Gates Hosts Colombian Defense Minister at Pentagon

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates hosted his first Latin-American defense minister visit in his new post today when he and Colombian National Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos met to discuss ways the two countries can step up their cooperation to confront drug trafficking and terrorism.

 Gates and Santos met for breakfast at the Pentagon this morning as Santos began a two-day swing through Washington to reaffirm a strong relationship between the two countries and discuss Colombia’s progress in establishing territorial control and strengthening democracy, said Juan Pablo Cardenas, an official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Office.

The Colombian government, with help from the U.S., is making strides in confronting narcoterrorists, primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC; the National Liberation Army, or ELN; and the remnants of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, officials said.

Almost 500 U.S. troops in Colombia are serving as advisors and trainers for the Colombian military, helping improve the Colombians’ skills and professionalism so they are better able to deal with narcoterrorism and other threats.

“It is important that we continue to work with our Colombian counterparts in fighting narcoterrorism, disrupting the flow of illicit drugs and developing alternatives to illicit cultivation, strengthening of institutions, protecting human rights and providing humanitarian assistance,” Cardenas said.

In an effort to further the two countries’ cooperation, Santos also will visit with Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch II, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, senior officials with the Drug Enforcement Agency and Senate and House members.

He is slated to hold a news conference and give a presentation on Colombia’s new democratic security consolidation policy tomorrow morning at the National Defense University at Fort McNair here, after which he will speak with students at the joint-service school.

Santos’ visit here builds on progress made in January when Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent two days in Colombia meeting with Santos and other Colombian political and military leaders.

The success of the relationship between the United States and Colombia is having a direct positive impact on the security and stability of the entire region and hemisphere, Pace told reporters in Bogota.

Speaking at a Jan. 19 joint news conference with Santos and Gen. Freddy Padilla, commander of the Colombian armed forces, Pace said the close relationship between the two countries benefits both.

“This is a two-way street,” Pace said. “The fact that the United States is able to help Colombia inside Colombia is a good thing for Colombia, but it is also a good thing for my country. And the fact that your country is fighting against drugs -- a great deal of which come to the streets of the United States -- is your country helping out to help my country.”

U.S. military support for Colombia, previously focused on combating drugs, has expanded to helping the Colombian military confront the country’s rebel insurgency, officials said. U.S. Special Forces troops in Colombia provide Colombian forces military training ranging from refresher training in skills such as reconnaissance, life-saving and air-assault operations, to human-rights training, Alberto Rodriguez, an embassy spokesman, told American Forces Press Service.

Meanwhile, other U.S. troops in Colombia are training their Colombian counterparts to conduct critical support missions that keep the operational troops in the fight, including logistics and helicopter repair and maintenance, he said.

At the same time, U.S. forces are helping the Colombians professionalize their noncommissioned officer corps and establish an equivalent to the U.S. warrant officer system, Rodriguez said. “The ultimate goal is that Colombia will have a more professional military that is able to conduct operations and sustain itself,” he said.

The United States provides the Colombians other assistance, including providing military equipment to the Colombian military and police through the military assistance program, foreign military sales and the international narcotics control program.

[Source: U.S. Department of Defense, Afis, Washington, 01feb07]

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