Colombia seeks judicial aid, mulls GITMO request

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 7, 2014 

Luis Carlos Villegas, a former peace negotiator, is Colombia's ambassador to the United States. Taken on March 7, 2014.

KEVIN G. HALL — McClatchy

— With Colombia’s guerrilla wars dying down and peace talks appearing to advance, the United States could best help the South American nation by bolstering aid for its judicial system, Ambassador Luis Carlos Villegas said Monday.

Speaking to reporters at the Colombian Embassy, Villegas said U.S. security aid to his country has declined and is expected to keep falling. But that aid should be replaced with targeted help designed to improve the justice system in Colombia, one that’s credible for former right-wing paramilitary fighters, left-wing guerrillas and peasants alike.

“That has to be the first day, the first morning,” said Villegas, a former peace negotiator himself, who said two of six major topics of peace negotiations have already been largely sealed_ political participation and rural development.

The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has waged war against the Colombian government since 1964. Successive Colombian presidents have scored strikes that have decimated the FARC leadership, and the FARC’s support from Cuban dictators Fidel and Raul Castro has waned as the communist island faces economic struggles of its own in the wake of last year’s death of Cuba’s patron, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

Villegas was stationed in Havana for 14 months before becoming ambassador to the United States, and he praised the Cuban government for supporting efforts to bring peace to Colombia.

“You can’t imagine how generous they’ve been,” said Villegas, declaring he’s “optimistic” that the Colombian government can reach a peace agreement with the FARC.

On a related Cuba matter, Villegas confirmed that the Obama administration has asked Colombia to take some prisoners from the controversial Guantanamo Bay naval base the United States maintains in Cuba. No decision has been made, he said.

Uruguay’s president, Jose Mujica, last month agreed to grant refugee status to five prisoners who have been held at the base, nicknamed GITMO. The Obama administration has struggled to close the prison portion of the base, holding around 154 alleged terrorists or terror sympathizers in the wake of the 9-11 attacks.

The Colombian ambassador said the U.S.-Colombia Free-Trade Agreement, which took force in 2012, has helped drive an improving economy. Colombia’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of its goods and services produced, has grown from about to $100 billion in 2000 to almost $400 billion today, he said.

The country is a major exporter of fresh cut flowers and coffee to the United States, but in recent years has become a significant regional producer of oil. Colombia now produces about 1 million barrels per day of crude oil and hopes to up that number to 1.5 million bpd within five years.

The South American nation is moving to promote offshore oil production and the relatively new form of drilling called “fracking” to get at oil and natural gas previously thought unreachable. Colombia has used oil its growing oil revenues to fund a universal healthcare effort, said Villegas.

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