War on Drugs Seeing Progress in Colombia, Says McCain
By Juliet Eilperin
CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA -- After riding a fast boat on the Port of Cartagena and inspecting Colombian drug interdiction efforts this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) declared the Colombian government should be viewed as a key ally in stemming the flow of cocaine into the U.S. even as drug trafficking remains a serious program.
"We have a long way to go to stem the flow of drugs into the United States of America," the presumptive GOP nominee told reporters in a press conference here. "The progress that I've seen from previous visits here has been significant and substantial, recognizing that with human rights and other issues, progress still needs to be made."
McCain, who is on a three-day Latin American tour, received a briefing from senior Colombian military officials and visited a port and Navy hospital today after spending last night having dinner with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and other cabinet members. The senator praised the Port of Cartagena for receiving a recent award as "the most secure port in the Caribbean, and most efficient one."
Throughout his visit, McCain has emphasized that Americans need to care about Latin America, and forge closer economic and diplomatic ties with the region, in order to bolster their own economy and national security. Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have joined McCain and his wife Cindy on this trip, echoed that theme in their remarks at this morning's press conference.
Lieberman, who noted that he was "impressed and grateful" to see Colombia's Container Security Initiative aimed at countering the shipment of terrorism material into the U.S., argued that America cannot afford to undermine its ties with South American allies.
"So we have seen how important America's relationship with Colombia is, in dealing with some of the problems we have at home, such as drugs coming into the country," he said. "Because what we have found here is a government led by President Uribe that is at war with the drug traffickers, the terrorists, the paramilitaries, to take back the country on behalf of the people of Colombia, and he is succeeding."
During the morning port visit, the three senators and Cindy McCain received a briefing from Colombia Admiral Roberto Garcia Marques, Coast Guard Commandante Orlando Grisales and Captain Manuel Corbetta about the country's efforts to cut down on drug trafficking though its joint project with the U.S., Plan Colombia. Congress recently renewed Plan Colombia, a 10-year, $5 billion drug interdiction effort.
Then the McCains boarded a fast boat labeled "Midnight Express 39" with U.S. embassy officials, Colombian military and government officials and Secret Service. The boat belongs to a larger, 12-boat Midnight Express fleet of drug interdiction boats the Colombian Navy has purchased with Plan Colombia funds. The fleet is slated to double in the next year, according to U.S. officials, with the Colombian government paying for 10 boats and the U.S. paying for four of them, at a cost of $494,000 each.
Colombian naval and law enforcement officials operate the boats, which can go as fast as 60 knots, as they patrol state waters 24 hours a day. They focus on Cartagena Bay area and up near the Panamanian border in the Bay of Uriba, both of which embassy officials described as major exit points for drugs.
Graham and Lieberman followed along in a second tracking boat during the tour. At one point, Graham joked that the two boats should play a game of chicken, but this race did not occur. Graham, dressed in khaki head to toe, later quipped at the press conference that he would be "leading a jungle tour later" and would offer "a good deal" for anyone who wanted to take him up on his offer.
Afterwards, the group toured the port and looked at how officials, aided by drug-sniffing dogs, inspected packages and containers. The port was hot, humid and filled with giant shipping containers as well as numerous boxes.
During today's press conference McCain was asked about comments his colleague Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) made to the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., in which Cochran alleged McCain grabbed an associate of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during a diplomatic mission to Nicaragua in 1987.
"McCain was down at the end of the table and we were talking to the head of the guerrilla group here at this end of the table and I don't know what attracted my attention," Cochran told the Sun Herald. "But I saw some kind of quick movement at the bottom of the table and I looked down there and John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him or whatever ... I don't know what he was telling him but I thought, 'Good grief, everybody around here has got guns and we were there on a diplomatic mission.' I don't know what had happened to provoke John, but he obviously got mad at the guy ... and he just reached over there and snatched ... him."
McCain laughed when asked about the incident, and replied, "It's simply not true."
He noted that he had been selected by then-Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole to co-chair the Senate's Central America observer group in the mid-80s, and that he "made many, many visits" to region to aid U.S. diplomacy in the region.
"I must say I did not admire the Sandinistas very much," he said, but added, "There was never anything of that nature. It just didn't happen."
Posted at 5:38 PM ET on Jul 2, 2008
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