Bush calls drug war 'vital'
President Bush traveled to Colombia, the world's leading supplier of cocaine, and promised more U.S. aid to help fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.
BY RON HUTCHESON
Knight Ridder News Service
CARTAGENA, Colombia - President Bush traveled to the heart of the international cocaine trade Monday to pledge America's help in the fight against smugglers and guerrillas that live off the industry.
Stopping in Colombia on his way back from a 21-nation Pacific Rim summit in Chile, Bush said drug trafficking threatened the stability of the entire Western Hemisphere. He promised more U.S. aid to help Colombia fight an alliance of drug traffickers and guerrillas.
''The drug traffickers who practice violence and intimidation in this country send their addictive and deadly products to the United States. Defeating them is vital to the safety of our peoples and to the stability of this hemisphere,'' Bush said during a joint appearance with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
The United States has invested more than $3 billion in Colombia's antidrug campaign since 2002, but the funding package, known as Plan Colombia, expires next year. Bush didn't say how much more he would seek from Congress next year.
SHOW OF SUPPORT
His four-hour visit to Cartagena, a sweltering colonial city on the Caribbean coast, was a show of support for Uribe, who won office in 2002 by promising to crack down on drug traffickers and their rebel allies.
Some Colombians have given their Harvard-educated leader the nickname ''Bushito'' -- little Bush -- for his hard-line stance.
More than 15,000 police and military personnel were pressed into service for Bush's stopover. Heavily armed guards lined his motorcade route from the airport. Helicopters hovered close, and armed patrol boats scoured the coastline for any sign of trouble.
Uribe is struggling to fulfill his campaign commitment to rein in Colombia's drug lords and defeat Marxist insurgents who have been trying to topple the government for 40 years, as well as right-wing paramilitary fighters often also allied with traffickers.
''We will win, but we have not won yet,'' Uribe said, standing next to Bush under a brutal sun that left both men dripping sweat. ``We have made progress, but the serpent is still alive.''
Despite some law-enforcement successes against the Medellín and Cali drug cartels in the mid-1990s, Colombia is still the world's leading supplier of cocaine. U.S. officials estimate that more than 90 percent of the cocaine that flows into the United States is produced, processed or shipped through Colombia.
Profits from the Colombian drug trade are estimated at about $5 billion a year, a substantial sum in a country whose annual production of goods and services is about $75 billion.
SPATE OF KIDNAPPINGS
The drug trade and the lawlessness that accompanies it have spawned a side industry of kidnapping. The list of hostages includes three American defense contractors -- Keith Stansell, Tom Howes and Marc Gonsalves -- captured by guerrillas in February 2003 when their surveillance aircraft crashed in rebel-held territory. The three are among a growing number of civilian contractors and U.S. military advisors sent to Colombia to help fight drug traffickers.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC in its Spanish initials, the leading insurgent group, has offered to swap the three men for FARC prisoners held by the Colombian government.
For all its problems, U.S. officials consider Colombia an emerging success story. Violence is down, the economy is growing by nearly 4 percent annually, and legal trade with the United States has risen by about $1 billion since 2003.
U.S. and Colombian officials say the U.S. investment in the antidrug campaign is paying off. The production of coca leaf, the starting point for cocaine, is down by 20 percent for the second year in a row, according to U.S. officials. For the first time in years, Colombia's military is launching operations against the FARC deep in rebel-held areas.
MET BASEBALL PLAYERS
After lunch with Uribe, Bush met with some young Colombian baseball players, along with Orlando Cabrera of the Boston Red Sox. Edgar Renteria of the St. Louis Cardinals, another Colombian who made it to the big leagues, was scheduled to meet with Bush, but was unable to join the gathering.
Bush plans to spend the rest of the week in Texas.