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U.S. Lawmakers Discuss Anti-Drug Program with Colombia's President

Members of Congress have been discussing talks they had Thursday with visiting Colombian President Alvaro Uribe regarding his government's efforts against rebels and narco-terrorists. The Colombian leader went to Capitol Hill to meet U.S. lawmakers and discuss steps he is taking to fight narcotics, disarm rebels, and reform the country's judicial system among other topics.

The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress say President Uribe's leadership has been crucial to turning around the situation in Colombia.

Colombia receives bilateral assistance from the United States under a multi-year program called Plan Colombia, and the Andean Counter-Drug Initiative, for which Congress is providing more than $700 million in the 2006 fiscal year.

The Bush administration says aid has contributed to more seizures of narcotics, and an increase in cultivation of crop alternatives to coca.

The United States has given Colombia about $4 billion since the inception of Plan Colombia, which preceded the regional Andean Initiative also covering Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and three other countries.

After meeting President Uribe, one Democratic lawmaker who has questioned such aid in the past, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, spoke to reporters. "We had a very good meeting with the president," she said, "and we had a full and open discussion, and we know that the partnership between the United States and Colombia will continue and we are very supportive of the important steps the president has taken."

Congressman Jim Kolbe, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee overseeing funds for Colombia, says the talks covered drug eradication and demobilization of rebels. "There are a lot of concerns about how it's going to work," he said. "I don't think anybody is opposed to demobilization. Our concern is that criminals, who are known criminals, major drug kings, are not allowed to walk away from what should be their punishment for having been involved in drug operations for many years, by being involved in the demobilization process."

However, while there is wide support for President Uribe's efforts, congressional critics believe there hasn't been enough progress to justify the money Washington sends to Colombia.

Democratic Congressman James McGovern spoke during House debate last June, urging that assistance to Colombia be reduced. "This policy has failed as an anti-drug policy, it has failed as a human rights policy, and it has failed to have any impact whatsoever in reducing the availability, price or purity of drugs in the streets of America," he said.

Republican Congressman Mark Kirk told reporters Thursday he raised with President Uribe the possibility of increasing Colombian government assistance to the government of Afghanistan, which is the world's leading producer of opium used to make heroin. "The one other thing I thanked the president for was his help to Afghanistan," he said. "Colombia understands heroin almost more than anyone else, but 80 percent of the world's heroin does not come from Colombia, it comes from Afghanistan. And I think Colombian technical support to the Afghan government is critical. Colombia has sent working level help, and I suggested that maybe we should have the [Colombian] defense or foreign minister visit [Afghanistan]."

During his visit to Capitol Hill, President Uribe also met with African-American members of Congress seeking Colombian government assurances about the rights of the country's African descendant communities and efforts to improve their economic and social situation.