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U.S. Has Scored Bipartisan Successes in War for Colombia

Amid the justified controversy — and now optimism — triggered by President Bush’s policies on Iraq and the Middle East, Americans have paid too little attention to a bipartisan success story: Colombia. [IMGCAP(1)]

This was a country that five years ago looked like a lawless failed state in the making — a government overwhelmed by a murderous mélange of left- and right-wing terrorist groups and drug cartels, overseeing an economy based more on cocaine than honest enterprise.

The battle isn’t over, but the notorious Cali drug cartel is broken, with its leaders extradited to the United States. Negotiations are under way (though lately they have stalled) to demobilize the right-wing AUC paramilitary armies. The war against the left-wing FARC goes on, but now it’s being fought aggressively.

From 2000 to 2004, Colombia, with U.S. assistance, trained 110,000 new police, reduced coca acreage by one-third, tripled the number of terrorists killed, and reduced incidents of terrorism from 1,500 a year to 700, kidnappings from 1,900 to 750, homicides from 27,000 to 21,000 and displaced persons from 340,000 to 137,000.

The progress against narcotics trafficking is so impressive that Colombian officials have been enlisted to give advice to Afghanistan on how to stamp out its poppy production.

Credit for the transformation goes primarily to Colombia’s tough president, Alvaro Uribe, but also to Republicans and Democrats in Congress and Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush, who have provided $3 billion in aid since 2000.

Uribe’s approval ratings are in the 60s and 70s. In a move that worries some Americans and encourages others, he’s won a constitutional change that allows him to run for re-election in 2006.

Meantime, Colombia’s leading polling firm reported last year that 58 percent of Colombians had a positive attitude toward Uribe’s relationship with Bush, while only 28 percent were negative.

That shows the success that can be achieved if security is improved. Indeed, it suggests that Bush may someday enjoy similar appreciation in the rest of the world if democracy prevails in Iraq and continues to spread around the Mideast.

Bush inherited “Plan Colombia” from Clinton, who hatched it with Uribe’s predecessor, Andres Pastrana, a Jimmy Carter-style figure who thought he could cut a peace deal with the FARC that allowed it to rule an area the size of Switzerland. (Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined.)

Much as Carter was disillusioned by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pastrana reversed course when the guerrillas used their territory as a base for terrorist raids and stepped-up narcotics production.

Republicans in Congress, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), had long been urging a tough approach toward criminality in Colombia and now say it was their pressure that led Clinton to launch the plan.

If Pastrana was Carter, then Uribe was Ronald Reagan, running in 2002 on a platform of law, order and authority. His campaign slogan was “Firm Hand, Big Heart.”

He’s combined stepped-up police training, military action and crop eradication with upgrades in economic development and aid to convert coca growers to alternative crops, mainly hearts of palm.

The United States has 800 troops in the country — assigned to training, not combat — plus about 300 civilian contractors responsible for coca eradication. More than 170 drug traffickers have been extradited for trial and imprisonment in the United States, including Cali kingpin Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela. His brother, Gilberto, is on the way.

With the Cali cartel broken and violence reduced, Colombia’s economy has prospered. Its 2004 growth rate, 3.9 percent, is the second highest, after Chile’s, in Latin America.

Congressional Republicans claim that they and Bush were responsible for a major change in Colombia policy in 2002, overcoming some Democratic opposition to allow U.S. aid previously earmarked for anti-narcotics activities to be used for the anti-insurgency struggle.

“It made sense,” one GOP aide said. “The FARC and the AUC are deep into the drug business. Anti-narcotics and anti-insurgency were the same struggle.”

Neither the AUC (the Spanish acronym for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), and certainly not the FARC (for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have been brought to heel. Nor, obviously, has the drug trade stopped. But both groups are on the defensive. According to the ministry of defense, 4,400 AUC and 3,700 FARC terrorists were killed or demobilized in 2004.

That year, almost 150 tons of cocaine were seized in the country, one-third more than in 2003, and 1,900 cocaine labs were destroyed, 40 percent more than in 2002. Still, according to The Economist (Roll Call is an Economist Group business), the wholesale price of a gram of cocaine in the United States fell to $38 in 2003 from $48 in 2000 and $100 in 1986.

It would be nice to attribute the price drop to a reduction in demand, but U.S. and Colombian officials acknowledge that it’s also due to efficiency gains in production and the transfer of coca-growing and -processing to neighboring countries.

These wars never end, much as the battle for individual freedom doesn’t. But when there’s progress, it ought to be celebrated — along with those who have made it happen.

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