Correction to This Article
Because of incorrect information from the Associated Press, a photo caption with a Feb. 12 article about President Bush's visit to Colombia incorrectly identified the commander of Colombia's armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla de León, as Gen. Juan David Barragan. Commander of Columbias Armed Forces Gen. Freddy Padilla de León was misidentified by AP as Gen. Juan David Barragan as he took part in the arrival ceremony in Bogota Columbia for President George Bush.

Under Tight Security, Bush Lauds Colombia's Uribe

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia, March 11 -- As Air Force One swooped over the Andes Mountains toward this city for the first time in a quarter-century, President Bush and his aides sat in the front compartments with an optimistic message about improved security after decades of civil war and drug trafficking.

But the message didn't make it even to a rear compartment on the plane for Secret Service agents accompanying the first U.S. president to visit Bogota since 1982. "Colombia presents the MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT ENVIRONMENT of this five country trip!" the monitor in the agents' compartment warned starkly. The terrorist threat, it went on, was "HIGH."

The divergent themes dominated Bush's whirlwind visit here Sunday, a seven-hour stay intended to showcase progress in Colombia but that unavoidably underscored continuing problems. Bush told a story of success that was aided by billions of U.S. dollars as he lent support to President Álvaro Uribe, his closest ally in the region. Sharpshooters on the roofs and police firing tear gas at rock-throwing protesters on the streets told another story.

"You have come to Colombia at a time of unrest because of the peace process that is taking place," Uribe told Bush during a joint appearance. But the conservative leader cited gains in his campaign to eliminate drug lords, Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups. "We are actually making progress," he said.

Bush said he was impressed. "We come during a period where your country has come through very difficult times, and now there's a brighter day ahead," the president said during an exchange of toasts. During the later media event, Bush added, "This Colombia government continues to make progress that is going to earn greater confidence from all its citizens and greater respect in the international community."

Although Bush and his predecessors have visited Colombia, no president has come to Bogota since Ronald Reagan in 1982. The city is safer than most places in the country but is considered tricky to defend against attack. Uribe's 2002 inauguration, for instance, came under rocket assault. Colombian police reported that Marxist guerrillas were planning attacks during Bush's visit.

What resulted was an extraordinary security effort even for the president. Colombia put 21,000 police officers on duty, lining every road traveled by Bush and shutting down much of downtown. Authorities closed the airport, banned alcohol sales, put cameras along Bush's motorcade route and canceled the normal Sunday practice of reserving major streets for bicycling and jogging. The city prohibited motorcyclists from carrying passengers to thwart would-be drive-by assassins.

The Secret Service was taking no chances either. Bogota was the only stop on Bush's tour where he would not spend the night, and U.S. officials arranged for a second motorcade to serve as a decoy. Bush spent almost the entire visit in the heavily guarded Casa de Narino, the presidential palace, where he arrived to a pomp-filled, red-carpet welcome.

Those in Bush's motorcade caught just a glimpse of a protest against his visit, spotting riot police in the distance and a yellow flag that said, "Yankee Go Home." What Bush did not see was its violent climax, as some of the 2,000 protesters attacked police with bricks, stone, sticks and metal barricades. Shield-bearing police responded with blasts of water cannon and tear gas. Storefront windows were smashed, while tires, furniture and U.S. flags were burned in the streets.

Bush stopped here during a six-day Latin American tour to support his "personal friend" Uribe, now mired in scandal over the paramilitary ties of some allies, and to press the U.S. Congress to extend Plan Colombia, a program that has funneled more than $5 billion here since 2000 to fumigate drug crops, combat insurgents and prosecute cocaine moguls. Bush wants another $3.9 billion over the next seven years. He also wants Congress to approve a free-trade agreement with Colombia, although that appears unlikely because of Democratic concerns over human rights abuses and labor issues. Democrats also want to redesign Plan Colombia to steer more money to social programs.

With U.S. aid, Uribe has aggressively pursued the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist rebel group known by its Spanish initials, FARC, and demobilized 30,000 members of the paramilitary groups that have fought on the other side. The economy has improved, and from 2002 to 2006, homicides fell by 37 percent, kidnappings by 78 percent and terrorist attacks by 63 percent.

Yet Colombia still has the worst humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere, with eruptions of fighting, hundreds of thousands of people displaced and drug trafficking that supplies 90 percent of the cocaine in the United States. Some demobilized paramilitary fighters have joined shadowy new groups that target unionists and peasants while trying to gain control of the drug trade.

On human rights, "Colombia's record is extremely poor, with serious problems over links between drug-running paramilitaries and the state, extrajudicial executions by the military, killings of trade unionists, disappearances and other abuses," said José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.

Uribe's former domestic intelligence chief and eight congressmen have been arrested for collusion with paramilitary members and Uribe promised again Sunday to bring those guilty to justice. But he testily pointed the finger back at leftists for ties to FARC guerrillas. "They infiltrated universities, the labor movement and the peasant movement," he said. "They infiltrated very important sectors of intellectual movements and journalists. And they infiltrated politics."

Bush expressed concern over American hostages Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell, who worked on a drug eradication program and were captured by the FARC in February 2003 when their plane crashed. U.S. and Colombian troops mounted a raid on a FARC haven on Jan. 28, seeking to find the Americans. At least in public, Bush would not tell Uribe whether to negotiate for their release or try to rescue them. "Bring them out safely," he said. "That's all I ask."

Correspondent Juan Forero contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company