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Colombian President Uribe Seeks Free-Trade Deal

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe met with President Bush Wednesday for the first of three days of meetings with U.S. government officials over a proposed bilateral free trade agreement. Ray Suarez speaks with President Uribe about U.S. aid, trade and combating drugs.

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    In early March, during a five-country tour of Latin America, President Bush paid a quick visit to Bogota, Colombia, to show support for his closest South American ally, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We believe strongly in human rights, human values, just like you believe in them. We're two strong democracies, and we've got a lot in common and a lot of values that we share.


    Colombia is the region's largest recipient of U.S. aid, and Uribe's landslide reelection last spring was a rare conservative victory in South America, where leftists had racked up a string of triumphs.

    Since coming to office five years ago, President Uribe has waged a vigorous campaign to improve security, which is visible in Bogota and other Colombian cities. He's insisted, in the face of foreign criticism, that he's improving human rights in his civil war-torn country.

    The government's war against a left-wing guerrilla movement, the FARC, has lasted for decades. In the 1980s and '90s, the FARC grew rapidly, fueled by drug money, extortion, and kidnapping. In response, paramilitary militias, with ties to the army, large land owners, and drug traffickers, proliferated. They've been implicated in thousands of deaths and kidnappings.

    Recently, Uribe's crusading image has been tarnished by a series of revelations and allegations linking some of his close supporters with paramilitary drug traffickers and death squads. Eight members of congress allied with Uribe are in jail on charges ranging from conspiracy to murder.

    One of the eight was the brother of Uribe's foreign minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo. She's resigned. Their father is a fugitive, who is wanted for an alleged political kidnapping. The former head of the secret police is facing similar charges.

    An opposition lawmaker has alleged that then-Governor Uribe let paramilitaries use his property for meetings and killings in the '80s and '90s.

    Earlier this month, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont froze $55 million worth of U.S. military aid over allegations the head of Colombia's armed forces collaborated with illegal right-wing death squads.

    The U.S. has provided Bogota with nearly $5 billion in military and counter-narcotics aid since 2000 under the Plan Colombia program. Last week, State Department officials said a new six-year phase, costing nearly $4 billion, would focus on social, economic and human rights programs, while gradually decreasing emphasis on drug eradication and interdiction.