President Bush says he supports extending U.S. assistance to Colombia to fight illegal drugs. That program, called Plan Colombia, is set to expire next year. White House correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the Colombian city of Cartagena, where President Bush made a brief visit on Monday.
Colombia supplies about 90 percent of the cocaine and half of the heroin sold in the United States. So it is an important front line in the fight against illegal drugs.
Bush Administration officials say this is a democracy under assault, and it's up to the United States to stand with Colombia at what they call a dramatic turning point in its fight against both cocaine producers and Marxist rebels.
Washington is spending $680 million in Colombia this year, most of it on military training and counter-drug programs, including aerial herbicide spraying of cocoa leaves, which U.S. officials say has cut cocaine production by 20 percent for the second straight year.
After a meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, President Bush said the Colombian people are dedicated to the triumph of democracy and the rule of law against the forces of violence, and the United States stands with them.
"Our two nations share in the struggle against drugs," he said. "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."
President Bush praised President Uribe's economic reforms, saying they have created jobs and improved living standards for Colombians. As hope advances, Mr. Bush says violence and extremism will retreat.
"Investor confidence is up, unemployment is down and growth is strong," he said. "Our two nations also share a strong commitment to advancing free and fair trade and economic growth throughout the Americas. We are working hard on a free trade agreement that will link the United States and Colombia as well as other Andean nations of South America in a wider economic partnership."
Planning for this visit began when President Uribe called President Bush to congratulate him on his re-election. The Colombian leader suggested that Mr. Bush stop-by on his way home from the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Chile. White House officials say President Bush thought that was a great opportunity to underscore America's commitment to the Colombia's progress.
Answering questions from reporters, President Uribe said he appreciates that commitment. Speaking through a translator, the Colombian leader said a free trade agreement will take account of the need to offer Colombian farmers incentives to grow crops other than cocoa leaves. "President Bush has understood throughout this process in assisting Colombia how important it is for the legal farming business in Colombia to prosper so we have opportunities for our farmers," he said.
Bush Administration officials say the leaders also discussed the fate of three American hostages being held by rebels of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, as well as U.S. efforts to help Colombia consolidate its democracy, improve human rights, and increase trade.
Under the U.S. law called the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act, bi-lateral trade between the United States and Colombia is up by about one billion dollars since 2003, helping contribute to an economic growth rate here above four percent.
Security is always tight around President Bush, but this is a particularly sensitive stop given the ongoing fight against FARC rebels as government forces push farther into the dense jungle of south-central Colombia.
More than 15,000 police shut down much of the costal city of Cartagena for the president's four-hour visit, shadowing his motorcade with helicopters and armored gunboats.
In addition to his meeting with President Uribe, Mr. Bush visited with a dozen young baseball players and Colombian professional player Orlando Cabrera, who plays for this year's U.S. World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox.