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Last Updated:4/26/06
Op-Ed from Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns: "Stunning recovery warrants continued U.S. support," The Miami Herald, April 26, 2006

Stunning recovery warrants continued U.S. support

R. Nicholas Burns
The Miami Herald

During the last five years, the Colombian people have produced the single greatest success story in Latin America. Led by President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia has reclaimed its territory from drug gangs, restored respect for the rule of law, battled vicious terrorist groups and returned democracy to the people. These are remarkable achievements. The United States has given help to Colombia in each of these struggles.

With the consent of the U.S. Congress, we should continue to support Colombians to take back their country from drug traffickers and terrorists.

Less than a decade ago, Colombia was a country under siege. Guerrillas on the left and paramilitaries on the right controlled wide swaths of its territory. Political institutions were corroded by drug money. And drug trafficking to the United States was at an all-time high. Our two governments agreed on Plan Colombia -- a road map requiring a determined and energetic Colombian government campaign to take back the country. The United States agreed to help finance this effort.

There is more good news in recent months.

o Last week yet another murderous paramilitary organization laid down its weapons. More than 30,000 ''paras'' have done so over the past two years.

o One of the leftist guerrilla armies, having failed to win power on the battlefield, is now pursuing peace in talks with the government.

o More than 300 criminals have been extradited to the United States during the Uribe administration.

o Both common crime and human rights abuses are declining.

o The economy is growing -- more than 5 percent in 2006. In December the United States and Colombia concluded a free-trade agreement that should accelerate that growth and create thousands of jobs for the poor and marginalized. We want to see the benefits of free trade and democracy flow straight to the poorest people in our hemisphere.

The United States is standing alongside Colombia in its offensive against the drug cartels. Together we seized more than 223 metric tons of cocaine in 2005 alone and more than 700 tons since 2001.

We helped the government of Colombia eradicate more than 340,000 acres of coca and 3,900 acres of opium poppy in 2005. In addition to the ''push'' of our counter-drug and counter-terror cooperation, the ''pull'' of our rural-development programs in Colombia have helped farmers plant more than 200,000 acres of legal crops in the past five years and improved the lives of more than 64,000 farm families, giving them a viable alternative to coca cultivation.

Our economic-assistance programs have leveraged more than $81 million in private funds and $340 million in public funds to create nearly 100,000 new full-time jobs. We have provided humanitarian assistance to more than two million people displaced by the conflict and aided more than 2,800 former child soldiers.

Despite tremendous strides, there is still a war to be won in this strategically important country, and the United States needs to extend a hand to its friends. Helping our Colombian partners consolidate their successes is one of the most important U.S. priorities in Latin America. Colombia is the source of more than 90 percent of the cocaine and nearly half of the heroin entering the United States. What happens there directly affects our cities and towns.

In his 2007 budget, President Bush has requested funding to ensure that there is no let up in the prosecution of Colombia's war against narco-terrorists. Even as the Colombian government is increasingly assuming the costs for this campaign, we hope that Congress will agree that Colombia's stunning recovery warrants continued U.S. support.

As Latin America's third-largest country, Colombia has a profound impact on the peace and stability of the region. Colombia still faces a destabilizing threat from drug cartels and well-armed, drug-financed terrorist groups. These thugs hold three of our fellow citizens hostage, and we are doing our utmost to secure their release. Yet the steady progress of the Uribe administration gives every hope that the Colombian narco-terrorist threat will be defeated.

The United States' investment in Colombia is paying off. Colombia is clearly a better place than it was before we embarked on our joint undertaking to win Colombia back from the criminal gangs that were destroying the country. We seek the support of the U.S. Congress to finish the job we embarked on together -- creating a secure and peaceful Colombia for the benefit of both the American and Colombian peoples.

R. Nicholas Burns is undersecretary for political affairs at the Department of State.

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