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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scandal May Hurt U.S. Colombia Aid

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- A political scandal involving Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is making it difficult for U.S. President George W. Bush to convince Congress that one of his closest allies in Latin America deserves the largest slice of U.S. aid to the region.

Three days before Bush was to visit on Sunday, Uribe pleaded with the United States to continue a $700 million annual aid package, which he says has helped stem the violence, corruption and drug trafficking that finance anti-government guerrillas.

"I ask the world, I ask the United States, to support us. We haven't yet won but we are winning. And we will persist," Uribe said.

Over the past seven years, the United States has sent $4 billion to Colombia to combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The 15,000-strong peasant army, financed by drug profits, is on the U.S. list of terrorist groups.

Democrats who control the U.S. Congress are wondering how well the mostly military aid to Colombia is working. Some want more of the money to go to social programs, or suggest it may be better spent to help the country strengthen its own team of prosecutors.

"I look forward to telling President Uribe that he can count on the United States defending that which we sent up to Congress," Bush told foreign journalists before beginning a five-country tour of Latin America.

U.S. lawmakers also are following developments in the political scandal in which eight of Uribe's close allies in the legislature and his hand-picked former domestic intelligence chief have been jailed recently for allegedly colluding with paramilitary groups.

"President Uribe has made it very clear that he is going to -- he promotes and expects there to be a full investigation of any allegations," Bush said.

Bush said Uribe's pledge to fully prosecute wrongdoing showed that he was a strong leader. "I believe that that leadership will stand him in good stead with our Congress," Bush said.

Bush seemed less confident about a pending trade deal with Colombia that still needs lawmakers' approval.

"These are tough votes," he said.

U.S. presidents have visited Colombia in recent years, but this will be the first time one has stepped foot in the capital since Ronald Reagan visited in 1982. About 20,000 police and heavily armed troops will virtually shut off downtown Bogota to guard against a possible rebel attack.

On another issue of importance to both leaders, the U.S. Embassy confirmed on Saturday that U.S. and Colombian soldiers had conducted a joint operation in the southern stronghold of leftist rebels, who are holding three U.S. military contractors.

The confirmation followed a report in Colombia's largest newspaper, citing unidentified sources, that two local residents had been detained in the late January operation and interrogated about the contractors' whereabouts.

"U.S. personnel accompanied Colombian forces in the south and that's all I can say about it," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Marshall Louis.

The three employees of Northrop Grumman, a large U.S. defense contractor, were captured by FARC in February 2003 when their surveillance plane went down.

Bush began his tour of Latin America in Uruguay on Saturday to discuss trade with President Tabare Vazquez. After visiting Colombia, Bush is to travel to Guatemala on Monday and to be in Mexico on Tuesday and Wednesday.