CARTAGENA, Colombia – President Bush on Monday promised the United States would continue helping Colombia fight narco-terrorism in an effort to keep the entire hemisphere safe.
"Our two nations share in the struggle against drugs," Bush said during a joint press conference with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (search). "Defeating [narco-terrorists] is vital to the safety of our peoples and the stability of this hemisphere … this war against narco-terrorism can and will be won and Colombia is well on its way to that victory."
Bush hailed Uribe's efforts in stomping out drug-related crime, highlighting the fact that kidnappings, homicides and attacks are down in the country, as are the number of cocaine seizures.
"My nation will continue to help Colombia prevail in this vital struggle," Bush vowed, saying that in 2005, he will ask Congress to renew its support for that country's anti-drug efforts. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, the 34-nation pact that has stalled over tariffs and subsidies, also will help in this effort, both presidents said. Both Bush and Uribe are interested in advancing negotiations on a separate trade agreement, the Andean free-trade pact with Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.
During his visit, Bush highlighted American drug-fighting aid in Colombia and boosted a conservative Latin American leader who was among the first to call and congratulate the president on his re-election victory. Bush's stop in the Andean nation was met with a military honor guard.
About 15,000 Colombian security forces, backed by combat helicopters, radars on the lookout for hostile planes or missiles, and submarines and battle ships prowling the waters, were deployed to protect Bush.
U.S. Navy commandoes, toting assault rifles and peering through binoculars, patrolled the Caribbean waters in rubber boats, joining submarines and battle ships. Radar was used to search for hostile aircraft or missiles.
Bush's four-hour stay in the seaside city of Cartagena marks the final stop on a three-day Latin American trip that featured the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (search) leadership conference. While at that meeting in Santiago, Chile, Bush met with other allies including Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos in an effort to mend relations damaged by the Iraq war.
Prior to Bush's visit, Uribe told Colombian radio on Monday that he intended to discuss continued U.S. aid to fight rebels and drug trafficking under Plan Colombia (search), which expires next year.
"It is very important that we are clear that we can't leave this task halfway completed," Uribe said. "It must be brought to a happy conclusion for the Colombian nation."
Bush said that Plan Colombia has resulted in $3 billion in U.S. aid to the nation, and pledged that the assistance will continue.
"We've helped Colombia to strengthen its democracy to combat drug production to create a more transparent and effective judicial system, to increase the size and professionalism of its military and police forces, to protect human rights and to reduce corruption," he said.
Briefing reporters on Air Force One before it landed in Cartagena, a senior administration official said no commitment has been made for Plan Colombia to be renewed. During the press conference, Bush did not name a specific amount of money to be given to that country.
Under the Plan Colombia program, the United States gives Colombian forces training, equipment and intelligence to root out drug traffickers and destroy coca crops. A U.S. official said that for the second year in a row, cocoa leaf production has dropped 20 percent and Colombia is at a point where the entire cocoa crop can be sprayed.
As part of a broader effort to improve the U.S. image in Latin America, the trip was meant as a high-profile statement by Bush of his commitment not to neglect the region as he wages a global campaign against terrorists, officials said.
Indeed, in the two years since Uribe came to power, some measure of stability has been restored. The White House sees the reduced crime rates and kidnappings that have given many Colombians new hope as at least in part an American success story.
But despite the relative peace of the former Spanish fort compared with other parts of the country, Bush and Uribe did not go into the walled city of Cartagena, instead choosing to meet at a colonial estate on an island just off the coast. Officials even banned the sale of alcoholic drinks for 24 hours and gave workers the day off.
Plan Colombia has also failed to visibly reduce cocaine production or keep cocaine off U.S. streets. And the 40-year-old insurgency by rebel groups — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC (search), and the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN (search) — continues to claim an estimated 3,500 lives every year. Rebels hold dozens of hostages, including Colombian politicians, government soldiers and three American military contractors seized in early 2003 after their plane crashed in a southern rebel stronghold.
While in Cartagena, Bush also planned a public appearance with major league baseball players from Colombia. He was to end the day in Texas, where he was spending the rest of the week and the Thanksgiving holiday at his ranch.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.