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Panetta Hails Colombian Gains in Drug War

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Camilo Pinzon (L) talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during a work session in Bogota, April 23, 2012.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Colombia - a nation once battered by drug wars - is becoming a leader in efforts to crack down on drug trafficking in Latin America. U.S. defense chief on Monday began a week-long tour of South America that will also take him to Brazil and Chile.

Eleven years after the signing of a military cooperation agreement with Colombia under which Washington has provided billions of dollars in equipment and training, the United States is praising the gains that Colombia's military is making in its war on drug-traffickers.

Officials say Colombian forces in recent years have dealt a big blow to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC - a Marxist guerrilla group that for decades has conducted a campaign of kidnappings and executions. Colombian forces have also made gains in their fight against drug gangs responsible for bombings and murders.

Now, residents of Bogota are seen at restaurants and night clubs well after dark - a scene not common during the height of the violence a few years ago.

On Monday, Panetta flew to the Colombian army's Tolemaida base in the central part of the country, where U.S advisors train Colombian troops. He had praise for the progress Colombia has made in improving security.

"Colombia has moved from a nation under siege, from guerrillas and drug-trafficking mafias and paramilitary groups to a country that is a force for security and prosperity in South America," said Panetta.

The troops demonstrated helicopter hostage rescue tactics and other maneuvers for Panetta.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon Bueno said Colombian forces are now in a position to train others to fight drug-traffickers.

The Colombian official said his country can now offer the experience it has gained to other nations in the region, as well as in Central America and the Caribbean.

A plan is already in place for Colombians to train Mexican helicopter pilots.

The United States says it wants to enable its partners in the region to take the lead in fighting drug-trafficking rings that Washington fears may easily become channels for terrorism.

Supporting its regional partnerships is part of the U.S administration's vision for a slimmer, more agile force at a time of severe budget cuts. Panetta said Washington will continue to offer support to its allies.

On Monday, the defense secretary announced the United States will facilitate the sale of 10 helicopters to Colombia, including five advanced Blackhawks.