Blinken hails Colombia partnership but seeks shift from security focus

Bogota (AFP) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday praised Colombia's right-wing leader as an ally on issues such as migration, even as he called for a demilitarization of US alliances across Latin America.


President Ivan Duque, who was closely aligned with former US leader Donald Trump, took pains on a visit by Blinken to embrace the current administration's agenda -- pledging work on climate change, migration and even repeatedly using President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" slogan.

Duque has faced heated criticism after police gunned down dozens during this year's nationwide protests sparked by tax reforms, with some lawmakers of Biden's Democratic Party urging a suspension of security assistance.

Blinken said he spoke to Duque about accountability, saying, "Ending impunity as we know it is also one of the best ways to prevent rights abuses going forward."

But Blinken called Duque "a very valued friend of the United States" and largely defended his track record.

Blinken pointed to homicide charges filed against two officers so far and explained how Duque told him that police will now be identifiable by barcodes on their uniforms.

Duque said that investigations were underway and there would be "severe punishment" over rights abuses -- but also said that his own efforts have succeeded in improving security in a country previously notorious for drug-related crime.

"Also, we have said that there has to be zero tolerance with any conduct of violence, vandalism and obviously the attacks and killings of members of the police. Human rights are for everyone," Duque told a joint news conference.

- Shifting US focus --

Blinken is on a visit to Colombia and Ecuador, another conservative-led country, as he seeks to highlight democracy in Latin America at a time of growing inroads by China.

Colombia for decades has been a top recipient of US military assistance, including in its decade-long campaign against FARC rebels.

In a speech in Quito earlier Wednesday, Blinken said that the US record on security assistance in Latin America has been "mixed."

"That's because often we tried to fix the problem by relying too much on training and equipping security forces, and too little on the other tools in our kit," he said at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, with the green Andean foothills behind him.

"We focused too much on addressing the symptoms of organized crime, like homicides and drug trafficking, and too little on the root causes. We're working to correct that imbalance."

He acknowledged the long shadow of US support for dictators, saying, "There were times when we supported governments in the Americas that did not reflect the choice or the will of their people and did not respect their human rights."

Coordination on migration

After a day with Duque at the Casa de Narino presidential residence, Blinken joined talks with ministers from across the Americas on migration -- an issue that has deeply affected Colombia.

A growing number of Haitians, desperate to escape a country that has been hit by successive disasters, have been seeking to cross Colombia for a dangerous trek toward the United States -- which has drawn controversy with harsh tactics to turn them away.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives his thumb up during a visit to the Camari market in Quito, Ecuador
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives his thumb up during a visit to the Camari market in Quito, Ecuador SANTIAGO ARCOS POOL/AFP

Colombia is already home to 1.3 million migrants from nearby Venezuela, whose economy has been in freefall under leftist strongman Nicolas Maduro -- a bitter foe of Duque.

Blinken, a longtime advocate for refugees, hailed Duque's decree earlier this year to let Venezuelans stay for 10 years.

The welcome to Venezuelans is "quite simply a model for the region and in many ways a model for the world," Blinken said.

Blinken said the United States was committed to helping Colombia and other nations accommodate refugees. Duque noted that far more is spent on each Syrian refugee than Venezuelans.

"The United States does a lot already, but I think there should be shared responsibility even beyond this hemisphere as we see in other parts of the world," Blinken said.