings and extortion by leftist rebels.

Bush and Uribe also were expected to discuss a U.S.-Colombia 
free-trade agreement now before Congress. Colombian demonstrators 
called for the scuttling of the pact, signed in November and 
currently stalled in Congress.

Meanwhile, three Americans have been held by rebels for more than 
four years in Colombia without the Bush administration taking routine 
steps toward freeing them, current and former U.S. officials say. 
Family members have cautioned the U.S. on a rescue attempt that could 
bring the hostages' deaths.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman