By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
March 7, 2008 - Colombia is making solid progress against terrorism, prompting desertions to rise among various subversive armed groups, the commander of U.S. Southern Command told Congress yesterday. Colombia's main narcoterrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been reduced to about 9,000 fighters, Navy Adm. James Stavridis said in prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. That's down from about 17,500 fighters in 2002, he said.
Stavridis pointed to the Colombian armed forces' numerous operational successes against FARC, with the clearing of former strongholds and removal or bringing to justice of numerous high-ranking FARC leaders.
These efforts have helped bring homicides down 40 percent over the last five years, kidnappings for ransom by 76 percent, and terror attacks against civilians by 61 percent, Stavridis said.
Colombia has made these difficult gains within an increasingly open and transparent political and judicial system, he said.
"All of these and many other hard-fought successes are the result of dedicated efforts by the Colombian government with the assistance of the United States," he said, urging continued U.S. support at current levels for the next three years.
This, Stavridis said, will enable the Colombian government to make irreversible gains as it extends effective government services and security presence throughout the country. "We predict this key strategic ally will benefit from progress toward peace, while the ability of narcoterrorists to grow, process and ship illicit drugs will be significantly reduced, ultimately saving U.S. lives and resources," he said.
Continued support is essential to the Colombian armed forces' campaign to defeat the FARC and bring governance and economic opportunity to areas recaptured from the FARC, he said.
Stavridis delivered his remarks at a time of heightened tensions over a Colombian raid last week on FARC members operating across its border, in Ecuador. Venezuela and Ecuador sent troops to their Colombian borders in response, and yesterday Nicaragua joined them in withdrawing its ambassador to Colombia.
Latin American leaders have urged calm, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
Speaking yesterday at the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels, Rice also warned against the dangers of allowing the FARC, which the United States calls a terrorist organization, to operate.
Rice's and Stavridis' comments came a day before the presidents of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador were expected to discuss their differences during a regional summit meeting in the Dominican Republic.
While not referring specifically to the current issue, Stavridis said in his prepared remarks yesterday that he doesn't foresee any major military conflict between nations in Latin America or the Caribbean.
"Although some historical competition and occasional tension between neighbors do exist, we are confident that any disagreements will be resolved through dialogue -- a strength in the region -- and not through state-on-state violence," he said.