Colombia sees Obama keeping up anti-drug funding

BOGOTA Sat Feb 21, 2009 9:52pm GMT

Colombian anti-drug policemen walk past a bag of coca leaves in an area of cocaine laboratories near Saravena, January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

Colombian anti-drug policemen walk past a bag of coca leaves in an area of cocaine laboratories near Saravena, January 20, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia is confident Washington will keep providing multimillion-dollar aid to fight the drug trade in the Andean nation because any cuts would mean more cocaine reaches U.S. cities, the defense minister said on Saturday.

Washington has given Colombia more than $5 billion in military and other aid since 2000 under Plan Colombia, but Barack Obama's arrival at the White House has raised questions about whether he will continue Bush administration policies.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who travels to Washington next week to meet government officials, said he would seek to underscore progress made under the controversial Plan Colombia, part of which has involved destroying coca crops by aerial fumigation.

"I'll talk about U.S. cooperation in the fight against drugs and terrorism, how it is going to continue, and how we can strengthen that relationship and our mutual cooperation," Santos told Reuters in an interview.

Critics say Plan Colombia has failed to stop the spread of coca cultivation in recent years and point to steady cocaine output in the world's No. 1 producer of the drug.

According to U.N. figures, Colombian coca crops covered some 244,600 acres at the end of 2007 -- 27 percent more than the previous year.

But Santos said he expected the strategy to be maintained because it was backed by both Democrats and Republicans. He called it "the most successful bipartisan U.S. foreign policy of recent times."

STRATEGIC ALLY

Washington gives Colombia about $500 million a year, Santos said, describing it as a drop in the ocean when compared to what the United States spends in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"This strategic alliance we've had will keep going and it will get stronger. We've got common interests in the region, we have the same vision about democracy and ... that means we're united on geopolitical issues," he said.

"Because of that we hope there won't be any kind of cutback. We hope we can at least maintain that figure going into next year," said Santos, who admitted last week he is considering stepping down to run for president in 2010. "A reduction (in funding) means more cocaine ends up on the streets of U.S. cities."

Despite the U.S.-backed efforts of conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who was former U.S. President George W. Bush's closest ally in a mainly left-leaning region, Colombia still produces an estimated 600 tons of cocaine every year.

It destroyed some 560,000 acres of coca last year and seized 206 tons of cocaine, official figures show.

Uribe accuses the leftist rebel groups FARC and ELN of making millions of dollars out of drug trafficking and using the proceeds to fund armed campaigns against the state during a four-decade insurgency.

Both groups, which have been severely weakened since Uribe began his security crackdown in 2002, are listed as terrorist organizations by the United States and the European Union.

Santos said any major shift in Obama's anti-drugs policies, such as a bigger emphasis on education and prevention, was unlikely to harm Colombia.

"This is a battle that the whole world faces against a many-linked chain. No link in the chain can be neglected," he said.

(Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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