U.S. aids security for Uribe
BY RACHEL VAN DONGEN
Special to The Herald
BOGOTA - The U.S. government is spending $7 million to improve security around Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, his vice president and defense minister, among America's top allies in Latin America.
The program, run by the antiterrorism division of the U.S. State Department's Office of Diplomatic Security, has trained Colombian bodyguards and provided bulletproof vehicles, said spokeswoman Darlene Kirk.
Such assistance for foreign leaders is extremely rare.
The only other official receiving U.S. protection is Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.
Uribe has been the target of at least four assassination attempts, including one in April 2002 in which a bomb that exploded near his electoral campaign motorcade in the coastal city of Barranquilla killed three bystanders and injured 15 others.
He was elected later last year on a hard-line platform of defeating the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have waged a bloody decades-old war against the government.
The U.S. government has spent more than $2 billion in mostly military aid as part of Plan Colombia to train Colombian military units and eradicate coca and poppy plants, the main ingredients for making cocaine and heroin.
Uribe was the first South American president to support the war against Iraq, and his strong stance against the FARC is looked upon favorably by the White House in the context of the global war on terror.
Kirk said the antiterrorism assistance division, made up of agents trained much like Secret Service agents, has taught bodyguards for Uribe, Vice President Francisco Santos and Defense Minister Martha Lucía Ramírez.
The security program does not envision U.S. personnel remaining in Colombia to protect Uribe, said other U.S. officials knowledgeable about the program.
The program also paid for ''upgraded physical security'' at key locations, such as barricades, cameras and alarms, as well as sophisticated communications equipment that allowed security officials to communicate when land and cellphone lines were inaccessible, the officials added.
At least five bulletproof jeeps were donated to the Colombian government as part of the program in a Bogotá ceremony attended by U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and Diplomatic Security Office Head Francis Taylor.