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In Colombia, Bush visits ally

Times Staff Writers

President Bush paid a symbolic and tightly policed visit to Bogota on Sunday aimed at shoring up conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and highlighting the improved security he has brought to this violence-scarred capital city.

As Air Force One descended on Bogota, reporters aboard saw the following warning displayed on the aircraft monitors: “Colombia presents the MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT ENVIRONMENT of this five-country trip!”

On the ground, 21,000 police officers manned checkpoints, standing a few yards apart along the route of Bush’s motorcade to the presidential palace. Museums were shuttered and cellular phone service was blocked in some areas. The Secret Service drove two motorcades, one a decoy, through the city to deter terrorist attacks.

The purpose of Bush’s visit was to support a government that is his firmest ally in Latin America and the recipient of more than $700 million in U.S. aid this year for Plan Colombia, a program to combat drug trafficking.

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Bush is the first U.S. president to set foot in Bogota since Ronald Reagan visited in 1982. Political and drug-related violence had since made the city a no-go zone for U.S. heads of state, but a public works campaign by city leaders and Uribe’s crackdown on rebel groups have greatly decreased the threat here and revived this high-altitude capital’s reputation.

Bush was accorded full military honors when he arrived at Casa de Narino, the presidential palace. His limousine was escorted by mounted police, and he was greeted with a military band and honor guard in the palace courtyard.

“The most important function of a state is the ability to provide security for its people,” Bush said after an hourlong meeting and working lunch with Uribe. “I appreciate your steadfast strength. I’m looking forward to working with you on the next stage of Plan Colombia.”

Bush is unpopular in Colombia, and he was greeted by protests here, as he was during stops in Brazil and Uruguay on his Latin America tour. About 500 protesters chanting “Bush Out!” marched near Bogota’s bullfighting ring, and police broke up a second rally with a water cannon and tear gas. About 35 marchers were held.

“Plan Colombia is doing nothing but defending the interests of North America while the spraying is killing our environment, nature, water and culture,” said one protester, architecture professor Maria Gomez, referring to the campaign’s aerial fumigation of coca plants. “We’re here to wake people up.”

Security forces, however, were more worried about possible attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The leftist rebel group remains a potent force despite the $4.7 billion that the U.S. has spent on military, anti-terrorism and counter-narcotics aid since 2000. The rebels disrupted both of Uribe’s inaugurations in 2002 and 2006 with mortar, rocket and bomb attacks.

During his news conference with Bush, Uribe said that his country was still struggling to recover from years of political unrest.

“For 30 years, the Marxist guerrillas actually hit Colombia, and they proposed a social revolution, and they produced even more poverty,” he said. “These guerrillas ended up being financed by drug traffickers. And there are many people in many regions of Colombia that were not protected by the state, and now they feel protected, thanks to our security policy.”

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Bush has proposed an additional $3.9 billion for Plan Colombia through 2014. That would average $560 million a year, a reduction from current levels.

U.S. officials expect that American support will diminish as Colombia’s economy improves and the government is able to fully finance its own security programs.

“The United States has an obligation to work to reduce the demand for drugs and, at the same time, work to interdict the supply of drugs,” Bush said. “There’s a lot we can do. But part of it is to help you exercise control over all your territory, is to strengthen the rule of law, and to expand economic opportunity for the citizens. And we want to help.”

Bush touted programs designed to alleviate poverty and injustice, and attended a round-table discussion with Afro-Colombians, who constitute about 25% of the population and face persistent discrimination.

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Uribe’s administration has been weakened in recent months by a scandal involving alleged connections between his political allies and right-wing paramilitaries. A dozen sitting and former congressmen and governors, all Uribe supporters, have been arrested or face arrest on charges including mass murder, extortion, graft and kidnapping. As many as 15 more are under investigation by the Supreme Court and the attorney general’s office.

Although the scandal has not tarnished Uribe, analysts say it could jeopardize Colombia’s chances of concluding a free trade agreement with the United States.

“We will demand the truth without any fears,” Uribe said during the news conference. “There is nothing to hide here. We are fighting against narco-terrorism, and let that be clear to you all.”

Bush expressed support for Uribe’s efforts to confront the scandal. “This country has come through some very difficult times,” he said. “And the best way to heal wounds is for people to see fair, independent justice being delivered, and I believe that’s the kind of justice this government will do.”

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But the scandal has elicited criticism from members of the U.S. Congress, which will vote this year on the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement and on the extension of Plan Colombia. Even before the scandal broke, Democrats who took control of key committees after last year’s election warned that the trade deal drafted last summer would have to be rewritten to better safeguard labor and human rights and the environment.

Bush was scheduled to arrive Sunday night in Guatemala, before going on to Mexico tonight. He is to return to Washington on Wednesday.

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

chris.kraul@latimes.com

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