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Colombia on the Upswing

August 04, 2003

To govern Colombia, a country where turmoil seems customary, requires courage. Alvaro Uribe knew this a year ago when he won the Colombian presidency in a landslide. He also knew then that Colombians were fed up with chaos and longed for a safe, orderly nation. Though bringing law and order to this beleaguered spot might have seemed daunting, the consensus in Colombia, the United States and the European Union is that Uribe's leadership has made a difference. Colombia is improving.

This has boosted Uribe, who maintains an approval rating of up to 70% among his countrymen. Colombians believe he is winning in his costly battles against left-wing guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitary armies, funded by the illegal drug trade.

Three years after the United States signed on to Plan Colombia -- which granted Colombians $2.5 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid and demanded from them a contribution of $4 billion -- good results are coming in. The United Nations reports that the area devoted to coca cultivation in Colombia has decreased 30%. Further, the U.S. government says that in the last two years, more than 320 tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $3 billion has been seized; more than 1,000 coca laboratories have been destroyed.

At the same time, almost 1 million people have received direct aid for health care, education and nutrition for children under Plan Colombia. Homicides in Colombia decreased by 25% in the first quarter of 2003, compared with the same period last year; kidnappings declined by 33%.

Despite its successes, Colombia continues to struggle. The toll rises almost daily in the unending battle against Marxist guerrillas. Illegal armed groups still roam the country, leaving mayhem in their wake; they have not agreed to a cease-fire that could pave the way for peace talks.

Though outside monitors say human rights violations by the military have declined, Uribe must sever links between the Colombian army and narco-paramilitary groups; many Colombians and international human rights groups have expressed deep concern about these unholy ties.

Still, it's hard to ignore the encouraging signs, with Uribe saying he expects to meet Plan Colombia's goal of a 50% reduction in coca production by year's end -- a full year ahead of schedule. Eliminating that supply would make safer not just Colombian streets but U.S. ones as well.

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